When M and S were tiny, a relative complained about S’s crying. ‘She’s so demanding,’ was said with extreme disapproval.
In the next breath, this relative cooed over M’s crying. ‘What big, strong cries!’
Almost from the minute they escaped my womb and entered the wide world, gendered statements like this have been aimed at them. Expectations that M would be tough, strong, wild, while S was bound to like ballet, dolls, and be quiet. Blue clothes and pink clothes. Blankets and books for him that were exciting – spaceships, robots, etc, while S was given flowers and ribbons.
I don’t claim robots are better than flowers.
But surely every child, every person, deserves the opportunity to discover their own joys, their own motivators, their own sense of aesthetic beauty and wonder?
S had short, curly brown hair for a long time – it didn’t begin to grow until she was nearly two. Whereas M had long, blonde hair. As babies, as toddlers, their gender was often confused. We never dressed them in colours that were supposed to signify who they were – rather, M was very into pink as a baby, and S liked bolder colours. Enter more gender confusion.
About a year ago, I let the children pick new, larger backpacks. He chose one with a bunny he liked the look of, she chose one because she liked the owl. It just so happens his bag is pink, hers blue.
And this totally harmless and simple ‘switching’ of ‘appropriate’ colours? Not a week goes by when we don’t get comments. Queries as why they are wearing each other’s backpacks, helpful comments letting us know boys shouldn’t have a pink bag and girls shouldn’t have blue, etc. I hope I lead by example when I keep patiently repeating, ‘We let them pick what they like.’
A few months back we went to a food festival, and there was an awesome face painter there. M asked to be Spiderman (the first time we had faces painted, he asked to be a butterfly. The old woman painting them could NOT wrap her head around this, and tried to make him a brown and black butterfly. Man, did I get a LOOK when I brightly explained that he liked colours.), and S was planning on being the Green Goblin.
As M climbed down from the face painting chair, the lady turned to S and said, ‘And I suppose you want to be a beautiful fairy? Or a butterfly?’ S’s face showed a second of crumbling, of confusion, before she backed away and said she didn’t want her face painted anymore.
Why shouldn’t she be the Green Goblin? Why shouldn’t he be the one who loves real babies?
Why should (often well meaning, I’m sure) random adults get to tell them who they are and how they should be in the world?
I don’t have one boy and one girl. I have one rambunctious, caring, sensitive, creative thinking kid. And one who is a natural performer, a musician, science minded and into skeletons. Neither of these kids has any particular colour or gendered behaviour attached to them, except perhaps for their chosen favourite colours (red and yellow!).
And yet yesterday at soft play, S pointed up at an ad for a spa treatment. ‘Do you want to be a beautiful lady, Mama?’
‘I am beautiful.’
‘But you don’t wear lipstick.’
And yet last week when we discussed joining a new home ed dance class, M said, ‘But dancing is for girls.’
‘But..you love to dance!’
‘Only at home. I don’t want to dance in a class!’
So I struggle with where these stereotypical gendered notions come from, but most of my struggle comes from trying to honour who my children are – trying to robustly support them in their expression of their identities, even when they gradually say things like this that alarm me. Part of being four is figuring out gender – who they are, how they relate to other people and objects, how they perceive the world and imagine they are perceiving. What does it mean to be a boy, a girl, or a gender in between? Playing with roles, pushing boundaries…and sometimes, slotting right in to the place society wants them to be.
It’s tricky for all of us.
But these odd conversations are not happening often – more often than not, thankfully, we are still running joyfully wild outdoors, pretending to fish with sticks, wrestling with friends, making cookies to share with others.