I can’t quite remember the reason why Second Offspring and I were discussing inventions the other day, but it had to do with something she wanted which didn’t exist. I suggested to her that if there wasn’t such a thing, then she should be the one to invent it.
‘But I can’t do that!’ she exclaimed. ‘I’m a girl!’
You can imagine, I’m sure, what ran through my mind. How could I, a committed feminist, a strong advocate for human rights and social justice and equality of all kinds, have failed my daughter so completely? How could it be, that my second-born child feels like her sex is a barrier to anything? WHERE DID I GO WRONG?!
Of course, I didn’t subject her to this rant. I just calmly told her that of course girls could be inventors.
‘But I’m a child,’ she insisted. ‘Children can’t invent stuff.’
And so we delved into the question of invention over creation and engineering and other details, and at some point, I think she may have lost interest and gone to play with something else.
Probably a doll.
Before I had children, I knew I absolutely wanted them to have the freedom to express themselves, whichever gender they were. I wanted them to be completely at ease with their identities and their sexualities and the identities and sexualities of others. I was always careful to use inclusive language when reading or making up stories for them. And we’ve been lucky that the schools and daycares which they’ve attended have been really diverse.
Because it’s really important to us that they all feel like they can achieve whatever they want, we’ve also made an effort to talk about different jobs men and women can have, and what it means to work in the home compared with outside of it. We’ve talked about different abilities and how that impacts decisions people are able to make.
To a great degree, then, my children contentedly accept that there are many different ways to live one’s life. They explore inclusivity with their language: Third Offspring calls spiders who frequent our laundry toilet ‘Mummy Long Legs’, for example, and is more likely to refer to someone as ‘a person’ rather than ‘man’ or ‘lady’. Whilst outside influences such as friends or teachers will begin to have more and more impact on their points of view, I feel as if we’re building a firm foundation from where they can branch out into the world, knowing that they’re not constrained to pink-for-girls-and-blue-for-boys type thinking.
But Second Offspring. Despite all the energy I’ve put into playing games with non-gender-specific characters and choosing colours other than pink to dress her when she was a baby, and despite having friends from a range of backgrounds, all of whom have different styles and attitudes and occupations; despite all this, she is the girl to whom advertisers are directing their ads for for Barbies or My Little Ponies. She loves pink, and princesses, and fairies. She identifies first and foremost as Girl. And she loves that identity.
I am not that identity. I think I’ve worn approximately one dress in the last five years (and even then, it was purely for comfort–I was pregnant). I wear make-up and nail polish about once a decade. I am so different, in how I identify myself, to Second Offspring. And her girliness, her absolute love of all things ‘typically’ meant for a girl-child, gives me pause to wonder about the emphasis I’m placing on discussing or exposing them to different identities and lifestyles and choices. Am I trying too hard to make her into something she’s not? She is much more likely to choose to play ‘cooking’ with pretend food than with cars. Encouraging her towards playing with a train set or toys more often targetted towards boys often results in a shrug of disinterest and a renewed desire to set up a tea-party with her dolls and stuffed animals. She is simply not interested in those other things. She wants ‘girl-toys’.
I remember reading that among older feminists–those who battled for social change in the sixties and seventies–there is sometimes a dissatisfaction that some of today’s women choose to stay at home with their children rather than go back into the workforce. The feeling is that they fought so tirelessly for women to have the opportunity to work after marriage and and having children, that it is a blow to all they achieved, when women apparently turn their back on this, and take a ‘traditional’ role of mothering and home-making instead. As one of those women who is doing just that, I’m surprised that it’s not obvious to them, what is so very clear to me. The fact is, I can choose. Their campaigning and organising and insistence at being heard meant that I am now able to decide whether I want to work, or marry, or have children, or do a combination of them. It’s not being decided for me: I get to choose.
And I suppose I can look at Second Offspring’s choices in the same way. I went into this parenting lark, imagining that I would have girls who challenged everything about gender stereotypes. I didn’t imagine that I would have one who embraced the opposite. But exposing her and her siblings to a variety of worldviews is not a waste. Second Offspring may choose to identify a certain way, however, I want to show her that identity is a complex evolution. Hopefully, it might help her to develop a more solid sense of self, where she is more than just a typical girl. And it might help her to empathise with other children whose identities do not fit into our traditional models of what it is to be male, female, or other.
Not only that, it serves as a lesson to me that no matter how stereotypical a person might appear, that is simply superficial. I tend to be more likely to respect a woman’s opinion if she is less… frilly. (My experience with frilly women has been less than rewarding. They have often been shallow, and dismissive of any attempt to engage them in deep discussion). But there’s nothing to say that frilly, feminine women can’t be good feminists, too. Second Offspring, as enamoured as she is with all the trimmings of girliness, is strong-willed, determined, opinionated and passionate. She is already an awesome feminist, and that is as much a part of her as her love of dresses and magic. I may not have expected this kind of daughter, but it turns out, we’re actually a pretty good fit.
And I suppose that is really what it’s all about.