You know, one of the hardest things I juggle are my emotions around raising two girls.
When I was pregnant we didn’t know what gender our babies would be. For us the excitement was in the Not Knowing. The only thing I wished for was that my children would have strong spirits, be assertive and compassionate, and have the capacity and strength of character to be Who They Really Are. I hadn’t really considered how important me and hubby would be in that. Yes. I know that’s really naive! But i get it now!
It’s bloody hard. Not because they are difficult or challenging (well… they’re 5 and 7 years old. Of course they are difficult and challenging sometimes!) But I can handle that. In fact – I want them to be difficult and challenging because it means they are forming their own opinions and they are not sheep. I positively encourage them to have opinions and share them in a respectful way.
It’s not even hard raising two girls because of the co-ordination that goes into swimming classes, ballet, musical theatre, after school care, homework, reading, play dates, roller skating, science experiments, family visits, working full time and – from next week – gymnastics (what was I thinking!?!).
It’s hard because after having children I view the world through completely different lenses.
Some of that has been so magical and joyful; watching them delight in their first play in the snow, peeling back the leaves of a cob of sweetcorn to reveal the golden nuggets inside, seeing the spiders webs after the first frost, breathing ‘steam’ out of our mouths on a cold winter’s day, the tooth fairy leaving a note, blowing dandelion seeds, seeing deer in the woods…….. oh the list goes on. And you catch the magic too if you can be present in these moments.
But I get scared by some of it as I watch my impressionable daughters soak up their world and begin internalising what it means to be a ‘girl’ and what it means to be a ‘boy’. Seriously. Why as a society do we still put so much bloody importance on What We Are and not Who We Are?! Why can we not separate the two?!
Both my parents were from North London lower working class families who had lots of children and barely any money. I come from tough, traditional heritage where the men had one role and the women had another. There are some amazing characters in my ancestry (I might tell you about them one day) and I’m very proud and grateful for that. I had a younger brother who I perceived as getting away with murder while I was expected to conform. I suffered from a massive inferiority complex growing up and developed bulimia from 15 years old and finally beat it at the age of 22. I chose relationships that were full of drama. I voiced my opinions with arrogance (and ignorance), and revelled in being an animal rights activist and controversial with my views. I rejected everything my mother had been raised by because I saw all the baggage she carried. Not realising baggage was fairly inevitable.
And I learnt a lot. I met my first ‘proper’ feminist at university. Unfortunately she was somewhat of a man hater. I considered myself to be a feminist but I didn’t want to hate men. I liked them! My construct of feminism was equality of opportunity for all regardless of gender and I still hold that view today. I don’t care to get on my soap box in public anymore. Er… except in this blog.
Of course, I am now even more aware of how gender is portrayed as I view the world through the innocent eyes of my daughters. At first I was keen to reduce the ‘girlification’ of them from birth. I rejected the ‘pinkness’ that you are forcefed when you have girls (‘Why don’t you want the bright pink dresses with frills on for D1? It’s so pretty and she looks so cute!’ ) and actively looked for toys, games, books etc that told more than just princess stories. We did actually have some pink and some princesses ( because other people had bought them) but they were part of a wider choice of things. Both my girls went through a short pink/princess stage and having the knowledge I do about how children develop etc I was OK with this (who am I kidding?!) because it was their ‘choice’. The driver behind this is about developing an identity, fitting in and belonging. If you don’t have this securely established then it’s much harder to have the confidence to not conform. Does that make sense?!?
So we went through the pink/ princess stage and then we entered the ‘I want to be like a grown up’ stage. We are still at that one actually. But what are grown up women like….? Hmmm. Friends and family – some positive; some ignorant of how impressionalble our girls are. It’s amazing how the first thing people say to them is how pretty they look or invite them to have their hair and nails done as if that’s the only thing they can talk about. There’s so much more to my girls than that. Images on TV aren’t very diverse. Sassy tween/teenage girls who are bitchy, squeal and tantrum or clever girls who are seen as not cool. I know there are exceptions out there but that message is lost between all the other junk. Billboard posters/advertisements… well. Don’t even get me started. Films… most women are side kicks who are conventionally, stereotypcally beautiful first and then have a personality if you’re lucky. Do i sound scathing? Sorry. I’m just disappointed. There’s some great stuff out there but you have to look hard.
We are finding our way through this and there’s lots of talking at times in our house about what’s ‘real’ in media images of women and what’s airbrushed (‘Why do they do it if it’s not real, Mummy? What’s the point?’ Good question. How do you tell a five year old it’s because sex sells?) Popular songs (‘ Why do One Direction only ever sing about kissing girls?’). We imagine real possibilities of exciting futures and talk and learn about everything we find interesting. Not just things that are typically ‘boys’ or ‘girls’ stuff. It started very early on. Oh yes. I was going to get it right straight from the start. None of this objectification for my girls. No thank you. Girl Power!
And that’s when my husband said four words late last year that brought me right back down to earth with a bump.
‘What about the boys?’
‘Boys. You talk to D1 and D2 about all the things that they might want to do in the future; you challenge the things they say only boys can do, you question they way girls are portrayed in certain films or TV programs. Do you talk about the boys?’
‘Er…yes… of course I do!’
He knew i was lying.
NO. NO. NO I don’t!!!
Argh. What an idiot. What a glaring oversight on my part. In my attempts to ensure our girls were receiving balanced messages about women I had completely ignored talking about boys and the pressures on them to fit a stereotype. How is that really balanced? I had not even paid attention to the messages we internalise about what it is to be a boy. And neither had I really given any thought to how what I didn’t say about boys would translate in my girl’s little heads. ‘All the boys are silly in my class, Mummy,’ said my 5yr old.
Boys/Men are generally portrayed as being powerful,heroic, nerdy, stupid or evil. Either a protector or something to be feared. And increasingly airbrushed, impossible bodies are evident in the media. These are the messages boys and girls are getting about men – just like boys and girls are getting messages about women’s bodies and behaviour that is unrealistic. It works both ways. And it’s not helpful. In fact, my husband doesn’t think men have as much of a voice about it as women. I think maybe he has a point.
Why are we letting it happen? Why is it so ‘normal’?
Thank you Hubby. The conversations in our house have changed. We don’t just talk about what girls can do – we talk about what people can do (male or female). We don’t just discuss female characters in books/films/TV – we discuss the characters in books/films/TV (male or female). We are beginning to question stereotypes (yes – even at the age of 7) and there’s some good chat going on. We pretend to be knights, Doctors, Kings, Queens, Mummy and Daddy, elephants, famous athletes, scientists AND Princesses. We can be anything we want to be. We like it all. We embrace choice.
And I clearly have a lot to learn when it comes to equality and diversity. I guess my younger, arrogant/ignorant self is still under the surface a bit. My fears for my girls growing up in a society that values a women’s idealised appearance over who she is or what she thinks led me on a path that could easily have seen me encouraging a girls vs boys belief. And I don’t hold that belief. Yes – I want my girls to have choice. But I want ALL children – ALL people – to have that regardless of their gender or sexuality.
It’s not a Battle of the Sexes. It’s not Men vs Women. Because in every battle there is always a winner and a loser. How can that be equality? It’s about the boys and the girls.