Friday, February 10, 2012

sugar and spice and all things nice

This week, at an indoor playground, I heard the following exchange between two mothers of daughters:

Mother A: I was so glad when I found out I was having a girl. I was like ‘I can plait her hair’ and dress her up in pretty dresses!

Mother B: Oooh, I love the pink tutu skirt she is wearing today!

After my feelings of nausea had passed, I reflected on what I had thought about when I first found out that I was having a girl. It made me conclude that these women and I were very different indeed.

When the radiologist told us that she was ‘99.9% sure’ that we were having a girl, I have to confess that my first reaction was something approaching dread. I hasten to add that was not because I wanted a boy - in the few times that I had imagined myself with a baby in the past, she had always been a girl - but because I suddenly felt an overwhelming sense of responsibility: it would be me who had to teach her how to be a girl and a woman. Again, I hasten to add that this does not mean that I would’ve washed my hands of a boy once he’d passed babyhood, but that I would be her first feminine role model. In my brief moment of dread, I thought about periods, and sex education; I thought about dating and, even worse, not dating (sexual preference to be determined); I thought about body issues, dieting and eating disorders; I thought about the gendered policing of public spaces, unequal pay, and glass ceilings; I thought about overt and covert sexism, and the spectre of sexual assault.

I did not think about pigtails and pinafores.

That may seem surprising given that I kicked off this blog railing against the renaissance of pink baby clothes for girls. But this was a moment or two of quiet dread while I was still pregnant, not the last word on my feelings about mothering a daughter. I think this is perhaps why the passage from Adrienne Rich’s book on the courage of women quoted in my previous post resonated so much with me. It does take courage to be a woman, one who takes her life in her own hands in spite off the things that I listed above, and swims against the current. And it will be me, big chicken that I am, that has to role model this kind of courage for my daughter.

Like I said, a big responsibility. And it gave me new insight into why parents can be so over-protective of their daughters.

But this conversation was not primarily the reason for this post, merely a way in.

Recently, a friend asked me if there were things that were good about having a girl from a feminist point-of-view (as opposed to all the annoying stuff like the pink clothes). She is the mother of a young son and is touched by the warmth and affection between her son and his father, which goes to show that masculine toughness, dominance and suppressed emotion (i.e. how to survive as a male in patriarchy) is learned behaviour.

I struggled with the form of her question for a while, as I found it difficult to separate my daughter’s ‘being-a-girl-ness’ from her own lovely personality. Then I thought I would re-frame the question slightly - hey, it’s my blog and I have the power - to ask ‘what can my daughter enjoy about being a girl before the cultural norms of femininity really take hold?’

Thought about this way, I found it much easier to think of the positive things:

  • her body is a source of endless wonder and fun to her, not a source of insecurity and self-hatred
  • she finds joy in what she can do and learn, not in what she looks like
  • her desire for independence means she wants to try new things for herself and she wants to do it NOW rather than wait for everyone else to have a turn
  • her outbursts of anger are considered healthy and normal reactions to her frustrations with the world around her
  • she receives encouragement and praise from others (not just her parents) when she learns things
  • her boldness and fearlessness in discovering the world around her and how she can interact with it
  • her perseverance in trying new things means she will not give up until she has mastered them
  • her fascination with other girls without feeling any competition with them, nor being judged by them (for the sake of completeness, she is equally fascinated by boys too)

I should note that both my friend’s and my positive things are also, in a sense, negative. They invert stereotypical ideas about masculinity and femininity and show that they are internalised cultural norms that are learned. It doesn’t mean that either of us is off the hook in terms of having to navigate the sharp rocks of gender construction and policing in the future. This will become increasingly tricky through later childhood - children are notoriously strong policers of gender around the ages of 7-8 - and adolescence, when peers, teachers, advertisers and wider society have an increasing say in determining what kind of man and woman our children will become.

For now, however, I am glad that I don’t have a doll for a daughter, and that she is under little compulsion to conform to the cultural imperative of ‘sugar and spice and all things nice’.

Equally, however, I don’t want to her disdain the positive aspects of conventionally feminine behaviour: being in touch with her emotions, being kind and loving, and showing nurturing behaviour towards others. For now, she is all these things too, and I hope we can maintain that balance for as long as possible.

Because, after all, who really wants to be made up of ‘slugs and snails and puppy-dogs’ tails’?