I’ve always considered myself a bit of a progressive on the old gender neutrals parenting front. My daughter was born around the time the Pink Stinks campaign came along, and it really opened my eyes to the issue, made me question all the gender assumptions and stereotyping around her toys and clothes, that until then I’d gone along with.
Why did she have a play ironing board and a pink plastic mop and bucket? I certainly never use either of these things (ok a mop occasionally – but the cleaner uses it more than me. Let’s be honest.) So why was I assigning these ‘female’ duties to my little girl at such a young age, while her brother was off having a right old laugh smashing up his cars and dinosaurs?
So I changed my ways, in what I considered to be quite radical fashion. While many of her peers seemed to be dressed as angel-fairy-princesses, she wore her brother’s old hand-me-downs. She slept in a dinosaur onesie and wore wellies with motorbikes on. She played with his Iggle-Piggle toy and instead of ballet, I signed her up for rugby (much to her brother’s annoyance.) One Christmas she got a bow and arrow, another a guitar.
Later on, at school – where the boys wore ties and the girls open-neck blouses – I challenged the headmaster over the sexist uniform policy (he didn’t see my point – but then he’s a headmaster and I’m a work-at-home mum. Go figure.)
Still, I felt that overall I was doing my bit for the crusade.
But as it turned out, she had other ideas. As soon as she realised what was going on I knew I was in trouble. She wanted to choose her own outfits. She wanted head-to-toe glitter. She wanted a pink bedroom and began to spend many hours in front of the mirror doing what seemed dangerously close to sexy dancing. My efforts to curb the gender-ising of her childhood were no match for the extraneous messages she was now picking up about how to be a girl – whether on TV, at school or pretty much every area of life. From the now-weirdly ‘hot’ My Little Pony (nothing like the mini-shire horses of my youth) and the pink Lego Friends sets to the blouses at school and the gifts from well-meaning grandparents (see: pink mop and bucket play-set.)
By the time this Christmas – her ninth – came around, I knew my efforts in gender-neutral parenting had failed. On Christmas morning, as she gleefully opened the tutu and roller skates she’d asked for, I could only embrace the little girl who wanted these things so much. How could I deny her these pleasures? Besides, I wanted some roller skates too.
And what about my son? I hadn’t even begun to approach the can of worms that was his deeply-entrenched sense of masculinity (his Christmas presents included a set of weights and two first-person-shooter computer games. The shame of it!) not mention what we now know as his ‘male privilege’ (guess who has the biggest bedroom out of the two of them….)
It seems gender-neutral parenting requires a lot more from us parents (who, thanks to our own childhoods, are pretty deeply entrenched in gender stereotypes of our own) than swapping out a few pink tops for blue ones and buying a few toy cars for our daughters.
It requires rigour and commitment of the sort I’m generally too tired to muster. For a better example than me, witness the couple from Toronto who didn’t reveal the gender of their child Storm, not even to their closest family and friends, as “a tribute to freedom and choice in place of limitation.” (Eventually, Storm decided for herself that she was a girl. Go Storm.)
I can only take my hat off to the parents of Storm, who must both have balls of steel (metaphorical, non-gender-binary balls, that is) to fight the good fight that is defeating gender stereotyping. Watching my kids on Christmas Day I mentally threw in towel. We’ll have to change the world another day.