“So what do you want to be when you grow up?” my dad is driving me to school, for once I’m not surrounded by my army of siblings and this is rare stuff, he and I having a chat.
I must be about 9. I think about my answer. While my mother is my buddy, my friend, my sister, my dad is my hero. All I want to do is impress him. “Maybe a doctor”, I shrug, the lie making it easier to sound throwaway… “or…” I am tentative, “an airhostess.”
“Why do you want to be an airhostess?” he asks. I don’t have to think about this. “Because I like planes and airports. And I like seeing new places.” My dad grins to himself. “Nothing wrong with being an airhostess. It’s very hard work. But, you could be a pilot you know.” “There are girl pilots?!” “Sure. Not many, but there are. What does being a girl have to do with it, anyway? You could do anything you want to. You could be the captain of a ship.” “Do you know any girl captains?” I ask him. “No,” my father says, smiling at me, “But you could be the first.”
I didn’t grow to be either a pilot or a captain. But I grew up knowing my father, that big, hairy man who could cook as well as he could drive, whose voice could sing as beautifully as inspire fear in the hearts of those who angered him, who carried his babies as gently as he once did a sick man, down a rope ladder, down the side of a ship in a stormy port believed that I could do what I chose. My gender was incidental.
My mother, the official fuse-changer and plug fixer in the house, believed in this as well. Your gender could not dictate the life-choices you made.
And it was easy to put into practice once my own children arrived. Our eldest girl, a practical, playful, clever thing who wore trousers and boots and had spiky hair and loved watching football as much as she loved animated musicals. Our second girl brought more pink and glitter and Barbies into our lives than we ever imagined possible, but we let her be and sure enough, she learned to read and soon books usurped Barbie. Both now talk of the boys of 1Direction with as much enthusiasm as they discuss cars or MasterChef.
When #3, the surprise child turned up, and he was a boy, a close friend exclaimed, “OMG, what will they do with a boy?!” This was a completely valid reaction. I am good with little girls. They flock to me and I to them and we have amazing, hilarious times together. I was always wary of little boys with their pushing and their momentum and their sudden bursting into loud screaming tears like big old ninnies.
Our little man is quite the same. He is given to pushing occasionally and we now have a fleet of plastic and metal automobiles in all sizes. He will run like a Spartan, in his diaper, wielding a plastic bat in an alarming (and annoying) display of testosterone and when I tell him off, he will bawl like a big old ninny.
But then he’s got this other side to him; spending baby-hours (20 mins sometimes) at his elder sisters’ plastic kitchen cooking up all sorts of delicious imaginary things that he will bring us to taste, pleased if we say ‘ummm’ and struck with the giggles when we squeal ‘yuck! It’s disgusting!’ And he has a baby, a beat up, baby doll who is his ‘boy’ and he is the baby’s daddy. He’ll feed his baby, sing him to sleep and carry him around when he’s doing things.
However, when this 2 yo little man walks out of the house carrying his doll, it’s been quite the sociological eye opener. The same mothers who encourage their girls to be ‘tomboys’ and ‘equal’ to anything ‘a boy can do’ look alarmed, embarrassed… ‘Is that your big sister’s doll?’ No it’s his. ‘You bought him a doll?’ Well… ‘He plays with dolls?’ Yes! Yes he does. They nod and smile. They’re want to agree but…
Think about it: who would win in a match between a Daddy’s Girl and a Mama’s Boy? How do you fit a ‘lil mama’ and a ‘big daddy’ into the same pigeon hole? And if you did have to hand them out amongst the kids, could not every child get an equal share of frogs, snails, puppy dog tails, sugar, spice and all things nice?
These little innocent playful clichés we inherit as rhymes and fairy tales and gentle teasing from the elders are innocuous until they manifest into the real world. The trouble is, gender stereotyping is not a complete fabrication. I’m of my mother’s opinion when she said that gender roles, ideally, are placed to help people know their place in the ‘team’, but it does depend on awareness that everyone in the team is expected to pull their weight. So I’m happy to be a (mostly) SAHM while my husband is the chief bread-winner. But it’s also reassuring for the children to know that daddy will cook them dinner and step up to the bedtime routine if mummy has to work. And amongst our friends, there are dads who work from home while mum goes to an office.
The subtle sexism inherent in gender-neutral discussions is super ironic. The sub-text seems to be, bring your girls up gender-neutral, because it will make them brave and fight for their rights and empower them. But your boy must be a man from the time he’s a little baby or else you will not have done right by him. After all, it’s a man’s world, yes?
Maybe. But maybe not. You’ll have to drum up an inordinate, almost foolhardy optimism about the society you live in to have the courage to bring up your boy truly gender neutral. You will literally have to be the change you wish to see. At our sports class, the excellent teacher often pits the boys against the girls. It is an even match. And the victory-taunting of both genders is equally relentless but good-natured. The boys are never shamed by having being beaten by the girls. And the girls accept defeat with great swagger and calls for a re-match. There are no boys and girls, only winners and ‘LOOOOOSERRRRS!’
If I put blinkers on, and look at my immediate surroundings, even in silly, gender-deficit ridden India, I am pretty pleased with what I see. Young fiction is filled with brave, strong, gentle girls and brave, strong, gentle boys, children’s film and television celebrates gender equitability and our peers are raising an army of young humans who respect each other, regardless of gender. There’s every reason in the world to believe these children will grow up to continue treating each other as equals.
As my little boy ran around, two toenails on each foot painted to match his big sisters’, complimenting my 8 year old daughter’s ‘top’ then shooting her with his cricket-bat ‘gun’, my 12 year old daughter asked me for a ladder and electric tape to fix the light in her room.
After I zapped the gun into a guitar (with magic!) and gave my 12yo a lecture on safety, I sat down and allowed myself a self-congratulatory moment. My daddy here and my mama, probably changing fuses in heaven now, would be very, very proud.