“Mummy, but why are unicorns for girls?”
You get used to questions when you are parent, and my son can average four or five a minute when on good form. From cosmology ‘when did the world start?’ to biology ‘where did you get me from?’ and religious education ‘are Jesus and the Easter Bunny in the same family?’ You are soon on to them ordering their own drinks in restaurants ‘can I have a gin and tonic please?’
There is nothing that makes you look at the world afresh like living with a child that has a curious mind. Everything is quietly absorbed, even when you don’t realise it, ready to be asked at an interesting moment. “Why is that man so fat, has he been drinking too much whisky?”
We tell children how we understand the world from the moment they are born, as we ask ‘what was it?’ and purchase clothing and toys in colours and designs that we have defined as appropriate. I’ve noticed that as soon as children start to speak we’re talking princesses to one type of child and pirates to another, narrowing their worldview and aspirations before they can walk.
As a ‘tomboy’ I had no preference for dolls, ballet lessons or dresses as a child, and instead cultivated an interest in football, knives and the A Team. I have always looked with bewilderment at children’s games, clothes, activities that seemed to be sex specific, and wondered why people make generalisations about behaviour based on sex as though there is some definitive and innate difference rather than our cultural pressures.
I thought I would escape the tedious conversations about sex, gender and identity that I had as a child by having a son, as we managed to evade many conversations about childrearing simply by crash-landing into parenthood two months early, avoiding people for six months and looking exhausted for the next three years. But apparently not, and its been a depressing experiencing watching our curious, independent-minded and sensitive little boy start to absorb other people’s expectations.
Our son started reporting gender-normative comments almost as soon as he could string a coherent sentence together; his enjoyment of a witches’ Halloween dress dented by girls that told him dresses weren’t for boys. His love of pink clothing squashed by another set of determined girls that stated pink wasn’t for him either. As no doubt they will be told that science, careers in politics, the judiciary and at a senior level in the media won’t be for them, even if no-one ever says it. Their future careers may be limited, but at least they get to wear sleeves with ‘wrinkles’ instead of the ‘normal’ ones.
We were generously gifted around three or four years of clothes by one of my friends, so it wasn’t until quite late in my parental experience that I had to purchase anything other than shoes. Wandering, faintly horrified at the prices, around H&M one afternoon my son miserably eyed up a rack full of brown and khaki t-shirts in the ‘boys’ section and asked “why are there no sparkles on boys clothes?” In my sadness I almost bought him a pink heart sequined jumper from the ‘girls’ section, had it not been so flimsy and impractical for a Scottish winter. Not a problem for girls apparently.
Before the self-appointed Clothing Regulators started he would regularly rock the layered dress look out on his bike, this orange pumpkin dress was worn to destruction before he outgrew it:
At home our son sees a reasonably gender-neural division of labour – we share the childcare and cooking, my husband deals with the DIY, bakes the cakes and nurtures the garden and I take care of the bikes, household finances and don’t know what the vacuum cleaner does. This is perhaps part of the confusion, as he’s seeing a difference between what the world is telling him and what his reality is. Where do pink unicorns fit in when your Mummy only has Rapha pink?
The unicorn incident is the most recent in regular series of discussions that usually end with my exasperated summary statement: ‘everything is for everyone, there are no boys and girls things and some people don’t feel like they are a boy or a girl anyway’. But me saying it isn’t what he needs, he needs to see other boys sporting pink heart jumpers, comparing My Little Pony storylines and every child in his school able to talk about what really interests them, not what they feel is sociably acceptable.
If all this was simply about toys and clothes it wouldn’t be so tragic, but what I see is children learning that a whole world of experiences, choices and behaviour isn’t for them based purely on their genitals. I can’t even start to comprehend how hard it must be for children and young people not to have the body that corresponds with their gender identity.
From this middle aged, cis-gendered, mother’s perspective we need to understand how we normalise gendered behaviour and decide if it helps out children thrive. I think if we want our children to have the world of opportunities they deserve we need both #thisgirlcan and #aboycantoo, enabling men and boys to get out of their gender straightjackets as well as girls and women. If we want men to be caring fathers that nurture their children, then boys need to be supported to play with dolls and men encouraged to take their full entitlement to parental leave, and if we want husbands that can cook then we need to show our sons how to prepare meals. Most importantly, if we want to stem the number of young men that take their own lives, we should encourage boys to talk about their feelings, and real interests, with their friends. Not everything is going to be solved by embracing unicorns for everyone, but it could be a start.