Updated: Oct 22, 2022
Before I had even thought about having kids, I had already thought deeply about how I would raise a daughter. She would have unshakeable self-esteem, her value would be uncoupled to her looks or to a number on a scale or a clothes tag. She would never see her gender as a barrier to anything, in fact she would consider it a gift that unlocks profound friendships and open and empathetic conversations without the societal pressures to hide emotion. I would ensure she had access to all kinds of toys, activities and clothes, not only those that conform to girly stereotypes. In contrast, my only thoughts about raising a boy were a desire to avoid toxic masculinity, and to ensure he always felt comfortable to express any emotion he felt, in any way that he wanted. Ironically, in trying to avoid gender stereotypes, I fell into them - I should have been planning to raise great human beings, regardless of their sex or gender.
And then I had a daughter. I filled the house with soft toys, construction toys, dolls, cars, dinosaurs, unicorns, toy tools, anything that a child would enjoy, or learn from. As a baby, I dressed her in whatever I thought was cute, regardless of whether it came from the ‘little girls’ section or the ‘little boys’ section. I filled her bookshelves with books that told the stories of great women and their accomplishments, and rewritten fairy tales that cast the princess as the hero. And yet, the Disney princesses snuck in, the pink, the glitter, the unicorns, the fairies. Maybe it came from her peers or from nursery, but as she got old enough to make her own choices, I just wanted to make her happy. So her wardrobe became exclusively pink dresses, and her books became traditional fairy tales, and her toys became baby dolls, prams and dollhouses. I rationalised that I am just making her happy and allowing her to have shared interests with her friends. But I dread that she will grow up with a one dimensional view of women. I don’t believe girls need to be made to feel bad about being ‘girly’, there is nothing inherently wrong with it, you can enjoy lipstick and dresses and handbags and still achieve and do anything you want (regardless of your sex or gender).I have no idea how much these early choices will inform how she thinks about herself and other women. I cringe when she tells me she wants blonde hair like Rapunzel. I desperately lecture her on why all hair is beautiful, after she has long stopped listening. I am full of contradictions.
And then I had a son. I didn’t plan to buy him “gender neutral” clothes. He wore most of my daughter’s old baby clothes, but I threw out the baby dresses as I knew I probably would not put him in them. While he was developing into a tireless toddler, my daughter was acquiring a haul of Disney princess dresses and dolls that make her room look like a Disney World gift shop. When my son became old enough to choose his own clothes and what toys he wanted to play with, he gravitated most to the toy kitchen, the princess dolls and he frequently wore his sister’s dresses. I don’t think I would have given him these toys or given him the chance to play with dolls or dress like a princess had I not had a daughter first. Why do I hold such a double standard? Surely it is as important for my daughter and my son to have the freedom to wear, play with and do what they like. I should be raising children with unshakeable self-esteem, children whose value would be uncoupled to their looks, children that would never see their gender as a barrier to anything.
I would really love your thoughts on this, please do comment below or tweet me @micheleveldsman
a side note
These posts serve partly as therapy for me, and partly in hopes that the words will resonate with you and help build a community of parents and friends that can support each other. Take a look around the website, and join if you want to see more.