One of the things I was certain of, even throughout my pregnancy, was that I wanted to instil a sense of fairness and equality in my child. I didn’t really know how I was going to do it, but I had some basic ideas – the clothes he would wear, the toys he would play with, the way I would explain the world to him.
I planned to dress my son in gender-neutral clothing, offer him choices of trousers or dresses, that sort of thing. However, my ex-partner and I split up when my son was eight months old, and I get the feeling he’d hit the roof if he came to pick up my son dressed in a floral frock! I have to admit that part of this is also protective; I don’t want other children (or adults) to make fun of my son for what he’s wearing, so I dress him mostly in conventionally masculine clothing.
On the play issue, I’ve fared slightly better. My son loves all things wheeled; cars, trains, even bin lorries. But he also has his baby doll, Tommy, complete with pink toy pushchair, his wooden toy kitchen and tea set and the myriad cuddly toys which are slowly taking over my house and which must be looked after at all costs. I encourage him to play in the garden kicking a ball around, but also spend time with him baking cakes and letting him ‘help’ with cooking dinner.
But clothes and toys do not a future feminist make. The most important thing, to me, is the way I raise him, the conversations we have and the examples I and the other adults in his life set him regarding gender stereotypes.
One of the things I’ve noticed as he grows older is that he’s started noticing sex. Before, he knew the words ‘penis’ and ‘vulva’ and that assigned-males have one and assigned-females the other and that was the only difference he knew of between men and women. Lately – with influence no doubt from preschool friends and non-feminist family members – he has started categorising some things as specifically ‘male’ or ‘female’.
At a recent craft day at the museum he had to wear an apron. I picked up the nearest one, which happened to be pink. He screwed his face up and said “Not that one, Mummy, that’s a girls’ one!” He couldn’t articulate exactly why it was a girls’ one, but he ‘knew’ it was. He tells me “Mummies don’t go to work”. I work hard to counter these newly-formed opinions by telling him colours are for everyone, and that many Mummies do work – and many Daddies stay home! Unfortunately it seems that the ideas he’s getting from outside influences are having more of an effect on him than my counter-arguments.
My partner and I try to model an egalitarian relationship to my son. I buy him books which feature strong female characters (if you’re not a parent you might not know that those are few and far-between) and try to monitor the programmes he watches on Cbeebies because so much of it is male-centred with (white, cis, currently-abled) male protagonists. I encourage him to value things which are traditionally seen as ‘feminine’ as well as those seen as ‘masculine’ and to not think of one as inherently more worthwhile than the other.
But it’s so hard. Babies are born with no preconceptions of gender. They don’t know that their genitalia means they will be expected to look, dress, and act in a certain way. It is only what we do as role models that shapes a child’s view on sex and gender.
And no matter how hard I try, there are still so many other factors coming into play – his other family members, his friends at preschool, the characters he sees in books and films and television programmes. I am not raising my son in a void, and it’s incredibly difficult to undo what he’s been told and shown of “what boys do” and “what girls do”. I really envy the Swedish couple who are raising their child gender-neutrally; it looks like one of the only ways to ensure a child grows up with no preconceived notions of how zie should be based on zir genitals.
So that’s my attempt, still ongoing, at raising a feminist-minded boy. I’m sure I haven’t covered everything (not least because I have a word limit here!), and I’m sure there’s much more I could be doing, so I want to ask – how are you raising your children into the next generation of feminists?