If you opened this with excitement/curiosity/expectation that I am about to reveal the gender of our unborn child then I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed. I’ve been mulling for a couple of weeks on how to approach the topic of gender, particularly in relation to babies and raising children, as it opens a King Kong sized can of worms and pulls at a number of threads, including feminism, emasculation, class divide and even race.
So I feel I can only really set about this from my/our own point of view and with the intention of illuminating a little on our stand point when it comes to gender.
I mentioned in my last post that I was reading a wonderful book, aptly named ‘Man Up’ by Rebecca Asher, which by and large tells of how we have wronged men from the get go. Believe it or not, this comes from a feminists point of view and I tend to agree. But more on that later…
In her opening chapter, author Rebecca says,
“Our pre-birth expectations of a child, as shaped by its sex, go much deeper. They extend to its very personhood and the characteristics we imagine it will possess. Girls will be compliant, passive and in touch with their feelings, to the point of being a little over-emotional and intense. Boys will be assertive, domineering, active and emotionally uncomplicated.“
This pretty much sums up why we have chosen not to find our the gender of our child before they arrive. Because we feel we have no right to assume anything about them, it does not matter, and we don’t want others to place their assumptions on them either.
Just yesterday, when I was purchasing the most gorgeous hand knitted cardigans from a vintage market stall, the lady selling to me asked whether I knew the gender of our baby, then followed with “Oh a little girl would be so lovely, so you can take her shopping and be close to one another.” This is the assumption isn’t it? That should we have a daughter, she and I will of course engage in lots of mother-daughter, female stereotyped activities, such as dressing up, baking, shopping, playing with hair, dolls, talking about feelings, etc. But what if my daughter (like me!) has a mind of her own and wants to climb trees, be on her own more than with other girls, run and tumble and, woe betide, not talk about her feelings? My Mother and I are close now, but haven’t always been and the times we weren’t were probably made more difficult by the expectation that mother and daughter should be close. We are very different, but we find common ground and respect in other ways, outside of the expected norm.
Interestingly, ‘Man Up’ outlines how it has become more acceptable for girls to ‘behave like boys’ and is thus defined as being ‘tomboy’. Furthermore, statistically girls who grow up with an older brother (myself as case in point) are more likely to engage in ‘boy-like’ activities than those who grow up with an older sister. But then what’s the equivalent for boys? I won’t attempt to unravel this knotted ball of yarn, as ‘Man Up’ already does this so well, but I do want to pass this on as food for thought.
Throughout reading this book I frequently interrupted James (who was desperately trying to study – sorry love!) to ask his opinion. What was brilliant, and continues to be brilliant, is that we are having a continual, open-ended discussion about this, arriving at no final conclusions or assumptions.
It’s my favourite motto at the moment that assumptions make an ass out of ‘u and me’, because it’s always, unequivocally true. Sure, on occasion we might find ourselves correct. “I knew it, I knew it was girl from the way you were carrying and the emotional connection you had with her and all the sweet foods you were eating!” Why is it such a success to have correctly guessed the gender of a baby though? We all already know that I am growing human, but any more than that is up to baby themselves; it is their right and their privilege to tell/show us who they are, what they feel, what they’re interested in and what their character is.
“How very modern and progressive of you?” I hear people say. But is it? Personally, my whole life I have been uncomfortable, nay completely bewildered, by gender stereotyping and differentiation. I’m sure I’m not the only female who has been traumatised by the pressure to be ‘girly’ or even ‘feminine’. I’ve been labelled both a ‘girly girl’ and a ‘tomboy’, leading me to be further confused about who I am meant to be and how I should behave. I grew up feeling complicated, difficult and demanding, because I fluctuated wildly between knowing my own mind and passionately trying to fit in.
I’m also ashamed to say that I came into adulthood believing that men were simple, straightforward and emotionally stunted. I used this as rationale for the countless failed romantic relationships. “He just doesn’t know how to show love” was the passionate consolation my friends would offer me when it didn’t work out.
Girls were told, and in turn our respective partners would believe, that men are black and white – they either want you or they don’t. So it was our fault as women for being too demanding of them, or we were within our rights to write them off as being ill-equipped to handle us in all our complex femininity. This was especially confusing since I grew up with two ‘sensitive’ men – I put ‘sensitive’ in inverted comas, because it seems that any man who carries that trait is somehow an anomaly, both in a positive and negative way. “Oh, he’s a sensitive guy”, as if we have to forgive him for betraying his sex with such a trait. Or “He’s so sensitive”, as if he’s to be commended for being so very different to all the others. I feel the truth is possibly something we just don’t want to handle, which is that boys are just as (if not more) emotionally intuitive and capable of displays of great, great affection, compassion and sensitivity. We just tell them from a very early age that they ought not to be.
As I read ‘Man Up’, countless memories throughout my 34 years sprung up. I hope you won’t mind me sharing a few with you;
I was in a relationship in my mid-twenties with a man who had a passion for outdoor pursuits, who, as he put it himself, was “one of the lads”. Spending time with “the lads” was an important pastime for him and he frequently explained to me why he couldn’t lose face and be seen to be distracted by me. He one day he said to me “but you wouldn’t fancy me anymore if I didn’t have my muscles”. Honestly, to myself I thought ‘I’d kind of fancy you more if you didn’t’. So sue me – I am just not attracted to a ripped physique! It’s not important to me. He had his mum teach me how to knit, which incidentally I am really grateful for, but the first task I was set was to make something for him, because, she said ‘it’s our job to look after them’. Ironically, it also became very apparent that this guy wanted/needed a partner who shared his passion for high energy, high risk sporting activities – I guess the giveaway was being chivvied into cliff jumping into choppy Welsh sea waters, which is quite frankly one of the most terrifying and stupid things I have ever done. I really did not want to, which he put down to me ‘being a girl’ and incidentally told me to ’man up’. Speaking of cliff jumping…
Earlier in my twenties I went on my first adult holiday without parents with a group of friends, one of which decided to cliff jump (at this time I also said a firm NO to this activity, so clearly knew my own mind on this matter all along) and dislocated his shoulder during the fall. I was in the water with him and found in this emergency situation I went into pragmatic, organised and calm mode. We collectively managed to get the injured party out of the water then the plan was to hitch a ride back to the mainland for help. I wasn’t permitted to join the boys in doing this though because, I was told, I would be “too emotional” for the situation. I was clearly the calmest individual there. I swam a couple of miles back to the shore on my own and got bit by a piranha in the process.
Not too long ago I had a tricky situation in a place of work with a colleague who went out of her way to isolate me. She would ignore me completely, engage in whispered conversations with other colleagues in my presence, start talking about me the moment I left the room, loud enough that I could hear, then when I calmly tried to address the issue was told it was all in my head. Long story short, she was terminated for gross incompetence, hiding money and bullying, but at the time I struggled to get anyone to hear me on the case that I was being bullied. On one occasion she and I had a fiery text exchange, so I approached one of the company partners to seek his advice. He told me that I was an “emotional” person and tended not to see situation as a black and white, when perhaps I should. It took me giving my notice and leaving that job for them to see that I had, in fact, been telling the truth and not ‘over-reacting’.
I realise that these stories actually portray the men in them in a negative light, which I admit when I first looked back I felt very angry with them. But more recently I am prone to look at the WHY they behaved in such ways.
On a base level it might be fair to say that we each, men and women, have become victims of the stereotypes of our sex, but this happens way earlier than I thought to imagine. ‘Man Up’ divides a plethora of research-led discussion into 6 developmental stages; Early Boyhood, Schooldays, Teens, Young Men, Family Men and Lonely Old Men. Within these chapters the author describes various situations within which we have let men (and women) down, starting with when they are in the womb. I admit that James and I are both guilty of placing expectations and assumptions on our unborn child. A few years ago I remember a discussion we had where James said he felt easier about having a son because he understood how boys ‘work’, something he would never say now. At the beginning of this pregnancy I admitted I would love to have a daughter because I thought there might be something special about having another girl to take after me. How very wrong of us! What right do we have to assume that this human we have created will want to follow in our footsteps, make certain choices or behave in any specific way?!
You might argue the ‘Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus’ approach and say that there are evident, categorical differences, and neurologically proven differences, between men and women. I’m not saying that we are created to be exactly the same. I’m saying that it’s unfair for us all to base our opinions, commentary and actions on a set of rules that are easier for us to just accept than to challenge. I am saying, along with Rebecca Asher, that
“men are still restricted by the straitjacket of the male stereotype. It is detrimental to their emotional well-being, their friendships and relationships with girls and women, and their ability to express their full humanity.”
This seems to be truer for them than it does for women, thanks to some of the impact made by the feminist movement.
I’m also suggesting that amidst the fight for our rights as women – a necessary and imperative battle, I might add – that we are in danger of bastardising men and also forgetting the ways in which we are all responsible for the way in which they behave. We all have a lot to answer for, on both sides, and I will be damned if I see the same inflicted upon our human.
If men are emotionally stunted and unable to express their emotions (a pretty narrow view if you ask me), maybe it’s because we haven’t given them permission to feel in multicolour, allowed them opportunities or shown them how.
If men adhere to patriarchal attitudes, ganging together in ‘lad’ groups that immerse their activity around binge drinking and objectifying and abusing women, maybe it’s partly because we made them form a separate line at school, told them girls were different and didn’t engage them in meaningful relationships. Because we popularise male chauvinism in TV programmes such as ‘Made In Chelsea’ and portray masculinity repeatedly across all media platforms as tough, angsty and vulgar.
If men are less understanding of what it is to be a mother and less involved in domestic life, maybe its because this country only offers 2 bloody weeks of shit pay paternity leave, and despite Nick Clegg’s ‘revolution’ (pah!) of shared parental leave, institutionalisation has made them afraid to request any more time from work because of how that will reflect on their competency and how it will effect their career progression. Leaving them with the weight of responsibility to ‘provide’ for this extra human in ways they cannot escape.
SIDE NOTE: It was suggested to me recently that when I return to work after maternity leave, because my priorities will have changed I will more likely to want James to take the brunt of generating income and my ambitions for career progression will inevitably go on hold until baby is older. We will just see about that…!!!
Maybe it’s also because men are not acknowledged as caring, willing participants within pregnancy and childbirth by healthcare providers, being barely looked at by midwives, having eyes rolled at them for asking too many questions and whilst their partners are treated like goddesses who can do all of this without them.
“Men just don’t understand” eh? Well how about we bloody help them to understand and give them credit where credit is due!
You sense my rage, right? This is partly due to the fact that during this pregnancy James has been virtually ignored by every midwife, sonographer and medical professional we have encountered, despite being warm, engaging and amiable. I don’t mean to criticise everyone who works for the NHS (I mean, I’m speaking out against stereotypes here), simply the individuals we have encountered. He’s been treading a very fine line at work for asking for time to attend all of my midwife and hospital appointments, as technically speaking they only pay for 2 hospital appointments, whereas he has endeavoured to attend every single one. Apparently he’s “not needed” at every single one. Well I’m sorry, but that’s for me, the mother of his child, to decide, not medical professionals or his place of work!
We are both dreading the time his 2 weeks paternity leave comes to an end and he leaves us for work and are trying desperately to think of ways to break this trend and make sure he’s not just a Daddy in the evenings and weekends. James suggested a night out for me in October once baby has arrived, to which I responded “I don’t know if I will be ready to leave them yet” and he responded in kind “well I wont be ready to leave them when I have to go back to work.” Quite right too.
Our fight for our children has already begun and part of that is reclaiming what we have both lost through our own lifetimes by being told who ought to be and how we ought to behave, according to our sex. James is (WAY) better at maths than I am, he is more logical, pragmatic, ordered, physically strong and assertive. Is that because he is male? Perhaps, because he was probably encouraged in all of those things as they are acceptable traits for a boy! I am more creative, intuitive, passionate, candid with my emotions and free-spirited. We are both highly sensitive, articulate and feeling people, who crave meaningful relationships with others. We both have a tendency to ‘shut down’ when we feel emotionally overwhelmed. We both like spreadsheets. We both like superhero movies. We both like cooking. We both love taking care of one another.
So, in a very long-winded and impassioned way, I hope I’ve made clear our standpoint on the gender agenda! Will we be completely gender neutral in our choices, from nursery to fashion? Definitely not, but simply because we both like pink AND blue and flowers and dinosaurs and superheroes!
So if you see us and want to chat about our little one, please don’t feel you have to adhere to any set of assumptions or rules, but lets have fun dreaming about everything they’re going to show us that they are and relishing in the fact that none of us have a clue.