Wednesday, March 05, 2008

On raising a girl

Nora puts five headbands in her hair and when she looks at herself in the mirror, I want to say she is primping. But then I realize that’s a word I would never use to describe similar behavior from one of her brothers.

Sometimes Nora is moody and whiney for no good reason and I resort to placating her with fruit snacks or graham crackers. I find myself thinking—against my will—that she is bound for an eating disorder. Would I think this if she were a boy?

Nora looks great in purple. Why? Is it because we know she’s a girl and purple is the new pink?

When she refuses to wear a certain shirt and brings me a different one (more flashy, more flowery) and then spends 20 minutes trying on shoes in her closet, I call her a fashionista behind her back.

Nora turns to the old man behind us in line and bats her eyes (a gesture I would call blinking rapidly if it came from Gabie). The old man calls her a little sweetie. Then he says, “Watch out. She’s going to be a real flirt.” I find this offensive but I smile at him anyway. I’m a people pleaser. Will Nora be a people pleaser too? Do I wonder this because I see it as an intrinsically feminine trait—part of the set of nurturing genes I believe I have passed on from mother to daughter?

When I found out I was having a girl after three boys, people told me repeatedly that she would be different. They said, “Oh girls are so much more ______" (insert clichéd gender-specific adjective here). They said it was easier to raise a girl because girls are more docile and quiet. They said it was harder to raise a girl because girls are prone to emotional extremes. They offered what I saw as socially conditioned advice about the bringing up of girls and I felt superior with the knowledge that my daughter would be treated just like her brothers.

And then I discovered how fun it is to shop on the other side of the thrift store—the side where gingham and paisley and lace flow delicately across pastel-colored jumpers and pleated blouses. I discovered how liberating it is to watch my child’s curls grow longer and curlier around the nape of her neck and not think (for a change) that I have to trim them soon or risk someone mistaking her for a girl. I was delighted when both grandmothers bought Nora dolls for Christmas and she immediately took to rocking and feeding and changing the dolls like a natural mother would. I love having a little girl. The feminist in me is feeling somewhat conflicted, but I still love it.

I’m avoiding the whole Princess scene for now. And consider me hostile if anyone sends a Barbie our way. But I’m enjoying the shades of pink that have bloomed in our home. And I’m excited to see how different it might be to raise a girl.

That said, I have to show the photo I took 15 seconds after the above shot. Having fed her baby bunny, Nora dumped her rudely on the floor, picked up her brother’s World War II plane and took it on a bombing run around the living room. Maybe camouflage is the new purple.


katesaid said...

I have two kids - my daughter is almost 8 and my son is 3. And the gender-stereotyping always made my ears bleed a little... but we blandly smiled and nodded and did our best to let the kids be who they are.

My daughter is a total tomboy, who doesn't own a Barbie and prefers dragons to dress-up. My son plays with trucks and has a sweet, mellow, gentle personality.

There's a part of me that is just absolutely thrilled that they're not following typical gender lines, but the bigger part of me refuses to care. I'm just happy they're them.

SuburbanCorrespondent said...

I really think feminists need to get past the whole "all gender differences are nurture" thing. Yes, there will be exceptions; but girls generally do act differently than boys in a lot of little ways. My boys never once had a desire to twirl in a twirly dress - my girls do. I dressed my first daughter entirely in hand-me-downs from her brother for her first 2 years. When I branched out a little into some pinks and purples that I had picked up from a thrift store, the look of relief on her face was unmistakable. She had known something was missing, and here it was! My oldest (boy) played Barbies with his sister, but it always involved somehow knocking their heads off. And his sister would sit there, quietly, thinking that there must be something else to do with those dolls - I could tell. My oldest had one of those wooden toolbox sets, which he enjoyed using in a predictable way. My daughter got hold of it one day, immediately slipped all the nuts on her fingers and said to me, "Look! Rings!" Let me note here that I wear neither jewelry nor dresses.

I think it time that we celebrate and enjoy our gender differences, rather than try to ignore them. They do not need to be limiting. A girly girl can still do math and become an engineer. A strong, masculine boy can still be gentle and caring. Can you tell that this is a pet peeve with me?

Oh, and I have yet to see any of my boys, in a fit of pique, put their hands on their hips. Girls, however, do it all the time.

Pale Bear said...

I was probably one of those who said a girl was different. My girl is a drama queen. She will cry uncontrollably one moment and be laughing hysterically the next. When she was a toddler, she'd feed her dolls and tuck them in and kiss them good night. And her brother would bomb the babies. In reality they both play with each others' toys but only until one of them catches the other doing it. Emily's warcry is "Benji! How dare you touch my [whatever toy he dares to touch]!"

But while they like to wrestle with each other and dig in the dirt together, when left to play alone he'd rather tear stuff up and she'd rather tuck her Littlest Pet Shop™ animals into bed. That's just how they are.

TARA said...

Delightful post!

Anonymous said...

We have 5 boys and 2 girls, and I agree with suburbancorresponent that the boys are .... boys! And the girls are .... girls! There are so many things they do together (play house, store, school, church, sled, skate, play on the swingset), but even as they play you can see they 'boy' and the 'girl' in them. And it is in their nature.

Our younger girl was not yet 2 when if she was outside and didn't have a dolly with her, would use a chunk of wood to care for. And she cared for it with as much tenderness as any Mommy with her infant. My boys are ... all boy! But does this mean they can't care tenderly for a teddy bear or doll? No, it doesn't. But it's true that they are also the ones who are beheading the barbies and using the doll strollers as racecars.

Anyway - let's just let each child be individual and admire and appreciate their uniqueness and special qualities. I do understand your thoughts tho', 'Mental tessarae' - I think you're saying just that. Let my girl be ...just an individual. Just be herself without analyzing everything she does as 'girls don't act like that!' or '... that's because she's a girl!'

Sarah said...

I really enjoyed this post! I especially have noticed the placating with food thoughts in my own little head.

I also have a daughter after a couple sons and its such a joy to me to see her utter femininity as she wrestles with her brothers, performs an expert karate move, and weilds a sword while dressed in her tutu.

What a wonderful recipe for a strong woman. A couple of brothers here are really tempering the pink princess beast within her. LOL

The Lazy Organizer said...

I know we raise our girls differently from our boy. It doesn't help that the boy is the oldest either.

I had my daughter in dance for a year but took her out because she was becoming too "prissy" and it scared me! Then six months later I thought I should put her back in because she was turning into a tom boy. It's a fine line we women walk.

The biggest problem we encounter is grandparents who believe in girl toys and boy toys. Who wants to play with a stupid doll when your brother got a remote control airplane?

Magpie said...

I have only one child - a girl. I struggle with the princess stuff, I wonder that she's a clothes horse, I marvel at the joy in the mud. Mostly, I want her to be as individual as she's turning out, thus far.

planetnomad said...

I have boy/girl twins and had lost all my illusions of the entire "gender differences are just nurture" by the time they were 8 months old. However, they don't fit the old stereotypes either. My son is sweet and nurturing, and loves his stuffed animals to distraction. My daughter is quick and clever and loves math. They are definitely male and female, but they are above all individuals, themselves.

My Ice Cream Diary said...

Ha ha ha, this was perfectly written. I've had the same self inflicted feminist battles in my head. Really it all comes down to letting the child be themselves. I could write a big fat book on how different boys are from girls, and an even fatter one on their similarities, and you know what? The books would be useless because kids aren't a collective group, they are all so very individual that there is no rhyme or reason.

That said, I just love watching them and the funny things they do.

stacie said...

I hear you on this one! But after three boys, don't you deserve to indulge in a little frou frou? (As long as you stand firm on the no-barbies rule, of course.)I agree with Lazy, it is a fine line. Much too fine if you ask me.

Annette Lyon said...

Boys and girls really are different, but I love watching how my kids sometimes defy a few of the norms as well. As a toddler, daughter #2 was a delightful mix of prissy girl and tom boy. She'd get all dressed up in fancy dresses and necklaces and then sword fight her brother. For Halloween every year, she'd vascillate between two very different costumes, one really girly, one really boyish, like being a princes . . . or Spider-man. I loved that she had both sides to her personality.

But you can't get past the parts of kids that are just boy and girl that come with them. I had one very feminist professor in college who bemoaned the fact that her daughter wanted a Barbie. "How can she want a Barbie with ME as her mother?" Cause she's a girl, that's why!

Kimberly said...

Poignant piece, Julie. I've had many of the same thoughts myself. I love that Emma enjoys mucking in the mud as much as dressing up in frilly dresses. She plays cars and dolls. Rides bikes and plays ballerina.

I like that we can allow her to choose her own interests. It's very freeing.