The Frog Pyjamas

Two mums, one blog, two takes on parenting


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Why I want more for my daughters than girls’ clothes

“What a lovely little boy.”
“She’s a girl, but thank you.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.” [Peers closer.] “Oh, she’s got pink on her vest. Of course she’s a girl.”
“Er- no. SHE HASN’T GOT A PENIS, so of course she’s a girl. It’s got nothing to do with the colour of her vest.”

Alas, only three-quarters of that conversation actually happened. The last bit is just what I wish I’d said.

My blue-eyed, fat-cheeked nine-month old is regularly mistaken for a boy. That in itself wouldn’t trouble me: at that stage, left to themselves, they mostly just look like babies. However, I am bothered that people feel they have to apologise for the mistake, as though I’ll be hurt that she doesn’t look ‘feminine’ enough. And it is irritating – because of what it implies – that this happens every time she’s dressed in anything that isn’t stereotypically girly. (And never, of course, when she is.)

Because it’s not only when she’s in her cousins’ bluer hand-me-downs that this happens. (That, at least, would be unsurprising, if still a bit depressing.) Rather, it seems that there’s no such thing as gender neutral anymore: almost everything I naively thought of as unisex is assumed to be (and sold as) boy-wear. A baby is only allowed to be a girl if she’s wearing pink, lilac, pale purple, flowers, birds, or butterflies. Or sometimes kittens or rabbits. Oh, or a dress. Obviously. Everything else – most colours, almost all animals, and (of course!) anything transport related – is for boys.

And I use ‘allowed’ advisedly. If I correct people on my baby’s sex, I get accusation almost as regularly as apology. An aggrieved: “But she’s wearing blue/dungarees/a picture of a truck.” Like I’ve been false advertising.

All this is annoying enough, but it’s even more disturbing when combined with another trend on the baby circuit: baby girls sporting bandanas decorated with a bow or flower, in lieu of long hair. Just to make sure, presumably, that no-one could mistake them for a boy.

This depresses me. Of course I’m not saying don’t do it. It would be the height of hypocrisy to complain about being told how to dress my girls, then lecture other mothers on how to dress theirs. I’m not suggesting we should all be like the couple who not only eschewed all gendered clothing and toys, but refused to disclose the sex of their child until he was five years old. Far from it: I have lots of fun putting my girls in dresses and flowers – it’s just not all I dress them in – and I would love plaiting my three year-old’s hair if she would let me.

But I see these headbands so often that it seems like yet another thing we’re expected to do. I’m starting to feel as though boys are the default, and it’s taken for granted that parents of girls will mark them out as different. Often, even more annoyingly, in intensely impractical ways. There’s no way I could get my wriggling, grabbing, crawling little monster to keep anything like that round her head for more than ten seconds. The sunhat is a battle enough.

Of course, that’s my real bugbear. It’s not just about colour coding. It’s about, effectively, curbing what girls can do. And it only gets worse as they get older. Take the other week. Scene: a major supermarket. My quest: sandals for my three-year-old, for an outdoorsy holiday and charging around the garden without picking up any more splinters. Not too demanding, you would think. But you’d be wrong, reader, because my three-year-old is a girl.

There they were: the shelves of shoes next to one another, one heavily pink, the other mostly blue. I’d expected that. But it went further. The girls’ section featured what looked like fashion sandals. Perfect for attending a party (at least, if it was a sit-down-and-play-with-dolls kind of party); hopeless, as far as I could see, for muddy running, paddling, or climbing. The boys section was a different story. Two sturdy pairs of sandals, securely velcro-strapped, ready to withstand plenty of dirt, and altogether much like a mini version of those sold in outdoor shops. Clearly designed for just such fun as my intrepid Little A. had in mind.

Even the waterproof sandals, presumably both intended for beach-holiday paddling, were starkly gender-divided. In the boys’ corner, closed toed, robust. In the girls’, flimsy, strappy things that promised nothing so much as a sprained ankle at the first scramble over boulders or race up a pebbly shore.

I can’t express how cross this makes me. I was expecting the same outdoorsy shoes in both sections, only with the girls’ ones covered in flowers and pinkness. That would be annoying enough. (Message to my adventure-loving, climbing, jumping daughter: “OK, you can do these things so long as you look pretty at the same time.”) But not having a girls’ equivalent on display at all? That’s basically saying to my girl and all those like her that she shouldn’t be doing those things, full stop. And saying that to her at three years old. What will it be like – what will she expect, of the world and of herself – by the time she’s ten?

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. What she’ll expect, after all, is exactly the kind of society she’s growing up in: one so packed with double standards that women can still be required to wear high heels to the office. But of course that only makes me more furious.

No doubt there’s more I should be doing about this. Petitioning the excellent Let Toys Be Toys campaign group to turn their attention to clothes. Barraging the offending stores with indignant emails. I’ll try both. In the meantime, I did what I often do anyway, and bought from the boys’ section. My daughter now has a pair of sturdy, multi-terrain sandals in her favourite colour: blue. She loves them.

 

 


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“A girl next?”

I don’t often feel inclined to slap people, particularly pregnant women, but the other day I came across a worthy candidate. I found myself sitting next to her at a party, watching a small pack of children – among them my two sons and her own boy – charge about in high spirits. I knew her only a little, so followed the usual talking-to-a-pregnant-person etiquette: congratulations: when was she due; how was her pregnancy etc. Then I made my mistake. Did she know whether she was having a boy or a girl? “Oh yes, it is a girl this time,” she said, smugly. “I am so lucky to be having one of each – that is what everyone wants.”
“Oh?” I replied, “Is it? Actually I am completely happy with two boys.” And I got up and walked away before the twitch in my hand became uncontrollable.

Perhaps, to be charitable, she had forgotten that I have two sons (unlikely, given that I had introduced them to her moments earlier). Most likely she just didn’t think. She could have said: “I am so lucky to be having one of each because it is what I have always wanted”, which would have been fine. Instead, in one loaded sentence she inferred that it is inferior to have two sons. She was also ignorantly implying that I, as the second of two daughters, was a disappointment to my parents.

It was the most tactless comment of its kind I have ever experienced, despite the number of people who felt it appropriate, during my second pregnancy, to tell me that I must be “hoping for a girl this time” (Must I? I guess I missed the antenatal class covering that one) and later, when the Spare was born, to speculate that O. and I would now want a third, to “try for a girl.” I was deeply offended by the implication that I should, or even could, be dissatisfied with my second gorgeous, healthy son.

Until I had the Heir and the Spare it had never even occurred to me that, in modern liberal society, there might be considered an “ideal” gender division among your children. If I thought about it at all it was to count myself lucky that I don’t live in an age or culture where my entire pregnancy would be dominated by the pressure to produce a son. However, conversations with other parents have shown me that my experiences are depressingly common. In fact, I got off lightly compared to some. The near-universal theme is that other people (friends, family, a random stranger encountered in the supermarket) assume parents must want one baby of each gender. One mum even had someone buy her a book on “choosing the sex of your baby” when she was planning a second child, because “of course you want to have one of each.”

Mothers of a boy and a girl have been treated to such delightful comments as “you can relax now because you have one of each” and “now that you have a boy and a girl your family is complete” (because parents of same-sex siblings have incomplete families, right?) I know of more than one mum who had people suggest her third pregnancy must be a mistake as she already had one of each.

Turns out there is a further complication: the absolute best way of doing it, apparently, is to have a son followed by a daughter. A good friend has been told that she has “done it right” not only by having one of each but by having her son first. Another friend was assured how “clever” she was to have had a boy and then a girl.

Often the pressure for gender preference comes from the older generation, for whom tact isn’t always a concern. One grandfather, himself father of two girls, said to his pregnant daughter: “if it’s not a girl I’m not interested, I won’t know what to do”, while conversely another dismissed his third in a line of granddaughters as “another bloody girl”. Again, there is often a much-voiced desire to have a “pigeon pair” of grandchildren, even if the parents themselves have no preference. This weight of expectation can be daunting, worrying and downright harmful – I spoke to one mother who believes that pressure from her partner’s parents contributed to her severe postnatal depression as she felt she had “let them down” by having another daughter.

I would have imagined that, for those who have struggled to conceive or carry a baby to term, gender preference seems an unimaginable luxury. But it turns out that it isn’t always negated, particularly among concerned others. One friend, pregnant through IVF after years of disappointment, had no personal preference but her parents-in-law, despite knowing how hard-got this baby was, still insisted on telling her how much they wanted a grandson (which they didn’t get).

There is a prevailing feeling in my social circles that, if you have to have two the same, then having multiple daughters is somehow preferable (never, however, from people who have exclusively sons of their own). Some comments are downright offensive. I know mums whose second or third sons were greeted by “poor you”, “never mind” and “what a shame”. Another reported an acquaintance saying to her “I’m so glad I’ve only got girls, I’d hate to have boys”. Sons, it would seem, are perceived to be harder work. Well guess what? Parenting is hard work, irrespective of whether you have sons or daughters. Boys and girls? Swings and roundabouts.

Probably because we had no real preferences either way, O. and I never found out our baby’s gender during either of my pregnancies. Many people do, however, and say that if you have a strong preference it is helpful to come to terms with the gender of your child as early as possible. One mum confessed that, upon finding out her unborn child was third boy, she subjected her family to “a weekend of hell with me swearing and cussing that I was going to be surrounded by testosterone and penises…” before becoming reconciled and falling instantly in love with him. Indeed, almost everyone I know who was initially disappointed by the results of a prenatal scan claims to have been completely accepting by the time the child was born.

Unsurprisingly, our own childhoods influence our feelings on this topic – the desire to repeat positive experiences and avoid negative ones. I am so close to my sister that I was with her during her labour, which has definitely made me look favourably on same-sex sibling bonds. (I did secretly used to want an older brother – firstly so he could be like Julian from The Famous Five and later so I could date his friends – but I would never have swapped my sister for him.) Equally, many people who have bad relationships with their brother or sister prefer a different gender balance than the one they endured themselves, in case of history repeating itself. Additionally, what you want before you have children may change according to what you have first: a second-time parent is influenced by what sibling they want for their firstborn.

I believe that a great deal of gender preference comes down to stereotypes. Over and over I hear women say they want girls for the enduring quality of the mother/daughter bond. But there is no reason that a mother and son cannot be equally good friends. I have a strong relationship with my mother, but I don’t in any way feel bereft because I won’t have an identical one with a daughter of my own. Having a girl doesn’t guarantee a close friendship, any more than having a boy means you won’t be looked after in old age. The Spare’s favourite colour is pink and, age three, he enjoys trying to walk in my high heels. I find this amusing and I certainly don’t tell me he can’t because he is a boy, but I am not secretly hoping it means he will be gay (although if he is that is fine) in order to be my “substitute daughter”.

The pregnant woman at the party angered me with her tactlessness, but ultimately it didn’t really matter because I am absolutely thrilled with my boys. I never felt an overwhelming desire or any pressure from my nearest and dearest to have a daughter in preference to, or as well as, a second son and I certainly don’t feel my family to be “incomplete”. No two children are alike, be they boys or girls, so perhaps it would be helpful to focus on a baby as an individual rather than a gender. Ultimately, whatever the parents’ thoughts may be, it is never appropriate for others to voice anything other than enthusiasm for a baby of either gender.


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How having a daughter has made me more of a feminist

I’ll start by being clear: I was never not a feminist. But among the things that get me heated – human rights violations, climate change, the barbaric way we treat other animals – the wrongs faced by affluent women in affluent societies were not, until recently, near the top of the list. Yes, they bothered me, but there is only so much energy most of us can devote to being outraged.

Since my daughter was born, however, I’ve found a whole new fount of feminist indignation. I am reminded every time I open a paper or follow a link on Facebook that her life will be harder than it might have been simply because she is a girl. And I find that very hard to bear. What I accepted for myself, if not with resignation, at least with fairly low-grade grumbling – “yes, it’s crap, but it’s nothing compared to Saudi Arabia” – makes me furious, distraught, for her.

It breaks my heart that my bumptious little dot will grow up in a world in which teenage girls accept sexual harassment as normal. That she faces a future in which derogatory language and casually discriminatory behaviour are so pervasive as to have rightly been coined “everyday sexism”. Hell, one in which even female-named hurricanes are apparently granted less respect than male ones. (You don’t believe me? It’s in the Washington Post.)

Unless things change, my daughter will be judged by her looks, whatever she does and whatever she grows up to look like. She will be taught by image after photo-shopped image to regard thinness as a cardinal virtue, and by a production line of twerking Lolitas that sexualisation is the route to success. If she is like her mother – or a scarily large number of her mother’s friends – she will devote years of her youth not to reveling in being young, but to unprofitable and unfavourable comparisons of her own body with those flaunted on billboards and magazine covers; not to enjoying exercise for its own sake, but to one gym membership after another, seeking a shortcut to an unreachable perfection.

No matter how intelligent, how talented, she is, she will find it harder to get up almost any career ladder than she if she had been born a boy. Any visual media career would, almost certainly, have a shelf-life as long as she could present a pretty face and adolescent figure to the world. (Yes, there are exceptions, but they are few and far between.) If she shares the experiences of some even in my own profession – academia – she will regularly be ignored or talked over, with all the insecurity about her own ability that that breeds. If she takes time out to have a family of her own, she will risk (at best) a setback to her own career.

And whatever she achieves in other areas, novel after novel, film after film, magazine after magazine will tell my girl that her life is incomplete until she has been “saved” by that holiest of holy grails: a partner. (Most of them, for that matter, will imply that that partner has to be a man.) If she is like too many of the women of my generation – smart, successful women – she will spend more of her teens and twenties obsessing about her love life than she does relishing her opportunities, her friendships, and the start of her career. All this makes me miserable. And angry.

At the moment, my small daughter is wonderfully oblivious. She’s one of the most boisterous of her little cohort, fighting her male playmates for the plastic slide or baby walker, bashing her father on the head as he carries her down the street, escaping at the world’s fastest toddle from any activity which requires sitting quietly still. But that happy ignorance cannot last.

Something, sometime will dispel it. A chance word from an unthinking adult will alert her to the fact that, like it or lump it, there are different rules for her. I don’t know exactly when, but in a world in which even plastic bricks are gendered, it can’t be too many years away. It might even come from me, if I don’t watch myself, since I’ve found myself occasionally joking that some action or gesture “isn’t very ladylike”. It doesn’t matter now, but it soon will, and I could kick myself. (Her father does better, if only by virtue of his proud approbation for her loudest farts.)

So here, for what it’s worth, is my promise to my little girl. Of course I’m not going to cut her off from all the enjoyable and positive things currently considered “girly”: from playing with dolls to the life-changing wonderfulness of female friendships. But I will not let them define her. I will try, day after day, to contradict what the media, and too much of popular culture, is telling her about how she ought to live and what she ought to be. (And, yes, I would buy dolls for a son, if he wanted them.)

I will buy her toy railways, and proper, build-something-interesting blocks. (None of that pink, make-your-own-beauty-parlour abomination, although she’s welcome to enjoy the new female scientists range.) I will show her videos like this brilliant ad and buy her books where the heroine subverts gender stereotype (starting with this wonderful tale of a princess who rescues her prince only to ditch him when he proves decidedly unreconstructed).

When she gets older, I will take her career aspirations seriously. I will never, by word or expression, give her reason to believe that some paths are off limits because she’s a girl, and I will pick an immediate fight with anyone who tries to do so. (Engineer like her grandfather? Brilliant. Playing rugby for Scotland? Great, only let’s hope she hasn’t inherited my lack of coordination.)

I will find female role models to counter the barrage of Barbie-figured, famous-for-their-looks celebrities. Politicians, scientists, sports stars, but also the many talented and successful women that I am lucky enough to have as friends, family, and colleagues. I will make sure she always knows that my career is as important as her dad’s and that family life – that elusive “work-life balance” – is as important for him as it is for me. (It helps that he took some of the parental leave, and would do it again if we have another baby. Also that he is really quite good at hanging out the washing, and better in the kitchen than I am.)

If I can, I will teach her to eat and to live healthily, but without making a fuss about it. And by cultivating (or at least faking) a healthy indifference to whether I can squeeze into a particular size of jeans myself, I will try to counter the body-image neurosis that she will be taught to accept as her feminine inheritance.

I know my limitations, though, and I know them even though I make all these plans with the full support of her father. We can do a lot, as parents of girls. We can teach them to question the received truths that society throws at them from the moment they are born. We can do this in what we do as well as what we say. But we can’t do it all.

That doesn’t mean it can’t be done. Not all of it: we can’t change biology, as our guest blogger has pointed out. Our daughters, if they want to have sons or daughters of their own, will face a time pressure their male counterparts, by and large, don’t. But there is a lot they could be spared, given some effort at the societal level.

And that’s the really depressing thing: none of this is new. Much of it could have been written by my mum, more than 35 years ago. It’s because things haven’t changed – or haven’t changed enough – that I’m feeling so outraged now. We need collective action: from consumer pressure to end the sexist categorisation of toys (it worked with Hamley’s) to the kind of wholesale institutional change needed to ensure that sexual harassment actually gets reported, because it will be taken seriously.

And, parents of boys, we need your help. We need you to teach your sons to regard their sisters and female friends as every bit as brave, as worth listening to, as likely to be interested in building a Lego masterpiece or jumping in the mud, as they are. We can create girls who expect and demand more, for themselves and for each other, but unless they are to face numerous personal sacrifices to get it, we need the men who will surround them – the brothers, husbands, boyfriends, friends with whom they will inherit our society – to be prepared to give it.


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Feminism and fertility: The IVF perspective

Kirstie Allsopp (finder of houses and a dab hand with a glitter pen and a staple gun) is in the Twittersphere firing line for the advice she would give a daughter, were she to have one: don’t go to university; start work straight after school; stay at home and save up for a deposit [on a house]; find yourself a nice boyfriend and have a baby by the time you’re 27.

Allsopp is known for her blunt and outspoken views, but this is a difficult message in an era of female equality. Among other outraged reactions, a headteacher from Berkshire has deemed her remarks ‘rather patronising‘ to teenagers. But Allsopp qualifies her opinion: “Women are being let down by the system… At the moment, women have 15 years to go to university, get their career on track, try and buy a home and have a baby. That is a hell of a lot to ask someone.”

I can’t speak for Kirstie, or Twitter, or the headteacher from Berkshire. I can however speak as a woman who has benefitted from living in this era of female emancipation. I worked hard at school; I got a good degree from a top university; I have nearly 14 years of successful work experience behind me and, before leaving to go freelance a couple of years ago, I achieved a senior position in my field of choice. Like Kirstie, I am a ‘passionate feminist’ – I think that all people who want men and women to be equal are feminists. I am also a woman who has just survived nearly four years of fertility treatment.

I was lucky enough to meet my partner at university and, with a few blips (we were young!) we have been together ever since, finally tying the knot nearly six years ago. At that point, at just over 30, we both knew we wanted a family but wanted to ‘be married’ for a few years first and in all honestly were having too much fun to want to trade it in for sleepless nights and a hanger on.

After a few years, when we felt we were ready, we started trying for a baby. We felt excited, scared and a bit naughty. I think we thought we were pregnant the first time we tried. In the following first few months, I would say things like “let’s not try this month as I want to be able to drink at my brother’s 40th…” If only I had known. By that time, at nearly 33, we were already a bit late to the party – a good proportion of our friends were already one down and thinking about a second (or third) but it wasn’t until after six or seven months of trying that we sensed something might be wrong.

The three years that followed were the hardest of my life. Our lack of ‘bump’ became all consuming. We stopped drinking alcohol, ate organic, monitored ourselves to within an inch of our lives but still – nothing. We tried to remain positive but suddenly bumps and babies were everywhere. When we moved to ‘assisted fertility’ we were very open with our friends and family which proved to be both a blessing and a curse. Whilst we were grateful for our friends’ concern, the constant “how is it going?” was tough to deal with (“it’s not going very well guys”).

It is only now, four years on, that I realise quite how horrific (and I don’t use that word lightly) the last few years have been. IVF is intense. I put my body through constant physical abuse – the multiple daily injections; the journeys in and out of enforced menopause; the yo-yo emotions; the weight gain and general bat shit craziness. Our strong marriage was tested and tested again, our finances took a battering but worst of all was the indescribable feeling of anguish and loss of hope when yet again a cycle had not worked or a precious embryo that you had loved from the moment it was a speck on a screen in a petri-dish had simply vanished or stopped growing inside me.

I am one of the lucky ones. I delivered a healthy baby girl at Christmas but I have friends who for emotional, physical or just plain financial reasons have had to stop trying and look for a different dream. My friends and I are not alone – the NHS cites that around one in seven couples has trouble conceiving (around 3.5 million people).

I don’t know whether our amazing daughter will be the only child I carry. The likelihood of us being able to extend our family naturally, given our history, is small. We have decided not to pursue IVF again, both for the sake of our marriage and our daughter. I don’t want to be a (single) mess of a mother in the first few years of my daughter’s life for an outcome which is uncertain.

So, where am I going with this? I am overjoyed to have a daughter. There’s still a fair way to go before true equality is reached, but it’s a great time to be a woman. I want my little girl to understand that she can be anything she wants to be, have anything she wants to have and be judged on her talents and intelligence and not on her weight and her looks. But… I will be arming her with knowledge – that, in the absence of major scientific breakthroughs, nature still plays a large part in female fertility. It isn’t fair and it is still one thing that men don’t really have to think about (although many infertility problems are experienced by men too) but for women it does get harder as you get older, and there is a time limit.

Not everyone will have problems and I know many women who have conceived naturally into their 40s. For that I am truly thankful – I would not wish the pain and hopelessness of infertility on anyone. But, just as we don’t know what lies ahead for us in old age, we don’t know what our own unique fertility window is. That being the case, I wish that women could have better access to basic fertility screening in the same way that we are offered screening for different cancers and other illnesses. I wish for earlier intervention (if there is a suspected problem) and help that is not governed by your postcode. Our GP told us we needed to prove that we had had sex every other day for three years before we could be classed as ‘infertile’ and therefore receive basic testing. I want to see greater support and advice for women where there might be a problem or where age might be a factor but where the woman is not ready, hasn’t found the right person or is not financially able to consider a child. All this would allow women to take control of their family-planning decisions based on knowledge.

Some women may not want to be mothers, but many will and any early indicators that it may be a rocky road may help inform the decisions that we make. Do I regret my degree and my climb up the greasy corporate pole? Not a bit, but I would have definitely have made different decisions were I to have known what was ahead of us. For me, having a family would have been more important than that pay rise or that deadline.

So, whilst I may not agree with Kirstie’s generic advice for girls, I believe that she raises an important debate – our girls should be aware that there may be choices to be made for some if they want to have what they want, what they really, really want.

 Guest blogger: Nicky

Currently on maternity leave with her first baby having temporarily escaped the world of Broadcast Media. Loves her friends, good food, cuddling her cat and annoying her husband when not pureeing everything in sight.