Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Of Tea Cups and Hockey Sticks

Before I discovered blogging, I discovered these books: Andie Buchanan’s anthologies on raising boys and girls. It’s a Boy was an instant favourite: in it I found funny, insightful analyses of the strange adventure of rearing a boy. Like me, many of the contributors had initially felt stunned by the ultrasound photos that revealed the boy equipment – How did that get in me? they wondered. What do I do with a boy? For me, as for many of the essayists, having a boy has been a journey into an unknown land – I grew up with a sister, so boys were creatures I admired from afar, measuring them against the ideal represented by Fred Savage, with his cute round face and scrunchy eyes. The Bub has changed all that: the twelve-year-old hoodlums whose food-court antics scared me while I was pregnant no longer seem quite so alien now – in boys I no longer see stereotypical aggression and competitiveness, but instead a kind of stunning vulnerability. Since having the Bub, I’ve become protective of small boys, of their innocent emotions and sweetly open hearts.

When the Pie was born, I was eager to purchase the companion volume to that anthology. It’s a Girl came out in time for Mother’s Day, and all I have to say about that is that when your wife asks for a motherhood-related item for Mother’s Day, do not wait until the day before to make the purchase. And if the bookstore is sold out, do not place an online order that is due to be delivered in six weeks. I’m just saying. When I finally got my hands on my belated gift, I anticipated the same mix of introspection and self-discovery that I had found in the first volume. Instead, what I found was essay after essay on the writers’ discomfort with the tyranny of such Agents of Oppression as dresses, dolls, and the colour pink. I was disappointed – and irritated.

I have always been a girly girl – more Anne Shirley than Jo March. Anne was an empowering role model for me because she was smart, ambitious, competitive – and she longed desperately for puffed sleeves. I longed desperately for puffed sleeves throughout most of my childhood and adolescence (hence my lack of high-school coolness) – a banner day for me was the acquisition of a brown floral dress with gold buttons and long puffed sleeves, to be worn with a Laura Ashley lace collar. I wore it in my high-school production of Nicholas Nickleby, playing the role of Madeleine, Nicholas’s heart’s desire, a part I secured due to my ability to sob convincingly on cue.

Such lacy window-dressing aside, though, I kept pace with Anne in the ambition and competitiveness categories: I sent the boys packing in my math and chemistry classes, and I considered my choice of career to be a simple matter of determining which avenue I would tread on my path to barrier-breaking fame and fortune.

As a grown-up, I’ve toned down my taste for florals and lace. If I were to watch the retro TV channel I’d be more likely to pick an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation than Road to Avonlea. At the same time, I’ve abandoned some of the feminist ideals that my teenage self clung to so tenaciously: my decisions are guided not simply by my individual ambitions but rather by what is best for my family. I’m firmly on the mommy-track, for better or for worse, and the Linda Hirshmans of the world are unlikely to consider my interest in Battlestar Galactica a mitigating factor in this betrayal of the feminist cause.

I am still a feminist, of course – but in my life there has been no straightforward, predictable inverse relationship between femininity and feminism. All of which is to say that a strict avoidance of the colour pink does not guarantee that one will escape one’s gender role; a predilection for tea parties does not necessarily place an "Oppress Me" sticker on one’s back.

This point is made far more eloquently in Mad’s recent, gorgeous post on the truly mad tea party her daughter has been hosting lately. One look at her daughter’s face should convince you that tea parties are, in fact, the ultimate expression of the will to power. The capacity of little girls to play with dolls, tea sets, and giant plastic kitchens never fails to startle me; it is awe-inspiring. I have a son who is just starting to develop the capacity for pretend play (a capacity nurtured, to a great extent, by his sister who is a natural virtuoso in the art). His cars and trucks offer only a limited scope for this type of play: he can manoeuvre them up and down a ramp, but they offer nothing like the complex variations possible with a few dolls and some cups and saucers. Pour, serve, drink, share – the permutations are endless and absorbing. There is scope for the imagination here, as Anne would say, and when Bub pulls out a plastic jug and serves up a cup of juice to his sister, I watch with amazed and grateful eyes.

The Pie does her share of driving choo choo trains and riding hobby horses – she kicks a ball with panache, and her favourite book is ABC of Canada because "H" stands for hockey. But her affinity for these boyish toys is far less valuable to me than the adeptness both of my children are developing for the truly challenging world of girl toys. At some point in the future, I might celebrate my daughter’s interest in hockey or her pursuit of a career in engineering. But for now, it is Bub’s initiation into the world of dolls and tea-cups that delights and encourages me, and fills me with hope.


Alpha Dogma said...

You and I are opposites in some respects. I went through high school in sweat pants, army boots, and bulky, over-sized sweaters. I watched Star Trek and read biographies of war heroes. I had a crew cut.

Then in university I started to soften. More Austen. More pastels. More jewellery.

I think we took different paths but wound up in the same place: feminists mothering children with our eyes open to the reality that gender differences should not be overlooked, disrepected or devalued.

NoodleMonkey said...

I was such a tomboy. I was the last of 8 children, and the only girl. That, coupled with the fact that my mom died young, and it's really no surprise. When I got pregnant (twice!) with girls, I really worried that I wouldn't be able to mother them well; I'm not sure it had occurred to me that my children wouldn't be boys.
With them, I'm struggling with the flip side of the tea-party/ princess dress pretend-play-extravaganza. My oldest doesn't want to get her hair cut because apparently, "Princesses only have long hair!" We have elaborate weddings every day and invitees must be "fancy enough," (meaning: wearing a dress and adorned with jewels). They talk a lot (too much) about who they'll marry and not enough about being an astronaut or a carpenter or a nuclear physicist. We need more trucks and trains and Buzz Lightyear toys around here and a lot fewer princess books and dresses and magic wands. I'd just like some balance--what we all want, I guess.

Julie Pippert said...

Another Anne Shirley here who totally agrees with this.

My girls might have a doll in one hand and a truck in the other. Pretend play is their staple, and they are just as interested in science as they are in ballerinas and princesses.

I say hallelujah to well-roundedness or in following our own interests.

ewe are here said...

I love this post.

I was a tomboy. Too much energy, although I loved to read, and very into playing sports. Now, though, I finally wear a bit of pink, something I almost never did growing up.. ;-)

I really enjoyed Mad Hatter's tea party post as well. Because my boy knows how to partake in a tea party now, it seems; he's learned it from the girls in his nursery program! And it is so.darn.cute!

Her Bad Mother said...

WonderBaby loves cars, and purses, and boats, and bracelets. She's rough and tumble and dainty, all at once. Fascinating to watch, delightful to watch, this happy confusion of sugar and spice and puppy dog tails.

Mad Hatter said...

Great post, B&P. My posted started percolating a couple of weeks ago when I read here that the Pie will only wear pants now and eschews dresses. I remember thinking "oh my" at the time. I wondered if I was the only one with a no-holds-barred girlie on my hands. I keep waiting for a sign of the well rounded trucks and astronouts play alongside the tea party play. I'm sure it will come some day and, as I've wrote over at my place, I've decided not to sweat it too much.

Thanks so much for engaging with me by writing this post. It means a lot.

Suz said...

I'm so glad that I can post here! For a while, I was getting this sign-in form that asked me to authenticate through Google.

This whole post (and mad hatter's as well) made me wonder how my two little boys will play and hope that not having a sister doesn't alienate them completely from the fascinating social world of girl-play.

nomotherearth said...

I think that I was a girlie girl, although not to an extreme. I remember distinctly making purses and their contents out of paper, colouring them and then "using" the contents. I also made "witches brews" out of dirt and debris in the backyard.

My Boy loves his trucks and cars, but also like to make his Little People eat food and fall down the trapdoor in the castle. The other day, he took a spoon out of the drawer and went to work saying "I digging snow!". That kind of pretend play is so fun and refreshing for me. I do sometimes get tired of making "vroom" and "beep" noises, you know?

bloggedissue said...

I am not a girlie girl and I had three brothers, so was quite relieved when our son was born (we didn't find out during the pregnancy).

However we have just had a daughter, and so far all I've discovered is that my house is being swamped in pink.

bubandpie said...

Mad - Pie's dress boycott has, so far, lasted only that one day, but Bub has asked several times now for a dress or skirt - and this from a boy who has never displayed the slightest interest in his clothing. (I haven't bought him one yet, though!)

Robbin said...

When asked, when I was five years old, what I wanted to be when I grew up, I answered immediately "a scientist".

Now I am ... a scientist.

Yep. I am one-dimensional.

I wanted a girl, right up until the moment I knew I was pregnant, and from that moment, I knew Harry was a boy. I swear. And really, that suits me fine. I would be a terrible girl-mom. I can't say I was a tomboy growing up, but I was decidedly "unfeminine". I think I "get" little boys more than little girls. Divine providence.

Red Rollerskate said...

I really related to the part about being pregnant with a boy while seeing the scary male teens at the mall, and wondering what I was going to do with a boy. I wrote a lot about this when I found out I was preggers with my first boy. And, like you, i am so proud and touched to see how many sweet and soft sides my two boys have.

Beck said...

My oldest daughter completely blew all of my gender theories out of the water by being the most stereotypically female person on the planet. I dutifully bought her legos and trucks, which she cheerfully ignored - except for the time she tucked her truck "baby" into her toy bed. Having a balanced childhood, in my mind, doesn't mean forcing any more male pursuits upon my unwilling daughter, but helping her be fully who she is - and making sure that in her utter girly-girlness, she doesn't miss out on sports and outdoor fun.
(Having written that - she rocks at math and science.)
And me? I was Anne.

penelopeto said...

amen, sistah.
i'm a hybrid - laura ingalls. covets nellie's pretty dolls and holds her own with the rough and tumble boys.

bee, though this may be premature to state, seems to be on the same track; pretend play, babies and tea parties a-plenty, complete with little purse slung over her arm, takes up a lot of her play time, but give her a tower of blocks to build and, more importantly, destroy, or engage her in a hearty game of 'spoonball' (think hockey with a sponge ball and ladel), and the nature v. nurture line gets real blurry. happily.

Mamalooper said...

When I think of Monkeygirl and nature vs. nurture, what I want for her is a big "and". The space to play with pink frou frou AND trucks. The opportunity to do the tea party AND to dig around in the dirt, as she may wish.

For me, being a feminist mommy is to create some wiggle room for my daughter to express her nature without being crushed by our culture's nurture that can limit the range of what a girl or boy can be.

NotSoSage said...

I have long felt that the problem is most likely one of language. The fact that we label certain traits as being feminine or masculine when, as Andrea pointed out in the comments to Mad's post, these are largely culturally-defined, makes these sort of conversations confusing.

We also live in a culture that systemically conflates sex and gender. There are traits that certainly align at different ends of the spectrum when it comes to sex differences that are attributed to gender expression. If someone of the other sex exhibits those traits we call him "fem" or her "butch".

Both Joe and I have dealt with having traits all over that spectrum, all of our lives. In fact, Joe has so many traits that are considered feminine by our culture, that friends of ours joke that both Joe and I are in a lesbian relationship. But I've never understood why being nurturing is considered a feminine trait. Okay, I'm sorry...I'm clearly going to have to write up my own post about this. I could go on forever...

Jenifer G. said...

Fabulous post and so was Mad's. This topic is so universal. I am so Anne.

When I was pregnant the first time I just new I was having a girl. And, I was thrilled when she was born. Like you, I could not imagine what I would do with a boy. I was an only child so I never spent a lot of time with young boys. They kind of scared me to be truthful.

Now that I have two girls our house is all about the kitchen, tea parties, playing school, playing dance school, Princess Yatzee, and on and on. Oh they have Lego, cars, and blocks and will play with them if I put them out but, they always gravitate towards the other. They also love any type of craft, colouring activity, or puzzle.

I must admit that when my godson was smaller I was just baffled by his behaviour. He would systematically empty any container near him, pretend food, wooden puzzles, Duplo - anything. I would say, "do you want to do that puzzle?" but, the point was he didn't. He just wanted to dump everything out. Since my girls never did stuff like that I was really surprised. He is 4 and a half now and his behaviour continues to surprise me - there really are differences in how boys and girls play.

This is not good or bad just different. He will join my girls and his sister in a tea party or "picnic" and will play Barbies or dolls too but, for the most part his play is much more physical. He sometimes sits to colour or do puzzles but, he prefers to be on the move.

I sometimes think what if I had another child? What if it was a boy? I would be blessed either way but I really do wonder what I would do with a boy! Our house is so drenched in girlness I just can't picture a little boy in the mix. My godson can give the best hugs and recently made a wonderful paper airplane for Rosebud, so, "she could throw it and he would go get it." His compassion for her was sweet.

Boys are much more complex than I ever realized and I have been able to get my feet wet a bit with my godson. Maybe a boy would help balance the power around here...but it is cute to hear our girls yell, "touchdown".

Lovely read on a topic we can all relate to...

Christina said...

I was a hybrid - at recess I skipped out on playing house to challenge the boys as to who could swing the highest, and who could jump out at the highest point. But at home, along with my He-Man and Transformers toys, I also had My Little Pony and a Cabbage Patch Kid.

Cordy so far is showing little interest in girl toys or imaginative play. She spends most of her day coloring and lining up her Little People animals and cars. But every now and then I'll catch her offering her stuffed puppy a drink from her cup, and realize that she still has that spark of imaginative play in her - it just isn't fully ready to come out yet.

T. said...

My daughter is a bizarre combo of both the rough house tomboy and the pinky in the air, let's play with our makeup girly girl.

She likes to wear frilly skirts and combat boots. And she is only ten. Ikes!

But she amazes and fascinates me and I'm so thrilled to watch her morph into who she is.

Kelly said...

Please tell me you liked the essay on 'Breasts.' I think that's the title, by my old writing prof Rachel Hall? I think she's stellar, and from what I remember of reading the essay prior to publication, I thought it was a lovely treatise on the multi-faceted-ness (I know, not a word there) of breasts: the burgeoning sexuality of puberty, the nursing, the potential for danger (i.e. the author's mother having cancer.).

bren j. said...

We'll hopefully find out next Wednesday if this little Being is a boy or girl. Just the opposite of you though, the thought of having a GIRL terrifies me! I keep asking myself, 'What in the world will I do with a girl? What if she LIKES pink and frilly clothes and *gasp* makeup??'

I humoured my mother and took all the requisite pictures in frilly dresses when I was little. I dutifully played with Barbies until I was 8 or 9. What I really loved though, was going over to a friend's house who was a boy. Oh! All the GI Joes I could handle! All afternoon! Or playing with trucks on the driveway and staging elaborate water balloon battles....

I think my behavior was most influenced by the fact that I had an older brother I adored (at least during that period of my life...then the adoration left...and came back). I was also in a very small school with a class made up almost entirely of boys. Same school, same class all the way from Kindergarten through Grade 9. So recess was never about tea parties or dolls, though we would occasionally sit and gossip. Recess was about whatever sport was seasonal. Baseball in spring, hockey in winter, football in fall, etc.

I've yet to find anyone who can identify with or even understand my fear of baby girls, even my husband won't admit to any preference. I'm sure it will all turn out fine, even if I do go through a period of 'mourning' if this baby turns out to be a girl. For now though, I'm waiting with some trepidation - and chewed fingernails - until Wednesday.

Jill said...

I've never seen a conflict between femininity and feminism. Nor have I ever felt undervalued in the workplace, even when wearing high heeled Mary Janes.

I've also noticed that all three of my boys like to cook. Tea parties are for everyone!