Gender + Motherhood

I discovered something last night: audiobooks. The only time I’ve really heard about audiobooks until recently has been my Gran telling me which murder mystery book she has been listening to on tape from the library. The thought of it always made me sneer a bit… I didn’t feel like it was *real* reading. But good on her, because she can knit while she listens and that seems like a better use of time than watching TV – WAIT, hold up – doing craft + reading at the same time?

Sometimes I wonder if I’m just a little bit thick.

Suddenly I’m seeing audiobooks being plugged everywhere: on my favourite youtube channels, on instagram, on advertisements. Every hipster I know is listening to an audiobook. Is this the new podcast? I looked into it, and the only reputable looking audiobook app seemed to want to charge $14.95 per month PLUS the cost of books… this seems a little steep to me, particularly when you don’t get a hard copy book to shelve lovingly in your bookcase; it’s just an audio file. I gave up and decided to go back to netflix and podcasts (of which I have a number now I totally love… perhaps a discussion for another post).

It was late last night, I was getting into bed to work on a hat and suddenly I was thinking about audiobooks again. Wouldn’t it be great if I could crochet and listen to a good book at the same time? I had a sudden revelation: I can borrow audiobooks from my library, for free. A few fast taps of the thumb later and I had an app which is linked to my local library, and was listening to this.

I listened to the whole essay last night, which finally brings me to the topic of this post, gender and motherhood.

Before I had kids, I didn’t believe that girls and boys were different in any way. I thought any differences in behaviour or attitude were purely due to parental influence.

A few years into motherhood, and having seen my friends raising boys, or boy and girl combinations while I’m raising girls only, I have changed tack a bit. I realise fully that boys and girls are very different. However, I still believe that stereotyping is alive and well, even in those of us who have the very best intentions not to change the way we parent based on the gender of our children. I am beginning to think of it as invisible stereotyping. That is, invisible to the perpetrator, perhaps not so much to the outside eye. Gender stereotyping is so ingrained within us that, without careful reflection, it is carried out with little notice.

I was at the house of a very dear friend yesterday who has three boys, around the same age as my three girls. We have been friends for a long time, well before we had children. We have always laughed at how different the boys are to the girls and vice versa. But then there’s this extra layer, the invisible stereotyping layer, that I have been noticing more and more.

The example that comes to mind is this. We’re at the coffee shop with our kids. A rubbish truck drives past. My friend looks at her boys, who are staring at the truck and says, “Look! It’s a big rubbish truck!” The boys get excited and watch the truck driving off down the street, maybe saying something like “Truck! Truck!” Later that day, my friend, seeing the boys’ interest in the truck, takes them down to the fire station to look at more trucks. She buys them a t-shirt each with a truck on the front. Their enthusiasm builds, and at home they all draw pictures of trucks. In addition, at their birthdays, they are given a variety of toy trucks as gifts (including one from me…).

Rewind, back at the coffee shop, I’m on the other side of the table. The rubbish truck drives past. I look at my girls, who have also turned to look at the truck. I might say, “Oh yes, look, a truck!” The girls watch the truck driving off down the street and say, “Truck! Truck!” Later that day, I take them home, set them up at the table and get out a stamp collection that someone has given us as a gift. It’s a fairy set, they absolutely love it. We draw pictures of the fairies in their houses and talk about what fairies might eat for dinner. It doesn’t occur to me to foster their interest in the truck in any way.

This is just a small observation, and as much as I hate to admit it, variations of this example have happened numerous times over the years. My friend told me yesterday that she had taken the boys down to a busy corner to watch some trucks drive past. I had also been walking through a carpark with the little yesterday and she had pointed at a big truck saying “Tain, tain!” I said, “Actually, that’s a truck!” and kept walking. I didn’t mention the truck again.

What does this say about us? My friend and I are both well educated, modern women (we like to think). Neither of us are particularly girly, or boyish. We’re both into human rights, and believe women to be strong and independent. But even if we don’t want to admit it, we are raising our children in different ways, and those differences are largely based on their gender. Neither of us are right or wrong and I’m not illustrating this to make a judgement in any way, merely to voice my observations.

Being one of four girls, having three daughters of my own and a niece, having gone to a girls school, I have grown up in a world of girls and women. I don’t know a whole lot about boys. I also personally have zero interest in trucks, which of course are used in this post simply as an example of something that is typically viewed as masculine as opposed to feminine. How can I make sure I am allowing my girls to express themselves freely, in a world where even I am shaping their perceptions and ideas towards a version of an outdated stereotype?

I tell them monthly, weekly, daily: they can do and be whatever they want. But do their toys, their clothes, their school uniform, my guided topics of conversation and interests – do they express the same message?

These are questions I don’t know the answer to. But it feels good to have a conversation about it, I think. I’m inclined to agree with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, we should all be feminists. What are your thoughts?

mothering daughters: it begins

I was brushing Birdie’s hair this morning. She stood in between my legs while I sat on the couch. I could see her poking her thigh with her finger while I brushed.

“Am I skinny?” She asked.

“You’re perfect.” I replied.

“But I can see some fat here,” she said, poking her upper thigh.

“That is not fat, it’s just part of your body. Your body is perfect and has everything it needs. If you didn’t have that bit of body, you’d only have a bone and when you tried to walk with only a bone you’d fall over, ” I replied: stupidly, awkwardly, long-windedly. She seemed to accept this answer and think it was quite the joke. She went on laughing about walking around with only a bone for a leg and falling over.

I remembered someone telling me that their daughter started worrying about her weight when she started kinder. I was gobsmacked. Kinder? Are you kidding me? I don’t remember noticing anything in particular about my body until high school.

I am probably reading a lot more into Birdie’s comment than I should. Perhaps it was just a flippant comment that meant nothing to her, yet to me held a tsunami of undercurrents about our culture and society, materialism, body image, questions about whether or not I’ve been making comments while getting myself dressed that she has picked up on, ra ra la la ha bla.

It has reminded me that I am a role model – the main womanly role model they have. They see how I look at myself in the mirror, they hear the things I might say about my body, or about how a piece of clothing looks.

It’s been a good opportunity to think about what I do and don’t want to pass on to my daughters when it comes to body image. A lot of food for thought…