Most of you know who have been reading this blog for a while know that when I was pregnant with Benji I was sorely disappointed when I was informed that I would be giving birth to a boy. I had not really factored in the possibility that I would not have a baby girl. I didn’t quite know what to do with the news of a boy.
I had grown up in a female-centred environment and although I was married to a person of the male persuasion sex, I didn’t know boys all that well. I thought girls were more interesting and fun. I knew how to raise a girl; I had plans for a girl. I had no idea what to do with a boy.
Some of you tried to console me by saying that it was a great opportunity to raise a feminist boy. I found that to be small consolation because frankly, while I knew how to raise a feminist girl, I didn’t think I was up to the responsibility of the feminist boy. V questioned my feminist credentials altogether because he pointed out that if I objected to people not wanting to give birth to girls, then how could I myself have a sex preference. Let it be known that I have stopped objecting to people not wanting to give birth to girls. I think their reasons are misguided, but a closer inspection reveals that their reasons pertain to real social and economic conditions that exist (such as dowry, disadvantaged inheritance rights, the responsibility to protect honour, lower earning capacity) as opposed to my reasons which were based on stuff in my head.
Let it also be known having now given birth to both a baby boy and a baby girl, I can confidently say, there is NO DIFFERENCE. That is, there is no difference unless you want it to be. And I am completely sold on little boys now, in fact, I may even have a slight bias in their favour now. At a completely personal and illogical level. Everybody should have one. Because sometimes they stomp around in their collared T-shirts and cargoes looking like little old men, ranting and railing. But seriously, there is no difference.
I also realised that if anybody is up to the task of raising a feminist boy, it’s me. It’s a bit like when I thought, I can’t be a teacher, I’m not good at it. And then I realised that there are people who suck much more than me at teaching making a full-time living out of it. Same with parenting. There are people who have not given a thought to socially-constructed gender difference, ever, and most of those who have think only in woman-centric terms.
But feminism and having a real actually boy on my hands to raise, whose future I feel somewhat responsible for ensuring is not bound tightly in nonsensical strictures, have given me perspectives I don’t see in other people.
And having a baby boy and a girl, I am realising how far feminisim has come for women of my social class (urban, elite, educated, upper-middle-class Indian) and how masculinity continues to throttle men. Thus, women in our circles have gained much ground in being allowed to do many many things that were hitherto out-of-bounds to them, but men have pretty much stayed the same. Thus far, it has always been assumed that the things to aspire to do are the male things because they are the power things, and no one imagined that anyone would actually want to do the female things. I think we are just at the point in history where we are collectively begin to make a start at processing that.
And right now, in raising my toddlers, I see that my son is the one with more restricted choices though I guess as an adult my daughter will face larger disadvantages due to her gender.
Let’s start with clothes. The violence of the pink and blue segregation starts at birth and apparently affects both genders equally. And by at birth, I mean literally, though in some cases it begins before when the parents go shopping for the baby’s clothes and everything is colour-coded. In the government hospital I delivered at the baby boys were given blue hospital garments and the girls pink. The boys were issued blue birth cards, the girls pink. This may have been to make it easier for the nurses to distinguish (even the mums wore colour coded outfits in the ward – chequered PJs for pre-delivery, pink for post) and maybe there are a couple of disorders that one sex is more prone to than others (like males are more prone to kidney dilation and subsequent UTIs, though ironically I know this because my daughter bucked the trend and had dilated kidneys) but I don’t think they are generic enough to need to colour code all children so dramatically.
At home, I had made a conscious choice to avoid blue and have a mix of clothes for my son. Most of his baby clothes were hand-me-downs gifted by family and close friends. Most people tended to weed out the most obviously girly stuff when sending me hand-me-downs but I still got a few pink onesies. I did not hesitate to put my son in these, though I will admit that as he grew older I do hesitate dressing him in pink.
And, I have never dared to dress him in skirts or dresses, though I suspect he would like to. My son loves playing dress-up with my clothes. He also is very attracted to girls in tutus, possibly because he finds them cute but more likely because he wants to be them. I think this is natural. Tutus are cute. My son also loves messing about with my make-up. He also likes watching and imitating my husband shaving. My daughter is equally attracted to these things. The difference is that she gets to indulge this attraction to the girly stuff and my helpers and I get to indulge our attraction to frills and frippery on her.
To do the same with my son in public would be crossing a line of convention that would come down very hard on him if we did. Even though it’s just clothes. I won’t do it unless I sense he really wants it. If that situation arises, I will go to battle for my son’s right to wear anything he damn well pleases.
Recently, a photo of me giving Benji a swimming lesson got a lot of comments on Facebook. The first one was from a friend who erroneously assumed Benji was Mimi. I’m pretty sure because he was wearing a pink wetsuit. The wetsuit was borrowed from his cousin Lala and my sis-in-law did ask if I minded putting him a pink one. I didn’t care and neither did Benji. I thought the pink suited him in fact. I didn’t think he looked like a girl because honestly babies and toddlers look androgynous to me, unless they have gender markers like long hair, earings (I have refused to pierce my kids ears) and dresses.
Then there’s toys. Benji is naturally attracted to cars, anything on wheels really. He also likes toolboxes. Most of the toys he gets are gifted, and if we buy him something it does tend to be cars because that’s what he tends to go for. So we have a bias in favour of “boys” toys in our house and Mimi tends to play with those as well. The only difference we noticed is that Mimi like soft toys, mainly animals; Benji never cared for them. At one point, I got them a cooking set. V’s cousin who was visiting pointed out that the utensils were pink and I gently said it didn’t matter. Benji played with them for a bit, but isn’t very into it (he’s totally into watching cooking shows though).
A few months ago, Benji pointed to some dolls in a shop and said “I want dolly!”. This was probably influenced by one of the stories I read him about a girl who had a favourite dolly. But hey, dollies can be fun. They have hair to play with and pee if you feed them water. He has also been interested in these toy strolleys that kids have here. V was very uncomfortable with getting him either, and I figured I’d press the matter if Benji continued to show interest. The issue was solved when V’s friend visited and gave Mimi a doll. Benji promptly appropriated it with V and my two helpers yelling “No, dollies are for girlies!” and me counter-yelling “Don’t say that. Anyone can play with dolls.” As I suspect will be a pattern in our house, Benji resolved this by firmly wanting to play with the doll and V being unable to deny him anything he really wants. Benji even took it to bed with him two nights. Neither he or Mimi are particularly gentle with it, but Benji at least showed some interest in feeding it or putting it under a blanket. Mimi is more interested in my turtle (a love-gift from V to me that has joined their toy basket), doggie (which makes annoying noise, gah!) and meow-cat. One day, I found V feeding the dolly ice-cream so I guess we’re all making progress.
My kids are still toddlers but my experience to date seems to indicate that my son is getting the rougher edge of the socialisation stick. We have come a sufficiently long way as a society for even my traditional-minded father-in-law to gift him grand-daughter a toolkit. But how many people would gift a boy a doll?