Photo: James Di Lella
All parents are different but they do one thing the same. They vow to be different. To raise children in a new way unencumbered by a long rich history of gender stereotypes.
But soon enough it happens.
A mother coos ‘you’re so pretty’ to her baby daughter. Or tells her toddler ‘wait till your father gets home’! Or buys her son camouflage army pants. A father comes home and starts ‘fun time’, or tells his son not to cry when he’s hurt, or buys his daughter a nylon pink princess dress.
Even the most stridently cautious unconsciously slip. Boy/girl stereotypes are absorbed in more ways than pink or blue clothes.
Here are five easy pitfalls for women and ways to beat them.
Becoming the default parent
This is the parent most loaded up with the emotional, physical and logistical needs of the children. The parent who has met the teacher and knows where the favourite t-shirt is buried. The default parent is usually the mother and she can wear the mantle like a martyr’s crown of thorns.
Becoming the default is an easy pattern to fall into if you are the primary carer but it’s unhelpful for daughters to accept it as the norm. In slipping easily into the default position, a mother gradually takes on more and more, causing her partner to further retreat from frontline parenting. I know many ardent feminists who planned equal parenting and work full time only to realise they have fallen into this trap. My advice is to take many weekends off and then never to leave a schedule and list of helpers. Let the so-called ‘back up parent’ work it out himself or herself. They will struggle but become an empowered god of small things. All will survive.
Dad is fun, Mum is mean
If you let yourself become the default parent chances are you’ll also become the mean one. The one who snaps after receiving the daily download of injustice or cops the wailing about not wanting to go to sport. Even the Dalai Lama couldn’t be kind after battling to get children off screens and onto homework, off iPods and onto music practice or while battling peak hour traffic to pick up at basketball. There comes a time in every woman’s life when she suddenly realises its rather frayed and full of ‘not’. Then the other parent walks in, all sweetness and fun for a precious hour with his babies before bed. Just enough time to make jokes, throw the just fed high into the air, dislodge their dinner and rouse them into hysterics so they can’t sleep. Determined not to fall into this trap I avoided homework for years, my kids stopped learning their instrument and rarely did their dishwasher duty. Yet still this week my son told me dad was still so much more fun than I was. Make your partner come in and do the chore war, the spelling words and serve the broccoli.
There is nothing like a break up to make men conform more to the stereotype of the ‘fun dad’. Write avoidance of this trap into the settlement. Or take revenge by becoming the fun one. Give them pizza for dinner every night and make dad’s night the one before the assignments are regularly due.
Even better, lets unite to show kids that adulthood is not all dreary responsibility and drudgery. Look like you are having fun or they'll never want to grow up.
Say ‘wait till your father gets home’
When I was being a brat, my mum used to say ‘wait till your father gets home’ and we’d fall about laughing. We all knew he was as soft as butter and as sweet as honey and she was the hard arse. She did it because of point 2. She hated having to be the mean one. But for many families mum is nice soft and sweet and dad is the disciplinarian looming with the threat and fury. This authoritative stereotyping just as damaging. Parents need to share the discipline and be on the same page.
Find power in committees
I'm one of those people whose eyes begin to roll back in their head when people call a meeting. I then usually pass out before they call the minutes. I like to make sure I’m involved in the community by taking on roles but I am wary of those who seek more power on the P and C than in life. While the work of these uber-organised dynamos is invaluable it’s another area of unpaid work for women. Who would do it if we didn’t? Maybe more men? I see them infiltrating the scene. Let’s let them.
Don’t concede defeat in ‘male subjects’
I am guilty of this one. This week I couldn’t even do my son’s year 3 measurement homework. I asked his friend rather than telling him his Dad would help. Girls and boys have the same ability in maths but my generation learnt it was a boy brain skill and conceded the area. Don’t give into this. Also, don’t claim superiority in English, feelings and cooking. Boast your superiority in non-female areas. I am the tech head for the house - I set up the computers, and TVs. Dad is best at baking the cakes and scones. I am best at eating them.
Don’t be the worrying one
While Mark Latham feels only women who boast inner city postcodes are anxious, the truth is anxiety hasn’t erected a fence. We all worry about our children. The important thing is not to show them. New mothers get a honeymoon on this point because when you have made something inside you for 9 months you are a bit more anxious about it getting damaged.
I concede I am more likely than my partner to yell ‘be careful’ when my daughter is hanging from a tree 10 metres off the ground. I can’t help it, it’s a reflex. So, in the interests of non-gender conformity I also yell it at my son when he is walking too fast and in danger of falling over.
Excusing behaviour on gender grounds
Clamp your hand tightly over your mouth the minute you hear these phrases erupt “oh they're just being boys” when boys are being violent and aggressive and “Oh girls can be so mean” when you see nastiness. This not only excuses behaviour, it dismisses it as inherent. It’s not. My daughter is far more willing to whack than my son and she is not a hugger. My son loves a cuddle and cries more than his sister. Most accepted differences between boy and girl infants are actually non-existent or tiny but we treat them as significant and so build up their differences. There is one accepted in the scientific literature. Baby boys actually cry more than baby girls and are more likely ‘shhhed’ and ignored when they do so. Some researchers feel this means they get less attention and so become less social.
The common wisdom is that boys are more physical. But experiments with crawling babies show boys and girls can crawl the same degree of incline but mothers vastly underestimate their daughter’s ability. So we need to encourage girls to be physical. And while you're there don’t concede sport as a dad thing. I’ve restarted netball to show my daughter sport is important at every age.
Of course we don’t have total control in this area and the role of society is huge. Children aged 3 have been found to pay more attention to stereotypes than adults. When my son began preschool he suddenly realised he had to be tougher and love guns. My daughter only partially gave into the princess obsession by playing with the boy who liked to wear the nylon Sleeping Beauty dress while she dressed as the Prince.
Don’t go overboard in the dissing of the feminine
See what I did in the last sentence? That pride I had in my daughter not being Aurora. We women running away from stereotypes do that. I was bragging about the fact my daughter won’t wear a dress at the Daily Life Christmas party when a bored colleague said that all her friends boast about their tom boy daughters. Feminist mothers can over dismiss being feminine.
Acknowledge your biases
Don't assume you are above the clichés, the stereotypes and the inbuilt biases. Social biases are universal. In her book Gender Neutral Parenting Paige, Lucas-Stannard says the reason stereotypes are so powerful because they are universal and unconscious. We can’t eliminate these biases only try and be aware of them and find ways to neutralizse them.
So, mothers, if you feel you are becoming what you never expected try a bit of irresponsible fun, learn to love maths and don't frown too much at the frills.