I love parent and baby swimming lessons - my weekly attempt to tuck whatever loose flesh and stray clumps of hair my body has sprouted that week into a lycra one-piece, velcro my child into enough neoprene to insulate a boiler and sing "Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush" in a circle of adults all trying valiantly to pretend that their child isn’t pissing against their hip. By Nell Frizzell
This week, as we ignored the frantic chewing of eight teething infants bobbing around on polystyrene floats like sharks, the teacher ordered us to push the babies under the water, let go, then catch them a few seconds later. "Doing a Nevermind", if you will. Well, of course, I didn’t mind - I’m nothing if not competitive - and as my poor spluttering son rose to the surface like a torpedo with blonde eyebrows I noticed something that may, years ago, have passed un-noticed. I, along with the parents of the boys, was congratulating my son on being big, and brave and clever. The parents of daughters were all reassuring their girls how good and clever they were - and how much fun we were having. My baby was in a turquoise swimming nappy, the girls were in frilly pink costumes.
It is, of course, a tiny thing, such a sliver of difference as to be almost certainly coincidence but I did wonder: from their clothes to our speech, were we already enforcing onto our children an idea of how little boys and little girls should be? As someone brought up by two politically engaged, feminist parents I was always encouraged to inhabit the so-called masculine world as easily as its feminine counterpart. But while the big, tangible, fabric, plastic and mud expressions of gender were dealt with headlong - I went rock climbing, I wore pink dresses, I had toy ponies, I wore dungarees, I cut my hair off, I pretended to be a witch - it took until my twenties to ever really think about gender as anything more nuanced. I was aware of, and reared against stereotypes, but had those stereotypes nevertheless settled into my language like silt in a river? Am I as thick with unconscious bias and arcane assumptions as my foremothers? I’m aware of them now, but does that make any difference to how I’m mothering my son?
Is it even a question of gender that I hope he'll like trains, assume he wants to kick a ball, that he's flirting with women on the train, that he likes toys he can bang rather than the enormous fluffy rabbit someone won us at a funfair? I never had dolls as a child, but do I have to buy him them just to prove a point? Should I put him in a dress when it's hot to better let the air get to his teflon thighs? Should I cover his nipples too? They're things new parents wouldn’t necessarily have even considered a few years ago; but what’s "normal" and "right" and "healthy" is a question that’s now suddenly wriggling across my carpet on its knees, a breadstick in its hand.
As good old Auntie Gloria Steinem said, "We've begun to raise daughters more like sons... but few have the courage to raise our sons more like our daughters." Although, from his honking, splashing, hairlessness and big wet eyes, I seem to be raising mine as a seal.
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