My grandmother worked for a toy store when I was little, and I benefitted from whatever she brought home. Perhaps she planned it, perhaps not, but my toys were not gender-specific. There were as many Tonka trucks as dolls. I had Lincoln Logs, Bristle Blocks, Lego bricks, and a whiffle bat and ball. I had a bright red and blue Big Wheel with a hand brake. My Weebles wobbled, but they did not fall down … unless I deliberately pushed them out of their tree house. I had Play Doh, paints and crayons. I had a ridiculous number of Garfield coloring books and stickers. I made mud pies, played football, rode a BMX bike, and built forts. I don’t remember hearing “girls don’t do that,” “girls don’t play with that” or anything particularly gender-determinate from the influential adults in my life. It may have been the coincidence of being the oldest grandchild. It may have been the coincidence of growing up in a family where the men were outnumbered (out of 11 cousins only 3 are male). Whatever the reason, I realized as an adult that my family – and particularly my grandmother – did me an enormous favor, because I did not grow up viewing myself as inferior to boys or men. In fact, up until I was about 13 years old, I sincerely believed I could and would become the President of the United States. As in – the thought did not occur to me that anyone would have a problem with a woman in that role. We simply hadn’t found the right woman yet, and I would solve that.
Then, Geraldine Ferraro happened. I was in eighth grade. I was smack in the middle of puberty. I was a latchkey kid who watched a lot of television. Somehow, I ended up at a political rally for Walter Mondale at which Annie Potts (who starred in Designing Women at the time) spoke. Geraldine Ferraro spoke about things like equal pay, equal opportunity. I think that is the point on my life’s timeline at which I can mark my first awareness that the road before me might be a little bumpier, a little windier or – possibly – altogether unpaved because of my gender.
There were many experiences between that time and when I became a parent 11 or 12 years later. From the obvious – a restaurant manager who sent me up ladders to peek up my uniform’s skirt – to the latent – the English professor who subtly but uniformly dismissed female students’ interpretations of male poets. I learned enough from those experiences to make a deliberate effort to not constantly remind my son of his gender with everything he looked at or touched. If he wanted to paint his nails, I let him. When he wanted a doll, I got him one. When he wanted a PowerPuff Girls throw blanket, I made it happen.
In first grade, he drew a picture of me and of Father Bear. Father Bear had a long, pole-like thing coming out of his head. I had a long, pole-looking thing come out of my … um … yeah. When asked what Father Bear’s pole was, he told us, “That’s his shocker thingy.” When asked about mine, he said, “Those are Mommy’s peanuts.” Horror and pride make strange bedfellows, I say.
Then there came a day, in the middle of Kmart, when my nine-year-old son announced his desire to deck out his entire bedroom in PowerPuff Girls. I balked. He stood before me, eyes and body in pleading posture, with all the gender obliviousness I so longed for him to have. He looked at the chaos of Pepto Bismol-pink and saw nothing but his favorite cartoon. I stood there blinded by the silent movie playing in my head of an endless stream of third-grade boys pointing, laughing and mocking my sweet and loving dude. I couldn’t shake it. I couldn’t find the bravery to say yes. Instead, I said we couldn’t afford the new bedding right then. As it turned out, his interest in PowerPuff Girls morphed into an obsession with Ben 10 (and morphed again and again and again and …), so the topic of the bedding was never revisited. I still wonder, though, whether I would’ve found the fortitude to say yes had he insisted.
Twenty two years after Geraldine Ferraro initiated me into the gender equality wars, I became the mother of a girl. My career made me painfully aware of things like glass ceilings, mommy tracks and boys’ clubs. So, I painted her room butter yellow, slate blue and mint green. I made everyone promise not to buy her pink stuff. There was not a princess anywhere in sight. Her room was filled with stuffed frogs but no dolls. I took her to her first baseball game when she was two months old. She is named after her great-grandmothers, but I loved her name especially because it is both feminine (Helene) and masculine (Len or Leni). She had enough green, blue and orange clothing that at least once a week, someone would say, “Oh, what a beautiful little boy.” An elderly woman did this to her once in the grocery store. When I corrected the woman, she said to me, “Well you dressed her in blue!” I suppose the fact that she was wearing a blue dress was just one detail too many …
Helene is seven now. Her second birthday cake was a %&$@)%^# princess. Her favorite color is — wait for it — waaaaaaait for it — pink. Pink frosting, pink shoes, pink balloons, pink dishes. If pink is an option, she will pick the pink. She also loves to have her fingernails and toenails painted. (In fact, it was how we finally got her to let us trim her nails without screaming like we were trying to murder her.) She picks out her own polish. Guess what color. EVERY. TIME. Oh, and it has glitter in it, which is fun. (By which I mean NOT AT ALL FUN.) She likes to wear faerie wings and often fancies herself a queen. (Last week, though, she was a king thankyouverymuch). She wants to be a flower and live in a forest when she grows up. A PINK flower, dammit.
But, like her brother at her age, she doesn’t look at pink and see “girl.” She looks at pink and glitter and faerie wings as things that appeal to her aesthetic. It’s that simple. And given the amount of time she spends trying to put those faerie wings on her brother, I feel confident saying this. (Aside: mad props to her brother, who rocks those faerie wings like a champ more often than not and has never ONCE said to her anything about boys not wearing them.) When I look at the toys strewn about our living room, there is really nothing about them that would let a stranger know whether a little boy or little girl lives here. This pleases me because – particularly in the past couple years – Helene picks her own toys.
Yet, I question myself constantly. Am I swinging the pendulum too far the other way? Isn’t the idea of equality not about making a girl more masculine (or less feminine) but simply about giving her the freedom to choose her own path, wherever that may lead? Because, the truth is, I don’t care how feminine or masculine she is as an adult. I care only that she arrives at her destination of her own volition – of her own choosing – of her own heart. I want this for both of my children. Have careers, have families, have both, have neither … just be kind, be happy, be responsible, be caring and – above all – be yourself. None of that is gender-specific.
Which brings me to yesterday. Yesterday, Helene had ABA therapy, and it was rough. She had a hard time transitioning into session. To help her, I offered to paint her fingernails as a distraction to ease her into the routine. She eagerly agreed, and we applied glittery hot pink enamel to her freshly manicured hands. Later, when the therapist was strategizing ways to help Helene with transition in the future, she remarked that Helene is “so girly.” I felt the hairs rise on the back of my neck and shot back, “No, she’s really NOT.” What does “so girly” even mean?! I’m not a scientist, but I’m reasonably certain – after years of diaper-changing – that Helene came with the standard-issue genitalia. Are there quantities of femaleness?
I took stock of the room – a Lego race car, primary-colored sorting boxes, plush Wonder Pets, Backyardigans, Doc McStuffins and Peppa Pig; dinosaur bowling – and I felt an overwhelming sadness at the reminder of how deeply our biases root into us. The elderly lady in the store who saw blue but not the dress. The therapist who sat amidst the sea of toys and saw only pink glitter nail polish. The me of ten years ago who saw only bullying and not just a favorite cartoon. I ached longingly for the comfort of the obliviousness of my first thirteen years. I wondered how long I preserved that oblivion for my oldest and how long I can for Helene. I took solace in the idea that the very literal way Helene sees the world as a result of autism might insulate her against that bias gaining a foothold in her psyche. Although she has a compelling need to categorize the world, she does it based on facts and not judgments, because that’s just her lens. A very pink lens that has nothing to do with her gender and everything to do with a world that’s more fun with faerie wings and sparkly hands.