SMH 13-9-16 JANE CARO
I recently became the grandmother to a little boy. He is five-months-old now and completely divine but, like all tiny babies, he is still a riddle wrapped in a mystery enclosed in an enigma. His personality will unfold as he grows and responds to the world and I look forward to getting to know him day after day. He is a very vocal little chap and likes to have animated (if incomprehensible) chats with anyone who will listen and many inanimate objects that won’t. He is almost never still unless he is asleep, but does this mean he will be a chatty person with a lot of energy? Or does it just mean he’s a baby?
His family are trying to just wait and see what sort of person he will eventually become, but it sometimes feels like the rest of the world has already decided. In fact, they made up their mind about him long before he was born.
Why? Well, my daughter knew he was a boy by the time she was 20 weeks pregnant, and if people asked her she told them. What was quite extraordinary was how many people then immediately told her, with total confidence, just what her 20-week-old foetus was going to be like. Once he started moving in the womb, every kick indicated a potential football player, according to these behaviour experts. Really? We wondered. Why not a ballet dancer?
People often made a particular noise when told the developing foetus was a boy; it was kind of a laugh mixed with a knowing snort. “You’ll have your hands full!,” they told my daughter. “He’ll run you ragged!” “Boys love trucks, noise and getting dirty.” “Boys never sit still and read or draw!” And then, as a sop, they’d add, “But boys love their mummys.” (Does that mean girls don’t?)
I could offer no perspective on this as I only had daughters (though my memories of caring for them includes a fair bit of running around, a lot of getting very dirty, and remarkably some real affection). Back in my day it wasn’t quite so common to know the child’s sex before they were born. Nevertheless, when people identified my newborn as a girl, they also made a noise in response, but it was different from the boy noise. It was more of an “Awwwwww” drawn out on a falling note. Then they’d tell me that my baby was “cute” or “sweet” or that we’d have our hands full when she was a teenager because girls were “complicated”. If my husband was with me, he was often advised that he’d need a shotgun once she was in high school.
I know that this is just the conventional small talk that nice people often make with parents of newborns and we always responded with a smile and a laugh, as was expected. My daughter does the same when her son’s personality is described to her by strangers. But we can’t help feeling a little exasperated by it, too. We want this little human being (who has no more idea at the moment of whether he is a boy, a girl or a turnip) to be allowed to be himself – whatever that may turn out to be – and we worry that this will be harder for him than it should.
We go to specialist baby shops a lot at the moment, and frankly they are outrageously gendered. Worse, given we are shopping for a boy, the policing of gender for boys seems much more restrictive to me than it does for girls. The number of clothes to choose from is usually much more limited and the palate of acceptable boy colours depressingly dull and bland. Blue, green, grey, brown and a particular shade of muted red seems to be about the size of it. We glance over at the (much larger) girls section (baby girls are apparently already much more interested in clothes and their appearance than boys… !!!) and it is a sea of pink, orange, aqua, turquoise, yellow and purple with glitter, sparkles, chiffon and frills. Girls wear flower and fruit motifs, boys are restricted to machines and animals.
Perhaps all this seems trivial to you, but if it is so trivial, why the palpable shock if a boy is dressed in pink or has a ribbon is his hair? My grandson often wears a pair of watermelon-coloured leggings and looks particularly fetching in them in my opinion but I can see the confusion on people’s faces when they realise he is a boy despite such attire.
When we say “boys will be boys” with a mock exasperated sigh, we are usually using the phrase to excuse some sort of bad behaviour. When they are little, it may just be clumsiness or lack of consideration. When they are adults, it can be used to excuse really serious behaviour, even crimes. Maybe it’s time we stopped rigidly defining what boys are allowed to be, and instead just left them alone to be themselves.