Something old, something new

I’m back after a long hiatus, with a new baby and (at least some of) the same old struggles. Big Bobbin is now 6 (six!) years old (how did that happen?) and New Moo is 9 months.

While I was out shopping this morning, the woman at the checkout in the charity shop said “hello, little man!” to New Moo. I gave the lady a friendly smile and said “little girl, actually!” and tried to get Moo to wave hello. However, any further baby-chat was immediately lost in a tide of nervous apologies from the checkout lady: “Oooh, I’m sorry! Little girl! It’s so hard to tell when they’re that age! It’s cos she’s got short hair, ooh I am sorry, of course she’s a girl, isn’t she lovely…” and so on, while I attempted to interject reassurances: “It’s OK! Really, it’s fine! I’m not bothered! It is hard to tell! She doesn’t mind what you call her!” … and so on.

The thing is, I genuinely don’t mind if you guess my baby’s sex and guess wrongly. You’ve got approximately a 1 in 2 chance of being right, it’s fair enough to play those odds; but if you get it wrong, the thing to do is so “oh sorry!” or even just “ah OK!” and then MOVE ON. It doesn’t matter. Either you’re going to talk to me again, in which case you’ve got a chance to get it right next time; or you’re not, in which case it really doesn’t matter. (I also don’t mind if you don’t guess. Why do you need to guess?)

“If it doesn’t matter,” you may ask, “why bother correcting them at all?” Good question. I don’t always bother. However, these incidents are part of a bigger picture. I think there are three main reasons why people guess “boy” for my baby (and for babies in general):

1. Male is the default. For everything. For example, listen to adults talking with kids about their stuffed animals, or about pictures of animals in books, and they will all be addressed as “he” by default (“look at the monkey, what’s he doing?” etc). Even I find myself falling into this habit/trap, despite conscious efforts to vary it (“what’s she doing?” or “what’s the monkey doing?”). Same deal with animated trains, trucks, dancing teapots, whatever: all male unless proven female. So it’s no surprise that all babies are “he” unless there are obvious femaleness markers, which brings me to…

2. Clothes. You can’t tell a baby’s sex by looking at its face. They basically all have short hair at 9 months (and obviously hair length is not a reliable indicator of biological sex anyway, yada yada). If you want to make absolutely sure people read a baby as female, you dress it in pink dresses and high heels, and if necessary literally glue a bow to its head (I wish I was making this up). The corollary of this is the assumption that if you don’t do these things, it must be a boy, because why would you let your little girl be misgendered when the tools exist to prevent it?

Here’s what Moo was wearing at the time:

Photo of baby dressed in red, white and blue

Red, white and blue Moo

And for comparison, here’s the colours I was wearing:

Closeup of my clothes

Stripy mummy

All her clothes are hand-me-downs or bought from charity shops; she basically wears whatever fits her and is clean and weather-appropriate at the time. I like bright colours, so she’s more likely to be wearing brights than pastels, but really, I’ll take “fits and doesn’t smell of wee” over more subtle aesthetic choices. The same applies for my clothes: what’s clean, what fits, most likely to wear black or bright colours. The difference is that there’s basically no chance I will be read as male, even in gender-neutral jeans and tshirt: I’m 5’1″ with a waist-length pigtail and a 40C chest. I wouldn’t mind people guessing wrongly or asking me about my gender, but I would be quite surprised! But with a baby there are no such obvious markers, so…

3. The safest way to get it wrong is to guess “boy”, because of a probably mostly subconscious understanding that maleness is the ‘better’ option so it would be much worse to misread a boy as a girl than the reverse (there’s a whole raft of problems and assumptions which I don’t really have time/space to unpack here, but to put it briefly, would you rather risk calling someone else’s kid a “tomboy” or a “sissy”?).

Given all that, when I can be bothered – or when I just forget that it’s easier to stay quiet – I want to try, gently, to challenge those assumptions a little bit.

*

A few minutes later, in another shop, an old man said “Hello, little fellow! That’s a nice smile!” to Moo. I smiled back and carried on with my shopping.

Dressing up

A few months ago now (OK, this post has sat in drafts for a while) when I came to pick my daughter up from nursery I found her wearing a pink ‘fairy skirt’ (something like a tutu). “Her trousers and her spare trousers both got wet and it was the only thing we could find!” they said cheerfully. Fair enough if true, but I couldn’t help wondering whether they’d’ve miraculously managed to find a clean pair of trousers if she’d been a boy…

“She loves wearing it, she’s been doing little twirls around for us,” they gushed. All well and good – dressing up is fun, twirly skirts are fun. But I wonder how much of it was her own doing and how much was pressure from the nursery staff? They seem generally keen on encouraging her to look in the mirror, play with her hair and so on. “Are you going to wear your pretty skirt at the weekend and show all your friends?” they cooed at her. “Yes!” she said. I sighed inwardly at the thought of the likely battles ahead of me when she insisted on wearing the skirt to bed, or in the bath, or somewhere similarly impractical.

Anyway, we got home with only one mention of the skirt (“[name] is wearing a skirt!” “That’s right, darling”) and she got out of the bike and stomped into the house, pink fairy skirt flouncing behind her. I was just wondering whether to try to interest her in make-believe such as playing at being a fairy or a dancer, since she was wearing the skirt anyway (cue a moment of anxiety as I realised I had no idea what fairies actually do) when she turned to me and announced “[name]’s skirt is Not Nice. Take it off.” She hasn’t mentioned it since even though it’s been sitting around in plain sight (so that I don’t forget to return it to nursery next week).

*

A few days after that she was wearing navy shorts, a blue/grey/orange striped tshirt with a little tiger icon on it, orange/grey striped socks, and her blue trainers. She had a couple of red hairclips in her past-shoulder-length hair, to try to keep it out of her eyes. To me she looked like a little girl wearing normal summer play clothes.

As we walked to the shop, she stopped to try to catch a baby woodlouse (as you do). While she was grubbing around on the pavement and I was absent-mindedly talking to her (“do you think it’s going to play with the other woodlice? Don’t eat the moss, darling, it’ll give you a tummy-ache”) a passer-by stopped to grin at her and say “Ooh, what are you doing down there?”

She was too engrossed in the woodlouse to answer, so I replied on her behalf: “Trying to play with a baby woodlouse,” I said, with a rueful grin. “Ooh, does he like woodlice?” she asked. I didn’t comment on the pronoun but replied “Yeah, she loves all the creepy-crawlies.” (It’s true – she asks to stroke snails, she thinks woodlice are hilarious, she has been known to say “Excuse me, ant” as she walks past an ant, she loves bumble-bees and ladybirds, she’s quite interested in spiders as long as they’re not too close to her.) “Oh, it’s a little girl! Oh, sorry, in shorts and tshirt I couldn’t tell,” said the woman. “No no, that’s fine, they all just look like toddlers at this age,” I smiled. “Oooh, yes, of course, she’s a pretty little girl, I can see now,” she went on. I gritted my teeth. What I wanted to say was some or all of the following:

“Well, yes, I think she’s pretty, but then she’s my daughter, so I’m kind of biased. On the other hand, she looks basically fit and healthy and (unusually) reasonably clean, and those things combined with her blonde hair and blue eyes probably mean that white people are moderately likely to describe her as ‘pretty’. I’d rather people valued her for reasons other than her appearance, but I’ll concede that random passers-by don’t know anything about her except her appearance, though that doesn’t really explain why they think they need to comment on it. She totally doesn’t care if you think she’s a boy — she barely knows what a boy or a girl is. I honestly don’t mind if you think she’s a boy when you see her passing in the street — it doesn’t bother me (though it does annoy me if you make assumptions about what she’ll do/think/be based on your guess/knowledge about her sex). If you ask me if she’s male or female, I’ll tell you; and (for the sake of not confusing her) I’d rather you used female pronouns to refer to her, because that’s what everyone else uses to/about her; but other than that her sex is pretty much irrelevant, and her gender is basically whatever her parents choose to present her as, because she doesn’t really have any concept of gender yet.

“She likes playing with woodlice because they curl up in a ball when you poke them with a blade of grass, and to a two-year-old that’s pretty damned hilarious. You really don’t have to call her ‘pretty’ to make up for thinking she was a boy. I don’t mind if she’s not feminine and I don’t mind if she’s not pretty. I don’t feel the need to balance her attractiveness against her liking creepy-crawlies, because I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive, and both of them are orthogonal to her biological sex and her gender.

Basically what I’m saying her is: SHE’S ONLY TWO. Let her get on with her life.”

Of course, I didn’t say any of that, I just smiled vaguely and said to my daughter “Shall we say ‘bye-bye’ to the nice lady now? Are you going to come and help mummy with the shopping?”

*

I don’t really have a worked-out conclusion or a neat moral to derive from this. It’s just interesting (and extremely frustrating) to see how much importance people seem to place on clothes. I mean, when my daughter fishes the tiger costume out of the dressing-up box at nursery, people don’t assume she’s going to start attacking gazelles; and really, when you think about it, it’s all just dressing-up.

Royal Blues

The papers have been on fire (sadly not literally, despite the heatwave) with speculation about whether The Royal Baby would be a boy or a girl. I’m not going to write at length about the problems with gender binarism or the ridiculous superstitions used to justify the occasional success of guessing the outcome of something that’s more or less a coin toss. You can (and should) read about that stuff yourself. I’m just going to look at some of the colour-coded reactions to the joyful event.

A few days ago it was announced that the fountains of Trafalgar Square [would] be lit in pink or blue, depending on the gender of the newborn. And lo, this came to pass, as the Tower Of London turned blue, the fountain at Trafalgar Square turned blue, and the London Eye turned red, white and blue (this last just to taunt us with the reminder that it’s actually possible to celebrate the birth of a human using other colours). I confess that the idea of blue fountains somehow annoyed me less than pink fountains would have done; I think it’s just because blue is less marked.

The other official celebratory gesture was the announcement that babies born on the same day as the new prince are to receive a silver penny made by the Royal Mint. (The text of the news article doesn’t even have to explain why there are two different colours of pouch for the coins.) You can also buy these coins from the Royal Mint, where they explicitly say pink for girls and blue for boys. The difference in wording for the items is interesting to note, too (all emphases mine):

This special version of the coin comes in a beautiful pink pouch, with a matching pink gift card that can be made even more special with a personalised message. This charmingly presented gift set is an adorable baby gift for a new little girl, and one that she will treasure throughout her life.

The coin comes housed in a drawstring pouch that, in turn, is held in a pleasingly illustrated gift card. Both of these are in the charming pale blue associated with newborn baby boys, making it the perfect birth or christening gift for sons, grandsons, nephews, brothers or any special little boy you know.

The differences are interesting. The description for girls gushes about how it’s beautiful, colour-coordinated, personalised, and adorable, and the focus is on the little girl treasuring the pretty coin; the description for boys picks out the practicality of the bag, the pleasingly illustrated (not ‘beautiful’ or ‘matching’) gift card, and suggests that it’s a birth or christening gift, not an adorable baby gift (that is, more formal and objective language for the boys, more subjective and cutesy for the girls). There’s something odd going on with the way the pink and blue themselves are described/mentioned, too: pink gets mentioned twice and doesn’t have to be explained as being Girl Colour; blue gets mentioned only once, reduced to ‘pale blue’, and referred to with the distancing ‘associated with newborn baby boys’ (only newborn baby boys need a colour, and we’re not doing the associating, it’s just a tradition, you can ignore it if you want).

I’ve mostly tried to stay away from the unofficial royal baby merchandise, for the sake of my blood pressure (NB I will not be answerable for my actions if I see someone wearing a non-slogan along the lines of KEEP CALM AND PRINCE ON), but Matalan got this through my human firewall by the cunning expedient of sending me an email:

Screenshot of the marketing email from Matalan about their Royal Baby merchandise: a range of pink and blue baby clothes.

Well what did you expect

Of course it’s a morass of pastel pink and blue, but the surprising thing is how odd it looks to see baby clothes emblazoned with “little prince”. “Little princess” is ubiquitous on pink baby clothes, but clothes aimed at boys more usually seem to feature words like “hero”, “soldier”, “little man”, or else words glorifying things that would be naughtiness in girls: “little monkey”, “little monster”, etc. I also note that it’s “Mummy’s little prince”: at some point I’d like to do a fuller examination of my observation that in babywear, boys are nearly always “Mummy’s little X” and girls are nearly always “Daddy’s little X”. Is this some kind of weird Oedipus/Electra thing going on?

The really interesting one, though, is the “Born to Rule” babygro, only available in blue (marked ‘while stocks last’ in the marketing email, it already appears to have vanished from Matalan’s website). Perhaps in all the excitement over the new prince they’ve forgotten that for the last 61 years we’ve been ruled by a woman.

Be a bloody train driver

I don’t expect much from Boots, but they managed to disappoint me even further with their own-brand toddler reins:

Photo of toddler reins in Boots.

Rein check

Do I need to break this down? “Train driver”: active, useful, in control; also, you know, an actual thing you could aspire to be or do. “Little cupcake”: passive, pretty, designed to be eaten…? OK, maybe I’m being silly with the last one of those; but really, at best it’s just a nonsense term of endearment. Which is fine, but in that case why not make both say something sweet-but-meaningless like “little darling”? (You just know that if they’d chosen a more direct equivalent for their ‘boy’ version it’d be “little monkey” or “little monster”.)

I ranted about this to my husband when I got home. “She’s not a cupcake or a train driver! She’s just a toddler! She’s a human being!” The human being in question turned and looked quizzically at me. I turned to her and asked “Go on then, what would you rather be? A cupcake or a train driver?” She thought for a second and said “train driver!”

The title of this post, as you probably know, is taken from the excellent cartoons by Jacky Fleming:

Front cover of 'Be a bloody train driver' (cartoons by Jacky Fleming).

Jobs for the girls

I still reckon ‘train driver’ is a better career option than ‘cupcake’, though.

But I think the thing that annoys me most about these designs (as I’ve said before about similar things) is how lazy and irrelevant they are. It’s totally phoned-in. “Yeah, do one pink, one blue, of course, and, I dunno, boys like trains, and girls like cake. I’ll email you some clip-art and a cliché. Will this do?” I could come up with six better suggestions before breakfast. If I was designing reins for toddlers I’d want them to be cheerful, I’d want the designs to suggest movement and freedom (because naturally you don’t want to think that you’re curtailing your child’s movement by using reins, you want to think that you’re helping them learn to roam around safely); perhaps yellow reins with a bee design (“buzzing about”) or a yellow duckling (“quack!”), or red reins with a ladybird (“fly away home”) design, or blue reins with white clouds and the silhouette of a bird (“high flier”?)… That’s just off the top of my head. Pay me and I’ll come up with plenty more.

Of course, part of the problem here is the relentless insistence on making every item of toddler clothing into a declarative statement of (parental aspirational) identity; slogans like “Daddy’s Little Princess” are ghastly for all sorts of reasons, but really, “Mummy’s Little Astronaut” or “Future Prime Minister” would feel just as silly when imposed on someone who’s not yet 3. My general rule of thumb is to avoid using clothes (or anything else) to put words in my daughter’s mouth; but having said that, I am tempted to print tshirts saying “My own little person”. Would you buy one?