When I was at primary school, the senior school that was linked to my primary was an all boys school. The nearest school for me when I hit eleven was going to be a horribly early start and a good bus ride over to the next town, until as if by magic, the year before I started, the senior school decided the time had come, built a nice shiny new development, invented a uniform and opened its doors to girls. Of the six girls in my primary sixth form, five of us moved ‘across the road’ along with about 99.99% of the boys and even though we were one of the earliest entries at that level to include girls, it never felt odd or as if we were breaking the mould. But I know that when they were choosing the girls to join higher up the school, to spearhead this change of centuries of an all boys tradition, they looked for a very particular sort of personality and for girls who they thought would thrive as trail blazers and have the courage to take the chance and be the few among the many.
By the time I left it was as if girls had always been there, and it’s the same with any form of change in social acceptance, first you need the people who have the courage to be different and to take the knocks when that difference marks them out, and then everyone else follows and no one even blinks at a baby boy sat in a supermarket trolley excitedly clutching a tiny pink and purple Rapunzel. Pip loves his teddies; bear and puppy and his little soft dolly, and, given half a chance, he’ll collect up all his big sisters’ princess dollies for a cuddle too. It’s quite often a cuddle followed by a nice loping overarm bowl across the lounge, but a cuddle it is. And watching the joy he gets from playing with them, and pushing them around in our toy pram it seems utterly crazy to me that you don’t have to go back too far to get to a time when he (or certainly I) would have been told that he shouldn’t play with dollies, or pink things or a pram or anything that might stereotypically come from the girl section of the toy shop, and I’m so glad that we’re not there any more.
Looking around our lounge the other day I wondered whether he would have the same childhood if he didn’t have two big sisters. I’m pretty certain he wouldn’t have the same clothes, I think shopping the other side of the rails tends to be a girls picking from the boys section rather than boys dipping too far into the girls (though he did have a fabulous pair of Frughi leggings last summer that may technically have been meant to be girls). He has one ‘baby’ that is all his which I think I’d always have given him, but there might not be quite the same mountain of princesses and sparkly dressing up outfits around. He wears superhero vests and vests with pink bunnies that say “little sweetheart”, rocks a pair of purple owl pyjamas just as much as the tartan reindeer ones, and they were both hand me downs from his sisters, and loves playing dollies and being in the play kitchen as much as he makes a beeline for his cars and trains and wooden animals. They’re just toys and he’s just a baby, albeit a very tall and rather strong one and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
The idealism that wants to be beyond the bounds of gender stereotyping, to reclaim pink as merely a colour and not a weapon with which to divide and rule, wants to say that of course there’s nothing that we’d say no to merely on the ground of preconceived ideas, but it isn’t as easy as all that. I don’t think that there is a point at which the divide of gender expectations becomes too strong to resist, but perhaps there is a point in later childhood at which it becomes too strong not to acknowledge. There is a point at which to step outside of the norm, and from the norm, the stereotype, requires courage. I want more than anything for my little trio to become their truest best selves, whoever that may be but at the same time the instinct to protect them and keep them safe is breathtaking.
It’s once you start visualising an actual situation with your own actual and very precious child who more than anything else in the world you want to see happy and well it’s an uncomfortable thought. I don’t want to see my beautiful three hurt or squashed and even thinking about it kicks my maternal protectiveness into overdrive (“I shall keep you wrapped up in cotton wool and pom-poms and only let you play with people who have previously completed a 32 page niceness questionnaire” is a totally rational response isn’t it), but the truth is that I would rather be there to pick up the pieces than have them change who they are because of expectation or societal pressure.
Because unless I really do go down the pom-poms route the uncomfortable truth is that I can’t protect them forever, not from everything that the world can throw at her, only arm them to meet it.
Arm them with courage, with self belief, with kindness, with peace, and I hope that maybe if we can lay even the tiniest foundations now, when it comes to something a bit more important then dollies and prams they might be in with a fighting chance of being the change they want for the world.