I bought my daughter a ‘My First Purse’ for Christmas, complete with ‘lipstick’, a mirror, a ‘cell phone’, and keys.
A few mornings ago, I watched as her twin brother carried the purse, on his forearm, stashing stray toys from around the living room inside. Cognitively, I knew that he was merely carrying toys in a bag. Cognitively, I knew this was an all-but-perfect solution to his older brother snatching toys from his hands and running away. But emotionally? Emotionally, I was fighting quite a battle.
I sat silently as my eyes darted back and forth between the purple bag and his pajama pants, which featured all manner of sporting good. I wanted to yell, “Put down that bag! That’s for girls!” as if his hands would catch fire for carrying it. I wanted to explain that the bag was just for girls, but I stayed silent. Frankly, the entire scene made me a bit uneasy. And I never knew I felt that way.
I always envied those gender-neutral families, with kids decked out in rainbows, khaki, and unisex t-shirts. I always imagined that once I’d made my own family, I’d follow suit.
But whether it’s something in (or outside of) my kids, or something in me, I have yet to make the leap.
I stared at him further, wondering what were the true implications of his carrying this purse. Is this okay? Would it be? Would other kids at daycare or preschool conveniently fail to notice that he was carrying a handbag? And then I kicked myself for giving that thought the time of day. I knew, I mean, inherently knew, that the kid found a bag, stuffed it with cars, and was toting it around the living room. But some part of me inside was screaming that it was wrong.
I stood back, trying to avoid further feeding my cognitive dissonance, and found myself back into the kitchen. But the image continued to slip through my consciousness. Who decides what’s gender appropriate? Is it inherent? Is it preschool television? Is it me? Can I fix it? Leaving the room obviously failed to relieve my unease.
Two afternoons later, my son and I were lying on my bed, where I’d deposited a few loads of clean laundry. He was rooting through the pile, when he found my daughter’s Minnie Mouse pajamas, held them up, and looked at me.
“Pajamas,” I said.
“I don’t like girly stuff. These pajamas are for girls,” he said, with a prefabricated disgust.
I sat, silently, again, attempting to decide whether or not I agreed with his statement. Sure, they were purchased in the girls’ department, but if my son wanted to wear them, would I protest? Should I? Could I?
How much of our gender identification is culture-based as opposed to genetically programmed? All of it? None of it? And why wasn’t I able to decide how I felt about it myself?
I never wanted to be the family with a gender line drawn in the sand. I never pictured my daughter inside, in an apron, baking banana bread with me, while my husband and sons split heavy logs outside. I never imagined that family. But I also never imagined this one, where I stifle reactions to my son for circumstantially carrying a purse, only to hear those same reactions coming from my children.
How do they learn about ‘boy toys’ or ‘girl toys’, anyway? And why is it my daughter has had no vested interest whatsoever in Matchbox cars since she’s been able to play? Why does my daughter talk about being ‘pretty’ while my sons talk about being ‘super fast’? I know my family didn’t impress these concepts upon them.
I can only conclude that some of it must be a product of our genetics, and some of it a product of our culture. Am I happy about it? No, not really, especially my reaction. If I could have changed how I felt in that moment, I would have. Am I happy that my older son has already decided, with some disdain, that he’s not having any of the Minnie Mouse pajamas? Absolutely not.
My only hope is this is a phase that we will all get through, because I don’t want to harm my children with reactions I never knew I had, and I don’t want any of my children to agonize over any of their choices, now or in the future.
Can we ever be a truly gender-neutral family? I’m not sure.
Is any family?