Bringing a Daughter into a Sexist World
The prospect of bringing a child into the world is an exciting one for new parents. But nine months is a long time to wait to meet them, and for that period much is left to the imagination. In between worrying and preparing, we did what many expecting parents do: we created all sorts of personalities for our baby, together in conversation and separately through imagination, exploring all the potential lives they may lead.
Occasionally we’d discuss the possibility that they may develop a negative trait or two, or hoped they didn’t follow after certain relatives or friends, but overwhelmingly each constructed personality was flawless.
New-borns are, of course, exactly that: flawless. They haven’t had the time to make the mistakes that will lead them to become the rich characters they inevitably will be; for a short time, they are perfect.
We live an hour or so from a village in the west of Wales called Bethlehem, and when passing through one day we decided to take a photo of the baby-bump next to the sign. Was this conceited delusion? Some sort of arrogant presumption?
From a couple who are in no way religious we were having a bit of fun rather than trying to create a prophecy, but at that point who could say this child would not grow up worthy of disciples? It was, after all, a blank canvas.
But of course, no baby is ever really a blank canvas. Each child is born into conditions that will ultimately go some way to shaping who they become. Society determines many of the challenges they will face long before they can comprehend them.
I’d spent my life assuming I wanted a boy, because men want boys. No doubt suffering from the God complex men are prone to, I assumed that if I were ever a father I’d want to create another, tiny version of myself: a creature in my own image. But I never really fleshed out the idea.
I think the idea of parenthood is different for men. Society isn’t subtle about what it expects of little girls, and wherever you are in the world it invariably includes raising a family. Little boys can harbour almost any ambition they want, from astronaut through sports star to mad scientist, but for a girl? If she’s allowed any of these pipedreams at all then they need to be shoehorned in alongside her family duties.
Gender is one of the first ways in which the world begins to make decisions for a child; for many, it’s their introduction to inequality. From superstitions to advertising campaigns, from ‘common sense’ to state or media propaganda, an unseen hand shapes the way we view the world and our roles within it. In many instances it’s deliberate, but in many others our own biases form an unwitting part of the wider machine, filling in the gaps with what’s expected.
Our world so often fails to allow little girls to see that dreams of being a doctor or footballer are not beyond them. But it succeeds in convincing many of them to buy into a particular vision of a perfect life. The ideal of finding a man, choosing a wedding dress and raising the perfect brood in a well-kempt home is made as appealing as possible. So much so that it’s common for little girls to have an idea of what they want these aspects of their adult life to be like, and for many they have fleshed out the details time and time again.
Boys, conversely, are not supposed to think about these things. So we tend not to. Whether we’re running the length of the field to score for our national team or somehow being the second first man on the moon, the whole family thing gets in the way of our fantasies. Like the stereotypical overbearing parent, I wanted for my child the myriad ambitions I was allowed to treasure in my youth (yet never realise as an adult). And so, as manipulated by the unseen hand as anyone else, I was pretty sure that if I wanted a kid, I’d want it to be a boy.
The pattern extends to my male friends who’ve had children over the years. We’d laugh about what their baby boys would turn out like, what they’d get up to or get away with. Only one had a girl. His congratulations were laced with questions over how he’d cope if she ever brought home a boy — would he lock her in her room till she turned grey? She was a precious object to be protected; no potential personality traits of her own were speculated upon.
In the years between forming my vague, shallow ideas of fatherhood and actually setting about becoming a father, my outlook inevitably developed. It gradually dawned on me that the world is not always as it’s presented to us. There are people who benefit at my expense through accidents of birth; I, in turn, benefit from the exploitation of peoples who have it far, far worse than me. These realities are obvious, of course, but only when you give them a moment’s thought. Yet for a long time I’d managed to avoid it.
And so it took this long, as I began to give real consideration to the possibility of a child of my own for the first time in my adult life, for me to consciously recognise all genders as equal.
I know this isn’t some great epiphany I’m sharing. I grew up with just my mother at home and have always been in awe of her, so I’ve never doubted the abilities of women. But I realise that, nonetheless, this is exactly what I’d been doing. The inherent sexism of a capitalist society permeates any area of the psyche that isn’t actively trying to repel it. By assuming a child would need to be a boy to live the life I wanted for them, I was subconsciously denying all girls the agency to be whoever they wanted to be. While I had never thought this explicitly, I realised the belief must have been there, lurking beneath the progressive façade I’d been presenting even to myself.
So I wanted it to be a girl. Perhaps it was some sort of rebellion against my own failures, but for the first time in my life I began to put flesh on the idea of a child and there she was: a daughter, more real than anything I’d imagined before. She was already my best friend and I was angry at the world for denying her so much, determined to do my best to make it right. I needed it to be a girl.
Somehow I took this personal revelation as a premonition, and was not remotely surprised when the sonographer told us the news. Her mother was sceptical of the scan’s accuracy and her paranoia grew as her due date approached, but my belief was unnerving. Her worry was mainly because people had gone out and bought things specifically for a girl, whereas I had the cast-iron guarantee of my emotional revelation — ‘Sod’s Law’ could not compete.
The sonographer was right, and our daughter was born every bit as perfect as we’d hoped. A girl, but boy does she have a personality of her own! Two years later we gave her a little brother, as perfectly imperfect as his sister.
But neither are nor ever were a blank canvas. Every child born into this world has preordained challenges and responsibilities, and it’s our job as parents to equip them with the information required to make the most of their lives, and the lives of those around them.
Understanding our own biases, and how they may affect our judgements and parenting, is an important part of learning to do this to the best of our abilities. The better our children understand the world as it is, as opposed to as it is presented, the better prepared they’ll be.
And one of the most important lessons I’ve learned so far is to make sure my daughter knows she can be whoever the hell she wants to be.