As I turned the corner in the upscale independent toy store full of handcrafted puzzles and games well beyond my price range, an item caught my attention. It was an adorable baby doll sitting high up on the shelf, nestled in a box that touted lifelike toes and a removable diaper. The doll, dressed in a blue striped onesie with only a patch of light brown hair on a pale pink head, reminded me immediately of my son. Certainly, the pacifier attached to the baby doll’s mouth by a magnet mirrored the device we’d learned to never leave the house without.
I stood on my tiptoes to slide the box off the shelf. As has happened several times in the past year, my frugal, logical side was overcome by a strong desire to spend too much money on something my baby would never remember, much less care about, from the $21 Red Sox jumper to the $700 Uppa Baby stroller, for reasons that probably had much more to do with me than Joey himself. In some cases, I resisted (the stroller); in others, I’d splurged (the outfit).
“This is perfect,” I squealed to my husband. A doll that looked exactly like our baby son. Or at least close enough for a mom. So what if the box clearly said for children over 4? Joey was already advanced for his age; of course he was mature enough to play with a doll intended for a child 3 ½ years older than him.
As I continued to read the box, my enthusiasm began to dip. First, the $30.00 price tag seemed a bit high for a doll that doesn’t actually do anything. Then I caught the pronoun “she” – first in reference to the doll itself, then in relation to the child who would be playing with it.
I flipped the package over, and studied the doll again. Definitely a boy. I didn’t need to check the removable diaper to confirm the baby doll’s intended gender, but suddenly, instead of looking at a toy that on Christmas morning would be hugged – or more realistically, slobbered on – by my son, I was holding a catalyst to one of my many fears of motherhood.
In terms of gender identity and equality, I’ve always thought I’d know how to raise a daughter. But I have no idea how to raise a son.
I know for a fact that if we’d had a girl, she’d be wearing the sports attire we’d been collecting since the day we announced my pregnancy. I know that I’d dress a daughter in blue, and I’d have no problems signing her up for soccer or little league or any of the supposedly little boy activities that highlight every community.
But there is not one shred of pink in my son’s wardrobe. His whole life is shades of blue and green and brown, from his toys to his attire. Some of this is coincidence – his nursery is beach-themed, which means lots of blue. But a lot of it definitely has to do with his, well, maleness.
And the thing is, I love his clothes, all the puppies and the monkeys and the crabs and the dinosaurs, the stripes and the solids and the jeans and even the ridiculously tiny little tie he wore to a wedding last weekend.
I want to dress him in monkeys and frogs. And not just so strangers won’t mistake him for a girl, because they still will, no matter how many blue blankets are piled on top of him. I find that I rarely care enough to correct the well-meaning stranger who says “she’s so cute,” and only will (“he is, isn’t he?”) to avoid the situation I ran into recently where the woman kept asking me questions about my little “girl,” and my answers got more and more complicated as I tried to avoid personal pronouns (“yes, the baby does enjoy being held by the baby’s dad”).
But in the end, clothes are easy (or, relatively easy: go into any baby store, and the girls’ clothing section is bound to be three times the size of the boys’). Ducks are apparently the last bastion of gender-neutrality among the newborn set, and Joey looks adorable in his duckie outfits. His snowsuit is white, which dirt-wise may end up being a big mistake, but for now, highlights his sweet essence of baby-ness.
It’s what comes next that worries me. Do I take him to football games, even though I’m appalled at the message it’ll send to see my worst gender nightmares (big strong men being cheered on by tiny plastic women in skimpy outfits) played out in full color? Do I sign him up for toddler dance class, even though he’s bound to be the only little boy in the room? Do I buy my son the expensive doll, even if it’s intended for a little girl to emulate having a baby brother?
I worry about these things – and I worry about me. In the past four months, I’ve already found myself falling into little boy stereotypes that I never dreamed would trip me up, and it seems almost impossible to raise a son totally removed from society’s definitions of what it means to be a boy and what it means to be a girl.
What I have to do is figure out a way to do this so my son will learn that anyone can do and be anything they want, regardless of gender. And that seems like a rather intense task looming ahead of me, as my son grows older and begins to learn the differences between boys and girls.
For now, the doll remains on the shelf of the fancy toy store, for the next mom to think too hard about. Maybe when he’s old enough not to steal the baby’s pacifier (and choke on it – at least I figured out why the box states “ages 4 and up”), Joey will have a doll of his own. For now, he’s happy snuggling with his monkey, the one attached to a baby blue blanket.
Originally from Boston, Michelle is a writer, editor, instructor, obsessive sports fan, loud talker, quick laugher, new mom, and chances are, she watches more television than you do. Follow her on Twitter at michellevoneuw
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12.10.10 @ 5:12a
Lovely thoughts. Children do go in the directions we direct them wrapped in gifts of Time and DNA. And then, too soon, we have to let them go on into their future. They must increase...we must decrease--paraphrasing John, the Baptist!
12.10.10 @ 10:27a
A J Jacobs, I thought, wrote an excellent piece for Esquire not too long ago regarding the influence of the Y chromosome. How to Raise Men. Of course the title is presumptuous, and he admits that. But, given that I have two nieces and nary a child of my own on the horizon, I found it especially interesting, reading about boys, that gender roles apparently tend to pick themselves.
I mean, hey, my niece, through no influence by either parent, has decided that pink is her favorite color. If that's not stereotypical, I don't know what is. However, she also loves dinosaurs. Not exactly traditionally feminine. The trick, I think, as you say, is to "figure out a way to do this so my son will learn that anyone can do and be anything they want, regardless of gender," and then just let him go and be a boy.
12.12.10 @ 12:05p
I agree with Adam. Don't overthink it.
I'm a feminist and my mother had little to do with it as far as I can tell. I just grew up liking and respecting women. Most of my very close friends are women.
I have two sons and a daughter, all in college. One decided he loves to fish, shoot sporting clays and go to basketball and football games with me. The younger son hates all of these, but loves music and writing, and hiking and camping, also like me. My daughter is simply her own person. She couldn't care less what anyone else wants her to be.
You don't have to worry about whether to take your son to a football game or not. He probably won't want to go, and if he does he'll probably want to go with his friends.
The one thing I have learned in 24 years of being a parent is that you have far less control and influence over how your children will turn out than you can imagine. Don't overthink it; enjoy it.
Best of luck and a great column.
12.15.10 @ 7:39a
I think the best thing a parent can do for a child is simply to avoid all the expectations of gender and show a child the world. He or she will gravitate to what's real and meaningful as an individual, based on your belief and encouragement in his or her abilities.
And you two will do that quite well. No worries at all!
12.20.10 @ 8:52p
Feminism defines my mother’s generation. It represents at one extreme the assemblage of hairy-legged, men-hating conspirators to overthrow professional men’s sports; on the softer side, feminists gather together to hold hands and listen to Helen Reddy. Why on earth would a young woman today deny herself the title of feminist?
1.3.11 @ 11:36a
Your child is - what? - six months old? You can have angst now about whether or not you pick out a doll for your male child. In another six months, however, you won't be picking out anything - he will. Your role will be simply to tell him he can't have everything. He'll let you know which choices you're not permitted to deny.