Back in May, I wrote about needing to do something outside of caring for a small child. When I get the chance, I write, I read, I attend protests and activist meetings, I make art, I dress up like a thirteen year old goth and go to the pub with friends and talk about something, anything other than-child-rearing. But sometimes I just…don’t. Sometimes it’s been me and my kid for twelve hours straight, and once I’ve finally got him to sleep, I just don’t have the energy to do anything besides watch somewhat problematic TV shows on Netflix. Or it’s the summer holidays and our routine has changed because playgroup isn’t running, and I suddenly have much less childfree time, and I find myself just doing puzzles and drawing chalk rainbows all day.
Sometimes I don’t talk to another adult besides my husband and the postman for twenty-four hours straight (well, in person—I’d go truly crazy without keeping up a constant stream of conversation with various friends via social media, thank you, you guys are wonderful) and it feels like I’m wasting my time, staying at home with the occasional trip to the park or the library. Sure, sometimes I write while my kid watches My Neighbour Totoro for the thirtieth time, but it’s a distracted kind of writing that’s only really good for rough first drafts. My dreams of writing while he played have never really come to fruition, because if I’m home, he wants to play with me. And, hey, sometimes it is kind of awesome being the most demanded person in a preschooler’s life. I’m basically a rockstar.
The other week, I met a friend and her partner for drinks at ten o’clock at night, which is utterly insane as we are all parents and don’t get enough sleep as it is. It was a Friday night and my friend shouted “I’m taking you to the punk pub!” and we had four drinks each and…inevitably ended up talking about parenting, like we always do. We try not to just babble about our kids when we get together, but some there are some topics I actually like to discuss—like how freaking terrifying it is raising a child in this world.
I follow a number of social media accounts about gender-neutral parenting, including ones that call out corporations for unnecessarily gendered children’s toys and clothing. Sometimes it feels a bit pointless to be complaining that I have to go into the girl’s section to buy my son My Little Pony pyjamas when, you know, fascism is on the rise and rape culture permeates every aspect of society. Is it really that big of a deal if kids clothing is split into gendered sections in my local supermarket when there are literally Nazis in power in western governments? I mean, sure, rant about patriarchy and gentrification and colonization and capitalism, but gendered pyjamas for three year olds? Is it worth making a fuss over?
But, as my friend pointed out that night in the punk pub when we were being super boring, super tipsy, super ranty parents: it is far more radical to dress your son in a flowery shirt from the girls’ section, than it is to dress your daughter in a robot one from the boys’ aisle. It’s downright progressive to put girls in boys’ clothing, to teach them to punch back, to encourage them to be interested in science. But to let your son wear a dress or even just a shirt with frills or flowers, to teach him that it’s okay—nay, good—to cry when he’s sad, to entertain an interest in sewing or baking or childcare? Eh. People balk at many of these ideas, especially when your kid isn’t a toddler anymore. They’re going to go to school soon, and what will the other kids think? What if they make fun of him? Some of these things are acceptable to some level—sure, he can wear pink, but not with lace!—and others are justified with a lot of safe, heteronormative assumptions—of course he can play with dolls, he’ll probably get married and have babies of his own someday. Not, you know, maybe just be interested in becoming a nanny or teacher or children’s nurse, in making a career out of being nurturing.
My son started playgroup in January—a co-operative parent-run playgroup, but a bit jump from being at home with me or a babysitter at all times—and I was worried that someone would finally burst the liberal hippy bubble that we’ve raised him in, and crush his little pink-and-pony-loving spirit. He just finished his first term, and I think we might make it beyond his third birthday before someone tells him that pink is a girl’s colour or that boys can’t play with dolls. I’m hoping we make it long enough that, instead of being upset, he just tells the other kid (or parent or teacher or whoever takes it upon themselves to impose some arbitrary rules of gender on my kid) that they’re wrong, that pink and dolls are for everyone.
There’s this idea that raising your child gender-neutral will utterly collapse as soon as they enter mainstream society, but I’m not sure if it’s true. My aim isn’t to keep my kid in a bubble so he never experiences societal norms of gender, but to provide him with the opportunity to figure out what he likes before anyone attempts to force those norms upon him, and give him the confidence to defend his choices, and challenge the assumption that boys are X and boys are Y.
At the moment, this consists of taking him into both the boys’ and girls’ aisles of stores to let him choose his own clothes, not telling him that there is such a thing as girls’ and boys’ clothing, making sure he has a variety of toys to play with, providing him with a range of male and female protagonists in the books he reads and films he watches, attempting to provide him with male and female playmates. We’ve unintentionally surrounded him with non gender-conforming role models: men with long hair, women with short hair, men who wear jewellery, women with tattoos, men who babysit, women who run businesses, men who cook, women who are doctors. The other day my son wanted to wear a necklace, so I found an old one I don’t wear any longer, and he pulled it over his head asking “This dada’s when he little?” because it made perfect sense to him that his father could have owned a necklace that most adults would have described as feminine.
I’ve heard children described as sponges, and I guess I’m trying to make sure my son soaks up as many positive concepts as he can before he’s properly submerged into the mainstream world and has all of our hippy ideals challenged. We check books out of the library about children from other cultures, we talk to him about how his great-grandfather’s family came from India, we take him to protests about injustice and explain in basic terms that sometimes the people in charge are mean to people just because they’re different, we participate in the “Rainbow Day” parade and discuss how love is for everyone, and I don’t particularly remember bringing up environmentalism but he’s developed a distinct passion for protecting trees, so we’ve got that covered too.
He knows that Dada works in an office writing computer programs, and Mama works at home and in cafes and libraries and supermarkets doing “emails and writing”. I have wonderful friends who make sure that he knows that Mama works too, because it could be awfully easy for him to not realise that I work, since sometimes I’m only out of his sight for a couple of hours every week while Dada works 40-hour weeks away from the house. I’m grateful to the friends who come to my house and watch my child, who proof-read my novels and remind me that I’m a real writer, even if I’m not published yet. But I’m also thankful to these same friends for supporting our parenting choices, for being the fantastic role models my son sees on a regular basis, for reinforcing the ideas we want to raise him with and counteracting any negative remarks he may hear.
The same friends who enable me to write also help me to raise my son to be a force for change, to resist societal norms. Right now, all he’s doing is choosing a lacy shirt from the girls’ section in the supermarket and being carried in his mother’s at a protest, but we’re planting the seeds of resistance. This is his normal. To him, discriminating against someone based on their race or gender doesn’t make sense. Colours are for everyone, love is for everyone, and we’re not mean to people just because they’re different from us. We look after the world around us, we fight for the rights of others, and we celebrate the things that are important to them, because that makes them important to us. Sometimes the people in charge do things that aren’t right, and it’s okay to challenge that. If we can help—if we can give money, or time, or belongings—then we do it.
I never have loose change anymore because one day my son saw me giving a coin to a busker in the park, and now that’s what he wants to do whenever pass a musician or someone sitting on the ground with a hat in front of them. This is his normal: we have more money than we need, so we give it to those who do.
At the end of last year I was feeling really convicted about my privilege, and frustrated that I had so little time to do anything with it. I had things I was passionate about changing, and knew of groups and organisations meeting to affect those changes, but I couldn’t go, because I had a young child who I couldn’t leave for more than a few hours, especially in the evening. I could pay a sitter to watch him, but would that be the best use of my money? Should I just donate it instead? Besides, most of my sitters are passionate at the same issues as myself, so I’d just be preventing them from attending the same events I was interested in.
I’m slowly getting more involved in local groups, but when I’m stuck at home, I talk about the things I’m passionate about to my captive audience. Obviously, I don’t discuss the intimate details of police brutality and sexual assault with my three year olds, but we talk about the things we come across in our daily lives. Sometimes resistance is just telling Peppa Pig that she’s silly, that of course boys and girls can play together. Sometimes I have no idea what I’m doing and wonder that I’m screwing up my kid for life, but yesterday he was wearing fire engine leggings with a pink lacy top while shouting “Not cut down trees!” at someone pruning a hedge, so I figure we’re probably doing okay so far. If his actions and appearance would terrify a right-wing conservative, it’s all good.
I didn’t make it to the activist meeting tonight, I spent too much money at a massive capitalist coffee chain because I’d been up since 4:30 and was in dire need of caffeine and I hate dragging the stroller into tiny independent shops full of childless hipsters, who don’t want their ambience disturbed, and I’ve not finished reading an actual full-length book in weeks. But I’m not failing. I’m resisting every day, and I need to remember this. Motherhood is resistance. Parenting is resistance. Caring for children—related to you or not—in an intentional, thoughtful way is resistance. Let’s raise wonderful human beings, tiny activists who love hard and challenge societal norms, even if all they’re doing right now is wearing clothing from the “wrong” section of the store. It might feel exhausting and sometimes futile, but it will be worth it in the end.