We are so blessed to have two girls in our lives. When I was pregnant with my first one, Bean, I used to joke that I loved girls because I could ”dress them up as much as I want” (actually everyone around me says the same thing, especially the moms who have boys that are envious of me in this department). But the truth is, more than ever, I love being their mom because they inspire the feminist in me and I feel it my privilege and responsibility to raise them strong, smart and fearless, to believe in themselves and in gender equality.
(I’m sure there are ways to be a feminist mom to boys too - though it’s much less spoken about. I’m fortunate to learn this from mom friends who have boys and one day I’ll download all their wisdom in another blog!)
Ever since Bean was born, I have been determined to raise her in an environment free of gender biases and stereotypes, to let her grow with limitless choice of who she wants to be. Now, it may sound bookish and theoretical, but I’m sure you’d think about it too when you are given a new baby - a blank page! - and you suddenly realise from the moment you give them the first outfit, it is YOU, the adults around them, who give them all these choices: from what they hear, see, wear, to what she plays with. Then you’d realise too that most of these choices are coloured by their gender and many are stereotypical. Just think about the first thing they wear in the hospital - a pink or blue onesie and blanket depending a girl or boy!
For me the biggest trigger was going to a toy store full of pink and blue, robots and cooking sets that are implicitly or explicitly placed in girls/boys divisions. It was a key inspiration for me to start thinking more about this topic, and to open this toy shop offering gender neutral toys for children.
Back to my girls. I wouldn’t call myself a perfect mom nor an expert - but I thought it’d be useful to share some of the things I consciously do in my everyday parenting, hopefully that’d inspire some food for thoughts for fellow moms.
1- Never begins with “As a girl”:
The first thing I started paying attention to is the language I speak to the girls. This was especially a conscious effort for me because I was raised in an Asian culture where expectations of girls have been embedded in daily conversation. I heard constantly people saying to me and other girls: as a girl, you have to be pretty, clean, neat, graceful, etc etc. It could be subtle and it could be very well meaning - especially with things like personal hygiene and good manners. But if you stop and think about it, why wouldn’t it apply to boys too?
So I vowed from the start that I’d never begin a sentence with “As a girl you have to...”. While teaching her some values or manners, I make it a given that it’s the standard for everyone. I don’t even ascribe the positive traits to girl in the type of “girl power” spirit (As a girl you have to be strong and smart!”). You don’t have to be anything because you are a girl. You represent yourself only.
In the same vein, I try to avoid commenting on other people based on their gender (oh they do such and such because they are just boys!”) I’m sure the gender differences will figure more prominently in our conversation as she grows up, maybe one day she may start fancying boys and barraging me with baffling questions “why do boys do this!????” And I have to dig deeper into my gender studies text books to have a sound and balanced answer, without over simplifying it all... But for now, five year old just need to know that they are mostly no different from boys, and I can rest assured with that approach for a while (hopefully!)
2- Respect what she wants to wear, but give her the choices
This is a bit tricky for two reasons. First, oftentimes the desire to be “gender neutral” clashes with the desire to be “zero waste”, especially in an expensive place like Hong Kong! We receive a lot of gifts and hand-me-downs which we are grateful for, but it also means most of our kids clothes are PINK colors (because it’s the easiest, most popular choice you can find on the market).
Nevertheless, I don’t find it necessary to go out buy more new “gender neutral” clothes just to make a point. After all they grow so quickly and shouldn’t pay much attention to outfits either. I do update the closet with pants and shirts to have a range of choices. Also, I weed out stuff that I absolutely cant live with: skimpy shorts, skinny jeans, dresses that have very “adult” cuts, bikinis, fish nets... In short, just children’s clothes please.
I happen to have a very girly girl who would on any day want to put on dresses, bows, anything that glitters (it’s a chicken and egg question of which comes first: her clothes or her preferences ... but we are way past that point now). While we have to honour and respect her choices, we also constantly remind her to be practical: having a pristine dress means you can’t role into a sandpit or climb the slide on the playground! - that usually makes a good case for her to change. To give her maximum flexibility in movement, I put on her undershorts under dresses and skirts. That way she’s never excluded from any activities due to the inconvenience of her outfit.
3- Curate her toy and book collection
This is an area we pay more serious time and investment to. I’ve talked about gender neutral toys above as I believe toys are very important for their foundational development. In my shop as well as when I buy elsewhere, I pick blocks, puzzles, STEM toys, and even if it’s a pretend-play toy more popular among girls like the tea set I pick a gender neutral color and style.
We love IKEAs toys because everything they design is beautiful and gender-neutral - it’s the easiest retail store you can head to to find something basic, reasonable, good quality, and nothing in the boy/girl, pink/blue divide (surprise as they are not a toy store or children’s store per se!)
For books, we follow the same approach of respecting what she likes but also giving her a wide range of choices. While Bean is not immune to the Frozen bug, obsessing over Anna and Elsa for years now, we make sure to have books about amazing heroines who are not princesses too. Some favourites include Margaret Halminton and the Moon, I am Jane Goodall, the Pippi Long Stocking comics
A very favourite book in our household is Mr Large in Charge (in the Large family series) - about a kind but clumsy daddy Elephant taking care of four kids at weekend so mommy can take a rest... It's about the only book I've seen that normalizes dad's fair share of housework and childcare, in a cute and insightful way (as it was written by a mom, of course!)
We have recently discovered the Girls Who Code book collection and have been enjoying them a lot too.
Finally, I’ve started making my own quiet book inspired by this very topic - “What will I be?” which I hope to keep reading to my girls to inspire them to dream big.
4- Encourage her to play with both girls and boys.
This has been no issue until when Bean turned four, and suddenly everything about boys are bad. They tease they fight they grab my toys!!! And she started even isolating daddy as “he’s a boy and boys aren’t good”. I've come to understand it as a natural development at this age as they started to realise that boys and girls are different.
Still, I continue to give her playdates with boys and again remind her to not make any assumption based on genders. I also give her some basics of how to react with bullies (which unfortunately do tend to be some boys at this age as they are bigger physically and more intimidating to girls). I find this guideline on how to stand up to bullies to be quite useful.
5- Teach them to make their own judgment about the rules
Have you ever heard this saying, which I thought to be very true: “Women who follow the rules rarely make history”? If we want our girls to have more freedom, we have to first encourage them to question the existing rules. Yet following rules are tricky for girls (heck, for us grown up women too!) - and it's especially tricky for mommy when you want both your daughter to listen to you and be an aspiring "rebel girl" who will one day change the world.
To circumvent this dilemma, I've started to make a point to explain to my girl the reasons behind every rule. This is to ensure her "buy-in" and follow something, but also it's to teach her to ask "Why?" and make her own judgment if a rule is sensible. Following rules when you cross the street, for example, is sensible because it keeps you safe. But there are many rules out there that have been made out of habit and assumptions to discriminate females, that our daughters will have to learn to challenge on their own when they grow up. As parents we can do our share to prepare them for that.
6- Be the role model
This is perhaps the most important point. If you haven’t seen this yet, you’ll soon see that whatever you say to them, at the end of the day their action mirrors yours.
Being a role model for me can start from very small things, such as saying “I’ll do it myself!” instead of “Let daddy take care of it” when it comes to fixing a broken light (or other things that I may usually rely upon my husband). I do step up accordingly whenever possible, and whenever I cannot, I wouldn't let my daughter know it :)
It means showing her that I’m fearless and resourceful, even if inside I’m dead scared or very uncertain of some things. It means standing up for myself more, despite my shy and compromising nature ... Our daughter watches our every move and absorbs our thoughts and attitude. If she believes "Mommy can do anything", then hopefully someday she’ll think “I can do anything” too.
Finally, being a role model means allowing myself to be happy, and prioritising my own well being. This is hard for many of us moms with young kids as we tend to take care of the family first and put ourselves last. But how can our girls learn to live an independent, quality life if we aren’t the one to demonstrate it first?
Realising this has made a paradigmatic shift from my habitual SAHM’s sacrificing” mindset. It inspired me to make efforts to allow for more things in my life: be it going to the gym more, having more time for my own friends, or stepping to a professional role... I don't believe giving up all for my children is a good thing anymore; instead, I want to show my girls that the expectations of our gender role - to be a mom, to nurture, to be devoted ... should not diminish who we are as individuals, and that every woman is capable of making herself happy, no matter what situation or circumstance she is in.
Having our girls have been a blessing from the start, but little did I know how much those little creatures change and inspire us! These are parenting things we do everyday in the hope that our girls will grow up balanced, happy and strong, that we are doing our little parts that parents can do to make the world a better place. It is always a learning curve, but the biggest one is learning about ourselves as parents and individuals, our values, what we truly wants.
Happy Women’s Day to you and your lovely little girls. May we all have a day full of great reflections, epiphanies and love.