How do we smash gender stereotypes for our girl family?

“Three girls! Poor dad!” Thanks, you’ve just told my children their dad wishes at least one of them were a boy. He doesn’t.
“You have your hands full. Are they all…?” My eldest has started answering this one, “Yes, we’re all girls.”
“Are you going to keep trying for a boy?” I guess the assumption here is that that’s what we were doing the second or third time. I’m always tempted to respond asking for advice on how to do that. I mean, is there a specific position for conceiving boys?

Truly, I know that this is meant as friendly conversation. I almost said “polite” but it isn’t that. Certainly not to my children. It’s the usual everyday childism that casually ignores children’s feelings while speaking about them, in front of them. It’s not unique to being “a girl family” as Talitha has dubbed us. Mothers of boys are familiar with it too.

But yes, it is meant to be friendly. So I respond with this in mind, telling my daughters when the stranger has passed that people are just surprised we have so many girls in our family.

Then I wonder how to inoculate them against the underpinning message that their gender is their most defining characteristic since it’s so often the first or only thing people choose to comment on.

By aggressively gendering children, we’ve created a society where we pay lip service to the idea that children can be anything they want to be while showing them something quite different. By and large, boys are expected to be tough, adventurous, capable and boisterous whereas girls are expected to be emotive, cautious, sociable and gentle. None of these characteristics are innately problematic. However, they’re also not innately gendered.

BBC Two recently aired the documentary “No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free?” which convincingly ties the way we treat our children to the gender inequality they experience as adults. The show continually returns to brain scans of boys and girls which debunk the myth that we are neurologically different. Gender is socially constructed. It’s a good starting point if you’ve not given the issue much thought before. And it’s still interesting if it’s long been a concern.

As a parent of a six year old, I was shocked at the gendered views the programme’s seven year olds held about men and women, the opposite sex and themselves. Perhaps home educating has sheltered us from some of the gender stereotyping pervasive in institutions?

Our children see Laurence as involved in caring for the home as I am. He is as likely to change a nappy as I am when he’s around. They may have “girly” toys but most of their toys are gender neutral or even toys stereotypically considered “for boys”. Their dressing up box houses princess dresses alongside costumes for a builder, doctor, police officer and pirate amongst others. We aren’t precious about their clothes and spend most of our time outdoors, giving them lots of opportunity to get messy and encouraging them to take risks.

Yet we have still imparted clear, at times unhelpful, ideas of what it means to be a man or a woman. In their minds, fathers go out to work and mothers stay at home to look after the children or at least work part time or from home. We try to communicate that this is a choice we’ve taken together for this period of family life but that it isn’t the way everyone does it.

Actually, we don’t consider it ideal ourselves. Laurence wants more time with the children. I’m hungry for more time to work as our kids get older. While a major life change where we both work and care for the children part time isn’t possible in the immediate future, we want to work at striking more of a balance in the present and to think about how we could change things more radically in the years to come.

I’ve also felt challenged recently to counter my learned helplessness. From hanging picture frames to mowing the lawn to figuring out what’s up with the dishwasher, I routinely leave DIY and maintenance jobs to Laurence. He is better at them (more practice, perhaps?) but what does my constant refrain “We’ll ask Daddy to do that later” say to our girls.

I hope that his involving them in these tasks helps to undo the effect of my shying away from attempting them. Talitha wielded a power drill to put our furniture together when we moved in. I’m not sure I’ve ever touched one. She knows how to put our tent up though I still don’t. They both love helping him build fires. But when things go wrong, they’re still quick to say, “Don’t worry. Daddy will do that.” My words in their mouths.

So I’m taking little steps. I learned to light the wood burner when we moved in. We take turns driving when going somewhere. This weekend I rowed our dinghy to the boat for the first time. I was terrible at it but I hope that they’ll see something in me working at difficult jobs rather than always leaving them to the person who’s more practised. I bought a wetsuit so that I can be the one to take them into the sea instead of making that a daddy thing.

We’ve been questioning what we’d do differently if they were boys. Would we be more inclined to take them out with a ball? Would Laurence involve them more in looking at rugby and cricket? Would we have the same standards in terms of grooming and manners? Would we value the same things? Would we talk to them the same way or talk about the same things? The conversation is ongoing.

From the positive pregnancy test, we start imagining the new baby, their gender a part of that. We’ve opted each time to know the sex at the twenty week scan. We even did a “gender reveal” video with Delilah (total heart melt looking back at that – how little they were!).

Yet, throughout my pregnancy with her, I felt uncomfortable about how important we made the fact that she was a girl. It doesn’t decide who she’s going to be. Being a “girl family” doesn’t decide who any of them are going to be.