I’m in the process of reading Peggy Orenstein’s most recent book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture. It was, perhaps, an interesting choice to pick up a few days before delivering what multiple sonograms have shown will be a baby girl. I sympathize with Orenstein’s opening paragraph, that she was “terrified at the thought of having a daughter,” in part because “I was supposed to be an expert on girls’ behavior. I had spouted off about it everywhere from The New York Times to the Los Angeles Times… And that was the problem: what if, after all that, I was not up to the challenge myself? What if I couldn’t raise the ideal daughter?”
Of course, no one can raise the ideal child, and even if the parenting was somehow, miraculously ideal, children bring their own natures to the game. I think it is quite possible to parent within a range of norms and have a child who’s a disaster, as an essay from Dylan Klebold’s mother in O magazine showed so well. Other children thrive despite horrible circumstances. And overall, as the march of twin studies chronicled in economist Bryan Caplan’s latest book showed, children aren’t nearly as malleable as we think — especially by such insignificant things as whether they’ve watched 30 minutes of TV per day, or an hour.
But, like Orenstein, I’ve spent a lot of time writing about gender relations and the sociological changes that have taken place among mothers and fathers over the past few decades. Part of the problem with writing about these things is that you think about these things, and consequently, I worry that I’m going to be second-guessing way too much. When my sons get blue trucks and trains for birthdays, that’s not a cause for an overwrought essay. Would my daughter getting, say, a toy pink vacuum cleaner inspire the same nonchalance? I find the Cars and Toy Story boys’ Pull-ups a little weird, but not nearly as fraught as the Cinderella Pull-ups. Can’t a child learn to pee in the potty without it being a whole pink-or-blue experience? (Yes, I know the equipment is different, but they all sit for a long time anyway). Someone asked me recently when my “little princess” was due and my thoughts flashed back to a USA Today column I wrote about “The Princess Problem” — namely, the widespread belief among women that we have an external locus of control. Someone else chooses us. A new boss’s salary offer is what she thinks we are worth, and so we are worth that — a different mindset from the majority of men, who believe they are worth a certain amount, and need to get that out of their employers and clients. Nothing personal. It’s business. And the number tends to be higher, since men grow up learning to see themselves as providers. Women tend not to grow up believing that earning money is part of mothering.
So there’s all that. But you don’t want to give a child a complex about these things — worrying that a bad grade on a math test is going to make her think that girls can’t do math, that a jerk in her physics lab group is some symbol of the patriarchal powers that keep women out of the hard sciences, as opposed to just your garden-variety jerk. I think the best one can do is to relax, continue to run as egalitarian a home as possible, and nurture a broad range of interests. And celebrate the good stuff. I am dearly hoping that adding more estrogen to this household will lower the number of poop jokes. You would hope…
(Photo courtesy flickr user Wolfgang Lonien)