Dear Mattel. I know you are unpinking. But why did you leave out boys?

barbieIn the last two weeks, I received a link in my inbox from at least four different sources for the new Mattel ad for Barbies that “empowers girls to be anything they want to be”. I had, of course, seen it ample times on my Twitter and Facebook feeds by then, and smiled to myself.

The ad has been playing out in my house for a few years now. In just a few thousand forms. Except the chief protagonist is a boy. And he happens to be my child.

I did notice that the ad didn’t feature a single boy and that got me thinking more than its unpinking. Or its alleged attempt at turning Barbie into a feminist.

It is more happenstance than design, but our family of dolls now includes three Barbies, four Disney Princesses, four magiclip dolls, one mermaid and a few others (Re will be upset I don’t remember their names, but I don’t). I also learned fairly recently that Barbies and Princesses were two different breeds and mixing one for the other was sacrilege. In our home of course, they all play with dinosaurs and wear Playdoh dresses.

Together, and with a real cat thrown in every once in a while, as well as other toy animals, puppets and random toys, they have been part of several adventures that include (but are not limited to) extempore plays, concerts, various rescue operations that involve fire, building collapses, a vet’s clinic, a hospital, a warship, a shipwreck, a chef’s kitchen, a submarine, a traffic management situation, a construction site and several others.

When Re likes someone enough to want to include him/her in his universe, the first thing he tells them is that he likes playing with dolls and has ___ of them (again, I cannot be accurate about the number). This has not been choreographed by me or his father, but I guess after being mocked and ridiculed to some extent by his peers about his preferences of play, he has realized that he would rather be choosy about his friends and that they should have full information when they choose to be friends with him. We now have a select, but beautiful universe of friends that he would like to keep for life, although not all of them like playing with dolls; it’s just that they don’t judge him for doing so.

I was a little amused that people were celebrating Mattel for finally getting it right. One website actually said: “After 59 years, Mattel gets it right.” What are they getting right anyway? That girls have the power to be anything they want to be? But didn’t you already believe that? And if you didn’t, and it took a toy company to tell you that, I would worry more about you than the toy company.

All around, I see mothers frothing at the mouth when their girls go through the princess or Barbie phase, wondering what the hell went down when they had done their best to simulate conditions for this not to happen. When mothers who have been so conscious about the whole ‘no princess’ thing, yet discovered that their three-year old daughter obsessively wants everything to be pink and loves “tacky Disney Cinderella”. Mothers say it quite proudly when their daughters don’t like pink, or that they prefer green instead.

And oh, in case the ad got your hopes up, “Barbie won’t be turning into a feminist anytime soon,” warns Jessica Valenti in this Guardian piece.

Interestingly, the same mothers that are allergic to their girls veering towards girls stuff wouldn’t have minded if she had an obsession with robots for instance. Some blame it on schools and peer pressure. But why must it be the product of external pressure? Isn’t it possible that a girl might just really like princesses? Or pink?  I do get what “normative gendering” is all about; what I don’t get is pushing girls who love dolls towards building model planes or trains or some such. It seems to be some sort of denial of her female-hood.

Much like I didn’t see the point of pushing Re away from dolls either. And if you are the mother of a boy, you would know that the world is more accepting of a girl playing football than a boy playing with dolls.

Here’s the thing: What Mattel or Disney is selling you is just a structure. What you make of it is entirely your imagination. What about the immense value of role play with dolls in developing relational skills and empathy? I see those as priceless.

Removing boys from the context entirely and pretending they don’t exist is not helping at all. It is just genderization in an entirely different way. What I would be more concerned about is a child self-selecting out of anything on account of gender (whether it is toys, play, sport, ballet, science, math etc). The sooner we give up trying to control how their personalities SHOULD form, choreographing their likes and dislikes, the more fulfilling this parenting ride will be.

Not all girls who like princesses at age three grow up to be senseless bimbos, just as not all “tomboys” (although I detest that word) who love decapitating dolls grow up to be independent and strong.

The only reason there are “girl and boy toys” at all is because adults decided what girls and boys should be like, how they should act, and what they should play with. If we let the kids decide, I doubt the division would be so clear.

Perhaps it would be interesting to note the original intent of Barbie creator Ruth Handler, who wrote in her autobiography: “My whole philosophy of Barbie was that through the doll, the little girl could be anything she wanted to be. Barbie always represented the fact that a woman has choices.”

Sure, Barbies and princesses are way too skinny for my liking, but it is for you to decide if she is a role model for your body image. I don’t think any girl is unrealistic enough in today’s times to let her body image be affected by what a doll looks like. Just like it is unrealistic for us to want to date boys with six pack abs.

Toy shops and supermarkets categorize things as “boys”and “girls” so they find it easier to keep inventory. Would you find anything at all if you went shopping and the men’s and women’s stuff was all mixed up? Every girl’s parent who complains that all the interesting toys are in the boy’s section, well, who’s stopping you from shopping in the boys’ section? On the rare occasion that Re and I go shopping, we still get asked if it’s for a boy or a girl. I have learned to keep my calm and say we are just browsing thank you, and Re invariably goes to look in the girls section.

My point is, if you are constantly looking for subtext, you will always find it. As long as we let our children do their thing and keep those conversations open and going, we are fine.

(A version of this post appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 26th October, 2015)

Advertisements

The curious case of daddydom

daddyIn a strange sequence of events, the man I married came up for scrutiny every single day after we made a baby together. He still does. It is a fact that has crept into my head in an insidious way particularly after I read one of his comments on Facebook which said something like “Interesting how most of marriage is spent plotting how not to get screamed at by the wife.”

This needs damage control, I thought. The husband believes that he has the unique power to annoy me even when he’s not in the room, and I think he may have a point. In my overwhelming pursuit of being a good mother, I had clearly lost out on being the good wife.

I married a man who doesn’t cook, walk or exercise. Someone who always thinks of vegetables as the dressing for something more succulent, preferably with legs. One who hates trains. One who wields an electric racket to kill mosquitoes (yes!). One who was gifted a Nintendo by his father at age 14. One who may skip a bath but never forget his hat. One who could easily declare someone he met three weeks ago as his best friend. One who doesn’t read or play any sport, unless it involves a controller. One who is still afraid to pull over a T-shirt around the boy’s head, thinking it might hurt him.

After a child, everything that a man used to do semi-okay is now wrong. Women feel that men were already stupid to start with, and after producing a child, the last brain cell also vanishes. And so we are often guilty of trying to fix our men through our children. ‘Re is so perfect, his father better match up,’ is what I am thinking most of the time.

As for the men, well, one day they are the sperm, and the next day they are the parent who knows zilch about parenting. At least, women have the hormones that make motherhood a little more organic than it’s purported to be.

Some men beatifically fake the holding of the baby in the first few weeks and change a total of six diapers before they realise that this is not really their calling. And there begins the War of the Roses.

Women raise the bar for men after having mothered their children. Men are so overwhelmed by the complexity of post-partum behaviour that the only thing they are looking for is a place to hide. Since most of us didn’t marry with checklists and did it for larger causes like love and hormones, it might be a tad shocking that the product of our conjugation is very often greater than the sum of parts. I think if we have rigid ideas about how we should raise our children (bathing and brushing is sacrosanct, eating junk is sacrilege) we should have these conversations before our libidos get into a blur and the baby is already made.

And so I plead guilty on the following counts:

1. Maybe, when I expect you to take the ball and run, I should at least tell you where the ball is. Or what it looks like.

2. If I was so averse to technology, I should have told you right at the start, before our remote controls produced babies and grandchildren.

3. Somewhere, I fear that your tech toys may have a greater power of seduction on the boy than my books. Or cupcakes. Or salads.

4. I suck at drawing so I was hoping that you would doodle for the child and make dogs look like dogs and lions not look like hyenas. It was presumptuous.

5. I thought your OCD for orderliness would also translate into organising the child’s toys, clothes and books.

6. I celebrated your transition from PS2 to PS3 to Xbox360. Why now am I mortified by the PS4?

7. Someday, I decided that television was not okay. I should have told you then.

8. I know you don’t do parks and playgrounds but I was not counting on building Lego parks on the iPhone as outdoor stimulation.

9. I thought having a chirpy morning child would turn you into a morning person. I was wrong.

10. Sometimes, I am angry with you just because you can switch off. Maybe, I should find my switch-off button too.

Yes, I admit, we have never fought as much before as we did after the baby. But we never wanted to make up as much either. Maybe Re has helped us grow. A wee bit at least.

 

This post first appeared as my column in the Indian Express on 3rd March, 2013

 

Shake well before use

Hands-on or hands-off?Something changes irreversibly in men when they become parents. They start asking for directions. They start saying “I don’t know”. They start including words like ‘how’ in their vocabulary. Yes, the same men who were from Mars, the same men who read maps, the same men who would rather drive into another state/country than ask where they were, the same men you married despite the idiocies of their gender.

Around the time that words like ‘parenting’ evolved, another treacherous term made its appearance to vindicate all those men who did a little more than donating sperm in the bringing up of a child. It was called “hands-on fatherhood”–  a term many men would like to add to their resume, but don’t quite know how.

Rather conveniently, a whole species of women also evolved who christened their men with the aforementioned term even if they so much as changed diapers for one week (under supervision) or dropped the child to school once in a while or walked the baby in a pram, with the entourage of maid, driver and whoever else they could get their hands on.

Perhaps I have high benchmarks because of the way I was raised. My father cooked, got us ready for school (even if he sometimes stapled a shirt together to camouflage a missing button), combed our hair (very badly), quizzed our geography from time to time, taught us chess and badminton and tennis and cricket, and waded through chest deep water with us on his shoulders whenever our building got flooded, although he often bungled up in public about how old we were. He didn’t know then that he was hands-on. Good for my mother, who didn’t know either.

In my book, a hands-on daddy is someone who knows what to do with child and how and when to do it without being issued instructions in triplicate.  Someone who wouldn’t ask, “What should I feed the child?”  or “What do I wipe his nose with?” or “Where are his undies?” would be a start.  Also, I can’t deal with the fact that answering the phone while changing a child is enough to give some men a nervous breakdown.

So I set some rules to keep it simple. I decided to award the hands-on certification on the basis of:

  1. The number of hours of instructionless child-management (I wouldn’t go as far as calling it parenting) that have been logged in on any given day (adding up of stray minutes over a few months to say 22 hours doesn’t count)
  2. The extent of resorting to packaged substances that are blasphemous in my culinary dictionary, namely ice-cream, biscuits, chocolate, strange coloured liquids masquerading as juices to appease the said child.
  3. The ability to know when said child needs to be changed, cleaned, washed, scrubbed.

You have one of those? I can be nice to you. Or mean, if you flaunt it too much. Or send you muffins once in a while. I like hands-on daddyhood. It makes the men look good, it makes raising a child feel more collaborative, it makes me feel less full of myself when I write on parenting and other ‘grim’ issues that cannot be trivialised.

The other parental unit displays handson-ness under duress (my mother is in hospital, the cat has to be taken to the vet, I have a doctor’s appointment to catch or some such) and usually resorts to objectionable means (most of which involve clutching a remote or staring at a moronic screen) to sustain the hours. But recently there was a twist in my tale. The child, on his own, started demanding hands-on daddyness. “Dadda will get me ready for school,” he declared, one fine day. There began an ordeal of choices. “What would you like to wear today?”  or “What would you like to watch with your breakfast?” and the resulting chaos. My smooth morning routine of getting the child to school in under an hour fell to pieces.  I have never had as much grief as the time since the joint venture. Some days I miss the OPU’s “I am so dead to the world, that I really don’t give a shit about how much trouble you are having” days.

I have come to realise that I prefer hands-off to hands-on any day. There are also days when I wish I were a praying mantis who has her male for dinner the day she gives birth.  I am not for sexual cannibalism but sometimes, it seems the only way to keep the men away from stuff they know practically nothing about.  It’s just simpler. You are the only boss, the child can never play good cop against bad cop, and it’s just less confusing. Also, once the men remotely show the inclination to be hands-on, you do the one thing you shouldn’t. You raise the bar.

 (This post appeared as my column yesterday in the Sunday Eye of the Indian Express)