Tag Archives: motherhood

The Myth of the Helpless Female

Barbie WorldOne of my neighbours, a 60-something country guy named Paul, came over recently to say hi and offer me some firewood. During the course of our conversation, I mentioned that I’d been fixing my lawnmower.

“You need any help?” he asked.

“Nah. I just had to replace the starter cord. I’m putting it back together now.”

“Huh,” he said, looking impressed. “You’re not one of the usual useless females, are you?”

I muttered something along the lines of: “I can usually figure out how to do things… I don’t like useless people…” But I was flabbergasted as to how I was supposed to respond to his comment.

I’m pretty sure — no, I’m positive — that he meant it as a compliment. But it doesn’t feel right to say thank you for being essentially told that I’m not like most women, because I’m not “useless”.

This is not the first conversation I’ve had with someone about repairing the lawnmower (which, incidentally, is not actually mine — it’s one I borrowed from a friend). My other neighbour, an almost-deaf man in his late 60s with a heart of gold and the gender-bias of someone from the 1950s, laughed when he saw me working on the mower. The conversation went something like this:

Him: What are you doing?

Me: Fixing the mower.

Him: *laughs* You?

Me: Yes…

Him: *smiling patronisingly* What’s wrong with it?

Me: The starter cord broke. I was just replacing it.

Him: Well, what you’ve got to do is–

Me: It’s alright. I’ve done it.

Him: You?

Me: Yes.

Him: …. Maybe you should have a look at my car. *laughs and walks off*

Which leads me to believe, of course, that fixing a lawnmower is somehow related to having a penis.

Either that, or there is a large subset of the community that believes that to be the case.

Yesterday, I was fortunate enough to go on a lovely bushwalk through a mountain-top rainforest with a close friend and her three children. Halfway through the walk, her six-year-old daughter started limping and pretending her foot was sore. “She’s copying her book,” my friend explained.

So, it turns out that there’s this book — it may or may not be part of the Barbie franchise of sparkly pink merchandise — and the story invokves a group of girls going for a bushwalk. One of them goes off on her own and wanders into a cave. But don’t worry — she doesn’t get lost. She sprains her ankle and has to be rescued.

Yes, she sprains her ankle.

Honestly, I thought we were past the days of helpless female victims spraining their ankles and having to be rescued. But apparently not. Apparently, this is still what we’re teaching our girl-children.

Girls have weak ankles. Girls need to be rescued. Girls can’t look after themselves.

I had a conversation with a friend of a friend last week, actually. An incredibly talented, creative, intelligent woman who pretended not to understand cell phone plans, because it’s easier to appear stupid and helpless than to argue with her husband — and that way, she gets what she wants, and he feels happy and superior, and everyone wins.

Well, everyone wins assuming she’s happy for her husband to believe she’s helpless.

It strikes me that it’s a self-perpetuating cycle of women pretending to be helpless, which makes men treat women like they’re helpless, and so women pretend to be helpless… So much so that it’s seen as somehow aberrant for a woman to fix her own lawnmower. Or understand a cell phone plan. Or go exploring on her own and discover a rare type of fungi before being found, sprain-free, by her friends.

In fact, some of the “best” relationship advice I was ever given was about how to keep the man in my life happy. “Sometimes,” I was told, “you just have to let them open the olive jar.”

The idea being that in order for a man to feel happy in a relationship, the woman needs to ask him to help her do “manly” jobs, even though she’s perfectly capable of doing them for herself. You know, things like fixing broken things, and mowing the lawn, and lifting anything heavier than a saucepan…

I tried it. It worked. But eventually, I found myself asking:

What kind of relationship is this?

Is this the kind of relationship I want?

What am I teaching my children?

I have no interest in perpetuating the Myth of the Helpless Female.

And so when Paul, my always-helpful neighbour, told me I wasn’t like the “usual useless female”, I didn’t quite know how to respond. Should I be flattered? Angry? Grateful? Before I’d really worked out my emotions, he said, “My wife, God rest her, I loved her. But she was useless. She couldn’t do anything.”

And I felt sad. Because chances are, he never got to see the real her. He never got to see how useful and capable and intelligent she was, because she was too busy spraining her ankles and handing him jars of olives.

Just like she was taught.

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It’s My Birthday, It’s Not All About You

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When I was growing up, there were a few things that were constants when it came to birthdays. No matter where in the world we were living, who we were with, or what the weather was like, my birthday was all about me.

I got presents.

I got attention.

I got a cake.

I got to choose what we had for dinner.

Really, isn’t that what birthdays are all about? Celebrating the birth of someone? Giving them just one day a year where it really, truly is all about them?

So it came as a huge shock when, a few years ago, I discovered that there are people out there who don’t think the same way. 

I first came across this phenomenon in a toy shop of all places. The lady in line in front of me was buying a series of toys. “Its my daughter’s birthday,” she explained to the cashier. Then she looked at the mountain of presents she was buying and said, “But, of course, I always give a little something to my other children so they don’t feel left out. It gets quite expensive when you have seven kids.”

Um, yeah. It would.

Judging by the number of toys she was buying, all seven of them were getting an equal number of gifts — obviously so no one felt “left out”. I imagine that having to do that seven times a year was pretty financially draining. I was a little horrified by the concept, but figured she was an anomaly — that I would be unlikely to ever run across another person who thought siblings should get presents on someone’s birthday.

I was wrong.

It happened first on Master Six’s birthday (he was only turning five at the time). Someone brought along a present for Master Three and said, “I didn’t want him to feel left out.”

“It’s fine!” I said. “He doesn’t need a present. It’s not his birthday.”

But it kept happening. Apparently there are more than a few people in the world who think that children are incapable of understanding that they get presents on their birthday, not on their brother’s birthday.

This, to me, reeks of the same kind of silliness that results in “medals for everyone!” and “prizes for everyone!” Imagine, if you will, a world where children never learn that sometimes, just sometimes, the world does not revolve around them. Imagine, if you will, a world where a fully grown adult says, “But it’s your birthday! I gave you a present. Why didn’t you give me a present? I feel really left out…”

It’s crazy.

But what, exactly, do you think it teaches children to believe about themselves and the world when you make a fuss of them on someone else’s special day, just in case they feel left out?

And what does it teach the Birthday Boy (or Girl)?

I can tell you that, as a child, I watched my brother and sister get fussed over on their birthday, and I was thrilled for them. Because it was their special day. And because, in a few months time, it would be my special day, and I would get all the attention for myself.

I want my children to grow up knowing that they get rewarded because they have done something special, or because we’re celebrating their special achievement or day. I don’t want my children to grow up knowing that they get rewarded because someone else has done something  worthy of celebration. I don’t want my children to grow up with the expectation that they will be rewarded because someone else has done something worthy of celebration.

That’s just crazytalk.

So I’ve made a decision. I’ve told people it’s not necessary to bring a sibling-present on birthdays. I’ve asked people not to bring a sibling-present on birthday. So from now on, whenever one of my children is given a gift on their brother’s birthday “so they don’t feel left out”, I’m going to take that gift away. They can have it back on their own birthday.

You know, the day that is all about them.

What do you think about presents to stop siblings feeling left out?

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A Mother’s Pride and a Helping Hand

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We were driving home today during peak hour, and found ourselves stopped at a red light. The boys were playing and singing in the back seat. I happened to glance out the window and see the guy in the car next to us — in the turning lane — struggling to start his car. It had obviously stalled (or something worse), and he was getting more and more flustered as each turn of his key resulted in… nothing.

“Aw, dude…” I muttered. I remember all too well the times I’ve been in a similar situation. Fortunately, it’s been many years since the last occurrence, but I recall the heat that rushed up my neck and across my face, the sense of shame and anxiety, the desperation… The guilt as other cars were held up on their journey, or had to drive around my broken-down car. All of those emotions came back in a rush as I watched this stranger turn his key on. Off. On. Off.

I gestured out the window. “The poor guy’s having trouble with his car. He can’t get it started.” I looked around. Both our cars were second back from the front, and the lights were red. “Maybe I can jump out and help him.”“What’s wrong, Mummy?” Master Six asked.

But just as I said that, both traffic lights went green. The guy with the broken-down car put his hazard lights on and climbed out of his vehicle. And the car behind honked its horn. I was holding  up peak hour traffic.

I had no choice but to start driving. But as I did, I glanced in the rearview mirror and saw the driver of the car behind broken-down-guy climbing out of his car as well. At least he was going to get some help to get his car off the road.

“Mummy!” Master Six said from the back seat. “Wait! Where are you going? We have to help him!”

“I’m sorry, “I said. “I can’t stop here. I have to move.”

That was clearly not enough.

“I’d like to stop, but then none of the other cars will be able to get past. Sometimes we just have to trust that someone else will help when we can’t. And there was another person getting out of their car to help.”

Master Six was silent for a minute. So was I. We drove.

“But what if he’s not okay? Can we go back and check? Please?”

I have to be honest: I didn’t want to. It was almost dark. I had two tired children in the car, and another 40+ minutes drive to get home. I really wanted to just keep on driving. But…

But I always remember another conversation — a conversation I had with my mother five years ago. I was telling her about an acquaintance I had, who spent his every Christmas morning at the children’s hospital carolling; moving from ward to ward, cheering up the children who needed it the most. “I want to raise children who do things like that,” I said. And she gave me a funny look and said, “But if you want them to do those things, you’d have to do them too.”

If I want my son to grow up to be someone who will put himself out to help those in need, I have to do it to.

So I turned the car around, and we drove back to that intersection.

I took off my seatbelt and opened the door. But that’s all I had time to do. Before I could climb out of the car, a few guys pushed the broken down car around the corner and off of the road. Turns out, they didn’t need my help at all.The broken-down car was still where we’d left it. So I pulled over to the side of the road. “You go, Mummy,” Master Six said. “We’ll stay here and watch you. Don’t worry, I’ll look after Master Two.”

But I didn’t have time to dwell on the lost time. Because Master Six had something else to say.

“You know, Mummy? I’m glad we came back. Now we know he’s okay. Are you glad, too?”

And I really was.

Do you have a fondness for Random Acts of Kindness? Share on!

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Rules for Dating My Son? No Thanks.

Let’s just get this out of the way first: Yes, I’ve been noticeably absent for several months. No, my absence wasn’t planned. Yes, I’m fine. I’ll probably explain in another post. But for right now, I have something else I’d like to talk about. 

If you spend any time on the vast stretches of the internet, especially social media, you’ve probably seen images like these popping up all over the place over the last however-many months:

Rules for dating my daughter

Rules for dating my son

I’ve seen people share these on Facebook and Twitter, touting them as being the Next Big Thing in parenting. As though any of this is actually positive.

Frankly, I think it’s awful. And not funny at all.

You know what’s funny? The way my son sings: “Shot through the heart, and you’re too late! You give gloves… A bad name.

That’s funny.

But publicly dictating controlling and sexist “rules” for your child’s emergence into adulthood? Not funny.

I have a number of issues with these memes, but let me stick to the main one . Also, since I have sons, I shall refer to that particular meme. I’m sure there’s someone else out there with girls who is, at this very moment, taking offence to the Rules for Dating my Daughter. (Solidarity, sibling-of-either-gender!)

My sons are currently 6 and (almost) 3. They are not even close to dating age. Nevertheless, I take exception to this meme for the inferences it makes about them, and about me.

It assumes that (a) my son isn’t capable of making his own decisions or standing up for himself, (b) because he’s a man, he will be unable to resist a woman who dresses “like a stripper” and sends sexts, regardless of any of her other traits — good or bad — and (c) I’m responsible for him and his happiness for the rest of his life.

Well, colour me silly (which is a shade of fuschia), but I’d like to think that by the time my boys start dating, I will have raised sons who are independent, intelligent, and discerning.

And I have zero desire to still be raising them when they’re in their twenties and thirties. Or forties. Or whatever age these “protective” parents think is the right age to release their beloved offspring into the wild.

It is not my job to choose my son’s girlfriend, wife, job, hobbies, financial plan, or living arrangements.

It is my job to teach my son responsibility and self-respect, and prepare him to make his own well-informed decisions.

(And to be there to support and comfort him when he inevitably makes a few bad ones.)

But if I absolutely, positively must create a list of rules for dating my son, it looks something like this:

  1. Have fun.
  2. Be safe.
  3. Respect each other.

What are your thoughts on these “Rules for Dating” memes?

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When the Death of a Baby is Just a Symptom

Car Seats

There was a news story on the radio this morning about an 11-month old baby who died.

“The infant’s body was found strapped into the car seat of his father’s car, outside a child-care centre in Perth. The discovery was made after the father went to collect his son, and was told by staff at the centre that he hadn’t dropped the baby off that morning.”

The reporter went on to say that the infant’s death was being ruled a “tragic accident”. But I wasn’t really listening.

I wasn’t even there.

I was in that child-care centre with that father.

And my heart was breaking.

I’m there when he rushes in after work. He’s pressed for time, as always, because the day’s work ran longer than expected. I see his forced smile and his tired eyes when he greets the staff. He’s thinking about the next thing he needs to do, always the next thing, pick up the baby, get home for dinner,  put the little one to bed, so much to do, so much to do.

I’m there when the staff double-checks their records and says, “No, you definitely didn’t drop him off this morning. Maybe he’s with your wife?”

I feel the father’s confusion and fear. I want to lash out with him, to demand answers.  Where is my baby? I did drop him off! I remember strapping him into his car seat and…

And he was in a rush.

And he was stressed.

And he was driving on auto-pilot, his mind already on the work he had to do that day.

I feel the moment when it hits.

I feel it like a spider-bites and extreme heights and all-consuming darkness.

I remember strapping him into his car seat…

In my mind, I’m there. I’m there when the father turns and runs — runs! — out to the parking lot. He sees his car, parked just where he left it. And he stops.

Because he can’t do it.

He can’t walk a single step closer. The dread…

I feel the dread like a barrier of pain.

We both know what he’ll see when he looks into his car.

I remember strapping him into his car seat…

…but I don’t remember getting him out.

In my mind, I’m there. I see him take one step. And then another. Because the dread has hold of him now. It’s got him through the heart, and that hook is barbed. Oh, is it barbed. It draws him closer, closer, closer.

The tears run down his face. He doesn’t know. And if he did, he wouldn’t care.

Because he can see his little boy now. His little angel. So peacefully resting in a sleep that will last for an eternity.

In my mind, I’m there. I’m there that morning. That fateful morning, It’s so early, and the baby is asleep, and we have to wake him up and make him eat and get him dressed and put him in the car and there’s no time for cuddles and games and time. Not today. Maybe tomorrow. Or on the weekend. Yes, definitely the weekend. But today, we have to get to work, to pay the bills, to run the errands, to do, do, do, do, do, so hurry up now, hurry up, we’ve got to get you to child-care, and I need to get to work, and pay the bills, and run the errands, and do, do, do, do, do.

And as I watch the father stare through the window at the body of his beautiful baby, I know he’s reliving that morning, too.

And I know that he would be willing to do anything, give up anything, sacrifice anything, for just one more smile. One more cuddle. One more day. One single opportunity to do things slower, and be present in the moment, and do whatever it takes to not end up here. Here. Standing in the hot sun. Staring at the single greatest “tragic accident” of his life, and knowing that nothing, nothing, will ever erase the pain he feels right now.

He will be standing here for the rest of his life.

I love this man.

I love him because he’s me. And he’s you. And he’s every single one of us. Every person in this world trying to do it right, better, best, perfect for our families and careers and dreams and hopes and futures and everything we’re told we can have if we just work hard enough.

But that is a lie.

No matter how hard we work, we can never erase the mistakes we make, the experiences we miss, the time we waste in pursuing a financial dream that is not even ours.

The death of this child is tragic. But it’s just a symptom. It’s a symptom of the way we live. Or the way we’re so busy trying to do and have everything, we completely overlook the most important things in our lives in favour of more, more, more.

This is not an isolated incident. These types of infant deaths are becoming more common. Last year, 25 infants died when their parents forgot they were still in the car — and that’s just in the US. (I’d look for worldwide figures, but I just can’t bear to read yet another story of a parent’s worst nightmare come to life.)

I have lived this man’s horror today. I’ve been there with him in spirit. I’ve felt the stomach-dropping, gut-churning, finger-tingling terror of realisation.

I’ve cried for him.

I’ve cried for all of us.

And I’ve hugged my children tight, then played silly games with them — even though I had other, “more important”, things to do.

I encourage you to do the same.

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The Thin Rainbow Line

Boys and DollsMy boys love cars and trucks. They dig in the dirt. They run around the house having sword fights and defeating zombie invasions. They like both pirates and ninjas. They also have a play kitchen, with a tea set and play food. They have fluffy toys and dolls and play at looking after babies. Last year, Big Brother spent weeks and weeks building The Ultimate Dollhouse out of shoe boxes, and then decorating it with matchstick furniture, frilly curtains, and artwork on the walls.

Both boys like trying on make-up and wearing my high heels. They also like making fart-noises at the dinner table.

Big Brother’s favourite colour has always been pink. He likes frills and sparkles and fairies. He likes having his nails painted. His ideal Treat Day is shoe shopping and a hair cut.

Or it was.

Because now he’s at school, everything’s changed.

His favourite colour isn’t pink anymore. Because “pink is a girl’s colour”.

He doesn’t like some of the music we used to listen to. Because “it’s girl’s music”.

He doesn’t want to hear stories about fairies and unicorns. Because they’re “girl stuff”.

He fights himself over his choice of clothes and activities. I can see it in his eyes and I can feel the tension in his body and the pain in his heart. And I can’t make it better.

I can tell him that boys can do whatever they want to do.

I can tell him that there’s no such thing as “boy stuff” and “girl stuff”.

But then he goes to school, and he argues with his friends, and he comes home feeling even worse than he did to start with.

“Mummy,” he said last month. “We were having a wedding in the sandpit today — not a real one, just a pretend one — and Schoolboy said that boys have to marry girls, and boys aren’t allowed to marry boys. And I said he was lying. And he said he wasn’t. But he was lying, wasn’t he?”

Because he’s six. And there’s no shades of gray when you’re six.

It’s not the legal concept of marriage he’s talking about. It’s the wedding that happens at the end of every fairy tale, the wedding that means Love. With a capital L. So I said, “Well, most of the time boys fall in love with girls, and girls fall in love with boys. But sometimes boys  fall in love with boys, and girls fall in love with girls. The important thing isn’t if they’re boys or girls. The important thing is the Love.”

“But Schoolboy’s parents said boys can’t marry boys.”

And then I’m stuck. Because I don’t want to tell my son that his friend’s parents are wrong. Or… anything else that will undoubtedly make its way back through the classroom to the parents in question. So instead I say, “Maybe his parents just don’t know any boys who love boys.”

And then he’s distracted by asking me about the boys I know who love boys, and the conversation trails off into me telling him stories of working in exciting places. Like retail stores.

And I don’t mind having those conversations. I expect to have many, many more conversations about love and sexuality over the coming years. Those conversations don’t make my heart ache.

My heartache is about gender roles.

It’s about my little boy feeling suddenly uncomfortable telling his friends he does ballet.

It’s about my little boy feeling ashamed for doing what he loves and being who he is.

It’s about my little boy coming to me a couple of days ago and saying, “Mummy, can I tell you something funny? Can you imagine (giggle) a boy wearing lipstick!”

And me not even realising why that’s supposed to be funny, and answering, “Yes.” And then waiting for the funny part.

But it wasn’t funny.

It wasn’t funny when I had to explain that boys are allowed to wear lipstick if they like it, and girls don’t have to.

I don’t like this sudden shift. I don’t like seeing my child having a great time playing with a toy, and then see him suddenly stop, put it down, and mutter that it’s a girl’s toy. I don’t like sending him out into the world and watching him struggle.

I don’t like it at all.

I wish I could wrap him up in love and paint his toenails bright rainbow colours and give him a ribbon for his hair and pink ballet shoes for his feet, and then let him run through the mud and build a city full of dinosaurs with lasers on their heads to fight the horde of brain-eating zombies about to attack.

I wish I could protect him from the gender-bias of the world. But I can’t. Not completely.

So I do what I can.

But I feel like I’m swimming against the tide.

No.

I feel like I’m using an umbrella to protect him from a tsunami, while walking on a tightrope above shark-infested lava.

But, you know what?

I’m going to keep walking that line, holding my umbrella in front of us, until my boys are strong enough to walk it on their own.

Because no matter how hard it is, my boys are worth it.

Worth It

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