Even before I became a mother, I knew I wanted to do my best to raise my kids in a feminist home free of outdated ideas of predetermined gender roles. If I had a girl, and she wanted to play in dirt and climb trees and dress "like a boy," she would be welcome to. And likewise, if I had a boy and he wanted to play with dolls and have his nails painted and dress "like a girl," that'd be fine with me as well. I was pretty much entirely certain that gender was entirely a social construct, and it didn't feel like I had any right whatsoever to tell them how they should act before they'd lived long enough to show me what felt right to them. So when I got pregnant with boy/girl twins, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to really act on my intentions of leaving gender out of the picture as much as possible.
It was an easy enough undertaking when my twins were babies — I mean, other than putting one in a pink and frilly outfit and the other in blue everything, how gendered can infants really be? As they got older and started to show more of their own individual personalities, it became clear that they were very different people, and, interestingly, that they seemed to naturally fall a bit more into traditional gender stereotypes than I'd expected they would. I began to see that my daughter, Madeleine, was a chatty, bubbly, more reserved child who would be happy to sit quietly and color with crayons or cuddle with a stuffy; while my son, Reid, was a late-talker with seemingly boundless energy, excelled instead at things that required strength and agility, and left a path of noise, dirt, and destruction wherever he went. While Madeleine would use high-pitch screams and dramatic whining to get our attention, Reid would be aggressive, trying to hit or bite or break things when he was frustrated.
Even though I still tried to maintain as much neutrality as I could, disciplining them in a similar way, buying them gender-neutral toys and clothes as much as possible, and not stopping them from taking an interest in things usually meant for their opposite gender (keeping my mouth shut, for example, when my son wanted to dress up as the lone female Paw Patrol character for Halloween, glittery pink dress and all), I still wondered where the divide was coming from. Could it really be that their gender behavior was hard-wired after all? Was I still passing on messages and expectations to them without realizing it? Maybe it was a coincidence that they tended to gravitate towards "girl" and "boy" things on their own? Or perhaps it was something else, or a combination of things?
Instead of continuing to just speculate about it, I decided to test myself — to treat my son and daughter exactly the same for an entire week. And during that week, I would pay attention, not just to the outcome, but to my feelings, my biases, and any judgment that arose (either from myself, or from others). Since, at 3 years old, they're already so different from one another, I knew that it wasn't exactly going to be the easiest task. But I was surprised to find that it was much more difficult than I ever expected it would be.
Even though my children are very different, they really do still have a pretty gender-neutral experience most of the time. They like to play together a lot, and sometimes that means doing "boyish" stuff like playing sports, or going outside in the dirt and pointing out all the bugs, and sometimes that means doing "girly" stuff like playing with dolls, or making up dances or playing dress up. When my daughter is given presents like Barbie dolls or play jewelry, my son is just as interested in it as she is, and when I brush my daughter's hair and put it in a ponytail or pigtails, sometimes he'll ask for a ponytail too (not realizing that, uh, he doesn't have enough hair for that).
I also realized that I was missing the opportunity to give them real compliments with substance instead of just commenting on how they looked.
But during this experiment, it became painfully clear to me that I said a lot of gendered stuff to them throughout the day without even sort of realizing it. When, for example, I'd style my daughter's aforementioned hair, I'd almost always follow it up with "oh, how beautiful!" or "what a pretty ponytail!" (mostly because she hates having her hair done, and also, she does look beautiful and her sweet little ponytail just killlls me). Even though I don't have to do much to my son's hair (we keep it short because it's annoyingly thick and grows like a weed), when I compliment his appearance, I'll say something about him being handsome, or that he's "my gorgeous boy." And while I have lots of gender-neutral nicknames for them (love, sweetie, booboo), I also refer to them as "lady" and "dude" or "missus" and "mister." Nothing awful, of course — they're all sincere and loving — but I hadn't recognized before how often they come out of my mouth.
As the week progressed, I tried to be more mindful about what it was I was saying to them. I tried to get rid of "pretty" entirely (since I think prettiness is a huge minefield for girls and women, and I wanted to leave notions of being pretty off of her radar for as long as possible), but I also realized that I was missing the opportunity to give them real compliments with substance instead of just commenting on how they looked. If I wanted them to care about more than just their outward appearances (and I do), then shouldn't I be the one teaching them how to do that?
After our morning hair session one day, I decided not to comment on how great I thought her hair looked (after all, why should she really care what her mother thinks about her hair?). Instead, when I was finished, I tried something a little different:
"Ah, we're done. Does it feel better with your hair up? Now you can run and play without it getting tangled!"
She didn't miss a beat.
"Can I go and run and play outside, Mama?"
I had to smile. Surely one day Madeleine would care about how her hair looks (chances are good that not that many years from now, she'll spend a lot of time on it!), but right now, it meant nothing to her. My comments, no matter how well-intentioned, had no value in her life at all — and had way more to say about me and my own feelings than about her.
They might have grown in my belly at the same time, but my twins look very different. My son has thick, dark hair, my husband's hands and feet, and giant head, and a solid, muscular build. My daughter has super-fine light hair, with a slight, teeny-tiny, twig-like body. Part of this difference is explained by the fact that they were born 15 weeks premature, and my daughter has a more complicated health history than my son. She is, like many preemies, considered to have low muscle tone, and is only third percentile for height and weight. She also has mild cerebral palsy on her right side — most notably in her right ankle and foot.
My own body hang ups and disordered history with weight and eating have meant that I've long been more aware of trying not to comment or pass any judgment on Madeleine's body (or Reid's, although as my son, his body is less of a trigger for me than my daughter's). But even though I work hard not to say anything to her, I still struggle with the thoughts I keep to myself.
Halfway through the week, I took Madeleine to have her foot casted for her first AFO (ankle-foot orthotic), which her doctors hope will help curb her pronounced toe-walking, as well as give her right leg more stability. As she was being examined, I remembered a conversation I'd had a few days with another mom when my husband and I took the kids to an amusement park. She also had a 3 year old, and we were swapping stories, when I mentioned Maddie's CP. It's not super noticeable, so the woman said she was surprised to hear that, but then she followed it up by saying,
"Oh, is that why her calves are so muscular?"
It was an innocent question — and the answer actually is yes, her toe-walking has made her calves stronger — but it nagged at me the whole ride home. As a short person (I'm 5'1") who has always been bothered by her decidedly not long and lean body (chunky, tall-boot-hating calves, included), the idea that Maddie might end up with legs that looked like mine was concerning.
"Maybe we should put her in ballet?" I suggested to my husband on the ride home. "You know, so she can get ballerina legs instead of, well, my legs." Thankfully, my husband had enough sense to roll his eyes at my comment and move on to a more important subject.
I had to ask myself, would I be so lenient with Reid if he were a girl?
At the foot clinic appointment, when we discussed what we could expect from the AFO, I felt I had to ask: "Will her calves have a chance to be less muscular once she stops toe-walking?"
The woman casting Maddie's leg seemed a bit confused:
Well, yes, since she's toe-walking, she's relying more on her calf muscles than she otherwise would. But, you know, it's not a bad thing that her calves are strong.
As soon as she said it, I felt sheepish. I knew she was right of course — there is absolutely nothing wrong with anything about Madeleine — and if it had been Reid sitting there, I bet the thought wouldn't have even crossed my mind (boys are supposed to have strong muscles, right?). I knew I had to check my ideas about what I thought it meant to have a female body, especially since I absolutely wouldn't have had to same worries about my son.
One of the things I have learned about my son is that he is incredibly physical. If he doesn't get enough movement in his day, he loses his mind. And I often underestimate just what he can handle. He regularly climbs things I didn't think he could climb, lifts and carries things I assumed were far too heavy, and jumps from things I figured were way too high. This drives me insane on the inside, but I've also learned that he is pretty calculated in his choices — he won't do it unless he's pretty sure he'll be able to — and so I try to stay unruffled on the outside and let him explore what he's capable of doing with his body. But throughout the week, now that I was paying attention, I realized I rarely ever afforded Madeleine the same opportunity.
Part of that, of course, is that she has cerebral palsy, and hence, some very real physical limitations that put her in more danger of hurting herself than her brother. But I had to ask myself, would I be so lenient with Reid if he were a girl?
Maybe Maddie would still eat less than her brother, but I should at least give her the opportunity to decide instead of letting her know that's already what I expected.
I thought about all of the times people have commented on Reid's climbing or running or jumping skills — strangers at the park, or just family and friends — and I realized they all followed the same kind of pattern. "Wow, what a strong little guy!" "He's so brave and determined!" "You should put him in sports or take him rock climbing!" And the undertone, whether intended or not, is always he's such a boy.
The truth is, if he were a girl, I'd probably be more concerned. I'd probably want him to sit still a little more. I'd probably be wondering if he was going to be a "tomboy," or whether he'll struggle more at school because he's so active (he will, we've been told, probably still struggle a bit to sit still at school, but that it's "a boy thing" and so quite common).
I didn't want to discourage his natural ability in any way — it's who he is — but I did want to use it as a learning opportunity to challenge my assumptions. Reid is good at climbing because he is good at climbing, not because he's a boy. He might need more practice to feel comfortable sitting still, because he likes to move, not because boys are antsy. If he continues down that path and feels most comfortable being active and physical, then we'll encourage him to follow it, because that's where his strengths lie. But if he doesn't, it won't mean he's any less impressive, or will be any less valuable as a man.
Even though I knew certain things — like my own issues about body criticism — would probably be things I'd have to grapple with during this experiment, there was one major difference that I wasn't expecting: the differences in Maddie and Reid's food intakes. Maddie has always been a bit pickier than her seemingly-always-hungry, food-loving brother (yet another thing that often gets commented on as being "a boy thing," despite the fact that he probably inherited this trait from his mother), but I hadn't realized until I was purposely trying to make everything equal that I routinely expected Reid to eat more than Maddie. I would put more food on his plate than on hers. I would ask him more often if he were hungry, especially if he was grumpy (whereas if she were grumpy, I'd assume she was tired). And if Maddie didn't finish her meal, I'd leave the rest on Reid's plate, assuming he'd be happy to eat some of it.
As someone who suffers from disordered eating, this felt like a slippery slope. Even now, I was teaching them plenty about their own eating habits: that Maddie was picky and not as interested in food, while Reid was the guy who always wants to eat and will finish off your leftovers. And it wasn't just me: other people regularly comment on Reid's enthusiastic eating habits as though it's a reflection of his character, when in all likelihood, it's just more about having a less-discerning palate and finding pretty much everything delicious.
If you'd asked me before, I would have insisted I treated Madeleine and Reid exactly the same. But that's not true.
Once I realized that difference, I knew that I needed to nip that in the bud ASAP. Maybe Maddie would still eat less than her brother, but I should at least give her the opportunity to decide instead of letting her know that's already what I expected. So even though it meant more food left on her plate at the end of every meal, I made sure to give them each the same amount for the rest of the week. And I've continued to do so ever since.
Girls Versus Boys
This experiment was an interesting one for me because it forced me to draw some unexpected conclusions. The first, most obviously, is that I needed to pay more attention to the seemingly-insignificant things I said and did that actually had more meaning than I realized. The second is that I needed to keep being mindful of my own issues as a human being separate from my children, and probably work on them a little bit more than I have been. But the third is that I had to come face-to-face with the difficulty that is trying to be an equitable parent when you have twins who are so different.
If you'd asked me before, I would have insisted I treated Madeleine and Reid exactly the same. But that's not true. I treat them differently because they are different. They have different needs and different abilities and strengths and weaknesses, and it's my job as their mother to tailor my parenting to them instead of expecting a one-size-fits-all approach to be good enough.
Maintaining (and celebrating) these differences is, and will continue to be, important to me. But having paid a little bit more attention to my unchallenged assumptions, I realize now that I also can't let their differences determined what I think they can or cannot do.