There’s a photo of me aged three that kind of sums up my childhood. I’m sitting in my Wendy house, wearing my Superman costume, proud as anything. Back then my parents read me books like the Paperbag Princess, books about adventurous girls who save princes from dragons and skip off into the sunset, free and happy. I played with dolls but Barbie was out, although I managed to get hold of one and did what many girls do: cut off her hair and chucked her out the window. I climbed trees with abandon, never brushed my hair and had a fine collection of gender-neutral velour tracksuits (this was the 80s).
Growing up, I always called myself a feminist - before it was as socially acceptable, as "hip", even, as it is now. Over time, I understood that feminism isn’t just about princesses, or even just about women, it’s about everyone. I understood that other factors - race, class and sexuality - make the struggle for equality harder. My girlfriends and I were cocky, fun-loving teenagers and hard working, hard raving 20-somethings, who felt entitled to whatever our male mates were getting – interesting careers, good sex, strong cider. And, with increasing numbers of women holding positions of power in politics, entertainment, media, and business than there were when I was a kid, it felt like the world was becoming more progressive, albeit slowly.
When I got pregnant, at 31, I dug out my tatty copy of the Paperbag Princess and kicked back. I’ve got this covered, I thought. But the world I encountered as a new mum wasn’t what I’d expected.
Of course, I was aware that kids toys and clothes still followed gendered lines, but the relentlessness of of it overwhelmed me. Although boy babies and girl babies are basically the same, girls’ clothes are tighter, with pastel tones, frills, pictures of flowers and hearts and butterflies. “Don’t buy me any of that pink shit,” I warned friends and family when I found out I was having a girl. My mate Katy made a babygro with the words “Daddy’s Little Feminist”. I bought monster shoes from the boys’ section, inherited a haul of brightly-coloured hand-me-downs.
Out and about, strangers would sometimes mistake my girl, with her natural mohawk and Wu-Tang onesie, for a boy. The apologies that followed if I corrected them! It’s like they’d said something unfathomably offensive. Some would offer a tentative, “How old is your little one?” - waiting for the all-important pronoun to tell them what they needed to know. “Six months,” I’d say, prolonging that moment of not knowing, before they’d plonk her clumsily into a gender category.
You see, it’s not about the clothes, really, it’s about the assumptions they represent. That girls should be nice and neat, delicate and tidy, that we shouldn’t make a fuss, we shouldn’t take up too much space in the world. Just the other week another mum I met at a playgroup told me she was pleased that her five-month old daughter doesn’t like to eat in public, “because she’s a girl”. Even something as innocent-seeming as the way we address kids as “good boy” or “good girl” reinforces the idea that their gender is the single most important thing about them. Not that they love cats or music or strawberries. The things they actually care about.
No matter what you tell your girl, she’s also looking to the example you set. Before we became parents, my boyfriend and I had lofty ambitions about how equally we’d do things but, during those early months, especially, this is easier said than done. Along came a baby who wanted to spend most of her time, night and day, breastfeeding. And biologically there was only one of us who could do that. Shared parental leave is now option - and I know couples who’ve used it - but not many. There’s still a cultural shift needed before that changes. We’d have been up for it in theory but my boyfriend had just started on a new career as a doctor so it didn’t make sense.
So while he went out to work, I was at home. Before I was a mum, I was pretty undomesticated. I lived in a flat with my boyfriend where I never cleaned once and I’m still not much good. But simply because I was in the house so much, I found myself doing more of the ‘female’ tasks: washing, shopping, baking weird sugar-free oat bars from recipes I’ve found on Instagram, which the baby hurled across the room in disgust with a blood curdling, “Nooooooooooooo”. We were slipping into the traditional roles I’d always thought we’d manage to avoid.
Since that first year it’s become easier to split things more equally - but it takes organisation. We’re lucky - we can (just about) afford childcare for three days a week. Because I’m freelance, my work’s more flexible than my boyfriend’s so I look after the kid solo two days a week, but when I have an article to finish, he takes her on the weekend or on his days off. We both clean. We both cook. We tot up any child-free leisure time we accumulate and pay each other back.
Over time, I’ve relaxed my stance on pink. I sometimes have pink hair myself, after all. The main thing is for her to know she can choose from an array of different life options. That earning money and wiping baby arses are both important jobs - and neither entirely the domain of any gender.
A study last year claimed kids as young as 18 months prefer gendered toys. This, despite, being so young they don’t yet understand gender. My daughter is 18 months next week and she knows exactly what gender is. Already she divides the world into mummies and daddies. A woman on the front of a magazine? “Mummy”. A man in a catalogue? “Daddy”. A Disney princess? “Mummy”. A cartoon rat in a bowtie? “Daddy”. I realise now that my feminist childhood took thought and effort from my parents and I appreciate that. And I realise, too, how far we still have to go.