We’re Raising Our Daughter Gender-Neutral, But She Only Wants P

  • Dear Care and Feeding,

    My husband and I have a frequent disagreement on our 3-year-old and her love for dresses and all things pink! For the first two years of her life, she was constantly mistaken for a boy because she wore gender-neutral clothes. We direct her towards books and other media that do not represent traditional gender roles (no sparkle princesses!). We ask friends and family to refrain from commenting on her appearance and clothing, if they can help it, and to instead focus on skills or interests. However, our daughter adores the color pink, insists on wearing dresses, and is currently obsessed with accessories. I am fine with this, though I hope it will be a phase.

    After a few battles about wearing her sole pink dress when it was dirty, my daughter and I did some online shopping together and she chose a few more dresses to order (all of them were pink, obviously). My husband is unhappy that I encouraged her obsession by purchasing the dresses and letting her wear some of my old jewelry. He gets annoyed when dresses get tangled while climbing a rock or running and says that dresses and accessories aren’t suitable for doing most things. I appreciate his commitment to raising our daughter without gender stereotypes, but I also want to encourage her to make her own choices. I feel like if we push back too hard on her love for dresses and jewelry, it will backfire, and she will only become more obsessed! Help!

    —Pretty Annoyed With Pink

    Dear PAWP,

    It often seems to be the case that eschewing “traditional gender norms” involves identifying things that are coded as girly or feminine as bad. The argument against “sparkle princesses” is typically that they teach girls to aspire to unrealistic standards of beauty, or promote the idea that they should be looking for Prince Charming to come save them. The same argument could be made for encouraging boys to climb rocks and run, while discouraging them from practicing nurturing with baby dolls and stuffed animals.

    Pink, puffy dresses should not be the only option available to girls, nor should they be for girls exclusively. However, that doesn’t mean that something is inherently wrong with the garments themselves. Furthermore, I think you’re missing the blatant sexism in “dresses and accessories aren’t suitable for doing most things.” I wear dresses and accessories nearly every day, as do millions of people of varying gender identities across the globe; I assure you, we do “most things” with ease.

    It seems to be that the goal for shielding a child from gendered clothing and activities would be to allow them to define their identity without having it assigned to them by their parents and society at large. But the “gender-neutral” clothing you have selected has led to your daughter being misgendered for a reason, and that’s because what we consider “neutral” in terms of gender often defaults to a masculine norm. “Boys clothes” are for everyone. “Girls clothes” are for girls. Additionally, there are many games and activities that can be played in dresses and even heels, so that these “girly” clothes are considered impractical suggests that the “gender-neutral” things you are choosing for your daughter to do may also fall along the lines of what would usually be labeled “boy stuff.” Is masculinity more neutral than femininity?

    Also, you’re worried that trying to direct her away from pink princess dresses will only make her like them more, but what’s the big deal if she does? Are you of the opinion that tulle skirts are inextricable from a damsel-in-distress worldview? Is this just fear that your daughter will have starkly different interests from you guys? Patriarchy is the enemy. Misogyny. Discrimination. And while glittery dresses and baubles are used as tools of these systems at times, they are not themselves at the heart of what stands between your child and the sort of liberated existence you want for her. To free her from dress-wearing as an obligation is noble; to code dresses as some sort of deplorable relic of a time gone by is just out of step with reality.

    Without saying it intentionally, it seems as though your version of gender-neutral is casting a negative light on traditional femininity as opposed to the ways of thinking that prescribe it as mandatory or inherent.

    Go to Goodwill and get your daughter some ruffly, puffy dresses that she can wear as she climbs trees without worry over replacing something expensive if she gets them messed up. Trim the dress so it’s not too long, put some shorts under it for ease of mobility, and get her some sparkly sneakers so she can complete the look and run around safely. Talk to her about gender norms, and why it’s so important that she doesn’t buy into the myth of “girl stuff” and “boy stuff.” Surround her with images and stories of dynamic women of diverse backgrounds—including those who serve high femme looks in dresses and the ones who prefer suits and hard-bottomed shoes, and those who are just as likely to show up in either. To quote the singer india.Arie, “It’s not what a woman wears, but what she knows.” Refocus this project. Good luck to you all.

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    Dear Care and Feeding,

    I am a 12-year-old kid who is currently doing distance learning. Recently I was invited to do a project with a friend from elementary school. The project, which her mother is in charge of, was described as something small and not that time-consuming, so I said yes. Unfortunately, it has not gone well.

    I now know the project involves more commitment than I want to give and skills in areas that do not interest me. Whenever there was something required of me for the project, my friend’s mom called my dad while he was at work, and though I asked my friend to have her mom call me instead, she kept bothering him. I go to an arts-based school, and this project requires coding and machines. I feel cheated. I wasn’t given the right information before I agreed to do it, and all of this is beyond my skill set.

    My friend’s mom is the one who has been in charge of the project and so I know not to blame my friend, but I can’t get over how this has made me feel. I spoke to both of my parents, and my mom sent an email to my friend’s mom about how this won’t work; we have gotten no response yet even though she wrote to her yesterday. I don’t know what to do. I have had negative interactions with my friend’s mom before (i.E., ripping off my contribution to the group project because it wasn’t perfect, grabbing my hand and putting bitter nail polish on it when she noticed my nails were bitten up, etc.). Am I in the wrong? If I am, and I am blowing this out of proportion, I will completely drop it. But I can’t shake the feeling that this is not OK.

    —Feeling Tricked

    Dear FT,

    I have to start from the bottom here. This woman grabbed your hand and put a bitter-tasting substance on it to get you to stop nibbling your nails?! Are your parents aware that it happened? What did they say about your friend’s mom ripping off your contribution to the project?

    The way this adult has treated you sounds awfully inappropriate, which is reason enough for you to want to tap out of this project. Beyond that, you weren’t given enough information to know what you were signing up for, and upon giving it a try, you found that it is overwhelmingly difficult and that you do not feel that rising to this challenge will benefit you in any meaningful way. You’ve made your choice, and it is more than reasonable. Ask one of your parents to inform your friend’s mom that you are done with this whole thing—and they should absolutely have some words for her about how she has treated you during this time period, as well as whenever she attempted to intervene about your nails.

    As for your friend, be honest and firm. The project was not what you anticipated, and it’s not something you want to do. If they cannot understand that, perhaps you need a break from this kid. Good luck to you, and I’m sorry this has all worked out this way.

    • If you missed Tuesday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

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    Dear Care and Feeding,

    My husband and I were dating for two years before getting married in April, and now we have a newborn (less than three weeks old). On multiple occasions, he has called our baby by the wrong name (the name of his first son, my stepson, who is 7 years old). I understand that sometimes there’s a slip of the tongue, but my stepson is not really in the picture. He has been out of state for the past two years, since the beginning of our relationship, and only visits twice in a year.

    I can’t help but feel like my husband’s emotional availability for our newborn is so low that he can’t even manage to say the correct name. I’ve brought it up to him every time he’s done it, and he says that he’s thinking about his first son. It makes me feel like the identity of our newborn is not good enough for him. It’s really invalidating to me; I carried this baby, and he means the world to me, but it’s like the feeling is not shared by his father. Is this a red flag? Has my husband chosen a favorite already? Do other parents in a blended family call their newborns by their older children’s names?

    —New Mom in the Fourth Trimester

    Dear NMitFT,

    Congrats on the birth of your son! I know this is an emotionally exhausting time for you, and feeling like your husband doesn’t share your exhilaration for your new baby must be difficult. However, I’m asking you—gently!—to consider that he may be dealing with some complicated feelings right now that you may not have considered.

    You speak of his elder son not being around almost as if his physical absence should make him less of a “big deal” to your husband than he seems to be; I certainly don’t believe that was your intention, but that is how the letter read. How does your husband feel about their relationship? Does he miss him? Was there ever any debate or fight over how much time they would have together? This sounds like a bad situation, whether it’s simply a matter of distance, or due to a contentious custody battle with an ex, or a father who isn’t committed to raising his child from a previous relationship (I’m hoping that isn’t the case here).

    It’s possible that the presence of a new baby has brought your husband’s thoughts back to the last time he was tasked with caring for one—one who grew up to be a son with whom he barely has a relationship. I doubt this is about having a “favorite,” but instead a matter of bittersweet nostalgia leading to a slip of the tongue. He could be missing his eldest, feeling guilty about the state of their bond, or fearful that he’ll end up in a similar situation with your son.

    Surely you’re not one of those awful women who disregard the existence of the children their partners had before their relationship, so you should try and figure out what’s going on with your hubby in regard to his eldest son. Have the boys met on FaceTime or Zoom? Is your husband calling his son regularly and maintaining a presence in his life despite the physical distance? Is his ex behaving badly or making it difficult for the two of them to stay in touch? I think you’ll get peace as it relates to the name slip-ups when you get to the heart of what is going on. Good luck.

    Dear Care and Feeding,

    My kid (age 9) won’t stop talking to me during Zoom school when I am trying to work from home. I am literally hiding around the house and begging her to go back to “class.” I am losing my mind. Help?

    —Pretend You Don’t See Me

    Dear PYDSM,

    Don’t get me started. This is why 2020–21 should have been a bye year for American students, because this whole thing is a joke and a nightmare and a mess and a scandal and everything else bad.

    Was she the Chatty Patty in her class before COVID? If so, then you’re gonna have to keep giving her the encouragement you (and her teachers) likely gave her back when schools were physically open. Create incentives for good behavior, hang a chart and track how long she’s able to go without getting distracted and trying to have a conversation, reward her for improvement. Also, if her class is having long periods of instruction without breaks, you may want to mention that to her teacher; kids need frequent pauses to reset and wiggle around in order to make it through an entire day of school.

     

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    If your daughter was more likely to sit quietly than most kids back when things were normal, she may be cozying up to you during the day because she’s sad or lonely without her friends, which is totally understandable. Try to carve out time to talk to her when she’s on recess or lunch. Tell her you’ll sit next to her if she’s feeling alone, and that you’re happy to have more time with her, but that you have to make it quiet time so you both can focus. She may simply be struggling to differentiate “Mom is here, and we can talk” from “Mom is here, but we both have work to do.” Try to explain to her that your ability to have a home in the first place is contingent upon your ability to pay for it, which means you have to work. Be blunt about that—pull out bills if you need to. And on occasion, when all else fails, some days you’ll need to say “screw it” and just have a 5-minute cuddle and chat session during what should be a math lesson, because we’re all struggling right now and that’s OK. Best wishes to you and to all of us who are in this nightmare.

    —Jamilah

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