Thursday, April 22, 2010

Fairy forests and thwacking bracken

Last week we spent some time at a friend's rural property. Despite the hills and the trees and the many things to investigate – burrows, dells, a shack near the point of collapse – my girls began moaning that they were bored. I recalled other children here, boys, who used to spend hours energetically slashing at ferns. "Why don't you thwack bracken?" I suggested. My girls looked blank. "You know," I said, "hit it with sticks and knock it over." They stared at me as if I had two heads. And with a vague sense of failure I said, "Well, you could make a fairy forest."

"Ooooh!" they squealed like something out of Enid Blyton, and ran off to build a little place of magic.

Now, I have to admit it is an excellent place to dream of fairies. The bracken towers over their heads, waving softly in the breeze. It casts dappled shade on lichen-studded stones and moss, and nearby, under pine trees, red polka-dotted toadstools grow. The landscape recalls an English story: pleasantly damp, threaded with springs, the fields and folds curve into forest. We have spent enough time there that my girls feel comfortable wandering and playing by themselves; yet the blackberries and the burrows and the forest and the leeches are mysterious enough to feed their imaginations. No wonder they want to build a fairy forest.

But where do they get the fairies from? My girls have been playing fairies and princesses and brides for years, often conflating the three. I never encouraged it, and they watch almost no television, but even so these themes dominate. And I find myself in a bind.

I want them to grow up with options aplenty. I want them to get interested in science and maths and trucks and how things work; I want them to feel free to be doctors or judges or engineers or construction workers, and not feel confined to girly roles. But they are so interested in pretty clothes and sparkly shoes, little fairies and babies. "Have I unwittingly shaped them?" I wonder as I watch them carefully don a bracelet, or a headband embroidered with flowers. They like glitter and beads; they choose their own outfits; they prefer pink. They wish I wore dresses and high heels, and often tell me so. I have no idea how they turned out like this. Giving them options, when all they choose is pink, is challenging.

At times I am tempted to burn the pink, and throw the dolls away. Yet my own mother was a professional who fought to gain acceptance and recognition in her field – and who banned dolls and pink from the house. She was so afraid of forcing us into domesticity, as she herself had felt forced, that she made it difficult for us to engage in domestic role play. Ironically, of course, despite her good intentions, the bans imposed limits of their own.

I studied maths at uni, to a great extent because I had been told for years that women should study science and I convinced myself to enjoy it. I didn't hate it, but I was never relaxed; I had no sense that I deeply belonged there. Yet I rarely explored domesticity, never holding dolls or even babies until I had my own children. I always assumed I would be a busy professional, no kids; instead, I am at home with three of them, and, for the most part, loving it.

It's taken me years of unlearning to recognise that, like so many women, I love children, I love being home, and I love words – and nurturing these loves is as authentic as smashing through a glass ceiling.

Now, as a mother, I want to give my daughters the freedom to know themselves better than I knew myself, to have less to unlearn in their twenties. I want them to consider parenting and part time work with the same seriousness and delight that they might consider a professional life with no kids, for surely the whole point of feminism is options.

So I let my girls have dolls, along with trucks and blocks and things to hit – and they do trundle toy trains around, they do wear blue. At the same time, they spend much more time with their dolls, breastfeeding them, changing their nappies, swaddling them, and singing them to sleep; and I can do a full load of pink in the washing machine.

Perhaps my generation, daughters of the revolution, are always going to find the balance difficult; not quite comfortable at home with kids, not quite relaxed in full time employment, and not quite sure what we want for our daughters. How do we let them pursue their interests without choking on fairy dust? How do we encourage them to explore different roles without preferencing some over others? Thinking about these things, I watch my daughters, and I realise perhaps it's both simple and difficult. All it takes is for me to be as comfortable watching them build a fairy forest as I am delighted when they pick up a long stick, stride purposefully into a field, and get busy thwacking bracken.


  1. Ah yes - it's a hard one, isn't it? I am (sadly) childless myself, but it's something I've observed a lot in those of my friends and siblings who have tried to steer their girls away from the world of pink.

    I think one of the things it shows is the pervasiveness of culture. It's easy to think that if you avoid the conscious actions under your control that promote stereotyping, then stereotyping won't happen. But:
    a. your girls live in a society, and are subject to influences from all over the place, not just your own. They pick stuff up from school, from you and your friends' conversation, stuff they observe when they're out and about etc. etc.
    b. you are a product of your own culture, and will do subtle things you aren't aware of that train them in a certain direction.

    One of my favourite examples of the latter (although not related to the gender-expectations part of culture) is watching a friend breastfeeding her 8 month old son. There were 4 or 5 adults in the room, most relatively unknown to him, and he was super-distracted. He'd have a brief drink, then roll away and stare at us all for a bit until he was eventually persuaded to roll over and drink some more. Whenever my friend decided he was so absorbed in what was going on in the room that he must have finished feeding and so started to cover herself up etc., he began screaming in outrage, and she went back to feeding him. As she got more and more frustrated, I realised that little Alec, at the age of 8 months, was learning his culture. In NZ, we like to give children choices, and feel that it is wrong to impose structured expectations on them. Alec was learning this value system. There is NO WAY a Swiss child (I've also lived in Switzerland, as has this friend) would have been handled this way: if he rolled away from the breast he would have been rolled back - if he continued to refuse to feed then that would have been the end of the feed. And so Swiss children grow up believing their job is to choose a path in life based on a defined set of options and Kiwis grow up confused as to how to even begin to decide what to do with their adult lives, and often somewhat resentful that they have to narrow it down to anything in particular anyway. My friend could deny her son access to jandals, hokey pokey icecream and holidays in the bach at the beach as much as she likes, but so long as she breastfeeds him that way (and does all the other things that seem 'natural' to her), he will still grow up Kiwi!

    So I guess your girls will still grow up girls (in a gendered rather than physiological sense) unless you and your husband examine how you parent them in a detail that is extraordinarily unlikely to be practical!

    And yet, I think that that's mostly a good thing. If you talk to them about options, and make sure they seem them in real life as they observe you and other women, then they'll still surely pick up on the possibilities. But if you were able to truly raise them without the gender-conditioning society expects they'd grow up awfully isolated in a world that couldn't make sense of them.

    I speak as the daughter of a feminist father and wife of a feminist husband who is learning to accept that my own 'feminine' likes and desires can actually be OK!

  2. You have got to publish this in the Age. And write a book full of your thoughtful, beautiful and spare prose so that I can buy it for me and all my friends that need these conversations,,,

  3. There's something about "deep belonging" wherever you find it, which permeates the rest of the personality and indeed the relation with culture(s).

    We'll always have places/sensations in which we belong, and other places where we don't fit in.

    The fairies in my life wear motorbike jackets and have hairy legs, and I would imagine witchetty grubs in the forest.


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