I sit on the floor in the Kids’ Bedding aisle at Target, nearly in tears. Pink and purple and flowers and butterflies and polka dots to my left, green and blue and orange and bulldozers and dinosaurs and ships to my right. We’re here to buy bedding for Adeline’s new big girl bed, which will arrive tomorrow. And I’m realizing that my efforts to practice gender-neutral parenting have succeeded: Adeline wants the bulldozer sheets. So why am I crying?
Why, indeed. Let’s start with the simplest reason: I don’t like the bulldozer sheets. They don’t go with the rest of her room, which I’ve carefully and thoughtfully decorated over the last two years. And personally, I just think they’re ugly. But what right have I to decorate her room? What does it matter what I think of the sheets? These are her sheets and it’s her room. If she likes them, that’s all that matters. My personal aesthetics be damned.
But I want her to like the things that I like! This divergence in our tastes is just another outward sign that she will separate from me, more and more as time goes by, one day slipping away from me entirely. Shit. Even the aesthetics point wasn’t simple.
And it only gets more complicated from here. I show her a set of sheets from the girl side of the aisle, something relatively tasteful: purple, light green and yellow polka dots on a white background. “What about these?” I ask her. She considers for a moment, looking at me instead of the sheets. Shit. Am I influencing her to pick something she doesn’t want? “Or if you like the bulldozer sheets better, let’s get those.” She runs back across the aisle. “Bulldozers!” Her voice couldn’t be more certain. OK, I tell myself, just get the bulldozer sheets.
But what if the only reason she wants the bulldozer sheets is because in my effort to be gender-neutral, I’ve over-emphasized the boy things? Dear god, this is just getting more and more confusing. Whenever she shows any interest in the Disney Princess stuff I very clearly discourage her from liking it. (Because those over-sexualized, disgusting, fake-looking, women-girls have absolutely nothing to do with any reality, boy, girl, gender-neutral or otherwise.) But I did buy her a baby doll (2!) and mini stroller and grocery cart and play kitchen, in addition to dinosaurs, cars and trucks, legos, art supplies, and playdoh. I really am trying to be gender neutral, letting her play with whatever interests her. But maybe my discouragement of the Princess stuff has made her feel like all “girly” stuff is off limits. Maybe I’ve made her believe that all girl things are inferior.
This is when I’m at risk of crying. Have I ruined my daughter?? I try to call my husband to have him tell me that I’m being crazy, but he can’t talk. Too busy at work. Just buy the goddamn bulldozer sheets, I tell myself again. This isn’t rocket science.
I’m still trying to convince myself that this is what she wants. I think of her clothes. All the ones that I bought her before she started deciding for herself are girly. Because the truth is, despite my attempts to be gender-neutral, I really do like pink. I really do like the cute girl clothes. And all the boy clothes are just so BOY. If I wanted to get tasteful gender-neutral clothes, I’d have to go to a boutique and spend $80 on a shirt that she’ll wear for six months and probably cover in ketchup within ten minutes. I’m not willing to do that. I want the cheap clothes. And the issue of why cheap clothes are so incredibly gendered while parents who want to buy gender-neutral clothes have to be able and willing to spend massive amounts of money really deserves an entire post of its own. One that would talk about our society: our classism, our sexism, supply and demand, why certain parents really do want highly gendered clothes, toys, bedding, etc., and how hard it is to get out from under the culture you were raised in. But this is not that post.
So anyway. She has a lot of girly clothes. But since she started picking out some of her own things, her clothes are more varied. An adorable black and white striped shirt with a gold glittery heart (girl aisle), a bright blue shirt with a dinosaur skeleton (boy aisle), purple gloves (girl aisle), an Elmo T-shirt (boy aisle), a red Cars-themed hat (boy aisle). Her favorite toy is her Dino, a brachiosaurus. But she sometimes plays with her babydoll and she loves pushing around the stroller. OK, I tell myself. She has varied interests. I haven’t unduly influenced her.
I take a deep breath. I call her over and hold up the polka dots and the bulldozers. “Which one do you like better?” Because apparently her repeated shout of “Bulldozers!” the entire time we’ve been here wasn’t enough. I need to hear it one more time. And she says it. “Bulldozers!”
So we buy the ugly bulldozer sheets. And I don’t even cry.