Being a parent gives you no end of things to worry about. Will my older daughter find an antidote to her vegetable ‘allergy’? Will the girls learn that sharing toys is an inherently good thing and not just an insurance policy against being overlooked by Santa? Will they take a cautious approach to drugs, legal and illegal? As a parent you learn that some things can’t be controlled and children just have to find their own way – with the right guidance of course.
But there’s something I worry about that I’m not sure if I can or should intervene in: what if my daughter turns out like me? Don’t get me wrong, I am ok. No, really. I mean, I don’t do drugs, I am not psychotic, I think I am a reasonably balanced and sensitive individual and have lots of friends (most of whom fit the above description too). ‘Well adjusted”, as one boyfriend’s friend observed many years ago.
But it wasn’t always thus. As a child I was a tomboy. I much preferred riding my bike, climbing trees and breaking windows while working on my throw from the outfield than I did playing with dolls or doing crafty things. Actually that’s not entirely true. I did enjoy a Barbie while I was shaving her head but, when I realised the hair wouldn’t grow back, I lost interest. But I digress.
When my siblings and I were young enough to enjoy playing as mixed sexes everything was fine. But once the dread of girls and boys germs emerged, I was considered kind of weird for doing what I did and looking how I did. I remember bobbing for apples at a birthday party and hearing a girl in my class behind, who caught a glimpse of the logo on my jeans, exclaiming, “Oh! She’s wearing Snowy River jeans! Are you a boy??!!!” and giggling hilariously. (I wish I had the kickboxing knowhow then that I do now.) And being scorned after arriving at school after a vigorous walk (is there any other way to walk?) by another female schoolmate who observed, “Gosh Kate, your hair is never very NEAT, is it…?” (No, you cow, but I can win running races, jump higher than the boys on my bike and win all of my handball games. What can YOU do with that pretty hair?)
Anyway, you get the picture.
Back to Olive, my oldest. At childcare she spends most of her days racing around with the boys. When she gets tired, she seeks out the girls and plays gently. This morning I observed her stocky casual swagger across the park as she eyeballed another family, undaunted by their number and supremely confident of her ownership of the park. Oh yes, and her hair was awry, as it usually is. (No hairclip lasts more than 5 minutes and a brush is more useful as a hammer…)
There are many many wonderful things about Olive’s way, which seems so similar to mine all of those years ago (and if you could see my hair right now you might say the similarities continue…). And I don’t want her to lose her zest for life, her confidence, her attitude or any of the wonderful dimensions of life she will experience by being the way she is.
But I want to protect her from the growing self-doubt I experienced as I realised I wasn’t like other girls. And I want to protect her from the harassment I experienced, from girls and boys alike, as I became better and better at the things that I shouldn’t even be trying to do. Like bike jumps, kicking the footy and playing cricket. And I want to protect her from the betrayal I felt when the boys who had excitedly challenged me to a game of handball, and taunted each other when I won, then turned on me for being ‘butch’.
I can’t though. I can’t protect her from these things, just as my mother couldn’t protect me from them. She tried, or at least tried to pick up the pieces. “Big and strong is beautiful darling”. Yeah right. Tell that to boys who won’t talk to me and the girls who laugh at me. I always remember a counselling session with her psychotherapist mother, during which mum and I both cried when she said something like, “Oh darling, I WISH you could see yourself as I did, when you would run with such a look of joy on your face, as if it was the only thing you wanted to do in the world.”
Now, at nearly 40 (that will be the subject of another self-analytic piece – just a warning) I feel pretty much whole in the sense that I am comfortable with my strength and physical abilities (such as they are; a hip replacement 2 years ago forced me to change my ways somewhat) as well as my more traditionally ‘feminine’ side. But it took a long time and there were many years of pain along the way. I just hope that the world has changed enough for Olive’s journey to be easier than mine in this respect (though I suspect that gender roles are as entrenched as ever, they simply take slightly different forms).
It might be that Olive’s experience is nothing like mine and that I am reading too much into her personality – and projecting too far into the future. I hope so. And I hope that, whatever her issues are (and she will have issues – we all do!) my experiences will help me guide her through the pain and self-doubt that are an inevitable part of becoming happy and whole.