A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Thursday, April 21, 2011


            “Do you have any slippers that would fit a four-year-old?
“Uh-huh.  D’you wanna see the boys’ ones, or the girls’?”
“Um… It doesn’t matter. Both, I guess.”
The Payless Shoe clerk looked at me as if I’d just told her I had a child with three feet.  Clearly she thought I was a drooling imbecile, but she directed me to my choices: pink shiny Cinderella slippers, or clunky rectangular Cars slippers.  They were at opposite ends of the store.
 I sighed – but I wasn’t really surprised.  Almost five years ago, I felt the leading edge of this storm, and tried to fend it off.  A friend watched with a mixture of amusement and concern as I plunged a sack of miniscule onesies into a bucket of dye.  Maybe she thought I was suffering from some sort of postpartum hormonal imbalance.  “You won’t be able to escape it in a few years, you know,” she said. The laundry sink was spattered with dark green.  “You will let them choose their own clothes when they’re older, won’t you?”
            I didn’t want to be Evil Controlling Parent, so I assured her that of course I would.  I nodded and smiled with exaggerated bonhomie. I told my friend that if my kids went through a Tinsel Princess phase and insisted on carrying sequin-covered purses to kindergarten, I’d honor their freedom of expression. 
But I wasn’t looking forward to it.
I hate pink. Ok, I said it.  I detest frills, and ruffles, and flounces.  Makeup and high heels and nylons are not my cup of tea -- to the point where I feel awkwardly cross-dressed on the increasingly rare occasions when I put them on.  Girly stuff just… grates on me. 
I’d like to think that my aversion to the stereotypical hallmarks of femininity has a reasonable basis – but I’m not sure this is true.  I can rationalize at least some of my arguments: stilettos are murder on the feet, dyes and bleaches are toxic, and waxing sounds – um – kinda painful.   Barbie might give a little girl a complex if her waist is larger than a dragonfly’s.  But Hello Kitty and Strawberry Shortcake are relatively benign, aren’t they?  Why do they make me bare my teeth?
Even as I dyed that batch of bubble-gum onesies, I felt a twinge of worry.  Maybe rejection of pink is a sign of some sort of deep-rooted hatred of myself.  Maybe it means I’ve absorbed the males-are-better assumptions of the patriarchy.  Maybe I’m a traitor to my gender – and therefore a traitor to my daughters.
Where do my biases come from?  As a kid, I was a tomboy, but not a die-hard one.  I loved climbing trees, constructing Tinkertoy and Erector Set masterpieces, and wrestling other kids to the playground sand.  On the other hand, I also liked skipping rope and playing hopscotch, and I adored a baby-faced cuddly doll whom I named, with the inimitable logic of toddlers, “Bedtime.” I took apart the vacuum cleaner and regularly shimmied up the swingset poles, but I also sewed myself a quilt and baked countless cookies.  Sometimes I wished I were a boy, but I couldn’t throw a snowball the width of a residential street, and I was so nurturing that I insisted on rescuing the ants my mother was trying to exterminate from the kitchen.  I was only really concerned with gender when it imposed limits on something I wanted to do.  I didn’t want to be told that only boys could help the teacher get the heavy textbooks from the supply closet. I didn’t want to be told that only girls could come to my birthday party.  When I grew up, I was going to be an inventor, an astronaut, a novelist, AND a mommy.
As an east-coast college student, I sometimes felt like a fish out of water in my baggy overalls.  I didn’t like Wonderbras or lipstick, but I did like boys, and for a while that seemed like it might be a problem.  But when I moved to Alaska, I found my ideal man.  Not only was he smart, funny, and kind (you’re welcome, Jay), but he also gave me skis instead of flowers, and said, with some consternation, on the morning of our wedding, “You’re not going to wear makeup, are you?” I slipped comfortably into a social and professional circle in which Carhardtts can pass as eveningwear.  Jay and I built our own cabin and dug our own outhouse.  I taught college classes and met with the mayor in my jeans and t-shirts, and felt pretty comfortable in my own skin. 
Then I had twin daughters.
Newborns are not aware of their own gender, and they are not concerned with fashion. Nevertheless, the fashion industry for the under-three-months set is booming.  To the credit of my friends and family – who know me, and who know Jay – our twins were given lots of green blankets, yellow pajamas, and snuggly teddy bears.  But pinkness is so ubiquitous that it can actually be hard to find clothes, toys, crib mattresses, ANYTHING that isn’t gender-specific.  Girl stuff has to be not only pink, but also lacy, frilly, and emblazoned with cute animals: bunnies, kittens, My Little Rainbow Sparkle Pony with Humongous Eyes.  Girl clothes say things like “Daddy’s princess.” Boy stuff comes with modes of transportation, or bigger, fiercer animals -- dinosaurs, dogs, rabid saber-tooth tigers -- and says things like “Li’l Trooper.”  Needless to say, baby boy clothes are hung on different racks from the girls’, sometimes many aisles apart, to avoid infectious cross-contamination.
What I discovered, while lugging two infant cars seats in and out of Fred Meyers, is that everyone I talked to – which was fairly close to everyone in the store, given the apparently magnetic qualities of infant twins – expected me to follow the unwritten laws of gender assignment.  Talon-fingernailed cashiers and pumpkin-shaped grandpas were embarrassed, awkward, and sometimes even openly pissed-off that I had not dressed my six-month-olds in a manner that made it obvious which sort of genitalia they had under their diapers. 
Did these people not realize that pale pink looks particularly hideous with strained carrot stains?  Frills and ruffles collect little chunks of curdled spit-up or other substances that ooze out of babies.  Some of the girls outfits on the rack defy all logic, all reason, and all laundry realities.  And if you think I am going to glue a ribbon to my kid’s bald head, I wanted to tell those well-meaning strangers, please return to aisle six: Tacky Plastic Seasonal Ornaments.  But at heart, I knew that my logic was masking a deeper annoyance.  I just… didn’t like pink.
Four years have passed by – sometimes as quickly as a full bowl of rice cereal catapulting off a highchair tray, sometimes as slowly as a toddler dressing herself.  My two wiggly squalling bundles have grown into waist-high humans with large vocabularies and even larger opinions.  Preschool gives them peers, and peers mean peer pressure. Daily, I watch, fascinated, waiting to be appalled. Let them make their own choices, my good-parent super-ego tells me, even as I try to stack those choices.
Their drawers overflow with clothes, mostly hand-me-downs, in shades and styles ranging from rose-petal-kitten to khaki-dinosaur.  Their room spills toys across the whole house: herds of stuffed animals, toe-stabbing beads, a fire helicopter that makes hideously annoying noises, and a thousand art projects made from old yogurt containers, toilet tubes, and duct tape.
Molly is my social child.  At the playground, the pool, the library, her eyes are always on the other kids – especially the bigger kids.  She can tell me who is already five, and who is still four-and-a-half.  “Alex can put on his outdoor gear the fastest,” she tells me.  “Anna skis in Junior Nordics.”  She knows who can ride a bike, who can read, and who can tie shoes. Molly has also taken note of which toys and clothes are preferred by which gender.
Lizzy, meanwhile, is in her own happy little orbit.  On Planet Lizzy, making a cardboard mushing sled for her stuffed dogs can reign supreme over human interaction for hours at a time.  She’s happy to play with her peers and their toys, but she’s blissfully unconcerned with pecking order, competition, and petty social conventions.  Lizzy has strong opinions about her wardrobe – sometimes so strong that I have to wrestle clothes off her body in order to wash them – but her three favorite pairs of pants are too-short corduroys with Dora on one leg and patches on both knees; olive drab overalls with multiple pockets and hammer loops; and navy stretch pants decorated with a skull and crossbones motif that she insists is “stylin’.”
Of course, both kids have a clear grasp on the existence of gender. A few months ago, the whole family was in the car together.  Lizzy, as usual, was clinging to a stuffed animal that apparently needed extensive care.  “She’s too jumpy.  I have to tell her to behave. Now she’s tired.  Now she’s hungry.”
Jay, perhaps feeling outnumbered, inquired how Lizzy knew that the creature in question was a girl.
In her chipper slightly lisping voice, Lizzy supplied an immediate answer.  “She doesn’t have a penis, Daddy.”
I had no sympathy for Jay’s discomfort with this response.  “Well, you did ask.  And their Mommy’s a biologist,” I reminded him, grinning.
Molly, strapped into the car seat next to her sister’s, was cogitating and extrapolating.  “All our animals are girls!” she announced, with obvious glee.  None of them have penises!”
Maybe someone should tell the toy manufacturers that for all their efforts to maximally exaggerate the gender segregation of Toys R Us and Walmart, they’ve been missing something obvious.  Your son’s Tyrannosaurus Rex might be fierce, sure – but she’s an egg-layer.
We don’t make a lot of off-the-shelf toy or apparel purchases, but this spring it became clear that the kids’ head size had outstripped their bike helmets.  Great excitement was engendered by a foray into a remote aisle of Fred Meyers, back past the guns and motor oil.  Not surprisingly, the selection was distinctly dichotomous. 
Molly honed in on a hot-pink helmet with an air of inevitability, as if this were a multiple-choice test on which she was concerned with filling in the correct oval.  The helmet was adorned with Pet-Shop caricatures that take the big-eye thing to monstrous extremes.  It came with a mini bike bottle, which, needless to say, was also pink. 
Molly seemed pleased enough with her selection, but her zeal was nothing compared to Lizzy’s.  Lizzy chose a black helmet with silver streaks.  It came with a Hot Wheels race car.  This car didn’t leave her sight for the next three days.  “It’s zoomy,” she told anyone who would listen.  She demonstrated the zoominess on the couch, the kitchen floor, and the dining table.  She took it to preschool to show to Bodin, Callum, and James.  “They really like Hot Wheels,” she said, with great enthusiasm.  She did not seem to have noticed what other category those friends fall into – a category to which she does not belong.
The twins’ birthday is fast approaching, and since I was being given an obvious hint, I looked up Hot Wheels online.  Not surprisingly, several gazillion cars and accessories are available.  Not surprisingly, every photo depicts little boys.  No girls.  No pink.  But the thing that really captured my attention was the way the vehicles and plastic tracks are described in the hyperbolic marketing prose. Every toy seems to involve death, crashing, slamming, destroying, or exploding.
I don’t like pink, but I’m not a fan of wholesale holocaust, either.  I don’t give my daughters guns. I wouldn’t give my sons guns, either.  If I had boys, I wouldn’t tell them that “boys don’t cry”, or require that they “toughen up,” or frown upon them if they enjoyed skipping, giggling, snuggling with dolls or decorating doilies. 
As I shook my head over the Hot Wheels, I realized something that should have been obvious to me from the start: I hate stereotypical boy toys just as much as I hate the girly stuff.   Moreover, I don’t like the grown-up versions -- monster trucks, pro wrestling, Budweiser -- any better than I like Cosmo or eye shadow.  I could have saved myself some of the time and mental energy I’ve spend navel-gazing, because ultimately, it dawned on me that I don’t hate my gender.  If I’m betraying my daughters, it’s not because I’m sexist. My problem is not with the color pink, per se.   My real phobia is about being cornered. 
I really, really hate being put in a box.  When someone thrusts assumptions at me, some devious part of my soul is compelled to circumvent them.  My politics aren’t libertarian, but my toy selection is.  I don’t want the girly stuff because I want MORE than that.  Inside, I still want to be an inventor, an astronaut, a novelist, AND a Mommy.  And I want the same degree of freedom for my kids.
I found a set of Hot Wheels that come with regular tracks that can be set up creatively, with no explosions required.  I’m looking for a present for Molly that’s equally creative.  I’m ok with it being pink – or not. 
As for the slippers, I walked out of Payless without buying any.  I know the kids would love some fleecy new footwear, but I can make it at home.  I’m a decent seamstress – and I’d like my daughters to learn how to sew, too.  While we’re at it, we can sew some slippers for Bedtime.  She’s a little worn-looking these days, and could do with some new wardrobe items.  She doesn’t sleep in my bed any more, of course.  She sleeps in Lizzy’s – with the Hot Wheels race car.


  1. I loved reading this, Nancy, because it so closely mirrored my own experiences and feelings. I was actually a bit worried about having a daughter, because I wasn't sure how I would cope if she turned out to be a "girly girl."

    As it happens, Katy has always been very girly. Not prissy (she certainly loves to play in the mud!), but girly. At the age of two she put on loads of costume jewelry and announced, "I'm the mommy!" I couldn't figure out what mommy she knew who dressed that way. It must have been women she'd seen at the grocery store. She has always been very aware of clothing and what people wear. Having watched Lance Mackey win the Yukon Quest a few years ago with my mom, she reported to me, "Lance Mackey won. He was dressed all in white." At the age of 9 she has a lot more fashion sense than her mother will ever have.

    In short, she is exactly the kind of daughter I worried I'd have trouble accepting. I know there may be battles ahead when she wants to wear make-up or make other choices I'll question, but I've also found there is really something very feminist in her embrace of her own gender. Katy has always loved the female characters in books. She likes to learn from female instructors. She values the opinions of women. For her, fitting into those female roles isn't a conflict at all. I know she picks up on clues from society around her, but I don't think she feels pressed into playing a role. She is choosing the things that fit her. I'm quite pleased to find I'm perfectly OK with that.

  2. Hi Nancy,

    This was some of the most fun procrastination I've
    engaged in for a long while! I laughed out loud looking in at the window of your childhood and your parental angst.

    You are one of a kind!

  3. Thoroughly enjoyable reading!! I distinctly remember your reluctance to be cornered or boxed in. It was one of the things that made (make) you (and your writing) so interesting.

    Keep up the great procrastination material...

    - Paul