Thursday, 17 April 2014

Budding baby feminists

I always assumed that the differences between boys and girls didn't become apparent until they were a few years old, non-anatomically speaking.

When my brother and I were growing up, our parents were careful to treat us the same and didn't steer us towards any particular type of toy. My brother was soon requesting guns and cars, while I favoured more sedate pastimes. But we were past infancy, and so subject to wider influences than just our parents - might not our ideas of what toys we wanted to play with come from our observations of the world around us?

Since I had a baby girl, I have started to notice apparent differences between the genders from the very first days of life.

Crying like a girl

After my baby was born I began to pay attention to the way babies cry. Within 24 hours of her birth I could identify my daughter's cry with my eyes closed in a busy hospital ward. I didn't have confidence in this ability, so I still kept checking, even when it wasn't her. But when she wailed, I knew it.

I learnt that not only do babies' cries vary hugely, but that boy and girl cries are very different. The baby boys I know have much more masculine cries, usually deeper and louder, than the baby girls, who can be much more shrill.

While it's difficult to tell the sex of some babies (when they're dressed, obviously, and in neutral colours!), others look distinctly like boys or girls.

The baby girls I know tend to be more curious about the world, insisting on sitting up and looking about them, and less cuddly than the boys, who are more content to lounge about in their mothers' arms.

Differences between the genders shown from research include:
  • Boys like mechanical motion and are better at keeping track of moving objects
  • Girls understand language and start talking before boys
  • Boys express fear later than girls, and less often
  • Girls are better at making eye contact as newborns 
  • Girls are better at imitating, and are better with their hands
You can read more detail about these differences in 'The real difference between boys and girls'.

What does this mean?

The nature-nurture debate about what makes us who we are, whether it is ingrained in our DNA or learnt from our upbringing and experiences of the world around us, will rumble on forever. And I'm sure that our gender - the way we style ourselves as men or women - is a mixture of nature and nurture.

But these differences between baby boys and girls suggest that traits of masculinity and femininity are ingrained in us from birth. A baby girl is not just anatomically female when she is born, she already carries with her traits of her gender. Her brain is as female as her body. And from the moment she comes into the world, she is learning not just to be a human being, but to be a woman.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Women who parent alone

When I learned I was going to be a single mother, disbelief was succeeded by an all-consuming terror. I was bringing a person into the world, whom I alone would be caring for. There would be no one to help. WTF? The terror has still not gone away.

However, since I've become a single mother, and observed the mums around me, I've realised I'm not as different as I thought from my friends.

Parenting as a couple

I'm not saying that single parents are better off than couples. From where I'm sitting, I doubt many single parents wanted to be going it alone - I know it's tough, and I'm only just beginning.

Two-parent families have many advantages over single mums like me:
  • Mums can go out while dads babysit (once they're not needed for breastfeeding)
  • They can talk the daily decisions through
  • Once the children are in bed, mum has someone to spend the evening with
And I can't pretend I'm not jealous of couples who can spend leisurely weekends together, enjoying being a family.

But the advantage they don't seem to have, most of the time, is sharing the work of feeding, changing and bathing.

Sisters doing it for themselves

Generally the work of childcare - call it a burden or a boon if you like - falls on women's shoulders.

There are couples who truly share the load, but these seem to be in the minority. In most families, child rearing does seem to be mainly 'women's work'. Maybe this is the way it has to be and will always be, but it does leave me realising that my life isn't quite as different to my friends' as I had thought it would be, in those early days of shock and fear.

Couples who decided, before their little angel came along, that they would take turns to get up in the night, soon find that she wakes automatically, while he does not. So she may as well deal with the baby, since she's awake anyway.

One Dad I heard recently is too afraid to feed his baby, as the baby has bad reflux and could choke. You can sympathise with his fear, but it's a good job the child's mum has balls, or the child wouldn't get fed at all.

Other dads work long hours, getting home too late in the evening, or they regularly travel away from home, so they can rarely see their child in the week, and so provide practical support, which means they can do little to support their partner at these times. This isn't necessarily their fault, but is another reason why women are often left to parent alone.

I've been reading Misconceptions by Naomi Woolf, which explores experiences of pregnancy, labour and early motherhood. The book recounts stories of women, in what they'd considered to be equal partnerships, who found themselves taking on most of the work and responsibility of parenthood. It also observes that it's usually women's careers that take the hit when a couple decide to have children.

We may think we live in a relatively egalitarian society. But although women's lives and opportunities have come a long way, when it comes to babies, most of the time women end up feeding, changing, bathing and putting children to bed alone, whether they are single mums like me, or part of what they might once have considered to be an equal, 21st century relationship.

At least I'm not the only one doing it on my own.