I had a lot of hope in my generation.
At 33 -80s born and 90s raised- I’m an old millennial. I had a lot of faith in my generation, a lot of hope in our ability to be the future that all our teachers said we would be. I expected certain biases that, to me, – growing up in the UK in the 90s already seemed prehistoric – would be dead and gone by the time that I had kids of my own.
I was wrong.
It actually began with the birth of my son. A surprisingly large number of people fixated on the fact that I had, in fact, had a boy. I was literally told ‘Oh thank goodness you’ve had a boy, you can have whatever you like now’. It made me think of dieting, eating oranges for each meal and then splurging on dessert. By reducing my child to a gender, they made him sound like a one-way ticket to some kind of menu-card freedom.
In a way that I can’t quite explain or even get close to describing with actual words, those words really stripped some of the euphoric joy away. I had had a baby! A baby! The fact that he was a boy was, to me, incidental. He was tiny, vulnerable and the most beautiful thing I had ever laid eyes on in my life but suddenly there were all these people blundering in and intruding on this very intimate experience with their grotesque tropes of masculinity.
I hasten to add that those words were not a ‘community thing’. The people saying this to me weren’t just brown. One of the ladies at the weigh-in had this to say, “Aww, having a son is well regarded in your community isn’t it’? I left the weigh-in feeling much like I had felt when, in Year 3, my teacher had taken a pencil and scratched an arbitrary line below Europe across a map of the world and announced, ‘Give or take, every country below this line is poor and a Third World Country’ (try it, it doesn’t make sense. For starters, it puts Australia in the 3rd World). This was the cue for months of ‘So you must be really poor then ‘cos you’re from India, is that why your mum shops in QD?’ and ‘ So do you like, you know, have a husband and three kids in a village in India?’ Given that I was 9, the latter was a technical improbability, if nothing else. As for the former, my mum loves a good bargain. How I wish Joe Root, the current English cricket captain had been around in the mid-90s because then I would have channeled his response to homophobic bullying and said “Please don’t use poor as an insult. There’s nothing wrong with being poor”.
By the time my son was three or four, we had already been told more often than we could count that it simply didn’t behove a man in the making to cry. At play dates and playgroup, he’s be whacked by another child and if he cried in response, he was suddenly the one in the wrong because he wasn’t behaving like a boy.
As a first time mother and as first time parents, we found this all very disorienting. We knew that what was being said was wrong and we could tell that what we believed was right but it just seemed like we were the only ones who felt this way.
However when it came to gender biases and generations, the birth of my daughter was a revelation.
The story is this.
I had a traumatic second pregnancy after a bout of secondary infertility. I fell pregnant just as we were beginning to get worried. To say that this pregnancy was planned and wanted would be an understatement. 21 weeks into my pregnancy, I nearly miscarried. I spent the remainder of the pregnancy on bed rest. The gender scans revealed that we were expecting another little boy. When people asked ‘what’ we were having, we merrily told them. It was literally the very moment that my daughter was born that we, along with everyone else in the room, learnt that she was a girl. Personally, wenever really cared about the gender of the baby. We had prepared for a boy, we had chosen names for a boy and that’s how I had begun to see myself, as a mum of boys. A tiny part of me had been wistful about not having the chance to raise a girl but that was only a tiny part. We were delighted to find that our second child was a girl. We were over the moon, our parents were over the moon. I’m pretty sure we would all have been over the moon anyway but I just want to stress that literally no part of any of us felt in the tiniest bit sad or disappointed.
So, how does my loss of faith in my generation play into it? Well, the epiphany happened in the height of summer, on a bus. A friend of mine boarded and came up to us. She gazed at my daughter who was, at the time, little more than a newborn. The motion of the bus and the pacifier in her mouth had sent her to sleep. And then, she leaned conspiratorially towards me, “Achha, tell me one thing, did your in-laws mind?” I must have looked blank, so she elaborated. “You told them all along that you were having a boy and then you had a girl. Did they mind”. I assured her that they didn’t. I assured her that ‘we’ weren’t like ‘that’. I was keen to put as much distance between myself and ‘those’ people as possible. “Haan, that’s good”, she said, “Actually, no, you are already having a boy so it does not matter”. So there it was again, that uncomfortable thing of my firstborn’s gender being something like an insurance. It happened, over and over again to the extent that a pregnant friend confided to me that she would not be revealing her unborn child’s gender because she had learnt from my experience. She claimed that it would be embarrassing. She didn’t want, she said, to announce a boy and then go onto have a girl. The line of thinking was pretty straightforward: my girl was cute, of course, but she was, after all, a girl. It was good that that I had had a son first.
The awful thing is that during both these exchanges, or the exchanges that happened around my son’s birth, I didn’t have the words to challenge these points of view. I remember feeling winded and angry. All I was able to do was bide my time and ensure that these people would not play roles in my children’s lives anymore. These people, the people saying these things were the same age as me. They did not represent the archaic past. They represented the vibrant present. In the 90s, these people (along with me) were the future. And this was what the reality of the future looked like. The other thing that all of the people saying all these things to me about gender had in common was that they were all, bar none, women. The idea that to have a son or a series of sons was a gold standard had somehow persisted and thrived in domestic spaces and stolen conversations.
When I look around now with these more tired, older eyes, I can understand how they persisted. From birth, women are effectively made to feel like their gender is a burden. There are so many examples of this burden but the financial burden is probably the one that is most poignant. It also underwrites the other aspects of this ‘burdenship’. If I had a penny for every time I have heard of women not wanting to be a woman, I’d be pretty rich by now. Whilst women are required to be regarded as glamorous, the act of being a woman is seen as anything but. These facts about the condition of womanhood help to keep gender biases in place.
So yes, while our teachers spoke about us being the future, they didn’t really help us understand what that future would look like.
But I don’t want to end on a negative note here. I want to speak about change and hope and possibilities for the future. In our home, there are no significant biases with regards to gender. Our children see both of us take care of the house. Yes, their father is away more then their mother but that is more to do with our respective career choices. But sorting it out at home is not enough. I feel that we need to equip our children with the proper tools to combat gender bias when they see it in the wild. Bug went through a phase of insisting that ‘pink has to be your (mine) favorite colour because you are a girl’ and I’ve explained to him over and over and over again that it is not and while we are at it, if he wanted, pink could be his favorite colour too if he wanted. He has a pink t-shirt now.
The books ‘ Stories of Boys Who Dare to Be Different’ and ‘How to be a Lion’ have been very helpful. They both illustrate that there is no ‘one’ way to be anything. He’s seven now. He loves playing on his PS4, he adores football but he also enjoys making cakes with Playdoh in the toy kitchen. Just as I’m using books to build my eldest, I know that I’ll be using books to build my youngest too. She’s still quite little now and she doesn’t really compute gender. She runs around behind her brother and she’s growing up in his wake. She hates dresses and prefers jeans but I don’t think this rejection is because of her rejecting gendered costumes. I see it as her desire to emulate her brother. And when it comes to creating the environment for her in which she will thrive, I think it makes sense to begin with her brother first. As the eldest, he has to be willing to play the game against gender bias. Luckily for me, I’m also surrounded by people who do know what they are doing, who do know what they are talking about and they know how to walk the talk. I’ve met a whole bunch of them through a writing project that I participated in during the course of 2018 (our anthology of stories of is coming out on the 8th of March which is rather apt as our project is titled ‘She Speaks’). It was Agomoni Ganguli Mitra’s anecdote that really inspired me in my quest to create an atmosphere of equality at home. She says, “‘When my daughter was born we gave her a gender neutral name, as a constant reminder to us, and her that gender was something she would discover for herself and not something the world should impose on her. Family dinners are exquisite when we see our teenager gently extricating his sister out of familiar gender tropes”. Intrigued, I asked her to give an example as well (I’m always interested in the intricacies of the ‘How’ in the sense of ‘how -do -people -manage -this -lark -of -parenting, -I -need -to -know, -please -provide -a map -and- a -flashlight)’. This is what she said, “I was running the bath upstairs while the kids finished dinner and I hear my daughter sing : ‘I am a pretty princess !!! ‘ My teenager goes: ‘ no, you are a smart, strong , brave princess ‘ ;Daughter (now belligerent) ‘ NO!!! I am a pretty princess ‘ …. ‘no , you are a brave , smart…It was so funny, I had to stand on the stairs listening in!”
I think it is pretty clear by now that if we want to raise a generation which respects equality, we can’t only keep talking to and about our daughters. We can’t keep expecting them to be the only driving force for change. We need to get the boys on side as well. We need to explain to our boys that equality and choice works for them too (after all, the victims of toxic masculinity are men too). One of my friends and fellow authors, Rejina Ramchandran Sadhu spoke to me about an incident at a LEGO station, “When my 6 yr old daughter was faced with a statement that only boys can play at the LEGO station, I explained to the boy’s parents that it might be good for the boy to accept that everyone can choose what they want to play with ( including him)”.
Finally, the founding editor of the anthology project, Brindarica Bose, had this to say. “To raise next gen-children without gender bias, we need to reduce bias in this generation itself, within the family first. If a child grows up seeing defined job roles within his or her family, that is exactly what he will expect as a grown up, as very few adults are ready to change their views or attitudes after a certain age. It is also about appreciating both genders contribution – big and small. Often what a woman earns and spends for a family is pushed under the carpet as ‘Kafee geld’, that shouldn’t be the case, or when a father bakes a cake or wishes to take a break from his job to enjoy household (if the partner is employed), eyebrows shouldn’t be raised”. She ends on a note that anticipates criticism of the movement and refutes it as well. She continues, “ Some biases will remain, as women cant feel or be like men and vice versa, at some roles one or the other will succeed better – that is natural and understood, but the point is all about giving equal chances to both gender.”
Here’s the thing. Pink is not my favorite colour. It is my daughter’s. The point is, and the only point, is that we have a choice. From having a favorite colour to choosing the right health treatment, women (like men) should have a choice. Women need not be celebrated for their femininity alone but their personhood. Likewise, let us not only praise our boys and men for being a fast runner or for securing a flashy salary, let us also commend them for their ability to be vulnerable and creative as well. For me, choice trumps all else.