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Archive for July, 2012

When Sebastian was a baby it was just easier to gender code his clothing. He wore a lot of blue, and his clothing was cuts and styles more frequently attributed to boys. Partly, this was because when you’re pregnant for the first time a lot of people give you clothes – newborn clothes, clothes for when he’s older, both new and secondhand. My own shopping also played into this – boy clothes and girl clothes are segregated in most stores, even opp shops. And partly, his clothing was gender coded because it makes everyday conversation easier when random people you talk to don’t stall in their phrasing, saying ‘…his? …hers?’

Make no mistake – Sebastian was a very pretty baby and still got mistaken for a girl, which I don’t care about. But I’m just not transgressive enough yet to dress him in pink and frills to truly abolish any societal gender expectations when it comes to his clothing. He can do that himself when he’s a little older – and yes, I’m fine with him playing dress-ups with my clothes and make up.

Toys, however, are a different and somehow more complex issue. Sebastian’s clothes are just what he wears to keep warm and get food all over himself in. But toys express behaviour.

About six months ago Sebastian met a newborn baby for the first time up close, and was adorably fascinated. So shortly after I took him to Kmart to buy a baby doll. Naturally he picked the creepiest and most realistic newborn he found, but despite the many, many baby dolls on offer, there were none that were gender-neutral. I don’t mean the gender of the baby doll itself, but rather their gender coding. All of those dolls wore pink, and all of them were female.

I often go to Kmart. They have a huge variety of toddler toys, are very cheap and have a generic brand A-Z that I like very much because A) while there’s lots of plastic stuff, there’s lots of wooden stuff too, B) their toys are often very simple but entertaining to a young child, like a wooden train or set of plastic food items, and C) their toys are largely gender neutral. This last part is important to me. Their trucks are not all blue and tea sets not all pink. They sell little play vacuum cleaners and irons and kettles and other things that kids will see Daddy and Mummy using every day, and there are pictures of both boys and girls on the packaging, while the toys themselves are coloured red and blue or green and yellow.

There are some pretty obvious reasons why gender neutral toys are important. Firstly, toys often represent a way for children to play that allows them to reenact what they see in their lives. Sebastian loves to have tea parties, because his family drink tea. He likes to play with toy tractors and cars and trucks because he sees so many varieties in the country. He likes to cuddle baby dolls because babies get cuddled. He likes to draw, and roll dough, and dance to Angelina Ballerina on the telly, and he has a little play kitchen near our kitchen, where he will pretend to cook an egg while myself or Alex cook. He likes to clean because people around him do. He is using imaginative play to express the patterns and behaviours he sees the people in his life have.

If pink is a girl’s colour, which I don’t think anybody can deny society teaches us, and all baby dolls are dressed in pink, this tells us that only girls are supposed to like babies. Only girls are supposed to want to cuddle and nurture. Only girls are supposed to have a baby they might know in real life, or see an adult with a baby. This is a girl’s toy, and by colour coding it pink the toy manufacturer has signaled it is off limits to a boy.

Sebastian’s baby doll is called Brienne, and he likes to cuddle her and pat her back and make us cuddle her too. He has no idea that the colour pink means he’s not supposed to play with it. And we won’t be telling him that either.

While there are relatively few toddler-aged toys I see that are gender coded, there are still some pretty glaring examples. I would really like a simple doll house for Sebastian. Unfortunately, the A-Z dollhouse is pink. I say unfortunately because I’d prefer something non-gender coded, and refusing to buy items that are specifically aimed at a boy or a girl at this point is my only method of protest. 90% of the dollhouses I’ve seen are pink. I’m currently deliberating over a Fisher Price dollhouse (here), and while I feel like an effort has been made not to colour code it (while a floor of the house is pink, there’s also some blue in there too), it’s like whoever designed the packaging rebelled and slapped pink all over the box and a picture of a little girl playing with the house just in case the toy itself gave you the wrong idea.

Interestingly, while hunting for a direct link to this product so I could happily hotlink the photograph above, I found a Little People dollhouse that I had not seen in my hunt at Kmart or any of the other major stores:

Genuinely non-gendered?

Little People is a subsidiary brand of Fisher Price, and are almost always non-gendered with their toys. I love them like crazy, and the above picture makes me love them more – no dominant blue or pink on the toy itself, and a little boy playing with it. It does make me wonder, however, why I didn’t see this on sale anywhere else – is it the buyers for these stores choosing not to stock non-gendered toys when it comes to dolls and houses?

The whole dollhouse thing is important to me because it seems amazingly idiotic to gender it pink, as a girl-specific toys. Kids live in houses, usually with their parents (or family at the very least), and love imaginative play that revolves around their lives. Why is that a girl-only thing most of the time?

When I walk through the toy section of any store, I see my future there. Right now, Sebastian has the freedom of brightly coloured toys that aren’t aimed at any gender in particular most of the time. But once you start getting into the aisles with toys for older kids, the shift is dramatic. There are trucks, planes, trains and building kits that all show a boy on the packaging. And there are makeup kits, dolls, nail polish and creepy furry cats and dogs that move, that all show a girl on the packaging. In fact, while the packaging for a boy’s toy might be colourful and reflect the item itself, the packaging for a girl’s toy is almost always pink. Read this powerful article about Pinkification for a much more eloquent statement of the rules at play here than I can provide.

Gender coding toys seems really, really stupid to me. I mean, society has been in a state of shifting values for a long time – while the mother may stay home with the baby for a while because of the logistics of breastfeeding and birth-recovery (and the fact that most men earn more so therefore it makes more sense for the higher-earner to stay at work, therefore reducing the woman’s potential lifetime income and career advances even further, but that’s-another-post), mothers no longer stay at home forever and ever, keeping house and getting dinner on the table by six. Men are now, for the most part, deeply involved in child-rearing and housekeeping and cooking – all the nurturing aspects of life that are traditionally female roles. So if Sebastian’s daddy has rocked him to sleep and feeds him and changes him and bathes him and plays with him, why the hell can’t I find a baby doll that isn’t wearing pink so Sebastian can do the same? Why aren’t there baby dolls for boys, or ones just wearing green?

Why is it that today when I went to buy a little toy bath for Brienne, Sebastian’s doll, the only ones I could find were pink? Does Sebastian not take baths? Why can’t he have a toy – aimed at him or, even better no gender in particular – that lets him play in a loving and nurturing role?

Gender coding toys is like trying to draw some very straight lines in the sand right before the tide comes in. Sebastian will (hopefully) grow up in a society where gender transgression becomes more and more normalized and acceptable; he will grow up with his parents teaching him that gender equality is for men and women, boys and girls, and works both ways – that while a girl can do everything he can do, he can do everything a girl does too. He can play with cars and trucks and then play house and dress-ups. He can build forts and wear nail polish. He can do whatever makes him happy, because society’s gender stereotypes are outdated and a bit useless.

So to toy makers who gender code their toys, I want to say this: that water is coming in to wash away those lines in the sand, do why even bother drawing them?

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I remember being 38 weeks pregnant and asking an obstetrician, ‘So I’m in labour, right?’ And the answer: ‘Kind of.’ Pregnancy books do not prepare you for this. In fact, there is a lot that pregnancy books don’t prepare you for. For example, being 38 weeks pregnant and in a labour a bit. The long answer to my questions was something like, ‘You’re having contractions and you’re 1cm dilated, but things are going too slowly. This is pre-labour, or light labour.’

Nothing I had read in preparation for giving birth had prepared me for pre-labour. I’d gone to hospital because I was having some infrequent, intense pains that did not match the description of labour I’d been given – the pain was too sharp and too localised, low in my pelvis – and some blood spotting. Eventually the doctors and I figured out it was the baby bumping my cervix repeatedly, which you’re not supposed to feel but oh boy, did I ever. However, this trip to hospital ended up with me undergoing some fetal monitoring and some increasing anxiety from the midwives and, later, the doctors attending me. I was having long surges of Braxton-Hicks contractions along with the pain, and fetal monitoring was turning out to be less than successful – every attempt to monitor the baby’s heartbeat showed that he would be normal for long periods of time, and then suddenly spike into a ridiculously, dangerously fast pulse. I was admitted and moved from ER to a maternity ward.

The monitoring went on for quite some time, and the obstetricians who attended me continued to hover somewhere between ‘mildly alarmed’ and ‘freaking the fuck out’ every time the baby’s heart rate spiked. He moved constantly too – I had a 4.6kg baby rolling around in my huge belly, constantly knocking the monitoring belt off and making it hard to get a clear reading. I remember this happening fairly clearly:

Doctor: We’d like to induce labour by perforating the amniotic sac. (She holds up a very long, thin needle with a hook on the end. Alex and I discuss briefly.)
Me: Uh. Okay? Now? I’m having the baby now?
Doctor: That would mean you’d have the baby fairly quickly, yes. (She starts arranging the terrifying needle with some gauze and absorbent pads all around me.)
Me: Okay. We’re having the baby. Okay!
Doctor: Okay, let me just go check with a senior colleague. (She wanders off while Alex and I deal with identical holy-shit, we’re-having-the-baby-right-now, we-didn’t-bring-the-hospital-bag reactions. The doctor returns with another doctor.) So I’ve consulted with my senior colleague here, and we’ve decided we won’t induce just yet. Instead we’re going to sedate you, in order to sedate the baby, to try and get a clear reading of his heart rate. Okay?
Me: Um. Okay then.

And that’s what happened. I got doped up, so the baby got doped up, and they finally got a clear reading of his heart rate and decided that everything was fine after all. I slept in the hospital bed and Alex slept on the floor beside me. Despite being in ‘light’ labour I was sent home (with the general consensus that things would pick up soon). That was four days before I actually gave birth. I remained in ‘light’ labour for that whole time.

Books about having babies do not tell you how quickly things can change, how one minute you can come within one long thin needle’s length of having your child a little early, and how much of that decision is based on your doctor, their opinion, and whoever’s opinion they happen to seek out. Books don’t tell you that the line between Braxton-Hicks and real contractions can sometimes be pretty damn blurry.

Here’s a quick list of other things I didn’t know anything about, but happened to me anyway during the birth of my child:

-The hospital can, and will, send you home, even if you’ve been labouring all night, because of ‘lack of progress’. I got sent home at 8am and was back at midday. What a waste of damn time.

-No matter how much I dreamed of an intervention and drug-free birth, and even bought into the Calm Birth ideal, I was not prepared for how horrendous labour can be when you haven’t slept for about 50 hours. Yes I wanted the drugs. I sucked down that gas like it was the cure to all ails. It made me feel sick and dizzy and disconnected from the world, and I hated the bath I was in, so I asked for an epidural.

-An epidural does not always work. Three epidurals do not always work. A senior anesthesiologist may be wiggling that tiny needle around in your spine, but she can’t guarantee pain relief. In which case, when they offered Fentanyl, a drug that had previously been on my No Not Ever list, I was delighted. Despite knowing it was on timed release, I hit that little drug release button over 100 times.

-Apparently your cervix can have a ‘lip’. I had never heard of this. It meant an injection of pitocin, to try and dissolve that lip. When suddenly I was really really REALLY ready to start pushing, the midwives kept telling me not to because of the lip. It was like trying to stop gravity.

-The sight of a group of midwives and doctors having a whispered conference in my room was a bit terrifying. When they finally, finally presented me with a form allowing intervention, I remember I didn’t actually read it, I just try to look coherent while I signed so it was legal.

-Those forms aren’t for specific intervention, they allow any sort of intervention. Which is why when I was moved to an operating theatre, I wasn’t terribly sure of what was going on most of the time. I mean, I didn’t end up having a C-section, although it was a near thing, but I did end up having an episiotomy – the doctor didn’t really ask me, he just told me I was having one, and while it and other maneuver actually saved Sebastian’s life when shoulder dystocia occurred, at the time it was just one big surprise to me.

The moral of this story is, I guess: things don’t go according to plan. There’s no way of knowing what will happen, no way of anticipating all the variables, and the process of labour isn’t as clear cut as it is in the books. And that’s fine. I think the best way to approach the matter is to be prepared for how unprepared you’ll feel when the time comes. I mean, ultimately, any birth that ends up with mother and baby alive at the end can be classified as ‘normal’, no matter if it’s vaginal, Cesarean or executed with laser gun.

Another thing the books don’t tell you is the massive endorphin high you get after giving birth, which is a major plus, and you feel it surge to life every time you look at your newborn.

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Often I write about the harder aspects of parenting – the tiredness, worry, logistical difficulties, blah blah blah yeah it’s hard. But really, it’s easy to write about these things – they’re what bugs me and makes me grind my teeth. However, it’s just as important to remember the wonderful things about parenting, the hilarious things, the sweet moments. Here’s a list of things I love.

1.- When you have a tiny helpless infant who just likes to gaze adoringly at your face, you can dress him up in cute outfits and pose him for hilarious photos. Exhibit A:

A baby monkey and his garden gnome friends!

2.- You have instantly joined a club that makes you share knowing smiles with strangers in public, because they have a kid and you have a kid and you all know how great it is and how tiring and how worth it.

3.- As your child grows up, you start seeing the world again for the first time – the brightness, the colours, the way a bird flying is pretty amazing when most things walk on the ground, the way a horse snuffling your hand is fantastic and tickly and a tiny lizard cupped in the palm of your hand seems like the weirdest creature on earth. Sebastian amazes me every day with what he finds fascinating – a light switch is frickin’ magic and learning to peel a banana is a huge accomplishment.

4.- Related to #3, you start rediscovering the joys of your childhood, like Christmas and birthdays and Easter egg hunts, Lego and cardboard forts and hiding in a castle and the wonder of trains. Your cynicism starts eroding and you begin to give a damn again, and experiencing a far simpler kind of joy that you thought was lost when you got your driver’s licence and right to vote.

5.- Big gummy fat-cheeked beautiful baby smiles.

Eating food is awesome.

6.- Family. Having a child brings your family closer together, your parents and grandparents and siblings and all of your partner’s family too – I gained a whole bunch of lovely in-laws and nieces and nephews. My parents are super-involved in Sebastian’s life, as is Alex’s mum, because it really does take a village to raise a child.

7.- I finally understand my parents. My mum was 19 when she had my older brother, and not quite 22 when she had me. Having a child yourself helps you to understand who your parents are – what they went through as young parents, the choices they made, and how amazing it was that you remember a wonderfully happy childhood and your parents never let on that it’s incredibly hard to have a family and work and study and your own interests. I feel closer to my parents now, because I only now do I truly understand who they are.

8.- Baby kisses. Sebastian’s started out as a weird lunge he’d do at my face, with mouth wide open and inevitably aiming for my chin or my eye instead of my cheek. And there was always tongue involved, and he wanted a good long pash, too. Now he makes proper kissing noises, and if he gets a little hurt on his hand or foot or arm, then he will present it to the nearest adult to be kissed. Nothing can go on until it has been kissed better.

For a while this was how Sebastian kissed. He’d latch on and things would get weird. I look forward to showing him this photo when he’s 16 and too cool for me.

9.- Sometimes when there’s a group of adults around talking, and someone says something funny and everybody laughs, Sebastian laughs too. Even though he doesn’t understand what the joke was, he laughs because he is joyful that other people are laughing. He’s a little social animal and delighted that he’s included in our world.

10.- My child challenges me to be thoughtful and creative, to think of new activities and new ways to learn. I’ve learned how to be patient, to stop myself from raising my voice, to explain things simply and how to teach by example. Basically, having a kid encourages you to examine who you are, the good and bad qualities you possess, the things in life that you love, and the values you want to pass on. It may be trite, but it’s true: being a parent makes you a better person.

He’s worth every minute.

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Remember that time when I went out with my kid and managed to run all my errands quickly and with minimum fuss? Me neither.

I often tell childless friends that everything takes about half an hour longer when you have a toddler. Sometimes I think I underestimate that number. Yesterday I had one of those days that is just the ultimate shit bomb of all days: I was sick, and home with a toddler, and needed to go to the doctor. It looked like this:

9:30: I ring the doctor and make an appointment for 1:30. Sebastian and I have both slept in, which I needed, so I get him up. I try carrying him to the lounge room but he sees something in the kitchen as I go past and starts hollering and leaning for it. I try to put him down and he goes monkey and clings to me. We go into the kitchen and hunt around for a bit, while he says ‘Mah-Mah’over and over, like Mama but different. Eventually I figure out he means banana. I give him the banana from the fruit bowl and plonk him on the couch and tear the skin so he can peel the rest himself. I go to make toast for us.

10:00 The banana, sans skin, is on the windowsill and Sebastian is trying to climb up the back of the couch to make kissing noises at the cat, who is outside. I explain that we do not stand on the couch, or chairs, and I will explain this about 45 more times. We eat raisin toast with margarine on it. Sebastian takes my plate and wants my toast, but we talk about how I have mine and he has his and they are the same. He picks up his plate to hide his face, and spills crumbs all over the couch in the process.

10:30 I have found clean clothes for him. He says ‘Dressed! Dressed!’ and leads me into my bedroom so we can both get dressed. I try starting with him, but for the first time ever he wants to pick and choose from the clothes I’ve provided. I still haven’t changed his nappy either, and he ends up wearing one clean sock, PJ pants, and a light hoodie over his bare tummy. He climbs all over my bed and pretends to sleep and demands to be tucked in and wants my hairbrush, while I get dressed.

11:00 Yogurt. Everywhere.

11:30 I change his nappy and get him dressed while he screams and tries to pull my hair and claw my face. He’s fine when it’s time to put shoes on because he loves shoes. We get in the car.

12:00 I meant to visit the toy store near my doctor but it is out of business, and I have forgotten the stroller, so I carry Sebastian all around as we go to the post office and the bank and back across the road to a cafe. He walks some of the way, and even manages to keep holding my hand when we cross the road, and says ‘Hi’ to people who go by and smiles coyly because he is an incredible flirt. Then he wants to go into a parking lot and keeps pulling on my hand and then crouches down and goes a bit limp as passive resistance. I have no idea what is in the parking lot that he wants to see. So I carry him and he is heavy.

12:30 Lunch in a cafe – I have never been to this cafe before and it is not child friendly. It’s not just the obvious things, like the lack of high chairs or any toys or even children’s books, which seems pretty much like a staple around where I live, but when I ask for turkish bread toast and jam (off the kid’s menu) for Sebastian, the jam has no butter or margarine to soften it, so the toast is hard and too thick, and I imagine trying to eat that with such a little mouth and not enough molars is like trying to crunch on concrete. Plus they plop the plate in front of him with a little pot of jam (which his fingers immediately go in) and a quite-sharp knife. Which he almost gets an eye out with in about five seconds. Non-kid friendly cafes piss me off, because who the fuck do they think is going to come to their cafe in the sticks for morning tea or lunch on a week day? Stay-at-home mums, that’s fucking who. And even if you don’t want to stick out a booster seat or a couple of books, don’t give a two year old a sharp knife, dammit.

1:00 I pay for lunch. I feel like I have spent our entire lunch together telling Sebastian off: ‘DON’T PULL ON THAT IT WILL BREAK GET AWAY FROM THE DOOR DON’T CLIMB ON THE WOODEN KANGAROO THOSE PEOPLE DON’T WANT YOUR BREAD DON’T STAND ON THE CHAIR DON’T DON’T DON’T’. My guilt complex buys him a gingerbread man and we go to wait at the doctor’s.

1:30 The doctor calls my name. Sebastian, who has been playing happily with the toys in the corner of the surgery but is starting to get tired, throws a tantrum because I make him leave the toys. When I see the doctor he starts shouting ‘NONONONO!’ when she brings out a stethoscope, because he had tonsillitis and terrible fevers a few weeks ago and still hasn’t forgiven us for taking him to be examined two or three times a week for two weeks. But he is interested when she examines me and not him, and then starts playing with a tub of toys while I talk to the doctor. When it is time to go he cheerfully packs up the toys and pushes the tub back where it belongs and says bye-bye. We go to the chemist.

2:00 I just want to wait for my script. Sebastian tries to open everything, ever. He darts around trying to grab things off the shelves, but is very careful and only touches the glass bottles of vitamins, and doesn’t pick them up. When I get my script, I am trying to pay by card but keep an eye on him at the same time, as he tries to rip open perfume boxes and darts for the automatic doors to the street every time someone walks through them. Eventually I keep him next to me by holding on to the hood of his coat, and have a sudden strong understanding of why people put those backpacks with leashes on their kids. Because children actively TRY TO KILL THEMSELVES at any given moment.

2:15 Back in the car, Sebastian has a tantrum because I don’t let him do the safety harness buckle, and wails the entire way home.

2:45 I put him down for a nap. He tries to procrastinate by insisting that he needs cuddles, and his pant legs need to be rolled down, and his t-shirt has accidentally ridden up (he pulled it up to bare his belly), and his blanket is not tucked in properly, and his Scout Bear needs to be tucked in too – and god, it’s amazing, but he explained almost all of this to me non-verbally. Eventually I leave the room, and he sleeps.

I’m not going to detail the rest of my day, which pretty much sucked, because that was the part I really struggled with – being sick, and exhausted, and just needing to get out of the house and get some shit done. And even though Sebastian was pretty cheerful all day, he still just wanted his own way and needed constant talking to about what he was doing well and what is not okay to do and what I would like him to do. And I love him to bits, but sometimes I am so relieved when it’s his nap time, I just want him to go to sleep and be quiet for a bit.

The thing is, when you are the primary caregiver, you don’t have a choice about whether or not you take your child somewhere. Sometimes Alex will take Sebastian out and about on the weekend to give me some time off, but really if he needs to go somewhere he can pretty much do it on his way to/from work, with no kid in tow. I needed to go to the doctor, and had no choice about toting my son around when I was feeling sick and awful, because Tuesdays I have no childcare and it’s just me. I do most of the day-to-day grocery shopping, and clothes shopping for myself and Sebastian, and shopping for any household goods that we need, and any errands that need to be run, and Sebastian comes with me and sometimes he has a melt down and sometimes he doesn’t.

He’s not a baby anymore, and is not content to sit in the stroller with a toy for hours on end, and rarely falls asleep on long car trips and never while in the pram. He wants to run and play and investigate and do what grown ups do, and I sometimes feel like I can’t take my eyes off him for a second. That’s why everything is harder with a toddler in tow – because on days we’re together I am his whole world and he dislikes it when it doesn’t seem to revolve around him.

And yogurt. Yogurt is every parents’ nemesis.

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