Just let my little girl dance

It started off innoculously enough – I was in a session with a support worker, I had some music on the TV, and the little one was dancing around the room, giggling, smiling and waving her arms like a happy little lunatic. ‘You’re going to be a dancer when you grow up, aren’t you?’ I said.

‘Wow,’ said my support worker. ‘What gender stereotyping! Why can’t we teach little girls to be doctors or mechanics?’

Considering my daughter is mostly pre-verbal, it might be a little early to start her on the finer points of anatomy and physiology, but since I was only half-serious, instead of leading with this self-evident statement, I said, ‘Because she likes dancing.’

‘Of course she likes dancing, you take her to ballet classes!’ the lady replied, as though I was somehow brainwashing my daughter into enjoying a stereotypically feminine pastime.

‘Well, actually we took her to ballet because we noticed she enjoyed dancing, not the other way around. And since she loves being the centre of attention, posing for pictures and watching herself on videos, she might prefer to be a model or an actress.’

‘Actress,’ the lady spat, ignoring everything but the final word. ‘Why can’t she be an actor?’

Notwithstanding the fact that the Oscars would take issue with this (gotta aim high, yo), I realised then that I had unwittingly wandered into a minefield of semantics, gender politics and societal expectation with someone who saw me as a gender-Nazi. Which is odd, because I’ve always considered my views on sex and gender to be rather liberal and enlightened.

I mean, I’ve always believed men and women can do pretty much any job equally well, regardless of what’s between their legs – with the possible exception of the adult entertainment industry. Whether it’s doctors, dentists, pilots, bus drivers, lecturers, tattooists, waiters or the police, the only real requirement is that a person can do the job and do it well. The greatest action movie ever made (Point Break, as if you didn’t know!) was directed by a woman. The best nurse I ever met was a man. Their sex didn’t make any difference at all – they were just damn good at doing their chosen professions.

Likewise, I’ve never considered there to be male and female jobs around the home. Most of my parents’ generation still believes that the man puts up shelves, disciplines the kids, carves the turkey and fixes the car while the woman does the washing, cleaning, cooking and ironing. That’s not how it happens in my household. We pitch in equally. Equally badly, as it turns out, but equally nonetheless.

And nor do traditional gender divisions restrict my interests and behaviours. As a kid, I read Nancy Drew books in spite of the teasing I got (even though they had the same authors as the Hardy Boys, since Carolyn Keene and Franklin W. Dixon never actually existed). My favourite movie is The Jane Austen Book Club, the DVD of which is bright pink and very much sits in the ‘chick flick’ section of the supermarket. For my parents’ silver wedding anniversary I did them a cross-stitch, and my favourite exhibit at the New Forest Show each year is the flower-arranging tent. I’m hardly an advocate of men behaving like men and women remembering their place.

So how the hell could she think I was an advocate for traditional gender roles, or that I want to restrict my daughter to a submissive position in society? And what’s so bad about being a dancer anyway?

More to the point, how could she twist something so innocent and beautiful as an infant enjoying the simple pleasure of dancing into some judgment of my supposedly totalitarian parenting techniques?

Apparently, it is because our daughter wears dresses, and has a toy kitchen, and plays with dolls. Good gosh, I am an awful father. Clearly, instead of obediently reinforcing the patriarchy, I should make her play with engines and models of the human skeleton until she damn well likes it!

In all seriousness, I see the role of father as a cross between teacher and facilitator. It is my job to teach my daughter about the world, and it is my job to encourage her natural interests and abilities and guide her into being a healthy, happy adult. And you know what? At play group, she liked playing with the kitchen, so we got her a kitchen. And at her friend’s house, she really enjoyed playing with a doll, so we got her a doll. And every morning when we open the wardrobe, she picks out her own outfit. We’re not forcing her to play with dolls or kitchens – she also has jigsaw puzzles, teddy bears, toy cars, a box of musical instruments – she chooses to play with them. And that is the crux of the issue.

There are extremists on both sides of this debate. Those who try to force their daughters to conform to the traditional female tropes of motherhood, housework and dancing  are clearly in the wrong; but so too are those who think we should force our daughters to be doctors or mechanics simply to fulfil an agenda. My daughter is an intelligent, strong-willed, independent young lady, and she will be whatever she wants to be. If, when she grows up, she does in fact wish to be a doctor, then I will support her and nobody has the right to tell her she should be a dancer instead; but equally, if she wants to be a dancer, then I’ll support her in that too, and woe betide anybody who says she ought to be a doctor.

True equality between the sexes is about freedom – the freedom for little girls and boys to choose what they enjoy doing, and what they’d like to do when they’re older, without it being dictated to them by traditionalists on the one hand and progressives on the other. In short, when I’m encouraging my daughter to dance, keep your big mouth shut.

 

Interest in People

In the past week, Izzie has decided that faces are awesome (I said faces! I was quite clear about that). Whether pulling faces or, indeed, pulling faces, those things that go together to make up the human face have become inescapably fascinating (and not just human faces either; I have to give a shout out to Ozzie the cocker spaniel, who sits patiently while the baby pulls on his eyelids).

As fascinating as faces are to her, it’s equally fascinating for me to watch how she’s learning what faces mean, and that the things attached to them – people – are just as cool.

Amazingly, she seems to recognise the difference between adults and children, boys and girls – and she’s definitely more interested in those who can one day grow facial hair. At the pub on Mother’s Day she spent the whole meal turning in her seat so she could watch the boy at the table behind us. When he left with his parents, she smiled at him and waved – she’s eight-months old, for crying out loud!

Children elicit a different response to adults. When she sees a grown-up, Izzie watches them, before slowly smiling and then waving – when I took her on a journey around the pub the other night, she made sure to wave at every adult in there until I was sure her arm would fall off. But at least they tend to smile and wave back.

When she sees children, she shouts at them. A loud cry like she can’t contain her excitement at recognising a kindred spirit. She even does it when she sees a baby on TV – she sits in silence, ignoring the noisy idiot box in the corner, until an advert for Pampers or Aptamil or Cow & Gate comes on, and suddenly you jump out of your skin as the baby on your lap roars at the screen. Crazy smart!

Along with waving, she’s learned to point, but only with her right hand. If you point your finger back at her she slowly extends her arm until she touches your fingertip, just like God and Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. And this’ll sound really syrupy, but it’s the most adorable thing ever.

Except, perhaps, when you see her practicing her Jedi skills. She reaches for things that are way out of reach – like fifteen feet out of reach – and keeps on reaching, staring at it intently as though she can use the Force to draw it to her. She also sweeps her palm from one side to the other in front of your face from time to time as if doing the Jedi Mind Trick – ‘You will bring me milk and cookies. None of that broccoli shit.’

She’s been so drawn to the TV of late we’ve had to fence it off. She wants to touch it all the time. At first, we thought she was looking at herself in the reflection, but then this happened:

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What’s an Aneurysm, daddy?

[As an aside, I showed this picture to an acquaintance and she thought the person on the screen was Lady Gaga. When I told her it was one Kurt Donald Cobain, she replied, ‘Oh yeah, he was in Thin Lizzy!’ For those of you unsure why that’s so, so wrong, look up Smells Like Teen Spirit, and you’re welcome.]

Because she loves her reflection. If she’s screaming her head off, you just need to hold her up in front of a mirror and she stops instantly, to laugh, and giggle, and reach for the baby in the glass. If you give her a small mirror, she can’t help kissing her reflection like a tiny Narcissus.

And that’s the problem: her fascination with faces isn’t satisfied just by looking. She’s constantly trying to pull your mouth open, twist your lips, ram her chubby little fist down your throat. As she’s so strong, you can easily get hurt along the way. I had no idea a baby could gouge a chunk of flesh out of your cheek:

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That’s going to leave a scar…

This need to pull at faces is teaching her about life and death, or rather, the difference between animate and inanimate. At baby group the other day she picked up a doll for the first time (she normally prefers to play with things she’s not allowed, like TV remotes, phones, i-pads, drinks cans, nunchuks). The first thing she did was try to open its mouth by prising apart its solid plastic lips, and struggled to work out exactly why this was a non-starter. Since it seemed to be ignoring her, and was confusing, she went to the old fall back of giving its hair a good solid yank.

And – ohmygod – it didn’t react. She looked around, confused, perplexed – when she pulls daddy’s hair, especially the hair on his belly, you can bet your bottom dollar it provokes a reaction. You could see her trying to fathom out why this thing that looked like a person wasn’t behaving like a person. It’s like watching a leap up the evolutionary ladder, the moment a monkey first realised it could use a stick to beat the crap out of other monkeys. I’m not entirely sure the penny dropped – there was no ‘ah, I get it – it’s a doll’ moment – but then she has plenty of time to work out that dolls are not real (for one thing, they don’t wake you up at three in the morning, and for another, you don’t have to worry about them one day coming home and telling you they’re pregnant but that it’s okay, he’s a rock musician and one day his band is going to be really big – ‘Well, you did let me listen to Nirvana when I was a baby, dad, so what did you expect?’).

Other than this confused, befuddled, all-is-not-well-with-the-world expression, she’s picked up a couple more. There’s the shocked, split-second oh-my-god-I’ve-lost-my-balance-and-I’m-going-to-fall expression, which she’s become rather adept at as it happens every few minutes. But far scarier is what I call the I’m-a-grown-up-girl-and-I-know-what-I-want-and-how-to-get-it expression. In this second expression, I can see the face she’s going to grow into: self-assurance in the set of her mouth and wisdom in her eyes far beyond her years (months?).

It’s the face of someone who’s going to be strong, and smart, and determined. And quite probably a precocious know-it-all who can cry on cue as she fights tooth and nail to get her own way with everything.

In all honesty, that’s not a face I’m ready to see yet. I provide it here for posterity. Look upon the future and tremble!

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*Gasp!* Magnum!