Diary of a Mum part 12: Raising a girl

Martha Alexander ponders competitive parenting and the politics of raising a girl

How old?” A mother in the park assesses Robin, who is dragging herself along with her arms like a mermaid washed up on dry land, with suspicion.

“Just 12 months,” I say.

“Still not walking?” The mother raises her eyebrows and does a downward smile of sympathy before pointing at a girl who is attempting to throttle a pigeon. “Mia was walking at nine months.”

“Great,” I say.

“They say if children never crawl it means they…”

“Yeah, I read that, too,” I bark, scooping up my slithering child and walking away. The conversation was so over. I mean, what was that entire exchange meant to achieve other than a mental middle finger from me?

Parents can be so competitive. From eating (“he’ll eat anything – he had beef wellington on Christmas Day!”), to sleeping (“seven ’til seven from seven weeks!”), and talking (“she knows all the words to Dear Zoo!”), or perceived intelligence (“the nursery staff couldn’t believe she stacked that stacker in five seconds flat!”) it’s at best, maddening. At worst, unwittingly cruel.

Of course, it’s normal to be proud of your children. In the privacy of our own home Mikey and I inflate everything Robin does. She comes back from the childminder with cotton wool sheep and we think of the Turner Prize in 30 years’ time. She stirs the mixture for a sponge cake and we imagine her as a future Mary Berry. She identifies an animal and we wonder where she will read veterinary science. She kisses the cat clumsily and we revel in the knowledge she is not a psychopath.

But I do, of course, find other things to worry about.

“What a lovely boy,” says an old lady, hair the colour of Parma Violets. She leans over to chuck the chin of my baby. “What’s your name little man?”

“Her name’s Robin,” I say, evenly.

“I’m so sorry!” The old lady looks stricken. “You can’t tell, can you, with the little ’uns?”

This isn’t the first time Robin has been mistaken for a boy. Any time she isn’t wearing pink or a dress, people assume she’s male. There’s also the fact she almost always has a plastic triceratops clasped in her hands.

I’m not a fan of head-to-toe pink for little girls. For me, pink is not just a colour. It’s a message about expectation. Pink stands for domesticity and decoration. If you don’t believe me, go into any department store and take a look at the girls’ toys: Tiny kitchens and tumble driers; vanity sets; jewellery; baking kits with heart-shaped cookie cutters, all in varying shades of powdery blush or the playful punch of Pepto-Bismol. Even the animals aimed at girls are tame lapdogs and fluffy white cats with silky bows around their necks.

And what does all this say? Girls are gentle, girls are pretty, girls belong in the home. Meanwhile boys have their fat-wheeled cars and monsters and tool boxes. Because all boys are manly and gruff and physical, right?

There’s much discussion at the moment about how children play, the choices they make, what gives rise to these choices – and what these choices might mean in their future. I want Robin to make her own decisions, but at the same time, how many of these are the result of subliminal messages about femininity that she’s been exposed to since birth?

I’m now fretting about people telling Robin she is pretty. Everyone likes being told they’re pretty, don’t they? What’s the harm? Well the harm is this: she will grow up thinking it’s important to be pretty, more so than anything else. So I tell her she’s clever. But most of all, I ask her if she’s happy. “’Appeee!” she repeats.

“You need to calm down about all this diamante-covered baby ironing-board stuff,” my friend Sophie told me, as her daughter sashayed into the kitchen in an Elsa dress. “You’re going to make her feel like being a girl is wrong. And it’s not.”

No, it’s not wrong to be a girl. And Robin will probably be in a Frozen frock within the year, asking for a pair of glittery heels in which to hoover the carpet. But I have the right to be wary, don’t I? I have the right to want to make sure my daughter knows that being a pretty princess isn’t the only thing a girl can be.

Want more? Martha heads back to work