My sister had just posted a new picture of her baby on Facebook. In it, my big-eyed, beautiful niece was wearing layers and layers of frilly pastel ruffles. Beneath the picture, I wrote, “I didn’t know ruffles were the big thing right now.” Even for idle social media chatter, my ruffle comment was pretty idle. I didn’t expect anything to come of it.
But then, out of the vastness of time and space, through the miracle of post-modern social networking, another comment came answering back from an old friend of mine. I didn’t know she and my sister were in touch. I was surprised. Frankly, they hardly know each other. Frankly, my friend and I hardly know each other anymore. We were closest during our early teenaged years, before I outgrew the worst of my hideous phase and started encroaching on her boy-chasing territory. Things had been very quiet between us for a very long time. But now that ruffles were on the table, she had something to say to me about them.
“That’s because you are the only girl in your home,” she told me, “And I don’t think that ruffles were ever your thing…”
She was right about that.
“…Little girls LOVE ruffles,” she continued, emphasis in the original. “And sparkles, and tiaras, and glitter, and magic wands. Maybe you should see if you can get a girl to balance out all of that boyness in your house.”
Maybe I’m crazy but it read like a smack-down. It sounded like my family of nothing-but-sons was being called out as karmic. She may as well have written, “You like boys, do ya? Well, take THAT, boy-stealer.”
I replied by doing what anyone put in my position would have done: I quoted out-of-context Bowie lyrics at her.
“There’s only room for one and here she comes, here she comes.”
Unlike me, my old friend – the ruffle expert – has a daughter. She goes shopping for tiny frilly dresses while I’m pushing a cart full of black and navy sweatpants.
I’ve heard people remark how tragic it is that mothers of boys don’t have as much fun shopping as the mothers of girls. The idea is familiar enough to make it feel like everyone must agree. But who actually makes this complaint? I took a straw poll, pulling comments out of Internet parenting forums dedicated to mothers of all-boy families. I was looking for any self-reports of mothers being disappointed about not being in the market for pretty dresses for anyone but ourselves.
Here’s what I found: hardly anything.
Every now and then, a long, sad venting post would appear where a mom of boys lists everything about parenting that hurts her. Once she’d started brainstorming her disappointments, she’d usually toss in a line about shopping. But in pages and pages of healthy, happy chit-chat about raising boys, it was nearly impossible to find any boys-only moms complaining about the lack of sparkles in their laundry.
So who keeps talking about how sad we must be? It seems the people most likely to think shopping in the pink section is important are people who are actively enculturating a little girl with prissy, Western notions of acceptable gender roles. These people care very strongly about it. But guess who doesn’t care much about it? Everyone else.
Shopping may be a strange and backward place for flagrant plays of gender politics but it’s a real one. Most of the time, gendered shopping is a marketing tool meant to get parents with kids of both sexes to buy double the merchandise they need because pink bicycles burst into flames if boys try to ride them. It’s got nothing to do with what’s good for the human psyche and everything to do with selling products.
When it comes to underwear and tampons, I can see the wisdom in dividing the marketplace between the sexes. But when I walked into the Scholastic Book Fair at my kids’ school this winter and saw a table labelled “Books for Boys,” I got angry. Thanks, Scholastic, for making sure arbitrary gender division in education and the arts stay staunchly and clearly defined.
And thanks, I guess, to everyone harbouring any compassion for women who only mother children of the opposite sex. Go ahead and feel sorry for us. In truth, there are reasons for boy-moms to feel a little lonely – a little empty. They’re real and I believe they’re profound. The reasons women might mourn for never creating another human in their own image are existential, rooted in our personal identities, our senses of our own immortality, and our fears about dying alone. And that makes the suggestion that our feelings are all about vapid unfulfilled shopping fantasies outrageously offensive.