My husband sounded so annoyed when he called soon after our first child was born.
“I can’t understand these people. So many told me don’t worry the next will be a boy when I went with sweets to inform them that we have a baby girl.”
We were so delighted and it really didn’t matter to us but this is such a typical reaction. My mother in law on the contrary was so happy, she has three sons and was thrilled as she said: “Now it doesn’t matter whether the second is a boy or girl.”
This first reaction made us determined to not only give her all the opportunities we could but also to try and not get into the traditional mother or father roles.
It was just the two of us far away from our parents, both working and our one little one. Bathing her was a combined effort one held her while the other bathed her. Feeding time was shared as was putting to sleep.
As a teacher in the initial years, at school, there were more mothers than fathers at open days but over the years it was delightful to see fathers taking interest, whether it was making costumes or picking and dropping for practice or minding kids or dressing the kids.
Of course we have our special interests, for me it was cooking and painting. My husband enjoyed teaching them how to cycle, work on projects and fly kites.
So the steps we could take consciously to work on treating both the same would be simply this:
Talk about it: Don’t say boys don’t cry or girls must look pretty always. Try not to give girls only dolls and boys only cars. My daughter hated the dolls she was given and the kids put capes for them and threw them around saying, ‘Super woman saves the day’. Very often these super women sported eye patches and moustaches. Give equal attention to your kids. If it’s only a boy include dolls and cooking sets in their toys and if its girls make sure there are trucks and dinosaurs. Treat your kids equally. Mothers show your stronger side both physically and emotionally and fathers show your softer side.
Share the chores: Mother, father and children do chores. Let father cook and mother fix what is broken. Let the little boy help in the kitchen and the little girl wash the car. Let them learn responsibility.
Have a variety of heroes: From Malala to Mandela, from Mary Kom to Vijendra Singh and from Amrita Shergil to MF Hussain, let children see that talent and passion are not gender specific.
Allow kids to speak out: I remember how my daughter was so mad because a classmate, who heard that her father made the delicious parathas, told another classmate, “Next your father will wear bangles.” She had a heated argument with the child in question and spoke about how the best chefs are male.
Avoid putting things in slots: Let your daughter sit in an unladylike way in shorts and your son wear a pink t-shirt and decorate the house. I remember I got my daughter a long nightie and my son demanded one too. For some time they both wore one till they realised it’s too fussy! As parents, be conscious of the stereotyping – let the father cook while the mother relaxes on a sofa or let the father give mother a pedicure.
Stop prioritising looks: Praise more often for actions rather than how one looks. However, an unkempt child can be praised for making the effort to smarten up. We all know skinny or plump, fair or dark, perfect smile or not, our kids are special in every way. Let them feel cherished for who they are and not for what they look like. I was a plump child and always felt apologetic for my size. It took me years and a loving spouse to get over it.
Listen and learn from your kids: I still remember my daughter coming back from her first overnight camp. She was furious because the boys’ camp was so far away. “Ma you don’t understand they are my friends first then boys or girls.” I was so glad she could see things like that. My son on the other hand was the basketball star and basked in the girls’ attention.
Now my kids have grown and I see young parents struggling with parenting, all I can say is parenting is tough but the joys far outweigh the trouble. I live in an area where we have several senior citizens being cared for and nurtured by their daughters and nieces.
Boy? Girl? It really does not matter.
(Writer is a volunteer in local schools and a trustee with Sethu)