A tweet tonight reminded me that it has been a while since I have written a blog post. While I have several posts lined up, the past few weeks have been overwhelmed with family business, so I thought I would return with the following family story:
The other day I was watching my children play with their Duplo (large Lego blocks, for those of you who have never suffered the trauma of thinking that your offspring has ingested one of the regular sized pieces). My son (age 4) had attached two wheeled pieces to each other and was carefully constructing an edifice which he informed me was a tractor. My daughter (age 21 months) had amassed every one of the small people who come with just about every box sold (we have about 15 at this point) and carefully lined them up on the table, first standing, then lying down.
Watching their varying behaviour was fascinating. Feminist that I am, I have been fairly strict about not distinguishing their gender when it comes to toys, although, yes, I do dress my daughter in dresses and floral print tops that I would never dream of putting my son in. And I have cut my son’s hair since he was around 9 months, while my daughter’s curls have been allowed to grow. Where their toys might be considered gendered (a mouse doll’s house or the pirate dressing up outfit) I encourage both to play with them, sharing, of course. Yet when faced with a gender-neutral toy such as the Duplo, each child chooses to approach it in an entirely different way.
Is this because of their respective sexes? I have read the media reports of chimpanzees which use a stick differently (tool or weapon) depending on their sex. And here are my children apparently following gender norms in their play: the boy constructing, the girl socialising (as much as as 21-month-old with limited vocabulary can).
And yet, and yet… My son has always built things. He has an engineer’s mind, the sort that wants to know how and why things work. My daughter has always been sociable, delighting in engaging with people in whatever way she can. I don’t think that these traits are defined by their relative possession of XY or XX chromosomes. These are facets of them as individuals, not of their sex. As their mother, what I must encourage is this sense of individuality and what I must guard against is the imposition of gendered social norms, however neatly they appear to fit.
Perhaps there is also a lesson for me for my research as well. Gender categories are all very well for attempting to understand the society that creates them, but they must be applied to the individual with caution. From the CO who was both fired by a desire to serve his country while at the same time refusing to take up arms, to the warrior poet who renounced war and yet returned to his battalion, men (and women) transgressed gendered assumptions throughout the war. No one fits a neat characterisation of masculinity or femininity in life any more than in play, something I must strive to remember when I eventually make it back into the archive.