When my daughter was four, she had a strong desire to be a boy. She refused to wear dresses, play with girls, ‘girl’ toys, or ‘girl’ games, and she would even pee standing up. She was convinced that her ‘penis’ would grow out of her vagina and she would one day become a boy.
“My daughter wants a penis,” I said angrily to my feminist self. “Just what is so special about having a penis that makes her want one?”
I had spent my whole life smashing glass ceilings, achieving awards and advancing in a male-dominated field, and yet my own child, my precious daughter, still believed that her self-concept was tied to wanting a penis. This was a very bitter and ironic pill that I refused to swallow.
I was more than your typical feminist who smoked Cuban cigars, plaited her armpit hair, guzzled beer from a bucket, and took the lead when dancing with men. I was much worse. I believed that women were more than equal — that women were the stronger sex.
I am not ashamed to admit that I have made full use of my womanly powers and made grown men cry and whimper at corporate meetings. I have held equal conversations with CEOs and Ministers of State. I did not even bat an eyelid when interviewing and filming some of the most violent male convicts for television. I saw myself as an equal and held my own.
Hell, I even proposed to my now husband. The way I saw it, I did not need saving, so why should I wait for a man to save me?
I loved being a woman and I wanted my daughter to feel the same way.
Where did I go wrong? What did I do or not do?
As I now know, I had wrongly assumed that I did not have to do anything but raise my daughter with love. Just because I personally don’t subscribe to gender differences, gendered socialization — the penis or vagina self-concept — is still very much ingrained in the fabric of society and propagated from the very moment a baby girl draws her first “pink” breath.
What was so special about this particular human organ, measuring between 10.7-19.1 cm, that made my daughter so desperate to have one? A round of applause, please, for the human organ whose clown trick is to grow bigger and whose functions are reproduction and urination. Making babies and pee, in order of importance.
I shook my head as my daughter peppered her conversations with: “When my penis comes … “
But really, who could blame her?
Gender divisions exist everywhere, from strangers in the street asking whether your baby is a boy or a girl, to schools where you either play with dolls or cars — a constant reminder that penises go right and vaginas go left.
Walk into any department store and you will have “girl” and “boy” clothes separated into different sections. What if a girl likes Power Rangers?
Walk into any school and you have girl and boy uniforms. What if a girl likes shorts?
Walk into any sporting organization and you have girl and boy sports where girls play volleyball and boys play football. What if a girl likes football?
So there — it was society’s fault, just as I had suspected. I had to “un-teach” what was being reinforced in wider society, in the media, and in the community. I was going to write petitions, start a crusade, start a political party, and pass new parliamentary laws. I was determined to show her that what she wanted to do, who she wanted to be, and the lifestyle she wanted to lead should never be tied to having a penis.
There was no way in hell I would ever let a daughter of mine revere the penis.
Then one day, at her doorway, I heard her giggles. I pushed open her door and there she was, locked in her father’s arms. He was tickling her gently as they engaged in a tickling wrestling match.
“Save me,” she squealed in laughter, directed towards my son, her adored older brother.
My son playfully lunged at my husband and beat him with a styrofoam sword as he tried to pry her loose from their father’s arms.
“Hahaha! She is MINE!” my husband growled and this made our two children laugh even louder.
The sound of their laughter rang through the corridor as it did every day, very much taken for granted, like the radio in the background. Their laughter had become that song you hummed along to, many times unaware, as you pottered around.
Today, the lyrics of that special laughter were loud and clear. It told me why she wanted a penis.
It was tickling matches, bike rides, LEGO re-enactments, long lazy days mucking about in the pool, burying Dad in the sand, Dad’s hugs when she was scared, and her brother’s hand when she was alone.
The penis was about being like her brother and her Dad.
It was not about clothes, it was not about toys, and it was not about sports. It was not about gender stereotyping, it was not about society, and it sure as hell was not about my badge of honor as a modern feminist woman.
Like many parents, I had made something out of nothing and worse, I made that something about me.
So what if your daughter only likes to wear dresses because she loves her Nana who wears dresses all the time? So what if your daughter only wants to wear pants because she looks up to her Uncle Joe who makes her laugh all the time with his silly jokes? So what if your son only likes to play with dolls because he loves taking care of people, just like you, his mother, who is a nurse? So what if your daughter wants to be a truck driver when she grows up, just like you, her father, who always kisses her good night.
It is about family, it is about growing up, and it is simply about love.
Some issues are as simple as that. We have to stop politicizing our children into our own personal crusades and just allow them to grow up as themselves, safe in their own space. We just have to stop making something out of nothing.
My husband raised his hands in mock defeat and said: “Okay, okay, I give up.”
My daughter and my son both giggled victoriously and she looked up adoringly at her brother and said: “Thank you for saving me.”
I had been so wrong. There was nothing wrong with my daughter wanting a penis.
The tables were now turned.
It was my daughter who had taught me the most important modern-feminist lesson of my life that day — that sometimes a girl really does need a little saving every now and then.
And that is all right.