My preschool-aged daughter has a board book that I have vandalised with black permanent marker. It’s a lift-the-flap book called Dear Zoo where all of the animals were once male. Now, thanks to the corrections I made on every second page, the zoo delivered a lion and she (not he) was fierce. Then they delivered a frog and she was jumpy.
This book sits along other titles like: ABC What Can She Be?, Chapati Moon, My Body Belongs to Me and No Means No among others; books that either centre female characters or feature a diverse array of characters – people of different colours, non-binary and non-gender specific characters.
I am hoping that repeated experiences of immersing herself in such worlds, where women (especially women of colour) are not relegated to the backdrop or omitted from the book altogether, will lead to my daughter developing a sense of belonging and confidence to take up space in her world, in a way that I wasn’t able to.
I was brought up in a culture where perpetual self-sacrifice and emotional martyrdom were the badges of honour ‘good’ women and ‘good’ daughters were supposed to wear. The process of unlearning these beliefs about who I needed to be and how I was supposed to carry myself in this world, then forming my own beliefs, has been ongoing and arduous.
The process of unlearning these beliefs about who I needed to be and how I was supposed to carry myself in this world, then forming my own beliefs, has been ongoing and arduous
During the first major ultrasound of my pregnancy, my obstetrician struggled to pinpoint the sex of my baby. After she’d instructed me to turn from one side to the other, emptying what seemed like an entire bottle of gel on my belly, she finally spotted what she was looking for. “See these three lines on the screen here?” she asked. “They’re suggestive of a little girl.”
“Oh,” I said.
I was taken aback by the depth of my own disappointment at the news.
It took reading and listening to a whole lot of books and podcasts on feminism and parenting, as well as therapy, before I could understand where this gender disappointment stemmed from.
Over time, I understood that my reaction to having a baby girl had nothing to do with my daughter’s gender and everything to do with how I was raised to think about myself and other women in the world. This made me doubt my capacity to be the primary role model to a little girl.
Over time, I understood that my reaction to having a baby girl had nothing to do with my daughter’s gender and everything to do with how I was raised to think about myself and other women in the world
These days, I am mentally and emotionally healthier and I believe in myself to be a compassionate and effective parent, even though I am doing things very differently to the sorts of parenting styles I grew up witnessing.
My husband and I are engaging in respectful parenting. We are doing our best to respect our almost four-year old daughter, her body, her yes’s and her no’s, her boundaries (where they don’t compromise her safety and wellbeing) and her ideas; to teach her what respect is by treating her with it rather than demanding it of her on the basis of our position of power and authority.
When my daughter was a baby, I would sing to her during bathtime: Rub-a-dub-dub, two girls in the tub and who do you think they be? Lali* and Mummy, two beautiful women, confident as can be.
When my daughter was a baby, I would sing to her during bathtime: Rub-a-dub-dub, two girls in the tub and who do you think they’d be? Lali* and Mummy, two beautiful women, confident as can be
Having said that, now that she’s almost four years old and able to understand what other grown ups mean when they repeatedly tell her she is cute, we try to counter this emphasis on her appearance by asking her how she feels in an outfit, rather than telling her what we think of how she looks.
I’m not going to change the whole world by treating my daughter with this sort of radical respect that I didn’t really see parents afford their children, as I was growing up. But my husband and I are helping to shape her perception of the world, one vandalised book at a time, one shower at a time, one question at a time. And maybe as she grows, she’ll take those memories with her and allow them to inspire the way she strives toward equality and how she treats herself and others.
*Name changed for privacy
Ruhi Lee writes on Boon Wurrung land. Her memoir Good Indian Daughter is out now through Affirm Press. You can find her online at ruhilee.com