Her birthday, as you may have read last week, was this weekend. She turned two. We threw her a party, and it was awesome. Of course, she raked in quite the haul of toys and goodies. But her most favorite gift was a toy that her mother bought for her. It’s a baby doll that comes with a stroller.
That baby has already traveled the neighborhood, up and down the sidewalks, in and out of the house. She’s been in nearly every room in our home, and her stroller’s wheels are already brown from rolling the ground. Our daughter has even named her baby: Abby. (This also corresponds with the name she gave her favorite teddy bear and, as it turns out, a friend from school.) She asks for the baby when she gets home and she wants to sleep with it at night. She parts with it in hesitation when we go to school in the morning, waving goodbye to it with a mixture of distress and concern. She loves her baby doll.
So once again, I am revisiting the ways we might be reinforcing gender stereotypes.
Now, my spouse decided to buy her the baby doll for one reason and one reason only: she knew our daughter would love it. How? Because our daughter plays with every baby doll she sees. At least once a week, her activity sheet from school has written on it “She enjoyed playing with the babies.” At church there is a raggedy doll in a stroller that she happily pushes up and down the hall. This was my spouse’s only cue in giving her her own baby doll for her birthday. And, quite frankly, that’s the only cue we need: we want to give her things she likes and interest her.
So the question is: who taught her to like baby dolls? Was it us? And if not us, then who? I’ve come up with a selection of possible answers.
A) It was not us. We don’t have any baby dolls in our house (well, we do now, but we didn’t before). She didn’t see us playing with dolls and we didn’t ever explicitly encourage her to play with dolls. So she must have learned it from someone else.
B) She learned it from her peers at daycare. The other girls in her class play with baby dolls. Perhaps their parents are much more comfortable actively promoting traditional gender roles, and so our girl sees these other girls playing with dolls and mimics them to belong.
C) She may also have learned it from the teachers at daycare. I suspect they have reinforced the assumption that girls play with baby dolls, if not by explicitly discouraging her interest in traditionally “boy” toys (which I doubt this daycare would do), then by encouraging play with dolls and perhaps not offering trucks.
D) But then again, she likes trucks. She regularly points out “big trucks” when I’m driving her in the car. She gets excited about them. She points them out in her books, too. Truth is, she likes trucks, too. Maybe not as much as baby dolls, but I can’t say she shuns trucks.
E) So maybe she did learn to like baby dolls from us. We didn’t play with dolls in our house, but we played with her. We pushed her in a stroller. Maybe her play with baby dolls is mirroring the nurturing and care we’ve given her. But if this is true, then wouldn’t it follow that little boys also want to play with dolls? Does a little boy’s disinterest in dolls mean that boys are not wired to nurture the way girls are? Maybe, except that I imagine a lot of parents out there might tell me that your boys went through a doll phase at some point.
F) And perhaps there’s a correlation I’m completely missing. Maybe she just likes things that are pink. Maybe her love of the color pink has absolutely nothing to do with her being a girl. Then she loves baby dolls more than trucks because baby dolls tend to be pink more often than toy trucks. Maybe she’s drawn to soft fluffy things and not hard plastic things. Perhaps we should buy her a pink plush truck.
Of course, what does any of this matter? So she loves her baby doll. Why do I stress over such a thing? Is this just mushy-headed liberal fretting, born of a need for my white guilt to find its place in my parenting? There’s nothing inherently wrong with traditional gender roles, is there? So what if my daughter wants to dress in pink and play with dolls, right?
I suppose that’s my concern: I want her to want to be what she is. I want her to dress in pink because she likes pink and not because she thinks she has to wear pink. I want her to play with baby dolls because that’s fun to her, and not because she thinks that playing with trucks is wrong or somehow less acceptable than dolls.
I chafe at the idea of gender predisposition. As tempting as it is to see her delight in her baby doll and conclude that there is a coded response to nurture within females of our species, I reject this for fear that it might be used to reinforce harmful and oppressive structures against women. It doesn’t take many steps to move from the statement that women are biologically suited for nurturing to the statement that women should not have jobs and should stay home to raise children. But there is definitely a biological factor in this. For instance, it doesn’t matter how much one argues that men can nurture as much as women when it comes to breastfeeding. I consider myself a pretty sensitive and nurturing man, but that didn’t give me the power to breastfeed. Or carry my child in my womb for nine months. There’s just a separation there and biology determines parenting roles right from the moment of conception. It’s just an inescapable fact.
So who knows. I think this is probably a rather academic exercise right now, anyway. After all, she’s two years old. It would be foolish to say she isn’t affected by the preferences and expectations of those around her, but she’s pretty clear when she doesn’t want to play with something. And if she didn’t like dolls, she wouldn’t play with them no matter how explicitly we encouraged it. She does what makes her happy. Certainly, she doesn’t live in a vacuum. All the invisible forces of others’ social expectations exist and influence her (and her mother and myself) in ways we can’t comprehend. I suppose my mushy-headed liberal leanings really come into play as she gets older and can articulate her thoughts and feelings. But then again, she’s already doing that. And she’s made it remarkably clear that she loves her baby doll. So if she wants to be a cutesy girly girl, I’m good with that. And when she points to Abby in her stroller and says, “Push, Daddy,” I will push, because I’m not about to reinforce the notion that men can’t play with dolls, either.
That, and maybe I love playing with dolls, too. I certainly love making my little girl happy.