Bionic Mamas

you're not losing a vagina, you're gaining a son

Tricycles and Gender


Sugar here. I haven’t written here in a while, but I’m thinking I’m going to try to get back to it, so here is a post:

I was on the playground with the Bean the other day, engaged in my usual playground activity, eavesdropping. This playground has a lot of donated, semi-broken toys, many of them plastic cars, rolling benches shaped like cars, and tricycles. The Bean was busy sitting on cars. He can do this for a very long time, just trying out what it feels like to have his butt on each vehicle, so I had a lot of time to sit and notice what else was happening near by.

A couple of feet to the right of the Bean was a mom trying to take a picture of her son, who was maybe three years old. He was rolling along on a pink and purple tricycle with silver streamers on the handles.

“Oh your daddy’s gonna love seeing you on that pink bike!” she said. She didn’t tell the kid to get off the bike, and she clearly didn’t think it was that big a deal, but there was still humorous disapproval in her voice.

What the hell? I thought. This woman, in addition to caring for a toddler, apparently also has to worry about the reaction of her husband to any, ANY, non-normative gender behavior in her son, including the sin of just thinking that an available tricycle is awesome and not shunning it because it is pink. Are men really this fragile?

Here is another example of this phenomenon. A colleague of mine has a son, who at the time of this story was four. She described to me the difficulty she had when she took him to buy pencils at the grocery store. He really, really wanted a particular packet of pencils, but they were Dora the Explorer brand and were purple (purple!) with glitter in the paint. She knew her husband would be very upset if he saw their son with those pencils. Unsurprisingly, the four year old didn’t think much of this argument. Now, I’m having a kind of emotional day here, but this story kind of makes me want to cry. JUST BUY THE FOUR YEAR OLD THE PURPLE PENCILS. Also, maybe leave your husband. Ok, maybe that’s a bit extreme, but COME ON.

One thing that is interesting to me about stories like this one (and I don’t have just one of these, I swear some woman or other tells me something like this at least once a month) is that they are always told in a sort of resigned and conspiratorial way, the subtext of which being, “I don’t really think this matters, but you know how men are. Too bad we are stuck propping up their masculinity and norming the hell out of our kids all the time, but it has to be.” My answer to this, if anyone ever said this out loud to me, which by the way they never will because they are so deeply embedded in their fun-house version of reality to be able to tease out the subtext of anything, would be, “You are not stuck doing that. You are choosing to do that. And your choice is based on things you think are important and real, but which are in fact trivial.” Fixed gender identity? Nope, not real. Your husband withering into a melted pile of horror-movie yuck when he sees his son wearing a pink garment? Probably not going to happen. What will the neighbors think? Sorry, but the neighbors aren’t really paying much attention.

So, Ok, I’m probably not the best person to play the resigned-and-conspiratorial card with. For one thing, I don’t have a husband. I’m not all, poor men and their egos! Being a feminine looking gay woman with a toddler gives me this bizarre window into straight-world thinking. Other moms forget that a) I don’t have a similar story about my husband not helping with whatever, and b) I do have a very different perspective on the necessity of shaping myself or my son according to societal expectations.

Here is a simple question I wish these moms would ask themselves: why is what my (not even present in the situation) husband thinks more important than what a) I think and b) my kid wants to do? Why is my husband worth protecting, and what am I protecting him from? Or, to be more charitable, why do I believe what I am saying/doing helps my child?

I suspect that the answer to this last question would be that all this norming helps the child learn how to not be teased, to learn (right now, at age 3!) to live in a world that expects and enforces cisgender behavior. I reject this. This is just wrong. It’s wrong on the small and immediate scale, in that purple pencils and pink bikes don’t really say anything about the gender of a 3 year old, so you are just making a big sad confusing deal out of nothing. It’s also wrong on the large and eventual scale, in that every time you label an activity or preference as ‘wrong,’ i.e. gender-nonconforming, you are teaching your child that he lives in a hostile world that judges him on the basis of how closely he can conform to a nonsensical ideal.

I find conversations with many straight moms (And I guess I should be clear here that at our local playground this means pretty, young, white, straight, married women with money – so basically people who’ve yet slam up against the ugly side of societal expectations or bias – just wait, ladies) so frustrating because it is clear that they don’t see their ideas about gender as ideas. Rather, those ideas are just part of the fabric of the reality that surrounds us, invisible and immutable. So there’s no conversation to be had. But there is. There is so much of a conversation that should be had about this, and people need to be having it before they raise another generation of sad people who are uncomfortable in their own skins.



19 thoughts on “Tricycles and Gender

  1. Great post. My E. is obsessed with vehicles and ignores his stuffed animals, despite my efforts to not pigeon hole him into “traditional” gender-based play. It leaves me wondering whether I somehow did push him in one direction over the other, or whether he was just wired to want to do this.

    E. also likes to drape my underwear (clean, I hasten to add) around his neck when we do the laundry on Saturdays. I think this is hilarious, as he will often have three pairs on simultaneously. Q. makes jokes about it, but I think under the jokes there is a level of unease. This strikes me as ridiculous.

  2. My wife has a story about one of her co-workers who expressed great concern that her son wanted to dress up as “Blue” from “Blue’s Clues” for Halloween one year. Apparently Blue is a girl dog and she was concerned what people would think. When asked her opinion, Jen told her she should let her kid dress up as whatever he wanted, and that she she be no more concerned about her son dressing up as a girl dog than she was about him dressing up as a blue cartoon dog.

  3. one of my coworkers is working hard to convince his three year old son that he wants to be Mickey Mouse, not Minnie. No dice. I keep wondering why in the hell it matters if he gets a polka-dot bow in his ears or not.

  4. I totally agree with you.
    But then I wonder why I didn’t buy the sparkly pink shoes that B was attracted to. I will tell myself it is because I would not buy those for any girl child either.
    It’s frankly very hard to combat the marketing. I do my very best to avoid all of the gender based graphic tshirts, etc (trucks, footballs), but it is surprisingly hard.

    • oh, I didn’t mean that parents need to be all gender neutral about everything they buy their kids, just that something so small as a pencil (that was going to be purchased anyway) or a free tricycle ride doesn’t need to be so vigilantly policed.

  5. My spouse, a very-straight tall Midwestern dude, probably wouldn’t wear bright pink, but I did get him a fairly-pink polo shirt by accident (we have a deal: he does lots of things I hate, including all the cleaning and dishes and trash and spider-killing, and I buy clothes, which he hates; I find this eminently fair). And he wears it. I don’t know about bubblegum pink but I suspect I wouldn’t wear that color either, and also that there is an element of rigid gender identity there.

    Bug has a lovely pink shirt. With stripes. He wears it to shul along with his “Brennan on the Moor” driving cap. However, a straight mom we know did have a husband FREAK OUT (and melt into a pile of horror) when her kid wore a pink shirt. She got rid of the shirt. My thought at the time was FFS he is two and WHO CARES and what is wrong with you people.

    I also think kids have a very uncertain sense of gender in general, much less gender identity. Like, what is a girl, anyways? (Or a boy.) We have tried to provide Bug with the pronouns that people prefer, so that he doesn’t offend them, but there was a good one-year period where everyone was he or she interchangeably. We also met a female police officer with very short hair a couple weeks ago, and Bug said ‘he’ (to be fair, it was a little hard to tell even for an adult, what with the uniform and all) and we had a nice little talk about how boys and girls can both do all kinds of jobs.

    We did not push Bug toward trucks at all, but he loved them even before he could talk. I have this great movie-reel memory in my head of him going nuts the first time he saw a bulldozer, at about 16 months, and screaming BUH! BUH! DAT!! BUH BUH BUH!!! The stuffed animals sit around and Tatoe chucks them about. I don’t even know.

    The tricycle I found by the side of the road for Bug is mostly red. If he ever learns to PEDAL the damn thing I will happily add sparkly streamers all over it.

    • I love that kids love big machines so much! The Bean is completely obsessed with cars, trucks and buses, to the extent that now he gets very upset if he sees a bus but we don’t pursue it and try to get on it. So I can totally imagine the bulldozer joy. Of course, I’m not that pleased with people telling me that the Bean is like that because he is a boy.

  6. Great post! I really don’t know what is the matter with people, or rather, I suppose that I DO know, and just don’t like it.

    The #1 reason that I didn’t find out Eggbert’s sex before she was born is that I thought that she should at least be able to graduate from being a fetus before people started stereotyping her. It makes me so sad when she comes home from preschool saying things like “boys have short hair and girls have long hair,” even though her father has had long hair in her lifetime and she knows plenty of women and girls with short hair. Or when she says that she wants to get married to a prince. Ugh. I mean, it’s fine if she wants to marry someone and if that someone turns out to be a prince (or a princess), then that’s fine too, but as a life goal? So sad. Little boys definitely get the worse end of the stick when it comes to the stigma of trans-gendered behavior, but at least they get programmed to aspire to being a firefighter, which, let’s face it, is WAY more impressive than a princess!

    While it appears to be true that men are more outspoken enforcers of gender “norms” for their sons, I think that some women also just use their husbands as excuses. As if bad behavior was more tolerable in men, somehow.

    • When I was about 5 years old I insisted that no men had curly hair. I still don’t know what that was about, but I remember believing it. Also, yes, I do think some women are just using their husband as an excuse (just wait till your father gets home!) ugh.

  7. My husband doesn’t care if I paint my son’s toenails, but not his fingernails. I think he’s more worried about how others will perceive his parenting skills if he encourages (allows) his son to wear fingernail polish. He also won’t let him wear his sister’s dresses outside of the house, altho he can wear them to play inside.
    However, he does let him where bracelets and headbands outside of the house.
    He says he would prefer his son not to be gay but that he would still love and accept him if he is (although he says he doesn’t care either way when discussing our daughter, no preference at all).
    I have no real explanation for any of it.
    I think the tendency is like you say, Sugar, that in general (not all of course), heterosexual women do just “resign” themselves to their husband’s’s’s’ (lol) opinions. I know for me personally I am passive towards everyone, not just my husband, I will explain away anyone close to me’s faults as “that’s just how they are” etc. I certainly don’t think I am right, nor do I think my personality justifies anything, I know that it is a cop-out. But it’s how I am.

  8. Well I’m certainly happy you blogged again, great post! Have you seen the little girl (aged 3 or 4) talking about marketing? If you type ‘Riley on marketing’ into YouTube you’ll find her. She’s brilliant 🙂

  9. Hear, hear! When my youngest was a baby (and okay, fine, a toddler, because given that we didn’t know until he was three or so that he’d even survive I decided not to prioritize breaking him of the binky habit) he was VERY attached to a particular brand of pacifier (Soothies) that came in a teal-greenish color and were made of a particularly BOUNCY silicone, meaning that if dropped they’d ricochet a crazy distance and roll under things. We bought lots of teal Soothies. Then they introduced pink and blue ones. Blue looked the best with my little guy’s complexion, but one time all of the “bubbas” were MIA and the child was inconsolable; we (I and the three children) went to the store and they only had pink ones. “BUBBAAAAAA!” wailed the baby, pointing, and you bet your arse I ripped the package open and gave him the pink bubba in the checkout line, and bought two others as backups! My ex came unglued when he saw the child asleep in my arms when I got home, sucking away at the pink bubba, and tore the house apart to find a blue one. WTH, men? That wasn’t the reason I left him, but I did eventually leave him for my current husband, who steals my pink “This is what a feminist looks like” t-shirt and my fluffy hot-pink bathrobe ALL THE DAMN TIME without shame, because they’re comfortable and smell like me. It’s a better problem to have, for sure 😉

  10. We have, in the family archive, a photo of my sister, my cousin, and me, all wearing very frilly fouffy fairy princess costumes, having a tea-party on the lawn. We’re all under six. My cousin is a boy, and with his blonde curls, looked the fairiest princess of the bunch. And everyone who ever saw the photo thought it cute, or adorable, or precious, all the way through the eighties and nineties. Now? In the second decade of the 21st century? People are WORRIED about my cousin, and the pinkness, and his masculinity. Yeah, this being the strapping sports instructor happily married to a pretty lady and now father. His masculinity is perfectly, dare I say drearily, orthodox, thank you very much, despite the fairy frocks in his toddlerhood.

    And, and most importantly, why did no one bat an eyelid at this photo for nearly 30 years, and suddenly NOW it’s a problem that it shows a little boy in a frock having a splendid game with his cousins? WHAT THE HELL HAS HAPPENED TO US?

    • that is very interesting. perhaps we are in the midst of a backlash of some kind. I would have thought that it would have been worse before, but maybe 30 years ago people did not feel that it was likely that their darling baby would suddenly come out of the closet or announce that he wanted to start being addressed by a woman’s name.

  11. I’ve enjoyed the blog for a few months, but haven’t posted before. Gender identity in children is one of those societal norm things, the kids are trying to learn how to behave and gain approval from parents and friends. Parents can place a lot of importance on adhering to the “norms” or just try to raise good kids.
    I have two sons, 5 and 3. My oldest loved pink for a very long time (also cars and construction equipment, starting age 1.5) I personally dislike pink, and have no opinion on cars (construction equipment is cool). DH is a progressive male, who bought son #1 pink shirts, pencil boxes, etc. Now, he’s gone to kindergarten and his favorite color changed to blue. I’m a little sad, and realize its probably from some gender pressure at school. Since I don’t want to homeschool, all I can do is explain it’s ok for anyone to like any color.

  12. Yeah, I don’t have a lot of sympathy for either those women or those men, but I am also conflicted, because any time anyone gives me anything pink or girly for Bun Bun, I immediately get rid of it. Ditto anything überboytastic for Bunlet, like the little suit with baseballs and the words “GREAT CATCH”. Nuh uh. I certainly don’t plan to deny either kid whatever he or she wants based on my own discomfort with girly boyish bullshit, but that discomfort is there, and I guess it makes me part of the problem.

  13. It makes me want to cry too. My stock response is usually, “Really, pink is just a colour.” But now I think you’ve given me some words to expolre and challenge this further.

  14. I know this is an old post, but I’ve been skipping around this blog a bunch in the last few days and really love it (the blog, but also this post) — especially in a seemingly endless sea of miserable heterosexist Internet parenting stuff, populated by straight people problems (like various fucked up relationships to “DH,” the insistencs on a scary degree of self-sacrifice on the part of mothers, and gender policing bullshit). I hope this doesn’t sound too mean but I’m so grateful for the narrow escape that it is to be a lesbian, and so fearful of being swallowed up in the sinkhole of it when I have a kid. so glad for your blog and hope I can find others like it to fortify my courage and make me feel less nuts.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s