Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Sugar and spice

This week, for the first time ever, I met a four-year-old girl who dreams of being a fighter pilot.

One of my colleagues had forgotten about daylight savings time and overslept, missed the drop-off time at the école maternelle, and had to bring his daughter to work with him. She was outgoing, energetic, cute, of course, and rather outspoken: just what we needed on a Monday morning.

I dug up some stickers and a box full of Kinder Surprise toys for her to play with, and soon she was hanging around my desk, rearranging the magnets on my file cabinet and chatting.

"What do you want to be when you grow up?" I asked. I never know what to talk about with children. Le Petit, at his age, still isn't much for small talk, and I rarely can get a coherent narrative of anything as simple as what he had for lunch or what he did at the park. For my half of the conversation, I can still almost get away with goofy faces and funny sounds. When I talk to older kids, however, I have no idea where to begin. I assume that they either want to tell me what they enjoy about school or what they want to be when they grow up. They usually don't. I cringe, realizing I've morphed into just another boring adult.

My colleague's daughter thought about my question for a second, then answered, "I want... I want to fly a plane!"

"That's great! A big plane, with passengers, like the ones that go to California?" Earlier her father had come by my desk, and explained to her that I was from somewhere very near California. The little girl knew about California, and I watched her eyes grow wide as she asked in disbelief, "Vraiment? La Californie?" I struggled to explain the geography of the American west coast in a way that would make sense to a four year old. "Seattle. It's almost California. Colder, though. Further north... that's up, I mean. There's the same ocean, though. And big trees." I didn't do very well.

"I want to be a fighter pilot!" she announced. No boring commercial flights for her. "So I can shoot at the houses, and the apartment buildings," she continued with a smile.

My officemate and I exchanged perplexed glances. "Well, first there'd have to be a war," I said hesitantly, wondering how I could change the subject. I've been reading too much about World War I and II recently to stomach even the abstract thought of a child growing up to go off to war. Recently at the playground an older boy pointed a realistic toy gun at le Petit's head and pretended to fire. Le Petit didn't even notice -- I can't imagine he even knows what a gun is, much less what it is used for -- but I inadvertently tensed, and almost jumped up from my park bench and rushed over to pull him away, irrational as it was.

Still, I was impressed and the feminist in me was proud that this little girl, at what must be the target marketing age for Disney princesses, was telling me confidently that she wanted to be a fighter pilot. You go, girl.

"Or," she added, "I may just do what Daddy does."

"Working with computers is good, too," I assured her.

* * *

When you start talking about having a second child, you hear the same inevitable comment over and over. If you already have a boy, everyone gushes, "Wouldn't it be nice to have a girl! Then you'd have one of each!" I assume mothers of little girls get the same comment in reverse. I hate this, because if there's one thing becoming a mother has taught me it is that children don't just come in two models, male and female. Another son would not be a carbon copy of le Petit.

Still, there's part of me that sees boys as less of a mystery than girls. Although I would be just as happy to have a daughter as another son, I secretly wonder if a girl wouldn't be more of a challenge for me to figure out. This makes no sense, I know, because I'm girl myself.

I'm just not a typical one. I've always hated pink. I've never figured out how to paint my own nails or do a straight French braid. I've always been last to identify the latest trends and accumulate the accoutrements of girlhood, be it gummy bracelets in third grade, Guess jeans in middle school, or knee-high boots here in Paris. Growing up, I almost viewed other girls as extraterrestrials. I had a couple of close girlfriends, but for all my efforts to decipher their strange culture, the vast majority of girls ignored me, teased me, or excluded me. From preschool on, in self-defense, I learned to make friends with boys. My career in the software industry is a direct result of my early flight from all things feminine. I made friends with boys who were into computers, and logically became a geek myself.

Well into high school the boys, for their part, still mostly saw me as a buddy, not a girl. I despaired of ever being "asked out." Guys only seemed to notice me when they needed help with their math homework.

After high school I went to a women's college. It was a choice that surprised everyone, I think, except my parents. I surprised myself by discovering that I fit into a would that was exclusively feminine. Somehow we all were freed from the roles that I'd observed up until then: the popular girl, the nice girl, the gossip, the nerd. Solidarity outweighed self-comparison and competition. Makeup was optional. I made friends with women, and many are among my very closest friends now. It was everything that high school and middle school were not. But it felt long in coming.

I remember how my mother, one of the feminists I most admire, anxiously watched me make my way though the painful stuff as I grew up. It anguished her to see me struggle to make friends, or criticize my own body, or sigh after boys, or wonder if it wasn't such a good thing after all to be "too smart." She did her best to help, and a lot of what she told me then makes sense to me now. Back then, however, nothing she said could make it all better.

My own daughter might suffer the same way, and then what would I do?

* * *

I took the day off today. Vive les RTT, the extra vacation days given to salaried employees like myself to compensate for a more-than-35-hour work week. Ever since I went back to work after le Petit was born, I've started taking a day for myself once every couple months. I go shopping, visit museums, or stroll around Paris, and without fail, I meet my husband for lunch.

Twice, now, I've also treated myself to manicure. For me, this is a big deal, for it feels at once decadent and forbidden to take myself into the inner sanctum of French femininity, the institut de beauté. For years I walked past the day spa in my neighborhood and stared longingly inside, trying to get up the nerve to make an appointment. I was almost afraid of being rejected: with my calloused feet and bare fingernails, I obviously didn't belong to the club.

Then I discovered what French women all seem to know: the little rituals of taking care of yourself don't concern anyone but you.

I sat in the corner of the spa near the window as the manicurist trimmed my cuticles. I peered nervously down the sidewalk, hoping the nanny wouldn't pass by with le Petit. I murmured something about motherly guilt. The manicurist laughed. "I think a lot of women do exactly the same thing you're doing right now," she assured me. And they don't feel guilty about it, she implied.

Strangely, I think if I had a daughter, I wouldn't feel so guilty, because I'd know at the same time that I was being a role model.

* * *

My mother has never worn much makeup. If you ask me, she doesn't need it. She is beautiful the way she is, and eye shadow or nail polish would be incongruous with her personality. When she dresses up, she chooses jewelry and bright outfits that show off her warm complexion and her slender form. She doesn't need anything else.

My mother told me that once, when she was a sophomore in high school, a boy started a rumor that he would gladly kiss her if she would only wear lipstick. She decided that instant that she would never wear it, a vow she kept, I believe, at least until after she graduated.

The year I turned twelve, my mother went to the makeup counter at the local department store with my picture, and asked the saleswomen for advice. She came home with one of the best Christmas presents I remember ever receiving: a full set of Clinique makeup, and instructions on how to use it. It was elegant stuff, and understated, and I was probably still too young to appreciate it. It was my mom's way of acknowledging that I was growing up, and that there were ways that my identity as a woman might be very different from hers.

I'm not sure I ever properly thanked her.

* * *

When I took le Petit to the park on Wednesday, a little girl, maybe six or seven, was running around chasing after a couple of younger boys. "Bam, bam, bam!" she said, pointing her fingers like a gun. She stopped one of the boys, placing a hand on his shoulder. "I got you, just then," she said, "You need to come with me," and he reluctantly held his hands behind his back as she led him off to the corner of the playground designated "jail."

Le Petit chased after her, enchanted. He seems to have a thing for "older women," I've noticed with amusement, and little girls that are three or four years his senior particularly attract his attention. The girl didn't shoo him away, as I would have expected. Instead she asked, "Do you want to play?" and pretended to hand him something, maybe a badge, maybe his very own imaginary handgun. Le Petit didn't fully understand what she was doing, but he happily understood that he was included in the game. The chasing recommenced.

Soon the kids had all converged on a tall slide, one of the big toys I've grudgingly started letting le Petit climb up by himself. I watched as he scaled it beside the other kids twice his size, my heart in my throat. There was much jostling and pushing at the top. "Stop!" admonished the girl, "Don't push the little boy! Let him go down the slide!" The other boys dutifully let le Petit squeeze past.

So girls play cops and robbers these days, and want to become fighter pilots. It shouldn't surprise me, for I played "cars and trucks" when I was little. There's still something that looks like maternal instinct, too, although I suspect it is learned and not innate.

* * *

When I was a kid, my mother tried repeatedly to teach me to play catch.

"You throw like a girl!" she complained, and eventually gave up. Even back then, it seemed ironic to me that for once I was not supposed be "girly," and I failed. If I have a girl, and I need to teach her to throw a ball, I'm sending her to Grandma's. I'll send le Petit and any brothers, too. My mother loved sports, but was born in a generation when girls were only allowed to be cheerleaders, not basketball or baseball players.

I hated sports when I was young, and I was and still am terribly uncoordinated. I grew up to become an adept of distance running. What does "one of each" mean again?


Cloud said...

I keep trying to think of what to say to this post, other than that I like it.

We have two girls. And we're done, but a lot of people don't really believe us about that.

I liked the book Pink Brain, Blue Brain, by Lise Eliot for a look at gender differences- what we can really say is "in born" and what we amplify with how we respond to the kids. It was really interesting.

Milantha said...

It's funny..much like you I didn't fit in with the girly world too well. Hated dolls, never really figured out the hair and makeup, etc. I figured Emma would be a tomboy as a result...but nope! She's all girl. Baby dolls, real babies, nails, makeup, the whole nine yards.

Gracie, on the other hand...huge tomboy!

With regard to Le Petit not knowing about guns..I've heard several anecdotes about kids being raised without TV and guns still picking up sticks, pointing it at other kids, and pretending to use a gun...so I think it's something genetic :)

caramama said...

I love this post.

I was both a girly girl and a tomboy. I don't know how, but I was--and still am.

My daughter has always been much more like the little boys her age than the little girls. She was interested in cars way before she started developing any interest in dolls. We are simply encouraging her in whatever she likes. Time will tell what she likes as she grows, and what her brother will like.