The trouble with pink

Whilst browsing the children’s section of a popular chain of bookshops, two twin anthologies caught my eye. The first was bound in a blue cover and featured an illustration of a young boy on horseback galloping across a snowy wilderness. The publisher’s note on the back describes the volume’s collection of thrilling action and adventure stories. This book, titled The Usborne Illustrated Classics for Boys, was sitting directly next to it’s sister publication: The Usborne Illustrated Stories for Girls. In contrast to its male-targeted counterpart, the dust-jacket description of Classics for Girls promises, “fourteen fantastic tales of pretty princesses, determined fairies, brave dolls and clever mermaids.” The front cover is framed by the branches of a bright, sparkling tree and a castle with heart shape door at the centre. All of which are, of course, awash in pink.

pinkbluebook

From the moment I found out my wife and I were having a daughter, I knew pink was going to be a problem. In one sense colours are meaningless and have no inherent properties, other than what we apply to them. The graphic novelist Alan Moore has pointed out that “words offer the means to meaning”, and in much the same way so do colours. It is our use of colours that gives them meaning and it is how we use them to exclude, predefine and label our children, often before they have had a chance to explore their world, that is a real cause for concern.

A stroll through any toy shop reveals that we have clearly defined paths for our boys and girls. For girls, brightly packaged pink toys hold within them the keys to domestic life whilst they are also peppered with products relating to cosmetic beauty. In this world, girls are devoted to the duties of the home, all the while in constant pursuit of physical perfection. A child surrounded by these types of toys may logically conclude that their place in adult life is in the home and that, no matter where they are, they must look good! The strong association between pink and these types of toys give the colour its particular meaning. And, that meaning is to constrain girls within certain sanctioned roles and to contain them within prescribed standards of beauty.

It’s not just our girls who suffer. Our boys are also limited by toy manufacturer’s visioning of gender-appropriate play. In the toy market, boys are essentially forbidden from exploring (and perhaps enjoying) anything that relates to home life. Toys relating to family relationships, food preparation and the arts are all but absent from the boys’ section. From this absence, boys can only draw one conclusion: these things are a woman’s domain.

What all this means is that all our children, whether boy or girl, are being told to fulfil their potential in only a very limited range of roles. As a result we all lose out.

Being a homemaker is a very valid role but that girls need to realise that it is but one of many options for the modern woman, whilst boys need to know that running a home can be a valid role for them too. Colours are just a small part of the gender machine, but they are easy to focus on, blatant in the gendering project for which they are intended. Of course, pink can actually be a great colour: my guilty pleasure is pink candy floss. Yet, the fact that it has become the only colour to represent girlhood and the possibilities it entails is a real issue. When we surround our girls in pink we are saying that we accept and are willing to reinforce the predetermined, social normative place of women in our society. We are saying this to our friends, to ourselves and ultimately to our children. Personally, I would like my daughter to hear something different.

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Vayechi: Many blessings to many people

In this week’s Torah portion Jacob is very old – 147 years! – and lying on his death bed. Gathered around him are his children and grandchildren, to each of whom he offers a personal blessing. It is here in Genesis (Bereshit) that the Friday night tradition to bless ones sons in the name of Joseph’s children Ephraim and Manasseh originates.

For the past three months we have introduced a new custom into our Shabbat routine; Each week Robin (my wife) and I place our hands on our daughter’s head and recite a short blessing. This intimate moment allows us to reflect on our hopes and aspirations for her as she grows up and develops into an independent person.

Of course, one does not need to wait until they are dying or have a child to offer blessings and they need not be so formally delivered. In fact, we probably ‘bless’ a lot more than we might think. Each time we offer our approval or good wishes to a friend or offer luck or hope to a family member we are indeed offering a blessing.

The final moments of Jacob’s life were packed with many blessings to many people. He wanted to use his last breath to offer praise, encouragement and guidance to those he cared about most. This is something that we should emulate at all stages of our lives even if our blessings are as simple as adding a few positive words or actions into our daily routine.

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This article originally appeared as Alyth Synagogue’s ‘Thought for the Week’.

New parenthood: a dad’s-eye view

There are many dedicated blogs and posts about becoming a parent for the first time. Almost all of these are written by mums for expectant mums and I asked myself, “Why aren’t first-time dads rushing online to share their thoughts on newfound fatherhood?! Well, as a ‘gushing’ new father I thought I would share my experience of the last two months.

Aviva Clara (Chaya) was born on the 5th of September 2013, a particularly special day as she shared her entrance into the world with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

I was always looking forward to the labour and birth of our baby. I expected it to be a unique bonding experience, primarily between my wife (Robin) and I, but also with our baby. Prior to the birth, people often asked Robin if she was feeling nervous about labour. Me, I felt quite calm with my only concern being for Robin and baby’s welfare (in that order). I felt confident in my wife’s ability to deliver the baby and knew that, even if there were complications, the likelihood was that our baby would be born safe and sound. The birth went smoothly and I was largely surprised at how quick the ‘final push’ was, imagining that it would take much longer. Robin gave birth on a birthing stool – a sort of chair with no bottom – whilst I sat behind her and she leaned back into me for support. This intimate embrace allowed us to share the first view of our daughter together (and I was able to cut the umbilical cord).

My first feelings were pure joy. I felt overwhelmed with emotion and, though I did not cry, I could feel my face buzzing with excitement. Feeling Robin relax back into my body as she held Aviva lose was a very powerful moment and I will probably remember that embrace for the rest of my life. Holding my daughter for the first time was incredible! In my adult life I had spent little time around young children, let alone newborn babies, yet I felt instantly comfortable. I am naturally quite a confident person and was not worried about the way I handled Aviva. Yes, she was delicate but she had managed to survive the upheaval of birth so I was certain that my grip wouldn’t harm her.

The first six weeks were a total readjustment for Robin and I as we got used to sharing our lives (and home) with an additional person. A newborn is quite a demanding tenant and both of us had to contend with putting her needs before our own. Robin was particularly tied to Aviva during this early stage as she was breastfeeding exclusively. Prior to having a baby I often remarked at how amazing a bonding experience breastfeeding must be for mother and child and how we, aka dads, suffered from not being able to partake in this activity. Post-baby I still believe we men miss out on this special bonding time, however I also realise that breastfeeding can be very challenging. Assuming the mother has no problems with latching, mastitis – google it :-) – and blocked ducts the demanding routine that breastfeeding requires is enough to make anyone lose their sanity. Robin did a phenomenal job nursing our baby but the round-the-clock, always-ready-to-feed lifestyle was not one I envied. In fact, my respect for Robin increased dramatically during these first weeks as I realised just how taxing being the mother of a newborn really is! Not only are their bodies recovering from the birth itself, they are also denied the precious sleep needed to allow their bodies to heal quickly.

This time was challenging on both for us in different ways: Robin was getting used to the new demands on her body and I was getting used to supporting her as well as looking after Aviva in other, non-feeding ways. (In particular, this meant changing lots of dirty nappies but luckily breastmilk poo does not smell too bad.)

People had told us that things would get easier at around the six week mark and this largely proved to be true. Aviva felt calmer, perhaps more familiar with her world outside of the womb. (We even got a couple of smiles around this time). Robin relaxed as we began to share the responsibility of feeding via the introduction of a bottle feed. I also felt content seeing the positive change in Robin as she regained control over her body, and how seamlessly Aviva adapted to the changes in her feed.

Aviva is just over two months now and things continue to run a little smoother each day. I love being a dad and feel fortunate to have such a sweet-natured daughter; she smiles often and rarely cries for very long. Fatherhood has been a tremendous experience and for the first time I feel like I begin to understand the term ‘unconditional love’. Having Aviva has meant that I have grown in my relationship, not only with her, but with my wife, family and friends, too.  For any man who is considering whether or not to become a father, it is an adventure I highly recommend.