Gender is a hot topic on social media this week, like this video. In my Twitter feed, no less than three women tweeted that they had watched this commercial and "cried out of guilt." Apparently, according to the video's description on the Huffington Post, parents give their girls an array of subtle social cues that "push girls away from math and science in their earliest childhood years." These messages can also, according to the description, "ultimately discourage girls from pursuing traditionally male-dominated STEM subjects in school."
Wow, I thought. What exactly are parents SAYING to these poor girls?! Are they literally burning their daughter's chemistry books right in front of her? Curious, I clicked on the ad, fully expecting some seriously messed up stuff.
This was the first example. Um. I scratched my head. That's supposed to deter a girl from math and science? Is the parent off-camera holding a chemistry set right out of her reach? Is that what she's grabbing for? What am I missing?
Hmm. I guess I see how this could send some bad signals -- telling your girl to forego exploring for fear of getting "dirty" or "messy"? That's no good. But maybe this mom just doesn't want to do yet another load of laundry? Lord knows between a baby who can't use utensils yet and a potty-training toddler we do at least two loads per day around here, and you can often hear me yelling, "Can you PLEASE eat your spaghetti OVER your plate so you don't ruin your new shirt?! Can you PLEASE sit on the potty when you pee, so you don't spray urine all over your clothes?!" Who knew I was setting her up to hate the hard sciences?
Sheesh. I told my daughter not to pet a dead bird at the park last week... was I really deterring her from scientific inquiry?
At the end of the ad, Sammy, now in high school, looks past a science fair poster on a glass board and applies lipstick, using the glass as a mirror. BOOM. There you go, you sexist parents -- you just set little Sammy up for a lifetime of waitressing at Hooters. Sammy could have graduated from Yale with a degree in molecular biology, but you had to compliment her DRESS, didn't you, you STEM-hating monsters?! "Our words can have a huge impact," the ad warns. Apparently. Apparently even the most innocuous comment can have a permanent, life-altering impact. When you tell your daughter she's pretty, what she's really hearing is that she's a vapid princess who's too dumb to do math, and it will alter the course of her life forever.
Can we all just calm down about this casual sexism thing? Can we just relax about parenthood in general?
Sexism is real. It's subtle and it's damaging. And I do agree with the (poorly-conveyed) message of this video: If we treat our daughters like they're adorable morons, persistently and insistently, they'll probably grow up thinking exactly that. But people, I am so sick of fear-based parenting.
When June was a newborn, I was constantly terrified. Sure, some of that had to do with my anxiety disorder. But I also labored under the new-parent delusion that every single decision I made was a life-altering one: If I fed her once from a bottle, my milk would dry up. If I gave her a pacifier, she would immediately get nipple confusion, and our breastfeeding relationship would never recover. Once, in a particularly harrowing episode of cluster feeding -- she must have been three or four days old at the time, and she had been nursing and crying every 45 minutes around the clock -- my husband started burping her, their noses about six inches apart, his face totally sullen and lined with sleeplessness. I thought, panicked, Oh, God! The first formative memory of her father will be him glaring at her and willing her to sleep! It will imprint in her brain and she'll grow up thinking that he hates her! "HONEY SMILE AT HER," I shrieked, bolting upright in bed, "YOU HAVE TO SMILE AT HER!"
This article brings me back there, to those high-stakes newborn days. Let's realize that sexism is real, and it plays itself out in a thousand different ways, sometimes very subtly. And it's wrong. But holy hell, we parents are going to make mistakes, OK? We're going to slip up, say the wrong thing, send the wrong message. Big mistakes, subtle mistakes -- we just have to accept that we're going to screw up in some way or another. Let's own that and maybe calm down about all the million ways we can irreparably damage our children. It would break my heart to see a new parent watch this commercial and stop telling her daughter that she's beautiful, agonizing over all the ways it would potentially damage her in the future.
Let's have confidence that our children are not as fragile as we're making them out to be. Examine yourself, examotential blind spots like racism or sexism, but please let's not make the mistake of thinking that any slight rebuke or comment is going to scar them forever.
Words have meaning; our actions have meaning; but they don't set our futures -- or our daughters' futures, for that matter -- in stone.
A version of this post first appeared on Wifeytini.