Every time I’ve travelled before (and by that I mean more than a holiday) I’ve been on my own, or in the presence of other women. Living in China, travelling round South East Asia, in Botswana for a month, I was never with a man. We’ve just arrived in Santiago, and it’s the first time someone has advised me about my safety. I was out on my own with the baby in the sling, getting some coffee. A woman called me over and gestured to my back pocket, indicating that I shouldn’t put my phone in there. I thanked her and moved it, suddenly very aware of everything I was holding and the people around me. On the way back to the apartment, I wondered if she’d have offered the same advice if I’d been a man. It was one of those occasions when I was more aware than usual of being a woman.
Getting some culture in Santiago
One thing that seems to surprise famous women when they are being interviewed are questions that concern their gender. “So how does it feel to be a female writer/comedian/neurosurgeon/politician?” The truth is, we don’t often consider ourselves to be different in what we’re doing until someone points it out. I don’t feel that being ‘female’ is particularly definitive of who I am, until something or someone jogs my attention and it suddenly feels like I’m wearing a high-viz jacket with ‘WOMAN’ flashing on it in neon lights.
For me, being behind the wheel is one of those times. I’ve had a driver’s licence for seventeen years, but have only ever owned one car. Partly because of living abroad, cycling to work and then living in London, there was only a few years where I needed one. Nevertheless, I am comfortable behind the wheel (preferably with very loud music on).
Behind the wheel in Australia
Yet for some reason, whenever I drive, I feel itchy in my femininity. There are a few reasons for this. A couple of past boyfriends had such fragile masculinity that they thought it was amusing to make fun of my driving, constantly insinuating that I couldn’t drive/park/reverse well because I had a womb. The fallout from this means that I am instantly self conscious as soon as a man is in the passenger seat. Thanks, idiots.
I could also thank the man who once took the time to come out of his house to watch me reverse park. Needless to say, having a pair of judgmental eyes on me meant that I wasn’t exactly on form. When I finally succeeded, I was greeted by a slow clap from the loser who was home during the day on a Wednesday (it was half term) and felt the need to humiliate me. It infuriated me how much I let it bother me, and how red I went.
Fast forward to the driving part of our holiday, and I was feeling a bit self conscious. In Australia, you could hardly blame me. Everywhere you looked were pickup trucks (a ‘ute’ to the locals) with trailers and vans, not to mention the juggernaut-style lorries that thundered down the highways. Sturdy vehicles driven by sturdy men. I should say that I didn’t receive any negative comments, so they may have been the most progressive men in the world, but to me it felt as if all eyes were on me whenever we drove, and I became hyper-aware of every manoeuvre, worrying I would be letting down half of the species if I mucked it up.
Our New Zealand van was a bit of a challenge!
Interestingly enough, studies have shown that we ‘self gender’ our behaviour. They gave a group of students an article that said men were better at spatial awareness than women, and then gave them a test. The women performed worse. After giving them an article that talked about how only very smart people got into that particular university, they did equally well, if not better than their male counterparts (read Delusions of Gender for other brilliant things like this). With a well-established narrative that women are somehow worse at driving, it nags at me all the time. There were times when he parked too close to the pump at a petrol station, or misjudged a turn, and I envied him the freedom of not carrying the burden of his gender when he made these mistakes.
So imagine how heightened this was when I had to cope with baby and van on my own. We were in Australia, right at the end of our time there. The day had started fine, we had dropped him by the marina in Cairns to go scuba diving and got back to the campsite. Suddenly, I realised how much harder things were without another pair of hands. How was I supposed to get the washing? Or go to the toilet? Or shower? Or eat? In the end I locked her in the van while she was napping in her travel cot (no, it wasn’t for long and no it wasn’t hot) and rushed around like a mad thing to get these things done.
Let’s hope the stigma has gone by the time she gets behind the wheel
I had decided, rather than playing it safe and staying put, to go on a trip with her on the Sky Gondola, to get a look at the local rainforest and an indigenous village. The preparations for leaving took a while. I had to transform the bed back into seats, put all of yesterday’s washing up away, make sure I’d pushed in the handles so they didn’t open while driving, stow away other bits and bobs in the cupboards so they wouldn’t fall over, get her dressed and in her seat, and pack a bag for the day.
It must have been almost an hour before I decided everything was prepared. I felt that the people camping around us were as aware of my new status as a lone, female, parent as I was. That they didn’t think I could take her out for the day, on my own. That I couldn’t drive the van, or find my way there without someone navigating for me. Of course I doubt they even acknowledged me, but it felt like if I could do this, then I could do anything. I came so close.
On the way out of the campsite, journey details logged in my brain, I turned on the radio, started to relax. Everything was fine. I had managed to remember everything by myself. She was changed, fed, happy with a toy in her seat. Nothing had fallen or opened when I turned a corner, so I had been successful there too.
I had almost reached the exit when I saw someone in my side mirror, waving and shouting. He rushed up to me, panic on his face. Oh god, what had I done? Maybe the baby wasn’t strapped in after all. Had something fallen out of the van? Had I left my phone on our campsite?
He was breathless, panting, waving a hand towards the rear of the van. I looked back. There, trailing behind me, was the power cable. In all of my preparations, I had failed to remember this. Luckily, it had detached from the power source ok, so I hadn’t damaged anything. I thanked him, got out and rolled it up, my face hot with the shame of the thing I hadn’t been able to accomplish.
We had a lovely day out, and I’m sure I’m not the first person it’s happened to. We dangled over a dense rainforest, looking through the branches to spot different types of fern. We wandered in the village, bought some fudge and a gorgeous painting of a platypus, and stopped off to look at a waterfall on the way back. I even triumphed in feeding her while in the sling for the first time. Who knows, if I hadn’t been so obsessed with my need to prove the world that a woman could do things on her own, I wouldn’t have missed this last detail, or it wouldn’t have mattered so much to me.
It’s also, more importantly, my first time travelling with a child. Everywhere we go we are greeted with different words for ‘pretty’ or ‘cute’ (kawaii, hermosa, linda) and people comment on her beautiful eyes. As for me, I’m wondering if the way I interact with her is tainted by my expectations of her as a girl. Let’s be honest, I know they are. Also from reading Delusions of Gender, I found out that parents often massively underestimate the physical capabilities of their daughters, and overestimate that of their sons. And that’s just one element of who she is. Frankly, I don’t care what kind of person she grows up to be, but I hate the idea that her biological sex will limit the way she looks at herself and her capabilities.
Pretty, yes, but so much more.
Just before we left Australia, I slipped over. Nothing major, but the ensuing cut took us to A and E to make sure I was ok. While I got cleaned up, he was sitting there with our baby. She was wearing nothing that indicated gender, so the nurse assumed she was a boy. Lying on my front getting my cuts cleaned up, I couldn’t be bothered to correct him, so the pronoun ‘he’ was used to refer to her. I looked over at her golden hair, long eyelashes and big blue eyes. Before they had seemed to me inherently feminine, but now I could see that there was nothing to distinguish her from a boy. She’s a baby, it’s only the clothes she wears that give her any marker. The only reason I own any ‘girly’ clothes is because all of her clothes are handed down from her cousins, so I haven’t bought any of them myself. It made me worry that I have been using words to describe her physical appearance far more than anything else. Beautiful, blue eyes, gorgeous girl, all of these phrases are thrown at her daily. How will she see herself if this is what she hears all the time when she’s growing up?
So now I’m trying to change tack. For each time I comment on her appearance, I’m trying to counteract it with something else. If I say how pretty she looks, I add that her chubby thighs mean she’s going to be strong. If I pick up on her eyes or hair, I make sure I comment on how she can turn the page of her books and how clever she is. It was then that I noticed something else. All of these amazing animals we’ve seen – seals, kangaroos, koalas, lizards – I’ve referred to all of them as ‘he.’ It’s automatic. “Look at the otter, isn’t he lovely?” So now I’m trying to change it. Every other animal in her book, I call it a girl. As the two main characters in her storybooks are boys, I’ve made the dinosaur in one of them into a girl, to balance it out. I want her to grow up in a world where she feels seen and relevant, and that adventures can happen to her just as much as boys.
Nothing innately ‘feminine’ about babies, so why do we insist on it?
With any luck, the world will be a different place when she is my age. Her gender will not be such a defining badge on who she is, what she is capable of and the places accessible to her. Until then, I will notice the areas of my life where I feel diminished, and try to think of ways that I can help her to not feel the same.