How Boys Learn Girls Wear Bows, High Heels and Help the Guys

“Minnie and Daisy are girls. They wear bows and high heels and help the guys.”

The two children squeezed together in the seat next to me at the gate in the airport were beyond giddy. All it took was a smile from me, and they took it as a sign for permission to speak. I travel so much these days that I tend to avoid conversations in the airport or on the plane – it’s precious time to reconnect with everyone and dig through the dark abyss I call my email inbox. Chit chat is a luxury for people on vacation and the rare trip; business travelers learn that sitting time is working time.

 

imageBut this time I couldn’t resist. Within minutes, the two had shared the exciting news that they were leaving the below zero temperatures of Chicago for Orlando, Florida – and not just Florida but to take a Disney Cruise. As they shared their excitement, I recalled the wonderful memories of my husband and I taking our own children to Disneyland – precious, happy memories. Well, most of them. My son had a few issues with The Beast getting very close. I smiled as the young girl showed me her workbooks with word searches of Disney words, and I listened patiently as her younger brother pulled out his collection of little plastic Disney character figurines and told me who each of them were. He named each of this toys – Pluto, Captain Hook, Donald Duck, and Mickey Mouse. He saved his last two figurines, holding them separate from the rest. “These ones, they’re, they’re … girls,” he said.

“Really?” I asked, half glancing at my inbox which was still as full as when I’d sat down.

“Yes,” he said. “Minnie and Daisy are girls. See? They wear bows and high heels.” He turned the figurines over to point out their fancy purple and pink heels. “And they help the guys.”

Just as he was ready to launch into more of his description of his girl characters, his mother called him over, and the moment passed. I went back to my inbox, but now I couldn’t focus on any of the messages needing my attention. His words kept ringing in my ears – this well-behaved, sweet little boy – and what he already understood in his own mind about what girls were for.

Please don’t get me wrong – I am not a Disney-hater, and I absolutely love that my daughter loved her Cinderella constume I hand-sewed for her one year. I’ve even pushed back against the idea that we shouldn’t call our daughters princess. I think it’s just as wrong to prevent our daughters from exploring the whimsical, fanciful side of feminity as it is to put them in a stereotype box and keep them there.

But as I listened to this tiny little man with stereotypes about girls already firmly in place, I cringed. But how could he conclude anything else from his toys? When the girl characters have their hands folded under their chin in a helpless, hopeful pose and boy characters have their arms stretched wide in powerful poses, what else is a little lad to conclude? And what little boy doesn’t fancy himself the rescuer, the powerful, brave man who wins the girl’s heart by saving the day for her? And isn’t some of that good? Don’t we want our sons to hold our daughters precious, to protect their hearts, reputations, and values? Don’t we want a bit of chivalry, the part that causes a young man to put forth the effort to treat his young date like she is the most precious gem in the world?

So how do we foster both of these very conflicting attitudes – the need to allow our children to explore fictional, larger-tha-life stereotypes and the need to foster respect for equal rights and support for women?

I started this same morning in our nation’s capitol visiting with Congresswoman Michelle Grisham of New Mexico. We talked about the challenges of empowering women in our state to take on larger roles in building corporations capable of changing economies, of holding up powerful role models to inspire women to explore new roles, of our desires for our daughters to have more opportunites and better support to not have to choose to either raise a family or contribute to the brain trust of our state. When we leave women no palatable options for balancing their professional careers and raising a young family, most women will choose to sacrifice their careers to focus on their family – and while this is a completely valid option, it cheats our state out of years of their contributions to the growth of businesses, industries, laws, and inventions. What if more women had access to on-site daycare and better options for flexible work schedules that would allow them to balance both without being so exhausted and burned out? I left her office inspired and hopeful for the young women in our state – that with enough of us banding together to evoke change, we might lift our own state’s economy and opportunities.

imageI spent the next hour touring the Capitol Building Visitor’s Center – with a few behind-the-scenes opportunities – and I marvelled at the women honored throughout the buildings – women who changed our history, who changed attitudes, who changed the course of history. It left me both in awe of their courage and willingness to walk a much more difficult path because of their own convictions. It also left me a little weary that we are still talking about this issue at all.

But as long as little boys grow up believing girls are for wearing bows and high heels and helping the guys, we’re likely going to have this conversation for quite some time to come, because I, for one, am not willing for that to be the stereotype perpetuated into yet another generation.

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My Mother’s Sacrifice

Made with Repix (http://repix.it)So I’ve known my mom my entire life. You’d think I’d know all of the really important things that happened to her after spending this long getting to know her. But today she dropped a bombshell right in the middle of breakfast.

I had just finished commenting on how much of a role model she was for me – choosing to start her own business cleaning houses, making a career that fit the needs of her family. She didn’t work for someone else – she placed ads in local newspapers and slowly built up her own thriving business with loyal clientele. It took courage, and she was really good at it. She was happy – I remember her constantly whistling while she cleaned the homes of her clients. She had others who worked for her, too – including, at times, me – a very unwilling teenage daughter. She never complained that she cleaned homes – she embraced the opportunity where she found it, jumped in with both feet and grew it into a business with steady customers for over twenty years.

We were at breakfast this morning at a local restaurant – a date we keep regularly – and in the middle of our reminiscing over the “good old days” she shared something I never knew about her.

“You know one of my clients once offered to set me up in my own business – I could have been the first Molly Maids?”

No. Not, actually I did not know that.

“Yes,” she said, “He used to say, ‘Pat, you shouldn’t be cleaning houses. You could be running a bigger company doing this. I have money. Why don’t you let me set you up in business?’ She stopped for a moment. “But, well…” her voice trailed off into silence.

“Why didn’t you take him up on it?” I asked. I had no idea she’d been offered such an amazing opportunity. I knew the client who she was referring to. He was wealthy, grounded and a kind man. He was always so respectful to us when were in his home – treating us as guests instead of “the help”.

My mother was quiet. I could see the memories, the conversations of a different life than the one she had now. Sadness washed over her face as she resurrected a memory of lost opportunities, broken dreams. Finally she spoke. “It was different then. It would have meant a lot of changes for our family, and it would have been asking a lot of your father. It didn’t … it didn’t work out.”

Made with Repix (http://repix.it)There was so much more said in what she didn’t say. She was a ‘fifties wife, part of a generation of women who were expected to be at home serving the needs of husband and family – a stereotype that held so many women back from dreams and opportunities just because of being born into a different generation. I was reminded in that moment of a friend whose mother had recently passed away. The obituary, in its stated facts of her life, told the same story – a woman who, in the middle of her pursuit of her PhD, walked away from it all to raise her family.

Please don’t get me wrong. There is nothing – nothing at all – wrong with that choice. There is a lot that is right in it. Love of family, the joy of raising children, of making life easier for one’s spouse – all excellent reasons to choose a certain way of life. There was a time in my own life when it was all I wanted for myself. I have deep respect and admiration for women who choose that path.

But in that conversation, it became so very real – the price that almost an entire generation of women have paid so that our generation can be the women we are – forging new ground as more and more of us become founders of our own companies, CEO’s, leaders of major corporations and in government. Gender bias is still rampant, and I’ve seen more than my share of men behaving like schoolyard bullies towards women who are breaking down barriers. But things are changing, and momentum is growing.

My mother was the first person who invested in my company. “Because we believe in you,” she said the first time she handed me a check written out to APPCityLife, Inc. I wasn’t sure I deserved her faith back then. And after today, I realize that this is not just my dream. I am in this for her, too – for the dreams my mom chose to forsake for the peace and stability of our family, for the price she paid as a 50’s wife. That’s a lot of responsibility, but she’s taught me well. She had the courage to take something that could have been a drudgery and turned it into a thriving business. I have a great role model to follow.