"When I was pregnant, I wanted the baby to be a girl.
Afloat as I was in a sea of uncertainties (was I really ready for this? How do you know why it’s crying, when it wants to eat/sleep, why it’s still crying? Was I really ready for this? How do you eat/sleep/leave the house ever again? How much was the birth going to hurt? Was I really ready for this?), the idea of having a child that was at least the same gender as me seemed like a tiny bit of passing driftwood I could cling to that might possibly allow me to wash up on the sands of reason one day rather that spend years choking, bubbling and finally drowning in unknowns.
Twenty months on, I fall to my knees and thank god every day that I have a boy. Why? Well, because once you have a child – especially if you haven’t had much to do with kids before then – it is as if you lose a skin. You see everything to do with children with a terrible clarity, unable to ignore or stop analysing what has been just said, seen, portrayed or done*.
And now, when I look at, read about or talk to girls, what I see and hear just makes me ache to protect them all. In general terms, it is as psychologist Steve Biddulph puts it in his latest book, Raising Girls (about the problems and especially regarding the hypersexualisation thereof): ‘Their childhood is not like ours. To put it bluntly, our 18 is their 14. Our 14 is their 10.’ I don’t know about you, but I could barely cope with our 18 and 14 when I was 18 and 14. Today’s 10 year olds must be going mad.
It took me a while to realise what was so disconcerting me when I saw girls en masse in classrooms or moving in their fibrillating, raucous packs (god, whatever the problems they are wrestling with, some things never change – nothing makes more noise than a group of teenage girls in a good mood. They sound like geese on speed) in the shopping centres until I saw three such packs pass each other in quick succession and realised that they all looked as though they had been manufactured using a single, highly groomed template; hair lightened, straightened, smoothed and glossed, skin tanned by beds or bottles, perfect make-up (layered unnecessarily over perfect skin – another thing that never changes), impeccably chosen, über-fashionable outfits – they looked great but utterly identical. The friend I was with, a teacher, began to mourn the freedom we had to experiment. ‘They don’t dare now,’ she said. ‘We may have looked like idiots occasionally’ – it was the Eighties after all – ‘but at least we had fun while we learned that four stripes of neon eyeshadow don’t work outside Just Seventeen.’
I worry more for a stranger’s daughter than I do for my own son.
In the classrooms, girls tell me tales of ‘having’ to go out in order to get enough pictures for Facebook, Instagram and all the rest and avoid being ridiculed not for being unpopular but merely for looking so. My teacher friends and another who is a doctor at sexual health clinics affirm that the internet is set to obliterate completely the hand-holding-followed-by-tentative-kissing baseline at which earlier generations were able to start their journey of sexual discovery, and is re-drawing it at practices that would have got our grandparents arrested if they had even thought of them.
All this while the underlying psychological make-up of children and their abilities to process information, discern good from bad, harmful from beneficial, continue to mature at the same slow, genetically determined, unchanging pace. The only thing that doesn’t change is that, although pressures and malign outside influences have intensified on both sexes, it is all still worse for girls because they are still just that bit less confident than boys, just that bit more willing to please and as a result just a bit more exploitable by people, by commerce and by all points in between. In many ways I worry more for a stranger’s daughter than I do for my own son. Hug them close.
*To be clear – I don’t mean by any of this that childbearing and childbearing alone grants you the gift of über-sensitivity, greater compassion or initiates you into some kind of club full of superior beings granted by the holy mystery of pregnancy and birth greater powers of insight and empathy. I mean only that having a child makes you more alert to certain things because you now have personal experience and increased interest in those things – just as looking after someone disabled would more than likely give you greater insight and interest in news stories and policy changes that affected them or their carers, or cancer striking you or your family would give you greater sensitivity to other instances when the disease is mentioned or invoked, or becoming a celebrity might give you more patience with their previously unfathomable complaints about the downside of fame and so on. The only thing childbearing alone definitely gives you is a rotten pelvic floor."
What do you think? Do girls have a harder time growing up than boys? And is it tougher to raise a girl? Let us know in the comments section below or on Twitter
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Picture credit: Rex Features