Conflicting Responsibilities

I’m in a quandary: I’ve got a humdinger of a dilemma. A puzzling parenting predicament to ponder.

J & L will be 4 years old in March, and after lengthy discussion have decided they want a “Ben and Holly” themed birthday party. For those of you not familiar with “Ben & Holly’s Little Kingdom”, it is a children’s cartoon about Princess Holly the fairy, and her friend Ben who is an elf.

L had the idea that all the party guests could come dressed as fairies or elves, which was met with enthusiasm by J – though when I suggested that L dress as Holly and J as Ben, J replied “I don’t want to be Ben, I want to be the Wise Old Elf”. I reassured him that this was not a problem, and I would get him a long white beard to go with his elf costume.

The next day it was evident that J had been giving the party some thought. He told me he had changed his mind and no longer wanted to dress as the Wise Old Elf, but now wanted to be a fairy. “That’s fine” I replied. “King Thistle is a fairy, you could have a crown and wings just like him?” J seemed satisfied with this response. But then a couple of days later J told me “I don’t want to be King Thistle. I want to be Holly”.

For as long as J and L have been playing “dress-up” J has enjoyed putting on pretty dresses. Sometimes he asks for lip-gloss too and announces to the mirror “I’m a very pretty girl!”: I have never questioned his choice or his right to do so, and haven’t given too much thought as to the reasons, as I couldn’t do more than guess even if I wanted to get to the bottom of it. Maybe he hears me telling L how pretty she looks in her princess costume and wants to receive the same compliment. Maybe the social difficulties caused by his autism mean he is less aware of gender-based notions of appropriate clothing. Maybe his sensory difficulties mean dresses are more physically comfortable for him than trousers. Maybe he is gay or transgender. Maybe he enjoys the joke of wearing the “wrong” clothes in the same way he often laughs when he says something of which he knows the opposite to be true.

The point is, it doesn’t matter. At home he is free to wear what makes him happy and be a beautiful fairy princess alongside his sister. He doesn’t always choose the dress when we’re putting costumes on – sometimes he is Iggle Piggle; sometimes he is the Grand Old Duke of York; sometimes he is a robot. But the choice is always his.

And so to my dilemma. Do I let J go to his own birthday party as Holly, wearing a pink sparkly dress and fairy wings? To be honest at first it didn’t even occur to me to tell him “no”. But then I got thinking. And now I’m confused. For every argument for letting him wear the dress, I can think of an equally valid counter-argument. Maybe a list of pros and cons might help …

Reasons to let J wear a pink dress to his party

  1. He should be able to express himself in whatever way makes him happy.
  2. It won’t hurt anyone, and if people don’t like it that’s their problem.
  3. L can choose whatever she wants to wear (I wouldn’t stop her being an elf) so why shouldn’t J?
  4. It will be hard to explain why he can’t be “Holly” whilst still making it clear that his general preferences are valid and acceptable.
  5. We should be setting an example to other children that they should be tolerant and accepting of difference.
  6. A parent should teach their child to stay true to themselves rather than conform to please the masses.

Reasons not to let J wear a pink dress to his party

  1. The other children might say hurtful things, either at the party or in the future.
  2. The other parents might judge us and talk negatively about J or me – to each other and to their children.
  3. J might be stigmatised for a long time as “the boy who wore a dress”.
  4. J already acts differently to his peers due to his autism – wearing a dress will only serve to accentuate his differences.
  5. There will be lots of other opportunities for J to dress up in pretty costumes without doing it in such a public way.
  6. It is normal practise to invite every child in the class therefore there will be a lot of children and parents at the party who I don’t know, and who don’t understand J.

All I can say is that I am pleased I don’t have to rush into a decision. I believe that I have a clear responsibility to teach J to be true to himself and not ever feel he has to conform to please others. I also believe I have a clear responsibility to help J understand socially acceptable behaviour and to protect him from a world that is not always accepting of difference. My problem is in deciding which responsibility takes precendence in this instance.

I can see that there is a third option here – a compromise costume. Maybe J could wear a pink top with trousers and fairy wings. And I’m not ruling that out … but for the purposes of this discussion that essentially equates to telling J he can’t wear a dress and be Holly at his party, as this is certainly how he will see it.

So to anyone who is reading this post – I would genuinely love to know your thoughts. I’m not considering “parenting by majority vote” but it would be great to know what you’d honestly think if you saw a little boy in a pink fairy dress. Tell me what you’d do in my shoes?!

Maybe asking for your opinions is highlighting for me the most difficult part of being a single parent. I had thought the most difficult part was not having someone else to take a turn when you’re called for the tenth time during the night. Or having to turn down fun social invitations because you can’t find a babysitter. Or caring for two children when you’re ill. But it turns out I was wrong: the toughest part of single parenting is having to take full responsibility for the most difficult decisions. Being solely accountable if the decision ends up being the wrong one.

I guess I need to accept that sometimes I’ll make the right decisions as a mother and sometimes I’ll make the wrong decisions. The important thing is that all my choices are made with the very best intentions … made because I adore my children and want nothing more than their lasting happiness. And more than anything else, whatever I decide about J’s party costume, I think all I can really hope is that he’ll look back one day and say “Mum [didn’t] let me wear a fairy dress to my party because she loves me”. Whether J’s preference for wearing pretty dresses lasts six months or sixty years, as long as he knows his Mum loves him completely, truly and unconditionally forever, I will be happy to accept I’ve done a good job.

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Does every girl need a Sweet Talkin’ Ken?

I’ve been seeing a counsellor for a couple of months. It started because I was having a truly awful time at work and ended up being signed off with stress, and my occupational therapist had recommended counselling: but of course given recent developments in my life, the counsellor has become more valuable and important to me than I could have known.

Last week we moved on from picking over the details of what had gone wrong and how it made me feel, and started talking more about the future. I’m pleased to say I’m generally very optimistic about what lies ahead. I feel like I’m already getting my life back on track and reclaiming my house, my happiness and my sanity. However, my counsellor asked how I felt about the idea of future relationships, and suddenly the solid foundation I had started rebuilding began to feel shaky and unsteady. I answered that I had all I needed in my children, my family, my friends and my home, and that the thought of another relationship couldn’t be further from my mind.

My counsellor dug deeper. I began to explain, tentatively, that I have lost all confidence in my ability to choose a relationship that is good for me. Looking back I could see that time after time I have made bad choices, and formed relationships with people who are, quite clearly, not right for me. I took a deep breath, then dug deeper still. And as the session went on, I had an epiphany. I suddenly realised that my sense of worth – my own measure of how interesting, attractive and funny I am; my perception of how much I am wanted – has always come from men.

As a teenager I very much wanted a boyfriend. I thought being someone’s girlfriend was a way of showing the world (and myself) that I was important and desirable. And after some perseverence on my part, the boyfriends started, followed in later years by three fiances and an eventual husband. My counsellor asked whether I had ever stopped to ask myself how I really felt about each of these men, and the honest answer is no. Time and time again I have got so caught up in the excitement of a relationship, and been so delighted that someone wants to be with me, that I’ve not taken the time to examine my own feelings.

But why? My inital reaction is that this clearly points to low self-esteem: it suggests that I am “grateful” for someone’s attention and grab it with both hands. But this explanation doesn’t feel right. I don’t believe my self-esteem is particularly low. If anything I was a confident, extroverted teenager, and while the gregarious side of my nature has lessened a little over time, I still feel that in many ways I am confident in myself and my abilities.

So why then? Why have I sought approval and attention from males for as long as I can remember? I was at a loss to explain this … until this afternoon. Yesterday I finally completed the redecoration of my 3-year-old daughter’s new bedroom, and I went to Toys R Us today to buy her a reward for staying in her new bed all night.

It was here that I came across “Sweet Talkin’ Ken”. This doll proudly wears a t-shirt emblazoned with the words “Ultimate Boyfriend” in a variety of languages. The owners of this doll are expected to press the heart on Ken’s t-shirt and whisper sweet nothings into his ear which he will repeat back, in his own voice. The recommended age on the box? 5+. Little girls from the age of 5 (and it is not unreasonable to suppose it will be mostly girls taking Sweet Talkin’ Ken home with them) are clearly not only expected to want a boyfriend, but to know what he will say to them too. And he’s not just any old boyfriend; oh no. As any discerning 5-year-old will tell you, she needs to have the ultimate boyfriend.

The back of the box bears the legend “The Ultimate Boyfriend always knows the right thing to say!” and bears a photo of a young girl twirling her bunches around her finger as she exclaims “Oh Ken! You’re such a sweet talker!”

Further investigation led me to the Mattel website, where the wonderful Ken has received rave reviews. One delighted customer says: “Bought as a Christmas gift for my niece……she LOVES it”. The happy Auntie has rated the doll 5/5 for “age appropriateness”. Her niece falls into the 3-5 years category. Worse still is the review on amazon.co.uk from a London-based mum:

“My 4yr old has had, and continues to have, lots of fun with this doll. Really enjoys getting Ken to tell the Barbies how handsome he is & how lucky they are to have him. She has about 4 barbies and now they have Ken (lucky doll!).”

It simply astounds me that this disturbing doll and its horrific packaging are seen as OK. The message that this toy gives to young girls is nothing short of terrifying. Before they have even left primary school, girls are expected to want the perfect boyfriend who always knows what she wants to hear; and are equally expected to respond to him with coy flirtatiousness.

Which all leads, in my journey of self-discovery, to the question: was I subjected to these kinds of influences as a child? And of course the answer is a resounding “yes”. For as long as I can remember I have adored Disney films. And what did I learn from them? Cinderella’s step-sisters only recognise that she is someone to be respected when her handsome prince comes to save her from the drudgery of her former life. Aurora in Sleeping Beauty is saved from her coma by her prince’s kiss; no doubt to then, in her overwhelming gratitude, devote her life to being the perfect wife. In the Little Mermaid, Ariel falls instantly in love with Prince Eric despite knowing nothing about him, and then like Sleeping Beauty, must wait for her prince’s kiss to save her.

And there we have my answer. Since I was a very young child I have received messages telling me that I need my own prince in order to feel valued and loved; just like little girls now are being told they need the ultimate boyfriend. Last week my counsellor uncovered the fact that I have never taken the time to examine my own feelings for someone before jumping into a relationship: much like Cinderella, Aurora and Ariel I have been happy to wait for a man to tell me I am important and to show the world I am of worth.

Phew. That’s quite an epiphany. So what am I going to do about it? I’m going to darn well sweet-talk myself.  I ‘m going to try to focus on the things I do well, and the things I’m proud of.  I’m going to try to be happy with who I am and what I have. I’m going to remember that my life is full and happy and often pretty darn wonderful without needing a man to validate me. I’m going to try to bring up my own daughter to be confident and strong, and to know that there are no limits to what she can achieve alone. I’m going to question the fact that the bedroom I’ve just completed for her is a Disney Princess themed room …. oh dear.

Well at least I can take a little comfort from the time I spent getting to know Sweet Talkin’ Ken in Toys R Us today. Once I had worked out how to record Ken’s message I set to work on the three Ken dolls remaining on the shelves. And so I can’t help smiling when I think about the fact that the next three little girls to take Ken home will hear his deep masculine voice saying “I respect you for being a strong, independent woman. Of course I will support you in your career. There’s nothing you can’t do”. Aaaah, my work here is done.