We’re out in the backyard enjoying the weekend sun. The grass is getting long and the lawnmower is broken. I’m pulling out the chickweed to give to the old lady down the street, though I don’t know what she does with it. Perhaps she eats it, or grinds it up and uses it in pesto. It self-seeds along the dry fence line and sneaks its way between the palings and into the neighbour’s neatly paved courtyard. The Alsatian next door sniffs at me through the fence, occasionally growling but my son, Alex, takes no notice.
“Ee or, ee or, ee or, ee or, ee or.”
“It’s a fire engine, Mummy.”
He laughs and runs around in circles on his chubby little five-year-old legs.
“Where’s the fire?”
“It’s in the kitchen, Mummy,” he says.
“Oh no,” I reply widening my eyes.
He runs toward me, crashing into my arms.
“Not really, Mummy,” he says looking up at me adoringly, “Not really.”
“Oh thank goodness,” I say giving him a hug, “Are you Fireman Sam?”
“No,” He shakes his head, “I fireman Alex.”
“What do you use to put out the fire?”
“I go up the ladder on the fire engine,” he says pointing to the sky.
“What do you do then?”
“Um…” He stands there for a moment and then smiles, “I get a big long hose and the water goes whoosh over the fire.”
“Is it out now?”
He runs through the grass towards the slide. He climbs up to the top with a lot of exaggerated panting and proudly gets to the top.
“EE OR, EE OR, EE OR, EE OR, EE, OR!” Alex shouts as he slides down, landing expertly on the soles of his feet.
“Another fire, Mummy.”
“Where’s the fire?”
“In the bedroom.”
At ten years old, Alex sits at the kitchen table flipping through a glossy car magazine. He is imitating my own ritual. I’m sipping my Sunday coffee and reading the paper. There’s an article about the proposed introduction of a teenage curfew in Perth. I read it with interest but secretly I’m glad that I don’t have to deal with teen issues just yet. I glance at Alex occasionally and realise he’s absorbed in photos of these modern machines, specifically built for speed.
“Guess what kind of car I’m gonna get,” He says, as though it’s a trick question.
“I don’t know,” I say, pretending, “What kind of car?”
“Ah huh,” I reply, “Any good pictures of Commodores in there?”
“Yeah,” he says enthusiastically, “There’s some really good ones, see?”
He holds up a page and points.
“What kind is that?”
“It’s a V8,” he says confidently, “I’m gonna get a V8.”
“Oh no you’re not,” I say raising my eyebrows.
“Oh yes I am, Mum,” he says grinning at me.
“Do you mean to say that you’ll park one of those big, noisy, Commodores in our driveway?” I scowl at him which only makes him grin all the more.
“Yep,” he says, “Just like this one.”
He holds up a photo of a shiny Commodore with a muscly guy in sunnies standing in front of it.
“Oh no,” I shake my head in disgust, “Not all hotted up like that and everything?”
“Yep, just like that,” He laughs, “With a spoiler as well.”
“Oh no, not a spoiler!” I put on a silly voice, “What will the neighbours say?”
“I’ll just rev my engine at them.”
“No, no, no, no,” I say, “No son of mine is going to park a Commodore V8 in the driveway.”
“Yes I will, Mum.”
“Oh no you won’t,” I say, “I’ll put up a sign that says ‘No V8’s allowed.’”
“I’ll just take it down,” he counters.
“Then I’ll just put up another one,” I say, pretending to get exasperated.
“Then I’ll get my Commodore and run it down.”
“Oh,” I exclaim, “How horrible. What a horrible child you are!”
“I’ll show you the colour I want,” he smiles, turning the pages of the magazine.
“Okay,” I say, taking another sip of my coffee.
We’re standing in the Renault showroom and there doesn’t seem to be anyone about. The gleaming grey floor reminds me of a hospital but it smells like new cars. The smell invades my nostrils and I inhale deeply as it’s one of my favourites. The floor would be great for roller-skating. The cars wait silently for our attention. It’s as if they know they look so classy that one of them is bound to win us over, without even having to show off.
“Mum, come and check out this car,” Alex says tugging at my arm, “You’ll love it.”
He pulls me over to a small white car which looks rather expensive. “It’s only twenty-nine ninety,” he says, “Plus you’ll get a trade in on the Magna.”
I glance over my shoulder and wonder where the salesman is. I guess my son’s as good as any. He seems to know the history of every car ever made.
“This is a Megane,” he says, pronouncing it correctly, “It won European car of the year in 2003.”
“Oh yeah?” I say, genuinely impressed by his sales pitch.
“Hop in, Mum,” he says, his big brown eyes sparkling, “Wait until you see the inside.”
I get in the driver’s seat and turn to see Alex sitting next to me proceeding to tell me all about the features.
“Feel the handle, Mum,” he says encouragingly, “It’s so smooth.”
At fifteen he knows exactly what I like.
“Wow,” I reply, “It is smooth. That feels really nice.”
“Look at all these little compartments.”
We open everything there is to open. There are even a couple of compartments on the floor.
“They’re for loose change,” he says confidently, “So that no-one knows where your money is.”
I nod in reply.
“It’s even got a drink holder,” he says proudly, as though that’s really special, “And electric windows, automatic transmission, mirrors behind the visors, C.D player, trip computer…”
“What’s a trip computer? That sounds a bit complicated.” I frown.
“Nearly all the new cars have them now, Mum,” he smiles, “And you’ve got cruise control too.”
“Yes but what’s a trip computer?” I ask, thinking of my laptop.
“It’s when the car tells you stuff,” he says vaguely.
“Oh,” I answer, “Will it give me a map of the streets?”
“No, that’s a GPS system,” he replies, “But look how big this glove-box is!”
We marvel at the depth of the glove-box and I think of how many things I could fit in it, particularly a larger box of tissues. Alex is starting to win me over. I look in the back seat.
“Is there enough room in here?” I ask.
“Yeah,” he says, “Look how far back it goes.”
“No, I mean for you.” I say, “Don’t forget your legs are going to grow some more. Would you still be comfortable in the back?”
“Oh yeah, no problem,” he nods enthusiastically, “Hang on and I’ll get in the back and show you.”
He does and even puts on the seatbelt. I smile and feel ridiculous sitting in this car in the showroom on a Saturday afternoon. Then he swaps to the middle.
“It’s even comfortable in the middle, Mum” he says, “Can you believe that?”
“Pretty good,” I agree, “But let’s look at the engine.”
We locate the bonnet release after a few minutes of looking. He finds it of course and informs me that it is on the other side because the car is European. We gawk at the engine. I wouldn’t know a bad engine from a good engine but this is a brand new car. It gleams under the lights of the showroom and we both pose like experts, for a moment or two. Afterwards we walk around the back and open the boot.
“Gee that’s good for such a little car,” I remark.
“It’s not that small, Mum,” he replies knowledgeably, “You could easily fit the groceries in here.”
Of course the groceries are my main concern.
“I like the shape of the back and the lights,” I volunteer.
“Yeah,” he says appreciatively, “So do I.”
“It’s really spacey, kind of futuristic.”
We walk around and around the waiting Megane pointing out things we hadn’t noticed until we’ve exhausted the possibilities.
“So can we get it?”
“Can we buy it?”
“I’m impressed,” I say, which makes him grin and his dimples appear, “I guess we’d better take it for a test drive.”
“Yes!” He punches the air.
“Now don’t get too excited,” I warn, “We’re only taking it for a test drive to begin with.”
“Oh yeah,” He nods with a serious expression, “But if you like it, there’s a possibility?”
“Maybe,” I reply.
“Okay,” he says.
We get the run down from the real salesman, who has let my son do all the work and then we drive out of the showroom. Alex is so happy that if he was a cow he’d be jumping over the moon.
“Nice car,” I say taking off from the traffic lights on Sandy Bay Road.
“Yeah,” he says, “Better than nice. Imagine driving around in this every day, Mum.”
“Pretty swish,” I agree, “Hey, if I did buy this, you could have it when you got your driver’s licence in a couple of years.”
“No way,” says Alex, looking appalled, “This is a woman’s car!”
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem