Four-year-old Jack leaped off his bed, still naked and slippery wet from a bath. “I’ve got a penis!” he shouted, and crash-landed on the floor.
“That’s right, darling,” I said, wrestling with my daughter Annie and her nappy. Whoever said dressing a two year old was like dressing dolls had no idea. Dolls stay still and don’t argue.
Jack bounced up. “You’ll never have a penis, Annie.”
“That’s true, too,” I said, holding one of Annie’s arms and scrabbling for her pyjama top.
“I’ve got a Buzz,” said Annie, escaping my grip. She danced around the room waving her arms and shouting. “A Buzz! A Buzz!”
A Buzz? Perhaps it was time to teach them both proper names. Annie had begun talking early and had a huge vocabulary. She could learn pronunciation. After all, modern parents are encouraged to be as truthful as possible – within age-appropriate boundaries – and to help children give correct labels to body parts. Although I wouldn’t dream of explaining what her “Buzz” does yet.
“You’ve got a vagina,” I said, grabbing her around the waist and neatly flipping her pyjamas top over her head. Score to Mummy. “And Jack has a penis.”
“A penis!” shouted Jack happily, still bouncing around the room in the nude. If I left him at it long enough he’d air-dry. “I’ve got a penis!” If he kept this up he’d also let the whole neighbourhood know that we did indeed have a boy.
Annie dashed off to broadcast the news and vanished out the door, pyjama arms flapping around her neck. “I’ve got a … what have I got?” she inquired, poking her head back into the room.
“A vagina,” I said. “Come and get your pants on.”
“I’ve got a Buzzima,” she said to Jack.
Jack stopped bouncing. “But don’t tell me about it yet, Annie,” he said soberly. “Because I’m not old enough to learn about it yet.”
Too right. I made a futile snatch for my daughter. She whisked herself out of the bedroom after Jack and together they scampered up the hallway. Gleeful shouts echoed all over the house at a hundred decibels. “I’ve got a Pyjama! I’ve got a Fuzzima!”
“No, you don’t,” came Jack’s voice from somewhere around the living room. “Girl’s penises are called shellimas but they’re inside, all tangled up. Boy’s penises are straight.”
“Oh,” she said, unfazed and went skipping in to the baby’s room. “You’ve got a penis, little one. I’ve got a buzzima.”
Whatever, I thought, collecting Jack’s towel and pyjamas, and went to the baby’s room. Who cared what the kids called their bits and pieces? So long as they got dressed.
Sam waved a sticky fist at Annie and went back to sucking his blanket. I caught Annie and finished dressing her while she instructed the baby on her new-found knowledge. Jack, still in big brother correction mode, followed us in. A thoughtful expression crossed his face. “There are three penises and two buzzimas in our family,” he said, like an expert in maths having struggled with a tough problem and arriving at a satisfying conclusion.
“That’s right. Three boys and two girls,” I said.
Jack turned to stare at me, wide eyed. “Three boys?”
“Daddy is a boy,” I said.
“Daddy is a man,” said Annie.
“But he’s got a penis,” said Jack.
I grabbed Jack and finished drying him while the debate about body parts flew back and forth over my head. He wobbled on one leg, poking his other foot into his pants, zero attention on the entirely unnecessary task of getting dressed. I released him and picked up Sam. We rearranged the cushions on the rocking chair and began his bedtime feed. The other two toddled out. Sam snuffled his usual series of hurried little approving snorts and latched on. He stared up at me with those fathomless baby eyes, the movements of his tiny chin settling into a rhythm.
Annie burst into the room again. “You’ve got a pyjama, Mummy,” she said.
My gosh. So I have. Don’t tell anyone.
Too late. Sam wrenched away from feeding to crane his neck around like he was hearing breaking news. “Ouch,” I said, but no one paid much attention.
“Pyjama,” said Annie again. “Shellima.” She skipped out. Sam stared for another few moments at the empty doorway before getting back to business. After that Annie bounced back in again periodically to inform us with what we were endowed. Sam pulled off at every interruption. Annie scampered out again and her little voice kept reinforcing the news, punctuated by discussion with Jack.
Perhaps I should have joined in. But bellowing down the hallway, “You’ve got a vagina, Annie. A Vagina. So have I. And he’s got a Penis,” didn’t seem worth the trouble. The entire neighbourhood was already well-informed and didn’t need my help.
After much debate, the kids reached a consensus that the correct pronunciation is ‘Buzzima’.
So much for calling a spade a spade.
“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