Once upon a time there was a baby who liked to sweep. He was only tiny when he started to walk (but he had been practising all his little life long) and as soon as he could walk without holding on, he picked up any broom he saw and pushed it. It was what adults did, but it was fun, too – serious baby fun.
Even the shortest adult broom, the one that went with the upright dust pan, was taller than he was. But it was light enough, and soon he could go quite fast with it across the kitchen floor – almost running. He tried the big brooms too. Usually they were unwieldy, but though he was small, he was quite strong.
One autumn day he swept the fallen leaves off the edge of the front verandah. He loved the way a big pile collected in front of the broom was he pushed it, then disappeared over the edge. The trouble was, the head of the broom went over too, and wouldn't come back up however hard he pulled. But, as usual, when he shouted, somebody came and twisted the broom so that he could pull it up again. This was a very satisfying game.
He liked smaller brooms too, and all kinds of brushes. He liked to brush his teeth, but he refused his little purple brush with Bananas in Pyjamas on. It had to be a full-sized toothbrush. And sometimes he forgot it was for teeth and brushed other things with it – the coffee table or the floor. The indulgent owner of the big toothbrush didn’t like this much.
Sometimes in the front room there was a fire. The flames were bright, and it made a lovely noise. Usually it had a screen in front of it, but sometimes when lots of people were visiting, that was taken away. Almost best of all, there was a brush that lived there, just for sweeping the hearth.
One day, long after the last fire had burnt itself out, the screen was taken away. The baby picked up the brush and started to sweep the grey ash in the fireplace. Sweeping was a good helpful activity, he was always praised extravagantly for it, so he knew he was being “good” and “clever”. Probably he would get a round of applause, as he did when he performed in his potty. So he swept the ash out of the fireplace as far as he could. It made interesting grey and white patterns on the carpet as he swept, and it built up in front of the brush in a satisfying way in little piles. It flew up into the air, too, and made little grey clouds. But the piles were more interesting, because he could control them.
Then people came. They stopped the game, and there was no applause. One good thing though, they brought out the vacuum cleaner, which he also loved. The vacuum ate up all the patterns and piles of ash, and then it was time for lunch.
Lunch was cold potato and banana and bread with avocado and raisins. But as usual, it took an unconscionable time – why would anyone want to stay still for so long and talk, once the first pangs of hunger were satisfied? Sitting in a high chair is boring when there is a whole world to explore. So he asked to get out and they put him down and went on talking.
He went back to look in the front room, and his patterns were still all gone. But there was the vacuum cleaner. It was orange and solid, but quite silent. Usually noises and interesting things happened if you pressed buttons. He knew this. Already he liked machines of all sorts. So he pushed the biggest button, a square one. It was easy to push, and the vacuum didn't make its noise, but something interesting and surprising happened anyway. A door in the front fell open, and there inside was all the fire’s ash again, and lots of grey fluffy stuff as well. Fascinating. He started to pull it out. How much was in there? What was behind it? Could he get it all out? Could he make patterns with it again? It was time for more absorbed creative experimentation...
There is a moral to this tale – nay, two! For the adults: put things away when you’ve used them or suffer the consequences. For the baby: escape from your high chair as soon as you can. A pang of hunger is a small price to pay for freedom, and anyway there will soon be somebody chasing you with a loaded spoon. The world is there to explore and enjoy – don’t waste a minute.
“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