Sugar & Spice

As I mentioned in my last post, I am expecting my third child, due right around Christmas. By now we’re all starting to get excited to meet this little guy, all except my two year old daughter. She stubbornly insists that she is the baby and will barely acknowledge that another baby is coming. I’m not really worried about it, it seems completely normal to me but I would like to make the transition as easy as possible for her.

I was almost four when my younger sister was born and I remember that I was not thrilled about sharing my parents’ attention. But my parents did something smart, they got me a baby doll and cradle and some of my best memories from that difficult time are of me taking care of my baby just like my mommy was taking care of my baby sister. As we get closer to my due date I’ve been thinking about doing something similar for my daughter.

However, I feel a little torn about giving her a doll because we’ve stayed away from gendered toys up to this point. I admit to feeling a little relieved that my daughter has no concept of what a princess is. Well, I guess she knows about The Paper Bag Princess but she tends to identify most with the dragon.

But I also wonder that if in trying to avoid the gender socialization of our children we have unintentionally created an androcentric environment, one where traditionally feminine pursuits are made invisible. I would hate for my children to ironically receive the message that somehow we think “women’s work” is less important.

mr. mraynes and I try to avoid this by not dividing domestic responsibilities on gender lines and I think we’re pretty good models. I have at times been the primary breadwinner, we both equally care for and nurture our children, mr. mraynes does the majority of the cooking and makes all of our bread, I take out the trash…We hope that by our example, our children will never think that any domestic work is beneath them.

Trying to parent in a feminist way is complicated, filled with unexpected landmines. I suppose this is a relatively minor landmine, easily resolved by getting both my daughter and son a baby doll for when their baby brother arrives. But this situation has made me think about future difficulties on the horizon and the feminist and not-so feminist messages we send our children.

So dear readers, do you attempt feminist parenting? How do you navigate societal expectations for boys and girls? And seriously, is the doll a good idea?


Mraynes lives in downtown Denver with her husband and four children. She spends her time lobbying at the Colorado Legislature, managing all the things and preparing Gospel Doctrine lessons.

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31 Responses

  1. Corktree says:

    We got my oldest daughter a baby doll when I had my second. She was exactly 2 and it did wonders for her ability to accept the newcomer to the family. I can’t say for sure what we would have done if she had been a boy, but I’m pretty sure we would have done the same thing. My brother had a baby doll growing up that he loved (he’s a very sweet, sensitive guy now) and I was well indoctrinated with “William wants a doll” from the Free To Be soundtrack. So I think you should go ahead and get dolls all around. 🙂
    And with my third, we didn’t even purposefully give her a doll. She found the old ones on her own when my son arrived and began to imitate me without any prompting. So maybe just have it available and see what she does without communicating that you expect her to play with it?

    I think it’s important to teach that it’s an equal opportunity/privilege to care for a baby, but also that it’s not an expectation of either gender. Help them to know that if they choose it, they should really want it and enjoy it. I would never want my kids to think we do things for them that we don’t want to do (although we did communicate exactly that when we went to the trunk-or-treat last friday) and I’m grateful that I never had to make my husband feel pressured or guilted into helping me with babies. He just gravitated to it on his own. He does at least half if not more of all the diaper changing around here as well as quite a few other traditionally “mom” things around the house, while I used to do the yard work and other typically male chores – but we also switch it up and I don’t think we’re locked into anything. So I think, like you, our example is our strongest method of communicating a non-gendered home.

    I haven’t had much opportunity to consider differences between how we do or will treat our daughters next to our son (I still forget he’s a boy sometimes), but I’m sure it will start to come up sooner than I think, so I’ll be interested in the other responses.

    I think we’re on the right path though – my eldest preferred trucks and trains to anything girly for the first 4 years without any input from us. So I’m hopeful that we’ve already learned to just let them be who they want to be while limiting our parenting to the universally important features – treating everyone with equal love and respect and loving ourselves as we are.

    • Mraynes says:

      I’m glad to know dolls are a good idea, I will definitely move forward with that. I also like the idea of letting my daughter decide how she wants to play with the doll. That then frees her from any unintentional pressure I might place upon her from my own socialization. It seems like we have pretty similar philosophies about these things so hopefully it will work out just as well for us. Thanks for the input, Corktree!

  2. FoxyJ says:

    I don’t view dolls as gendered toys either; both boys and girls can parent, so there’s no reason to limit having dolls in your home depending on what gender of child you have. When I just had my third in February, my son who had previously been the baby went through a phase of mothering our dolls and even breastfeeding them while I was breastfeeding the baby.

    We have a 7-year-old girl, a four-year-old boy, and now a 9-month old baby girl. As far as toys go, we have tried to limit the number of things we have in our house buy purposefully buying few gifts for holidays and birthdays. So when we do, we try to get basic toys that aren’t too commercial, that are age appropriate, and that encourage imaginative play. We have a lot of different types of dress-ups, a play kitchen with food, a bunch of Duplos, several different Little People things (house, school bus, fire truck, etc), baby dolls and accessories, a race track with cars, and a few other things. We try and stay away from heavily branded and gendered things for both boys and girls (i.e. no Disney Princess and no Star Wars). Generally both our boy and our girl play with all the toys. They do role-playing things like school and house, and they love to build with the Duplos. We have also explicitly taught them that there are no ‘girl toys’ and ‘boy toys’, especially since they sometimes have friends or cousins that introduce this idea when they come over.

    The funny thing to me is that even though I try to stay with non-branded toys and particularly avoid Disney, my husband is really into comic books and introduces them to our kids. So we do have a fair number of Superman, Batman, and Supergirl (etc) toys and books in our house. Oh well.

    • Mraynes says:

      It’s good to see you around, FoxyJ! I was wondering the other day where you had gone, now I know you’ve been up to your elbows in a new baby. Congratulations! 🙂

      Can I just say that I love stories or pictures with little children pretending to breastfeed, I think they’re so beautiful! I’m hopeful that we can capture a few of the moments in the near future. We take a similar approach to toys, in fact, our toy room sounds almost identical to yours (except for the superhero stuff). One of my biggest pet peeves are toys, clothes, diapers that have been co-opted by some brand and gendered in completely unnecessary ways. We’re potty training now so, for example, pull-ups for boys have Toy Story on them while the girls have Disney Princesses. We use the boy pull-ups for both of our kids because I find them less objectionable. Still, its annoying…Anyway, I’m glad you’re back!

      • FoxyJ says:

        Thanks; I’ve been busy with the baby and I started teaching part-time as an adjunct, so I feel like I don’t have free time anymore. It’s funny how three kids suddenly feels like way more than two was. I had hoped to come to the Counterpoint conference again this year but it just didn’t happen. Hopefully next year…

  3. TopHat says:

    I made my daughter a doll and with my son, I’ll definitely make him a doll, too. I don’t see dolls as gendered. I do wonder, though, if I should make my son’s doll’s hair shorter since he’s a boy- but then I don’t want it to be too gendered. I don’t plan on cutting his hair for a few years (boys with curly hair are cute!) so it’s not like “girls have long hair and boys have short hair” in our family. In fact, he has more hair than his sister did at this age, so he’ll probably end up with longer hair as a 2 year old than she!

    • Mraynes says:

      Good for you for making the dolls, TopHat! I love the look of homemade dolls so much more than the ugly plastic ones at the store. Plus you have to deal with the gendered implications much more because all of the dolls tend to be wearing pink outfits with flowers and butterflies all over them. I’m currently scouring Etsy for a homemade alternative. As for your little boys hair, I say keep it long as long as possible, little boys with curly hair are so cute. Thanks for the comment!

  4. Conifer says:

    We got my son a doll and he loved it — I think it really helped. I think it’s important to remember that the ultimate goal is to make sure we’re not treating people differently based on gender, so if you would give a son the doll, then give the daughter a doll. Don’t overthink it.

  5. Jessawhy says:

    I don’t know if you have a stroller for your baby doll, but Finn got one when he turned 2 and he LOVES IT. It’s a great toy for that age because they love to push things.

    My only advice (not that you asked for it) for your third baby is to EXPECT THE WORST. (this is my advice for life in general)
    It can only be better than the worst you can imagine. 🙂

  6. spunky says:

    I am bothered that you labelled the doll as a gendered toy. As other commenters have said, both male and female children play with dolls. It just smacks of the quashing of anything that is labelled feminine, which is uncomfortable for me. Is it so bad if your daughter like playing with dolls? (Barbies to me are materialistic with the accessories and wardrobes, so I have less enthusiasm for Barbie or Bratz, etc based on that notion.)

    I am not sure what feminist parenting is, but I am personally tired of primary and YW activities that are focused on traditionally masculine activities while the traditionally feminine act ivies are disappearing or considered worthless. Is it so bad to teach your son or have a primary or YM activity focused on learning how to quilt? Why does this skill have to be removed and replaced with tire-changing? Aren’t both skills practical for all genders?

    This is where feminism loses me: when traditionally masculine activities and hobbies are embraced as superior to traditionally feminine activities and hobbies. Just because I can camp as well or better than a man doesn’t mean I am a better quality woman and therefore, I deserve authority. I deserve authority and respect *because* I am a daughter of God, not because I don’t play with dolls and can run a marathon. I am a fan of elevating and placing increased value on traditionally feminine activities such as canning, food prep (thank you, Jaime Oliver!), and quilting as opposed to labelling these things as non-essential when compared to weight training or changing fan belts. I say, rather that removing the dolls and quilting classes, we offer dolls to male children and teach YM to quilt.

    In short- embrace the doll! Being a woman has innate authority, prestige and value. Being involved in traditionally feminine activities has just as much- if not more value as traditionally male activities– males and females should embrace, learn and value both.

    • Mraynes says:

      Spunky, I agree, dolls are not gendered toys. And while you’re right, at the same time, walking down the doll aisle at Target would say that society views this issue differently. I guess it’s all about context, I don’t have a problem with dolls as long as I am controlling the message: that dolls are not just girl toys and taking care of babies is not just women’s work. Domestic work is honorable and worthwhile, this is what I was trying to say in my post. I wouldn’t want to give my children the wrong impression because I was afraid of the message they might get from society. So I will embrace the doll and both my husband and I will continue to model our respect and enjoyment of domestic labor to our children. Thanks for reminding me of this!

  7. Hannah says:

    I agree with Conifer. We got our son a baby doll before his brother came, and he really enjoyed diapering it, rocking it, and carrying it around by the legs. Baby dolls are great transition toys for either gender. (Barbies, Bratz, and other sexualized dolls are a completely separate issue.) On a similar note, we surprised our sons last Christmas with a kitchen set, and they both love it. I don’t think domestic toys should be considered gender specific. But maybe it’s easier for me to feel this way because I have sons.

    • Mraynes says:

      Thanks for the comment, Hannah. I agree that domestic toys should be gender neutral, I’ve thought about getting a kitchen set for my children as well. I guess my problem is that domestic toys are designed and marketed only to girls. Like I said to Spunky, as long as I can control the context in which we introduce the domestic toys to our children, a context where both men & women participate in and enjoy domestic work.

  8. Vada says:

    I think it’s easier to not worry about gendered toys and expectations when you only have sons, because I haven’t worried about any of this stuff. They do have a lot of “boy” toys, but that’s just because they’ve liked those things (the oldest was very into Cars, the younger two are obsessed with Thomas, and the oldest now loves dinosaurs, sharks and monsters). They’ve also gotten a lot of non-gendered toys, and for Christmas this year the youngest is getting a play kitchen and a bunch of play food that I think they’ll all enjoy.

    On the doll front — I agree with everyone else that you should definitely get one for both kids. We got my oldest a doll just after the second was born. He was so interested in his baby brother, and kept poking his eyes and pulling at his face and other things, just trying to figure him out. It did not make the baby particularly happy. When we were at a friend’s house he started doing the same thing to one of their baby dolls, and I thought, “Yes! I need to get him a doll so he can do the exploring without hurting his brother!” I did, and it mostly worked. I did give into expectations and get him a baby doll dressed in a little blue jumpsuit instead of a pink dress, but since he had a baby brother it seemed appropriate.

  9. Jana says:

    Or get her a stuffed animal baby, if a human baby (esp a girl) seems too gendered.

  10. kmillecam says:

    I like Jana’s idea for a stuffed animal baby. That could avoid the issue of gendered toys entirely.

    I am another parent that got her oldest boy a doll when my second was born. But my oldest was never really threatened by the new baby (he was 3 1/2 when I had #2), so never really played with the doll. But now that my second is 21 months, HE plays with that doll all the time!

  11. Starfoxy says:

    I bought a baby doll for my oldest son when our second son was born to help him adjust. At least that was the reason I used to sell the idea to my husband. Deep down it was because I wanted to teach my sons to be parents the same way that lots of people teach their daughters to be parents. And I knew I had to do it when they were little- too little to have picked up on the “dolls are for girls” message yet.

  12. Caroline says:

    So what do we do when our kids gravitate toward the gendered toys? My boy will have nothing to do with dolls. And because of that, I haven’t introduced my 15 month old girl to dolls very much, because it just all seems so stereotyped — E with his trucks and tools, and A with dolls. That scenario makes me squirm a bit.

    Great post, mraynes. This is something I need to sit down and think about more.

    • FoxyJ says:

      My daughter who is seven begged for a Barbie doll for years. And then last year for her sixth birthday my mother-in-law bought her one. At least it was the ‘teacher barbie’ (even though she’s wearing a sundress that isn’t very teacher appropriate). Since then she’s acquired a few more as hand-me-downs and used some of her allowance to buy some Barbie accessories. She plays with them sometimes, but also plays with her other toys as well; I can tell that she’s not ‘obsessed’ with Barbie and for her they are one of many toys. At least with my daughter, I know that her personality is one where if I try to avoid things they turn into ‘forbidden fruit’ and she wants them even more. In our house we try and have a little moderation in all things. For example, we buy ‘treat cereal’ and they can have it on Saturday mornings; every other day of the week is the healthy stuff. We also have a weekly movie night and watch a variety of things. So my daughter has seen many of the Disney movies at least once, but not repeatedly over and over. Every kid and every family is different, but I know that as my kids have gotten older I have just relaxed a little bit with things. There are certain lines I have (no Bratz for my daughter, no Hannah Montana or High School Musical-they’re too old/no violent toys for my boy), but I allow us some ‘wiggle room’.

      Plus, like you said, some kids just gravitate to some things. I wear jeans most of the time and rarely wear makeup, and I don’t even own nail polish. Yet my daughter has insisted on wearing skirts since she was about two and loves things like lip gloss and clip-on earrings. At the same time, she does read a lot of superhero comics and loves Batman. As I type this comment, I realize that for me what is most valuable is that my kids don’t feel like they are ‘locked-in’ to any role, gendered or otherwise. We’ve tried hard to help them see many possibilities for toys, games, books, movies, etc.

  13. Heather P. says:

    I don’t have any parenting tips, but I do have two brief anecdotes from my own childhood.

    I was almost two years old when my brother was born (and I’m the oldest). When he was still a very young infant, I used to tell my mom, “Baby down, hold Heather.”

    But then once when my uncle was supposed to be keeping an eye on us, he fell asleep on the couch. I proceeded to knock over the bassinet because I wanted to “hold Baby.” (Fortunately, my brother wasn’t hurt.)

    I did have dolls when I was little (including a favorite one), but I don’t know if any of them were tied to the new baby.

  14. EmilyCC says:

    I got a baby for my 2 year old son when our second son was born. I think it helped a bit, but it wasn’t terribly interesting to him.

    My second son, however, LOVES that baby doll. He feeds it, pushes it in its stroller, sings to it. It makes me hopeful that he’ll be as welcoming to #3.

    As for my (our) feminist parenting, I guess I just try to not stereotype any roles. I try to point out to my boys that both Mom and Dad work and that my work (being home with them) is just as important as Dad’s, where he dresses up and leaves us. I’m sure it’ll only get harder as they get older, and I think it’ll get more complicated as we add a girl to the mix.

  15. Stephanie says:

    But I also wonder that if in trying to avoid the gender socialization of our children we have unintentionally created an androcentric environment, one where traditionally feminine pursuits are made invisible.

    This is poignant, and I think very true. As I am further into motherhood and more and more tied to home (5 kids under 10), I wish I had more homemaking skills. I have great business and leadership skills, but I feel out of place trying to do basic things to care for my family. I wish I had more of the “traditionally feminine” skills. My solution is to try to learn them and teach them to ALL my children.

    I have my first girl after four sons. I am relishing in her femininity. (although she’s not as interested in the doll as she is in the truck. And she rips bows out of her hair. That’s okay, I just love having a girl)

  16. Rebecca says:

    I just have to add a funny aside. My husband, teenage son and I were talking about this post last night. When I mentioned gender and dolls, my men skipped to thinking that I was talking about anatomically correct dolls. My son chuckled and said, “Mom, I’ve never seen a doll that wasn’t gender neutral. I mean, they don’t have private parts. That’s pretty neutral.” Then my husband said, “You might have to try an adult bookstore if you’re looking for dolls with those parts.” Yeah, I was laughing out loud.

    We did find this baby doll that nurses when your child wears the little vest with symbolic flowers where the nipples would be!

    • Jenne says:

      We do have an anatomically correct boy doll that we got to balance out the girl doll my son got when I was pregnant with my little girl. This boy doll can also go into the bathtub and when his body gets filled with water, you can squeeze him and he’ll pee. The remarkable thing is that he’s not circumcised which makes sense given its a French company.

      I wish I had gotten a baby doll much sooner than waiting until I was pregnant. Now I know that a prerequisite toy to give to a family with a new baby, regardless of gender, is a quality baby doll. I wonder if my little boy at the age of my little girl now (17 months) would have shown interest in caring for a baby.

      My little girl loves it and often brings the doll to me to read stories. She seems to know that I’m the mama and the producer of milk so she insists that I hold the baby and nurse the baby. She hasn’t tried to imitate me yet.

      On the topic of boys and dolls, I know that many young boys will pretend to breastfeed their dolls if they’ve been exposed to it. I one time saw my little boy offer a bottle to the doll and I asked why he didn’t breastfeed it. He gave me a look that patently said “Because I can’t make milk, Mom. I’m a boy, duh.” From my three year old. I’m so glad that he’s so logical and learning the biological gender differences first rather than perpetuating the cultural stereotypes.

  17. Stephanie says:

    I think that boys play with dolls, too. They just call them “action figures”.

  18. Kim says:

    We bought my two sons dolls when my daughter was born. I don’t consider dolls to be toy gender specific.

  19. Stella says:

    Growing up there were four of us girls and one boy. We would all get our nails painted and our hair done on Sundays. My brother always wanted to be a part of this. Thus, at two, he would go to nursery with red fingernails. Occasionally, someone would comment how odd it was for him to have that. My mother was always awesome and said that she didn’t think so and she didn’t want to leave him out. Eventually, I am sure, he realized that wasn’t appropriate for a boy to do that. However, he still loved dressing up in dresses with us and dancing. We would put make-up on him. Now, he’s 6’2 and as masculine as the word gets defined, he plays football, and works as a nurse, and he is also really sensitive. I don’t know if the way my parents handled toys and games had any affect, but I think it did.

    My parents bought all of us toys that we shared–a healthy amount of typical “boy” and “girl” toys. I went through a major he-man action figure stage in my youth. I would only wear he-man underwear (that my mom bought for me in the boys section) play with he-man figures and have he-man EVERYTHING–including glow in the dark sword and shield. I liked my baby dolls too, but, even in the 70s, my parents just never made a big deal about it. I’m always grateful to them for that. I know many of my friends gave me a hard time about having “boy” toys and about wearing boy clothes, but I didn’t care, I liked them!

    • Corktree says:

      I loved He-Man! I had a little boy friend when I was 6 that would come over and play and we would pretend we were He-Man and She-Ra, but I’m fairly certain I wasn’t always She-Ra 😉

  20. val says:

    One of your roles as a parent is to prepare your child for living in society, and that includes learning appropriate gender roles. A child needs to learn about how to fit into society.
    Every culture in the world has gender roles of some sort; Why would we try to create a world without gender differentiation?

    Parents who claim to avoid teaching gender stereotypes are often leaving that socialization to others.

    Today’s gender roles are different from 50 years ago because the world is different, but men and women will always have differentiated roles in society.

    The Onion has a great article entitled “progressive parents refuse to tell child its gender” ha ha.,18395/

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