We are disabling our girls

I found the last few months of each of my pregnancies frustrating because I couldn’t pick up a box of groceries on my own, or carry my three year old very far, or even pull on my own shoes naturally.

Pregnancy has been the closest I’ve come to being disabled, and it was obviously temporary and ended in a pretty terrific way. But I was thinking about disability, and self inflicted disability this morning as I walked with Callie and her friend to the store.

The two were a magnificent sight – they had each tied ratty-haired dolls on to their fronts with scarves to mimic baby carriers. Callie was also wearing a pink tiered dress that used to belong to her older brother.

Callie tried to put on her shoes, but couldn’t see over the tulle. She tried to balance on the kerb, and couldn’t see over the tiers to put one foot in front of the other –  temporarily disabled by the dress.

We live in rapidly changing times for women. Thanks to Google’s COO Sheryl Sandberg, Google headquarters has priority parking for pregnant employees [but what about the rest of the world?]. I have friends who tell me that Disney has come a long way since my brief forays into its media in the early 90’s. I’m sure it has, and yet –

Callie’s friend brought over a favorite toy to play with today, a pony called Princess Cadence. Princess Cadence has a recording that says “today is my wedding day,” and “my dress is SO pretty.”

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I’m looking at this bloody pony [and no, it is not wearing a dress, so it’s a lying pony too] now and wondering how I’m going to stop Callie from consuming too much of this girly crap.

Over lunch, I told Haakon about the pony.

“It could say anything, any neutral statement, like ‘I can fly so fast,” I said.

“Yeah, or it could say ‘I have wings but no cloaca,” he answered.

The pony also giggles. This reminds me that a few weeks ago, Atticus’ best friend, a six year old girl, was at our house for a sleepover. In the morning, over pancakes and a conversation about water vapor, she turned to him and said to him in an unnaturally high voice “you’re so smart, I will NEVER be as smart as you!”

The bombshell was followed by a high giggle which ended in a question.

Kids are always testing out new ways of being. So I tried not to over react [but I probably did] and explained to her that there are different kinds of smart and to never let anyone tell her she wasn’t smart. 

I told my friend about what her daughter had said, and she commented that no one at the school had ever told her that her daughter was smart.

“What do they say?” I asked.

Staff apparently tell my friend that her daughter is cute, and distracted.

It’s not that I believe that schools are ultimately responsible for how a child sees themselves, but they are a place for equalizing. In our small, rural community, not every kid goes home to food in the fridge, but at school, all kids qualify for free lunch.

Atticus and his friend have an advantage when it comes to gender equalizing – a strong and positive female principal, and a kindergarten teacher who, in her mid twenties, has already partially lost nine toes to frostbite after a grueling ascent in Nepal.

And yet – when my husband and I go in on alternating Wednesday to help with math groups in the kinder classroom, I can’t help but notice that the girls are distracted.

They are distracted by silky blue sashes, scratchy lace shoulders and ribbons in braids.

Are we really here already, in kindergarten?

At 14, I picked up a copy of Naomi Wolf’s ‘The Beauty Myth’ and read it in one sitting. 

A recent re reading showed Atty’s friend in new light – shivering in leggings, pretty in red velvet, stopping to cry and dump snow out of her boots while Atticus, snug in snow pants, clambered happily over snow banks on the way to school. 

“The beauty myth is always actually prescribing behavior and not appearance,” Wolf writes.

After reading Wolf’s book the first time as a teenager, I went right back to rubbing weird smelling fake tan on my legs and being concerned about looking hot at school. I occasionally took detentions instead of wearing our school uniform, and convinced my parents to write me notes excusing me from wearing it.

But I was a teenager.

My parents had already gifted me a childhood with very little emphasis on looks. Until I went to school I wore track pants and dirty ugh boots and skirts with no undies so I could easily pee outside.

I had a heart to heart with my friend in which she argued that dictating her daughters clothing choices would stifle her creativity, and I argued there was a time and place for creative dressing and it was not school or physical activity.

Or – dress as creatively as you like, as long as it’s weather appropriate and won’t stop you from joining in on an activity. So long as you can still embody the ditty the kids sing on the way home from school: “a verb is a word, it’s an action word!”

Soon after our discussion,  I watched both kids one afternoon after school. It was cold out, because we live in Montana and the school year fits neatly into the nine months of  cold. 

Atty suggested climbing a big tree in the neighborhood they had never climbed before.

His friend, wearing stretchy jeans, a sweater and a warm hat, agreed and as I glimpsed them out the window, I saw her – a glorious pink and blue monkey, climbing higher and higher and leaving Atticus far behind.

So next time she asks I will tell Callie she can not wear fluffy dresses to the store. She might cry, and I will explain that I want her to be able to move her body naturally and climb on stuff if she wants to.

There can be times in a woman’s life when femininity presents some form of disability, but there is no reason for that to happen during childhood.

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Hunting culture, guns and the rural Montana town I love.

When Americans think about increased gun regulation, probably what they don’t think about is this – my Australian dad, strolling through a paddock with his 22 rifle. My Dad’s name is Ian and he is likely wearing short shorts and a worn wide brimmed hat. There is a herd of kangaroos under a big eucalyptus tree on the hill and he is heading straight for them.

My dad had the rifle before the notorious 1996 gun laws passed after the Port Arthur, Tasmania massacre which killed 35 Australians.

And he has it still.

Right now Americans can easily purchase the kind of gun used at Port Arthur, but most, like my dad, need only one gun.

Here in Troy, Montana, where I live with my American husband and our two kids, September brings hunting season and our tiny supermarket is packed with people wearing camouflage, toting rifles and buying fried chicken under the watchful eyes of taxidermied deer and elk.

Even after 12 years of living in Montana, the visibility of gun culture is a shock. I’d never directly asked my 900 fellow townspeople about the guns they own, but with a son in kindergarten and the frequency of school shootings, it was time.

I chose to talk to people I don’t know well.

There was a feeling of breaking social barriers when I asked how many, and what kind of guns people owned – one of the reasons gun violence often comes as a surprise, especially in small communities like ours, is because like sex, money and politics, guns are a taboo subject in American culture.

We don’t know who has an AR-15 in their closet next to the yellow umbrella, because it would be impolite to ask.

But according to our chief of police Katie Davis: “almost everyone [in this town] has a gun.”

A gun – yes – but how many own just one?

According to a 2015 study, three per cent of American adults own half of the civilian guns, an average of 17 each, to hunt, defend their homes, or protect themselves from government takeover.

Just two blocks away from me lives Mike Peterson. Peterson is in his early 50’s and has the average 17 guns in his collection, including some assault rifles.

Peterson and his wife have a strong Democratic lean, and support gun control, but Peterson said he loves how easily he can buy and trade guns now.

Jennifer Meyer is 34, and not your average gun owner – she was shot when she was 12 by a peer and shows me the mottled white scar above her right hip.

Despite her shooting, Meyer is a passionate advocate for gun rights and is currently petitioning our school district to arm teachers.

I have a rifle in my truck,” Meyer said, “and a pistol in my purse. It’s not loaded but I have the clip in there with it.”

Meyer, like so many in our town, uses her weapons to hunt. When I ran into Meyer last fall, she told me she had shot a deer from her car while on the school run.

I saw this nice buck in a field and I knew I could take the shot,” she said, “so I did and then I thought: ‘what now?’.”

Mayer laughs as she tells me she hauled her baby, strapped in her car seat, into the field where she gutted the animal and called her brother to help lift the animal into her truck. And then this badass mom picked her kids up from school on time. 

Gary Britton, a retired military man, will not disclose how many, or what kind of guns he owns, but said he owns “multiple” weapons which would be sufficient to exercise his second amendment right to hold off the government.

But for now, his gun collection is used only for putting meat in the freezer, and on any weeknight, he and I, and hunters everywhere open our freezers and take out packages of meat to thaw.

I could tell you what it’s like to live where it is inconceivable that my kids would experience what Meyer did as a 12-year-old: “I woke up on the ground, and my ears were ringing. That sound is so loud when it’s coming right at you,” Meyer said of her shooting.

But how do I explain the absence of fear?

Let’s legislate for what people use guns for every day, not for that faraway hero scene – hiding from the military with a cache of guns. This image is used in Hollywood but nowhere else. Hunting culture, on the other hand, is something to cherish.

On the hill, my dad lifts the rifle and brings down a kangaroo. The meat is lean and dark like venison and he needed only one gun to provide for his family.