Sunday, October 5, 2008

Which comes first - the girl or the boy?

Staying on the topic of birth order, I think the gender of a child plays a huge part (in Asia at least) in how birth order shapes his or her personality.

As you know, I have a daughter and a son, in that order. I’ve lost count of the number of times people have told me, “You’re lucky the first one is a girl, then she can help out with the younger one.” I used to have a standard response explaining my views but grew tired of appearing churlish. These days, I just smile politely and say nothing.

Why do people persist in spouting clich├ęs as if they were the gospel truth, without actually examining what they’re saying? I can’t be sure but I suspect this belief is rooted in Asian culture, stemming from the patriarchal society we live in. Underlying that simple statement are two loaded assumptions: 1) the girl’s role is to help, 2) the son is more important.

The assumption that the elder girl’s role is helper is one that I reject totally. I’m partial to the case of the elder daughter because that’s who I am and although my younger sibling is a sister not a brother, the role of helper was foisted upon me when I was growing up. A little about me, I am the most undomesticated female I know. I can’t cook (and have no wish to), I’m a horrible caregiver, and I detest cleaning and other household chores. I know nobody really likes to clean but I seriously hate it with a vengeance. I would rather live in an unkempt place than clean up. (That’s why I tell everyone, if I can handle motherhood, anyone can!)

So when my parents told me I had to look after my little sister, I instantly rebelled (I turned the tables around by tormenting her instead). This earned me the label of being uncooperative which I begrudged. Today, the memory of this is still very vivid. I remember feeling that it was monstrously unfair that from as young as 6 years old, I was expected to be the mature, responsible one, while my sister, even at age 12, could get away with being juvenile and playful. That somehow my birth order doomed me to a pre-determined role.

I’m not saying children shouldn’t have to help out – on the contrary, I think children should learn to take on some responsibility around the house. What I’m against is the implication that because you’re the eldest, somehow the burden of being responsible for the younger children automatically falls on you. Parents, remember the decision to have another child was yours, not your first born’s! Another common phrase that puts my teeth on edge: “Give in to him lah, he’s younger.” And these same parents wonder why the sibling rivalry is so strong and that their first borns have so much resentment against their younger siblings.

I was very conscious not to do the same to Lesley-Anne. When she does help out with Andre, she’s praised because she’s helping out, not because she’s doing her job. I’ve never told her that she has to look after Andre because she’s older. But I do tell her she should help Andre as he’s her brother, the same way I tell Andre he should look out for his sister.

I know generally, most first borns feel the pressure to help out with their younger siblings but I think the pressure is less for boys. I never hear people say to parents who have a son as a first born, “You’re lucky, your son can help out with your younger ones.” Many people will argue that their sons are simply incapable of helping out. This may be true but while this is an acceptable excuse for boys, girls, regardless of their inclination are usually still expected to step up to the plate.

Apart from the stereotype that girls are better helpers than boys, it also sends the signal that boys are valued more. I have been voicing out against this chauvinistic mindset for the longest time. When I was pregnant with Lesley-Anne, before we found out her gender, an elderly relative told me, “It’s better for the first one to be a boy, then the second one can be anything.” I retorted, “no, if the first one is a boy, I want my second child to be a girl.” (She was shocked into silence.) One of my girl friends told me when she found out her first child was a girl, her mother-in-law probably thought she was being kind by saying (in Mandarin) “first one girl is good”. But what she really meant was that the second one should preferably be a boy (and the girl would be able to help out).

In this modern day world, it is inexplicable to me that this archaic tradition still lives on. Every child is a gift! I guess old habits die hard. When I explained to my French friend Isabelle about the Chinese preference for boys to carry on the family name, she replied, “yes, because there aren’t enough Tans in the world!” I thought it was hilarious.


Lilian said...

Interesting post...

First, you totally didn't strike me as one who hates housework and could live in an unkempt're describing ME! Have you seen my hostel room! It's not just that I hate housework, I'm INCAPABLE of housework. I think those who value tidiness should do the cleaning up instead of complaining about the mess.

I should be more careful about relegating my responsibilities to Brian. He definitely resents having to be the responsible one, asking me why Sean gets away with so much. He's also been helping Sean with so many things for quite some time now, things that I should be doing. Eg, bathing Sean, in the past feeding Sean, brushing his teeth, changing his clothes, aiyah, I'm just such a bad mum.

I have something else to comment. Post this first.

Lilian said...

On having boys/girls, I face something quite different but equally, if not more, annoying. It's NOT when people ask if I'm gonna try for a girl, that's pretty normal, I accept it's just natural curiousity or friends just making conversation.

What gets me are mothers of only girls who give me that pitying look, and say, "I'd MUCH rather/I'm thankful/I'm so lucky to have all girls; I can't imagine having all boys." or cite a friend of theirs who are all frazzled cos they have all boys, or go, "Girls are so much closer to their mums, boys are so difficult." I'm like, How would you know??!! Coming from those who have boys and girls, such remarks may be slightly more acceptable but still rather rude I feel, seeing that they are talking to a mum of boys! but for those who do not have boys, how would they know? How'd they like it if I shake my head and say, "Oh poor thing, you only have girls. Phew, lucky I have boys."

God knows enough people have been stuffing that notion of girls being better than boys down my throat for years now. Yalah yalah, I know, girls will take care of you when you're old, girls will remember your birthdays, boys marry off and listen to their wives, blah blah...who cares (hehe, how bitter do I sound)?

All I know is I'm enjoying my boys now, they bring me joy, they make me laugh, they're sweet as sweet can be, so no, I don't need a girl, I think boys are great, at least mine are! BOO!

monlim said...

Lilian, my hostel room was cleaned by Kenneth!! He couldn't tahan the mess and I never bothered to clean up so he did. Sometimes my work table is so messy you can't SEE the table :P

Re: the 'pity you have all boys' thing, I believe it's similar to the gifted issue (ie "I'm so glad my child is not gifted"). Rationalisation based on something you don't have, to convince yourself you have a good thing.

I find that mothers of girls always tell me how great girls are and mothers of boys always tell me how great boys are. It can't be that everyone really got what they wanted, can it? I think many parents need to go for diplomacy course...

bACk in GERMANY said...

Lilian: I'm sensing oops here... I hope you weren't soar about the comment I made the last time.
But seriously, I think boys are great...
In fact, lucky you, got two boys!
Btw, the previous comment was based on how torn you'd be, between your two boys... not the gender concerned there.
Girls on the other hand.... sigh.... cry cry cry cry, if not, pout pout pout pout, if not, help help help help.... at least with mine that's the case.

Besides, boys are naturally closer to mommy... only got mommy's boys, daddy's girls what.

Monica: But I did think hypothetically... what if I had the girl first???
I mean I didn't expect her to help. But I wouldn't expect her to be jumping and tumbling at home so much... so rowdy!
Perhaps her younger brother would be a little subdued too???
Oh... what if's will lead me nowhere...

monlim said...

Cindy, I was just wondering, are you older or your brother? Maybe I'm more conscious because I was the elder one. But you have what many people would envy - the boy first, then the girl. So no need to overthink so much lah!

Lilian, Andre's always kissing and hugging me, so the mommy's boy part is definitely true :)

Lilian said...

Cindy, Sorry lah, can't remember if you said anything, so definitely not sore, no worries about that. I talk only lah, you think I really get upset? I just feel a bit flabbergasted that's all.

Ay Monica, Eddie has always said it's better to have a girl first, then she'll take care of the siblings, so you've gotta knock that notion out of his head if you see him. He has 2 older sisters and 3 younger sisters!

Andre sounds so darn adorable and warm! Brian used to do that lots but not so much these days; Sean is still extremely effusive in his displays of love, especially to me. Shiok only :)

monlim said...

Oh, so Eddie is another "prince" huh! I wonder how his sisters felt abt having to look after him :P

Re: the affectionate bit, that's why Lesley-Anne always complains, "the younger one always turn on the charm, then anything can!"

Cindy, I think we're ok with friends saying such things, it's only when strangers make such comments that it jars. So no worries!

bACk in GERMANY said...

Oh goodie!
Should have known Lilian ain't no Ms Sensitive! ;)

Wow... if I was told about this 5-year age gap earlier.... I would have waited to have no. 2! Brian bathed, fed Sean and brushed teeth and changed clothes for his brother!

Monica: I always thought boys are more fun to teach in school. My prejudiced.... teenage girls are tough to handle... too emotional and "scheming" for me. For the cheeky boys in my class, I'd read all chicken scratches essays in the world!
Gotta enjoy our boys for now though... soon they'll clam up and won't be so expressive with their affection once they hit the teenage years. Gotta stay cool among their peers, remember?

monlim said...

Cindy, yes I've heard all the horrors of teenage girls (and boys), that's why i'm so not looking forward to the teenage years! I kowtow to you, ex-teacher. I think all teachers should be given medals...

Lilian said...

Cindy: If only you were the one marking all of Brian's future exam papers, chicken scratches is putting it mildly.

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