THE BLOG

Raising Girls

29/10/2014 17:10 GMT | Updated 29/12/2014 10:59 GMT

I have a son and when I was pregnant again, people assumed I would be delighted that the second was a girl. "Lucky you," they said, "You have one of each!" As though if my new child had been a boy I'd have gone 'awwww, I got two of the same, I'll have to re-gift it'.

I was delighted of course. But also daunted by the fact that I would be going through a girl's teenage years again. My own where tough enough.

Not nearly as tough though, as the previous generations of my family.

My great-grandmother, Aziz, was just nine years old when she was married to a man in his thirties. She had my grandmother, her first child, when she was just 15. An age where my biggest concerns were that I didn't understand Pythagorus' theorem and that boys seemed not to fancy chubby frizzy haired girls.

My grandmother was married at 12 years old, had my mother when she was 14. My mother had her first child at the grand old age of 24.

I had my daughter in my late thirties. And I had her on my own. She has never met her father.

My situation is a mixture of choice and circumstance. That's the difference between my life and the lives of the fine, brave women I come from: Choice. Education and financial independence are the things that give me the choice my gran and great gran did not have. They were forced to stay in situations that most of us I imagine would find incomprehensively intolerable.

As a teenager, on my first proper date, my father gave me some money and said 'whatever happens, YOU pay for the meal' His thinking was of course, that if I pay my own way, then I won't feel I owed anything to this chap.

I seem to have taken that lesson further than he intended me to. I have two children, with two different fathers and am providing for them completely independently. My father is chief babysitter, seeing as this was all his doing.

My children have had to learn to understand why I have to leave them and go to work. As my son explained aged three 'mummy works to buy me chocolate'

When I was growing up, we learned about the suffragettes. We were always told "you must vote! Women died to get you the vote". Now they might be far too far back in history for my daughter to relate to, but Malala won't be. She'll learn about Malala. I will say to my daughter, "a fourteen-year-old girl got shot in the head because she wanted to get an education, now put your phone away and do your homework!"

I will also tell her about Maryam Mirzakhani, the 37-year-old who this year became the first woman to win the Field's Medal, the mathematics equivalent of the Nobel Peace Prize. She happens to be a woman, and she happens to be Iranian.

Already, I have started to fear the avalanche of images and and advertising aimed at making her feel she does not look perfect the way she is, from the top of her head to the tips of her toes.

When my daughter was six months old, a family member remarked that her outfit made her look 'frumpy'. I thought: 'hold tight my girl, this is just the beginning'.

My daughter has a fight on her hands. She won't be married off at nine or twelve. But at nine or twelve she will already be exposed to fashion aimed at her which sexualises her, she will perhaps like female pop stars whose pert bums as crucial to ticket sales as their music. She will have started to get comments, positive and negative about her face and figure. I want the sky to be the limit for both of my children, but it is already clear that my son's ambition will be celebrated and the size of his bottom under much less scrutiny.

My daughter should be able to choose whether she wants to be a princess or a pirate without toy manufacturers deciding for her, and clobbering her with gender specific advertising. She doesn't need a book cover to be pink to be interested in reading it.

I want her to have to confidence to put her hand up and say 'no, I'm don't understand Pythagoras' theorem, can you think of a better way to explain it to me please.' If she still doesn't get it, I'd like her to demand that Pythagoras himself be brought to her.

Compared to my grandmother and great-grandmothers' concerns, mine may seem puny. But to get through the extremes of life, we have to focus on the details.

The comment made a lot about toddler girls is "she's going to be a stunner". I am her mother, in my eyes she already is. I am unapologetic about that. Also I know this comment only ever comes from a good place. But my son, from babyhood was praised for being thoughtful, smart, oh he's so clever, he's so good at maths. His birthday presents are child's tools to learn about space, history, chemistry. At fourteen months old my daughter is already being bought books about Princess, a wardrobe full of princess's clothes bought, with love, from adults in her life. I'm not saying little girls should not dress up as princesses, I just think they should be given more choices. Princess or ballerina are very narrow careers options. If she wears one of the Frou Frou frocks she has, I will accept she will get it covered with mud, sand, porridge and yoghurt. I will never tell my daughter 'don't get your dress dirty' children are meant to get covered in mud, sand, porridge and yoghurt. If I had MY way, I would be too.

She is not my little princess, she is my child. If she knows her own mind and is robust in self-expression, she is not being a 'madam' or 'bossy boots' or a 'ball-breaker' or a 'battle axe' or 'bitchy'.

My daughter wiggles her backside at the merest hint of a beat. When she does there is a chorus or "oh she's going to be a dancer"? I'd be proud of whatever she pursued with passion. But shall we see how she goes with a bunsen burner too?

My son, too loves to dance and sing. But it's his interest in mathematics that draws the most positive comments from adults around him.

You cannot move forward without taking risks. Whether that's in love or in your career. Boys and men, I think, are programmed or perhaps conditioned, to be risk takers. But we women, all too often take rejection so personally and it's frustrating when out failings are attributed to our gender.

When a man parks his car badly he's an incompetent driver. When a women parks her car badly, "women are bad drivers".

To make it in my line of work, I had to 'undo' a great deal of social conditioning. Even now, I have barely scratched the surface I am still undoing.

I hope to give my daughter as little as possible to undo, I can't barricade her from all the put-downs the English language has in store for girls.

I won't be there when she's eighteen walking past a group of men who tell her to 'smile, love'. But I hope to give an awareness from a very early age that these things are not ok and it is not on her to smile politely. I hope she knows she owes a man nothing, however many drinks he buys her. And, if she has has children, I will be her number one babysitter.

Shappi plays a series of dates soon in London. For more details and tickets see here.