I have a fairly high embarrassment threshold. As a former stand-up comedian, there is quite a lot I am willing to put myself through before beginning to feel embarrassed or awkward in any way. I wasn’t always like this. As a teenager, I had overactive blushing syndrome, where if any adult, especially but not limited to, a teacher, spoke to me at all about anything, I would immediately turn bright red for the next five minutes and then lie awake that night, replaying the dreadful moment in my head. (The dreadful moment being something along the lines of, “that essay was fine”, “can you please pass me that book” and so on – the stuff of true nightmares.)
As an adult, this doesn’t really happen to me any more, ever.
Until I had children.
Children have a way of knowing what your social weaknesses are, and exploiting them mercilessly. In December, TheBloke(TM) and I went to a friend’s house for a party. I have known my friend Janice for years, but this was our first time meeting her partner, Suzanne. We dressed the children up beautifully (despite EldestGirl’s protestations in favour of wearing her My Little Pony leggings), arrived at their lovely home and had a drink with their other guests.
YoungestGirl had recently turned one, and could only really say “cat”, which she did often. Really, really often. Janice and Suzanne don’t have children; in the absence of another child to irritate, YoungestGirl delighted in shouting, “CAT” at their cat approximately every two seconds. Suzanne asked us, “Is she saying any other words yet?”
“No,” I replied. “Just ‘cat’ at the moment. She doesn’t say anything else, not even ‘Mummy’! She babbles a bit, but nothing really meaningful.” There was a lull in conversation.
“GAY,” piped up YoungestGirl loudly and very clearly. Everyone pretended not to hear. “GAY!” she shouted again.
It is not just YoungestGirl. EldestGirl has her moments too. She’s generally a well-mannered little thing, so I occasionally let my guard down. This is inevitably when trouble strikes. At our local summer fete, we were standing in a queue to have her face painted. It was a noisy affair, the summer fete: music piped across a PA system, an MC who loved the sound of his own voice a bit too much, fairground rides, bouncy castles, a fire-engine occasionally sounding its sirens for the children. Noisy.
“What do you want to be painted as, EldestGirl?” I asked, crouching down to hear her, but already knowing the answer. She is always a tiger. If she isn’t a tiger, she is some sort of superhero. I have never understood why she wants to be a superhero – she has literally never seen a superhero film.
Holding hands with one of her best friends, a mixed-race little girl called Molly, EldestGirl said, “I want to be a black girl.”
I wanted the ground to swallow me up. Molly’s dad, standing with us, hadn’t heard over the noise. Molly had already had her face painted. I had two seconds to sort this out.
“Sweetie, no, we don’t do that. Think of something else.”
“It’s not fair; Molly is.”
Oh God, I didn’t want to have this conversation here and now. We had never, I don’t think, discussed race or skin colour at home – she sees a diverse range of people day-to-day and just knows that our friends are our friends, and everyone looks different. I had no idea where this concept had even come from for her. I suspected nursery.
“No sweetie, don’t you want to be a tiger? Or Spider-Man?”
“NO! I WANT TO BE A BATGIRL!”
Oh, thank God. Molly and EldestGirl happily ran round as BatGirl and BatGirl all afternoon.
Side “smash the patriarchy” anecdote: EldestGirl wanted to be BatGirl again this weekend at a birthday party with face painting. When she asked the face painting lady if she could be BatGirl, the lady said, “Oh what a shame, a beautiful girl like you wanting to be BatGirl. Wouldn’t you rather be a beautiful princess or a butterfly?” EldestGirl stuck to her guns, and I reinforced how much more interesting it was to be a superhero than a butterfly, and what a great choice she’d made. But still, a shame she’s even hearing these messages.