Over the holidays, my wife and I packed up our son for our annual voyage to Portland to visit my family. Expecting rain, we stayed in an Airbnb with a glorious basement full of toys. Among the fake pizza slices and soccer balls and swords and rocking horses and hairy spiders, our son found a baby doll, and he loved it. He hugged it, patting its back. He kissed it. He pretended to change its diaper ("Poopy! Yuck!"). He put the baby doll into a bag and tried to stick it on his shoulders, like a makeshift Baby Bjorn. He laid it down to sleep, pulling a blanket over its tiny plastic features, holding a finger up to his lips, whispering, "Shhhh."
This was not exactly a surprise: he spends a lot of time with a two-year-old who loves baby dolls, and he's picked up some of the basics of doll care from her. But seeing his joy at nurturing this little toy made me resolve that when we got back home, I'd go to the toy shop and get him a baby doll of his very own. My wife and I asked each other why hadn't we bought him one already. Why do we say "We should get him a truck," when we see him playing with another kid's truck, but not "We should get him a doll" when we see him playing with another kid's doll?
And so, this weekend, I headed north to the Berkeley toy store with him in the stroller. As we meandered up the streets, voices appeared in my mind, unbidden, and from some previous era of fatherhood: "Baby dolls are for girls. Dolls are for girls."
The selection of baby dolls available in stores only reinforces the stereotype. At my local toy store, every race was represented, but only one gender. Every doll was clad in pink. Not that little boys can't or don't love pink, but the boxes and marketing are clearly meant to signal to parents: These are for girls. The virtual shelves at Amazon and Walmart tell the same story: nine out of ten baby dolls are dressed as little girls, complete with headbands. There's a popular "Little Mommy" brand of baby dolls, but no "Little Daddy."
Even here in the East Bay, the natural habitat of the bearded baby-toting dad, our toys haven't caught up with our parenting practices. As I held my son up to the wall of dolls, waiting to see if he'd gravitate to one, another father passed behind me, side-eyeing me like I was crazy. The guy behind the register tried to make me feel good, too, noting that he'd seen several other men buy their sons dolls over the years, and it was no big deal, really, even if some people thought it was totally weird. He'd bought one himself, even, when his son had a little sister on the way.
I wondered: did the side-eye dad think I was strange, or that my kid was a sissy? Really, the only weird thing about my son is that his favorite animal is the seagull. (No one likes seagulls.) To me, his affinity for dolls makes perfect sense. He himself is nurtured, so he nurtures. It's like how he says "Boom!" when he kicks a ball or "Cooking!" when he mixes things in a bowl.
Few people would bat an eye at buying a little girl a soccer ball, but buy a boy a doll and dang, it is a thing. There's a whole miniature academic literature centered on the 1972 children's book "William's Doll," which reinforces the idea that, yes, even now, a boy playing with a doll is a thing. Much of it is couched in terms of "gender nonconformity," but really, isn't playing with dolls conforming to the new adult ideal of more involved male parenting?
If we want our little boys to grow up into loving, attached fathers who expect that they'll shoulder an equal share of the parenting responsibilities, shouldn't we get them started early? Shouldn't baby dolls become as gender-neutral as Legos? Don't we want little boys who understand and value caring for other humans? At their youngest and most impressionable, we're telling little boys that caretaking is only for little girls. Then we're asking them 25 years later to be committed, competent fathers. How crazy is that?
I give many thanks to feminism for loosening the gender strictures, so that as an adult male, I can love basketball and cooking and flowers and being a dad and Clueless and Aliens. But I know not all men are going to like this same set of things. Similarly, the point isn't that all little boys should be forced to play with baby dolls—some little dudes really do just want to play with trucks—but all children should feel equally good about playacting as caretakers.
The baby doll is, undoubtedly, a small mechanism in the overall system of gender inequality in this country. But damned if it isn't the problem in miniature. You add up a million little things like this and eventually you get to this recent Harvard Business School study: "Men generally expect that their careers will take precedence over their spouses’ careers and that their spouses will handle more of the child care, the study found — and for the most part, men’s expectations are exceeded," summarized the New York Times. "Women, meanwhile, expect that their careers will be as important as their spouses’ and that they will share child care equally — but, in general, neither happens." And the mismatch isn't going away either: it's as true for new graduates as for people who graduated 30 years ago.
To which I say: Baby dolls for everyone! We've got to teach little boys they can do anything, too, even putting the baby to bed.