After posting this a couple of weeks ago I asked Z what he thought of it. “Eh.” he said. “What? You don’t agree with me? You don’t think I said the right thing?” “NO!” he replied, “I completely agree. His penis does not define who he is. No, it was just so angry. You do a better job making your point when you aren’t so strident.”
He was absolutely right. I was furious when I wrote the post. Furious and self-righteous. I mean to do a perfect job when it comes to teaching my sons about gender. I have a clear idea of what I want to teach them–women are equal to men. Women deserve respect and equal pay for equal work. I want them to grow up automatically applying the Bechdel Test to every movie they see. I want them to think about why several male fiction writers a generation are heralded as the one who will pen the next Great American Novel while female authors who write about women are relegated to the “chick lit” subgenre. As they get older I want them to realize that the New York Times obituary page skews heavily male–by the 29th of August in 2010 the Times had published obituaries of 606 men and 92 women year to date.
At the same time I want them to understand that women and men are different. Women carry more body fat on average. Because women are built to carry babies. That difference doesn’t make women inferior. Women develop breasts. Even as my boys go through puberty I hope they are never uncomfortable around a nursing woman (I know-that one is a bit of a stretch, they’ll be uncomfortable 24-7 when they are going through puberty). They will know that they were nursed well into toddlerhood. I want them to understand that breasts are not simply for male sexual gratification. Breasts have a job. That doesn’t mean they can’t enjoy breasts, but they should know women are more than boobs.
This stuff is hard-acknowledging the differences. When T was potty training he wept when he learned I didn’t have a penis. He occasionally still gets upset about it and will beg me to stand when I pee. I’m his Mom, he wants me to be the same. Sameness equals comfort. I want him to understand that we are the same in so many ways. That the differences won’t matter when it comes to how much we love each other. And differences can make life interesting.
My hope is our generation will start a real paradigm shift because of the way many of us are raising our children. Our kids will automatically think males and females are equal while understanding historically there has been severe gender bias, that severe gender bias still exists around the globe including in this fine nation. T’s Aunt E and Aunt K have been a part of his life since he was 10 days old. It has never seemed different to him that he has two Aunts because it is all he has known. When he met his baby cousin G this past winter he didn’t question the fact that she has two Mommies.
Yes, that is my hope. And it is desperately important to me. I will always be grateful that my parents taught me I was every bit as significant as any man. I want to augment their lesson by making my boys aware that not every child is lucky enough to be raised with that knowledge. Gender bias, socio-economic bias, racial bias–these things are real. And they are wrong.
All this passion! So when things don’t go as well as planned, when my son tells me that girls don’t like trucks I go off the deep end a little bit. Ok. A big bit.
But here’s the thing. I model traditional gender roles for him all the time. It’s ingrained in me. It’s lazy. I don’t even realize I’m doing it. The other week a friend and I were discussing her son in front of T and I caught myself saying to her, “Oh, he’s just being a teenage boy.” Why did I feel compelled to include his gender? What did I mean? Surely I was sending a message to T about gender roles, the opposite message that I purport to embrace. I catch myself doing similar things every day.
Several years ago I wrote about not wanting to buy T pink sheets. I’m still ashamed of the choice I made that day. More than a month ago I wrote about people mistaking my long haired boy for a girl. When we went to get our hair trimmed on Friday he begged me not to have his hair cut at all. I did force the issue on the trim, his hair was out of control and snarled-the dead ends needed to go. But he is holding the reins when it comes to length. So some days I fail and other days I succeed.
We also went to the mall on Friday to get new shoes. We’d been shoving his poor feet into a pair that were almost a year old, and as it turns out a size and a half too small. What? Shoes are expensive. We entered Stride Rite and without thinking I led him to the display of superhero and Star Wars shoes on the boy side of the store. After perusing our choices T ambled over the the girl side. “Mom!” he cried, “Look at the princess shoes! I love princesses!” I could feel my heart-rate accelerate. I was trying to figure out how to get him back over to the “boy” shoes at the same time that I was silently praying the salesperson would not tell him those were “girl” shoes. What a hypocrite. There is no way I’d by him princess shoes, especially since people mistake him for a girl as it is. But I also don’t want a salesperson verbalizing what I’m feeling? I was deeply ashamed as I told him I thought the princess shoes were awesome (Lies-the whole princess thing drives me crazy. They don’t strike me as strong role models for girls or boys) while gently leading him back to the boy display and asking him which Star Wars shoes he wanted to try on.
Turns out the fight was over the Spider Man shoes he wanted vs. the Star Wars shoes that were on sale for half the price. We had to have the conversation about what we could afford, one that we will continue to have as he grows. But the point remains, I steered him away from shoes he liked based on gender politics I claim to disavow. My decision makes me deeply uneasy. Am I failing him? Should I not be concerned that more people would mistake him for a girl if he wore pink princess shoes? Because it clearly distresses him when his gender is not clear to strangers. I don’t want to make his life harder just to forward my agenda when it comes to gender issues.
I don’t know, I don’t know what the answer is. I’m not living up to my ideals. I want to do better for him and for myself. Parenting is a messy business. A couple of weeks ago I wrote “[T] isn’t getting this gender role bullshit from Z and me.” And I believed it to be true at the time. But the truth is more complicated than that. I don’t want to pass gender role bullshit on to either boy. Yet I do every day. Now, I think I’m passing along many more messages of equality. And I don’t think my missteps make me a complete failure. But it is more complicated than I’m able to see when I’m angry about what has come out of his mouth. I am part of the problem. So I need to be part of the solution. When I figure out what that solution is I’ll let you know.
Our new hair cuts.
The shoes he got really are fantastic. He can make the light sabers light up and change color with a button on the sides, but they also light up when he walks.
The family went out for ice cream last night. Z had no idea I was recording him. Neither did the boys, for that matter…