(some of) What I don’t know

I was a feminist before I knew the word.

The eldest of three daughters, a child of the Girls Can Do Anything! eighties, brought up by strong, thoughtful, culture-critical parents, I was never going to be keen on the patriarchy.

When I was a kid and asked my Mum why she was at home and Dad ‘worked,’ she said that he could earn more money than she could so it made financial sense.

Feminism was all but taken as read at my single-sex high school and in my university experience, where women outnumbered men in all my courses, including law.

I’m not going to list the marks of my feminist cred (oh, go on: I’ll tell you that I don’t shave my legs and my husband and I combined our surnames. How’s that for humblebrag starters?) Just believe me when I say I was not unprepared for being a feminist mother of a little boy.

But here’s (some of) what I don’t know:

How do I (or do I?) communicate to a toddler, then pre-schooler, then big kid, that he is a boy, and that that is a real, substantial thing, without boxing him by gender stereotypes or implicitly encouraging him to do so to other people?

What is a boy, a man, exactly, beyond what SBJ himself is? And we don’t KNOW all of what he’s like yet. And even if we limit discussion to him – ‘the way you care for your cousin/the way you clean up after yourself/the way you like running: these are what make you a boy’ – well, that doesn’t necessarily help for any other boys he knows, let alone the girls.

I can’t think of a single characteristic, beyond what we would observe in SBJ himself, that we can point to and say ‘that’s what a man is like’. I’m a leader, his father follows his feelings ahead of logic, I cook, his dad runs the technology – gender boxes don’t help us much so far.

But I’m not leaning towards raising him like Pop, genderless, as far as the world is concerned. I like being a woman, not a man. I am a woman who talks a lot, played with Lego, leads organisations, likes Jane Austen, makes the odd birthday card and can parallel park like a champ. Internally, all of that matches up just fine for me. I cheerfully ignore, embrace or subvert gender stereotypes at will, and yet I feel like a woman. Not a man, not an androgynous human.

That’s what I want for our boy (inverted, probably, depending on his emerging gender identity), but how do I communicate that to him, especially assuming he goes through a typical season of forging his gender identity through extremes. How do I get that nuance across when he one day refuses to play with girls, or flowers, or saucepans, because he’s a boy? Or wants a short haircut because ‘that’s what boys have’? I’m very happy to tell him that ‘colours are for everyone,’ ‘toys are for everyone,’ but is there something else that goes in that vacuum and tells him what being a boy means?

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0 comments on “(some of) What I don’t know”

  1. Tim Bulkeley Reply

    You don’t make him anything. You provide the environment in which he can become himself. Gender boxes hurt, I’m a man – I like to cook, Sarah was all girl – she liked to see how machines worked… treat him as himself, as you and he discover who he is. There is no magic to becoming a woman or a man, biology takes care of that.

  2. Stu Reply

    Totally agree with Tim. Just encourage him to become SBJ. (Although the SB may need to disappear at some stage)

  3. Carol McKillop Reply

    I think the lifestyle you two role model as parents is enough to shape (SB)J to be an individual. But stereotypes exist for a reason. I banned toy guns and never entertained the idea of fighting/war etc. Before I knew it the house littered with guns made of wood, plastic, tree branches, lego and who knows what else. I’m still getting shot at 15 years on.

    • Angela Reply

      Yes, I know a woman who gave her sons barbie dolls and play-ovens. They turned the barbies in to guns, and put them in to oven to see if they could melt them and see their guts.

      • gribbo Reply

        I really enjoyed the mental images that one created – who said boys have no imagination :)

  4. Robyn Ryan Reply

    Thalia … :-) BOTH those replies I TOTALLY AGREE with … Our sons are good strong young men/fathers’ & I don’t believe I had much to do with that !! They were born boys & grew to lovely toddlers/little boys/bigger boys/not such lovely teenagers/brilliant young men. One of them told my “best friends” daughter “he didn’t like girls” but continued to “sing to her, play his toy trumpet to her & ph her for a daily chat” …. James will be “James” & with parents like you & Matt I don’t see too many problems … I TOO PARALLEL PARK LIKE A CHAMP :-) Hugs

  5. Katy McG Reply

    I’m not a parent, but I too was raised in the “Girls’ can do anything” era (including the bumper sticker on the kitchen wall!). My mother wasn’t a feminist, I think it was more about not being limited by stereo or gender types. I played with dolls and pulled computers to bits but wasn’t ‘guided’ into doing either. As I grew up and was drawn towards studying subjects where females were the minority (ratio 50:3), it wasn’t about challenging stereo-types, it was just what I enjoyed doing because that was how I’d been raised. I don’t believe I’m any less of a woman because of my career choice. And I’m not ashamed to “be” a woman and admit I can’t lift a heavy object. I reckon that if you’re open to allowing SBJ to being *who* he is rather than *what* he is, he’ll be just fine. (and that includes letting him refuse to wear pink because “it’s a girls’ colour”!). :)

  6. not a wild hera Reply

    It’s nice to know so many wise and articulate people! Thanks, guys. There seems to be a strong consensus (I’ve also had private emails and fb comments along these lines) that our message can just be ‘boys can be and do anything,’ which is also a good line for those pre-school extremes.

    Keen to hear more if anyone has further thoughts. Thanks!

  7. Caroline Reply

    Whatever you & the world SAY to him about gender and what that means, I think he will take his strongest opinions and values from what you DO and how you live your lives – your attitudes towards each other as parents and partners in life. As long as you model equality and support him in following his interests and talents, then things will work out OK. That’s what I’m hoping anyway as my daughter gets sucked ever deeper into princesses and pink frills….

  8. Alex Reply

    I was thinking about this again today: I had to take M for his latest vaccinations, and on the way home I congratulated him for being “a brave boy”. (I’m not really sure what I meant by that, it just seemed the right thing to say. After all, he had sat there without wriggling as the second one went in, even though he knew by then that it would hurt.) Anyway, his response really stopped me in my tracks: “no I’m not, mummy – I cried a little bit”

    WHERE has he got the idea from that crying = not brave? He’s not quite 4 yet, and I’m sure we’ve never said anything along those lines (not consciously, at least, although who knows what he might have inferred from things we’ve not even noticed saying!)

    In the context of this conversation I told him that it was ok to cry when things hurt, and it’s definitely ok to not like people sticking things into you, and none of that means you’re not brave.

    Maybe all of that has nothing to do with gender. For what it’s worth, I’m pretty sure I would have likewise told my daughter she was a “brave girl” if she’d been the one having her jabs today. But it did make me think.

  9. Steph Robson Reply

    I grew up in a matriarchy where women could do anything – and did! I now live in a thoroughly male dominated household – man can they eat! I have noticed that it is not the things that I was concerned to teach and impart that have shaped th…e lads lives and attitudes, the unpredictable and unintended have had way more sway for good and for ill… These days I am of the view that our identity unfolds and some environments are more hospitable than others – allowing us room to explore and fail and shine. That’s why I like Jesus so much – he’s not stuck in a ‘man’ stereotype – Lord spare us… (Actually, I heard him recently described as a gendered male with a feminine soul. :) )

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