In Which He, Fatefully, Returns to Gender.

My first two notes about the intsersection of parenting and gender revealed that I was typing out of my depth. I would like to try one more time, having read all of the comments and thought some more about it, if only to try, try again.

After my first post, there was a commenting consensus that I needed help. Some commenters believed that my writing intentionally obscured my thoughts because of my insecure ignorance of gender theory. Some commenters believed that my writing intentionally obscured my thoughts because I was a self-justifying misogynist. The truth is, I am a well-meaning boy feminist who wrote with insecure, inarticulate ignorance because he feared that being more explicit would, indeed, sound worse. How wrong I was! So I’d like to return, optimistically.

I am committed to women having full, substantive, equal social status with men. Politically, economically, socially. But moreso, I believe that there are very few if any traits that are essential to biological male and female as social beings. That is, I believe that concepts of gender, of man and woman, are socially constructed. That is, people and power relations made it up. I want to raise a family with a partner who also believes these things.

When I think about raising children with this partner, I am hopeful we will raise our children according to these commitments. Yet I also wonder and worry. I admit to a certain nostalgia for parenting images in my head – the games of dress-up, the playing with make-up, the braiding of hair, those Tonka trucks and little faces covered in shaving cream with pretend-beards. I am skeptical of this nostalgia, and attracted to it. Perhaps there is a reason for parents to know how to do certain things, to be able to teach these things – with the proper, problematized, distance. Perhaps there is a reason for me to want a partner who can do the “girl things” that I cannot do.

I still do not know most things. And some parents after those two early posts have told me I’ll be so busy keeping my children safe and healthy that I’d be lucky to have the luxury of worrying about this stuff. But I think I believe that some of those images are worth recreating – if the child, in a self-directed and authentic way, wants to recreate them – while teaching them that about gender and that they can be the person they truly are. And it is not – should not be – sex-specific. So I’ll learn to braid hair, even as I’m hopeful my partner can help me out. That’s what partners are for. And if my daughter wants to learn how to tie a tie, I can teach her. And if my son wants to learn about make-up – I hope I can be fluent in make-up, too.

A postscript – I’m reminded of this article in the NY Times – Supporting Boys or Girls When the Line Isn’t Clear. And Jill’s comments, here at Feministe.

A postscript – Increasingly, it feels like all of these concerns are with beauty norms – with boys looking like boys and girls with girls. Hence the illuminating discussion in the previous comments.


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14 Responses to In Which He, Fatefully, Returns to Gender.

  1. louise says:

    I have to laugh- my husband right now is setting up a race car set with our 2 pre-teen daughters, and last night we took the girls fishing like we do almost every evening. He also has taught them how to plant and tend a vegetable garden, how to ride and maintain their bikes, how to use computers and digital cameras as well as navigate the Internet, how to prepare Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, how to speak French, Spanish and Chinese, how to paint their rooms, how to take care of thier cats and pug, how to play baseball and golf, how to watch the news on various channels and to discuss world events and politics with us, and how to help a local political campaign.

    Yet he also has dressed stuffed animals in doll clothes when the girls have asked him to, watches Disney movies, cartoons and “Dancing With The Stars” with them, and can do a mean “Hamtaro” dance.

    Braids are mine to do- his arthritis kicks in badly with the attempt.

    Point is, this guy who knew NOTHING at all about children in general and less about little girls and was more comfortable in suits is one of the greatest dads I could ever ask for. He amazes me every day, as I watch him raise happy, secure, good intelligent people who aren’t afraid to question the world they see and the differences in other’s life experiences, who believe all people should be treated with respect and dignity. Having an autistic child has also helped our family learn alot as well.

    THAT’S what your future partner will also be looking for in YOU- someone SHE knows may not have all the answers, but will give it his best shot.

  2. Lesbia's Sparrow says:

    Mikey, there’s no reason you can’t act out those cherished childhood memories (gendered though they may be) with your future children. My father used to let me put on shaving cream too when he shaved; my parents bought me Tonka trucks. They also braided my hair, and made me dress-up clothes, and taught me to change the oil on a car.

    If what you’re saying is that you don’t want to limit your children’s activities because of their sex, I applaud you. I still wonder, however, why you think that only some women know about “girly things”. Just because we don’t all do them doesn’t mean we don’t know how, or know where to look or who to ask.

  3. Brooklynite says:

    Perhaps there is a reason for me to want a partner who can do the “girl things” that I cannot do.

    I bet you all the money I have that there’s a lot of “boy things” you can’t do, too. That’s one of the great experiences of parenthood, if you rise to the challenge — having your kid bring you an idea for a project that you’ve got no idea how to bring off, and tackling it anyway. In the past four years I’ve tried my hand at growing vegetables, flying kites, making stuffed animals, fixing electronic toys, and constructing bouquets of flowers out of typing paper. This winter my kid wants me to help her build an igloo.

    And of course there’s positive value in giving your kids gender-variant role models. Even if the hypothetical mom-of-your-kids knows more than you do about cooking and sewing and braiding hair, you’ll want to learn how to do at least some of those things too — both so your kids can see you doing them and so their mom doesn’t get saddled with all the “women’s work” of the family.

  4. Jackie says:

    My husband painted my daughters’ toenails cherry red this week, and then painted his own so they could all match! I agree with louise– jumping in with both feet and not saying “no” to any idea your kid proposes (that is safe, etc) will make you a great parent, and probably be gender-variant in the process.

  5. debbie says:

    To clarify, only because I think your referring to my comment here:

    Some commenters believed that my writing intentionally obscured my thoughts because of my insecure ignorance of gender theory.

    My point was that not knowing any gender theory and trying to discuss gender issues in a feminist context resulted in some very difficult to understand writing. Not that your lack of knowledge was related to you being insecure. My apologies if you weren’t talking about me or I’ve misinterpreted.

  6. slythwolf says:

    Perhaps there is a reason for me to want a partner who can do the “girl things” that I cannot do.

    That’s, frankly, bullshit. You can learn to do them. Suck it up.

    Honestly, the fact that you place this knowledge of the performance of femininity on your list of criteria for a future mate is misogynist in itself. Thinking of the person you will choose to spend the rest of your life with as the role “future mother of my children”–conduit to offspring–is misogynist. A way to think about it that values women as people would be more along the lines of “I will choose to spend my life with and parent with someone I love and can get along with.”

    The reason you have these little nostalgic fantasies about helping small children perform traditional gender is because you have been brainwashed by the patriarchy. If traditional gender had, as you suggest it might, any objective merit the feminist movement wouldn’t be working to tear it down.

    And as others have said, if you think there exist women who don’t know how to perform femininity you are grossly mistaken.

  7. slythwolf says:

    Also, a few thoughts:

    Little boys play dress up. They even play dress up in mommy’s clothes. They like pretty things until traditional cultural norms force it out of them.

    Growing up in rural Michigan, I knew exactly two other little girls who knew how to braid hair. Neither of them knew how to braid their own hair; they could only braid the hair of others.

    I remember reading a story somewhere about a little boy who went to preschool with barrettes in his hair because he liked them. One of the other little boys called him a girl and was so insistent that the be-barretted boy pulled down his pants to prove that he was male. The other little boy said, “That doesn’t mean anything. Everyone has a penis, but only girls wear barrettes.”

  8. Sailorman says:

    For some reason this post sounds like Cary Tennis, at least to me. But it makes a lot more sense.

  9. Frumious B says:

    The other little boy said, “That doesn’t mean anything. Everyone has a penis, but only girls wear barrettes.”

    Sounds like someone needs to get with the sex ed program.

    (do you have corroboration for this story? sounds a little urban mythic to me.)

  10. Lesbia's Sparrow says:

    Thinking of the person you will choose to spend the rest of your life with as the role “future mother of my children”–conduit to offspring–is misogynist.

    I don’t think that’s fair. Thinking of someone only as a conduit to offspring is misogynist, but if you know that you want to have children, I don’t think it’s a problem to consider how your significant other would be as a parent. If I knew I wanted to have children, I would not marry someone I thought would be a bad parent, regardless of how much I loved him or her.

  11. j says:

    I admit to a certain nostalgia for parenting images in my head – the games of dress-up, the playing with make-up, the braiding of hair, those Tonka trucks and little faces covered in shaving cream with pretend-beards. I am skeptical of this nostalgia, and attracted to it. Perhaps there is a reason for parents to know how to do certain things, to be able to teach these things – with the proper, problematized, distance. Perhaps there is a reason for me to want a partner who can do the “girl things” that I cannot do.

    When I read this, my translator turns it into something like this:

    I admit I’ve been brainwashed by the patriarchy as much as anyone. [blah blah blah examples of patriarchal bullshit] Somewhere inside, a voice tells me that my concepts of gender and gendered activities are all a result of patriarchal indoctrination, but I am still attracted to my well established schemas. I can’t imagine that my concepts of gender are completely arbitrary, so I say perhaps there is a reason for me to teach my kids how to apply makeup, and perhaps there is a reason my future wife must know how to be feminine in case I do not sufficiently cover this aspect of my children’s upbringing. I need a wife who has ample practice in capitulating to the patriarchy so that she can teach my children the nuts and bolts of femininity.

    Am I being too strident? Tell me if I’m being too strident.

  12. SoE says:

    So where exactly is your problem? If your wife doesn’t know how to braid hair maybe you can just go to a hairdresser and have it explained to you. And in case both your turkey recipes suck why not learn it from your neighbors who also make the best cupcakes in the world?

    I mean there is no way you and your partner will know about all the stuff the kids are going to come up with. But that’s one of the fun parts of parenting, always learning new things, isn’t it?

  13. I agree with SoE on this – and, if you don’t learn it, I am sure your kids will be able to find someone to teach them (often a peer). Many things I learned as a young boy of “traditionally male pastimes” I learned from other young people or other adults. I also wasn’t too fussy which gender roles I learned about: I learned to plait hair from my younger sister, because she wanted me to play “mother” for her when mother was out at work (as the main breadwinner in the family, incidentally).

    If your kids want to be traditionally gendered, they won’t need you, personally, to teach them the tricks of the trade; it’s your job to make them secure in their choices, and to keep an eye on them that they don’t end up being forced into those roles.

    Oh, and, one of my favourite sorts of memories from early childhood is when I learned something from someone else, and was able to “teach” (more probably “show”) it to mum or (more particularly) dad.

  14. slythwolf says:

    (do you have corroboration for this story? sounds a little urban mythic to me.)

    Off the top of my head, I’m pretty sure it’s from Kiss My Tiara by Susan Jane Gilman. It was in a book, that’s certain, if not that one.

    By the way, what kind of sex ed program does your local preschool have? In my school district they don’t start that kind of thing until fourth grade.

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