Falling into gender roles

One of the more identity-warping aspects of parenthood is the way that it has pushed certain traditional gender roles into my marriage.  I didn’t expect this: I grew up in the “girls can do anything” generation and married someone who had no interest in being a stereotypical breadwinner.  But then BAM! societal structures whacked me in the face.

Some of it seems to make sense in the context of our family.  My husband is older than me; he has a real job and I’m a grad student.  Now that he’s working outside of academia, he makes a lot more than me.  My status as a student means that my hours are flexible, my vacation is not tracked, and, well, it just makes sense for me to be the one who stays home when the kid is sick.  To be the one who takes at-home days so that we can save money on daycare.  If we have a second kid after I finish my PhD, it’ll be totally logical for me to be the one to take “leave” for a few months or maybe longer.

But…  Would that calculation change if my husband’s new job offered paternity leave?  (It doesn’t.)  Would I have chosen to stay home as much as I did if daycare were more affordable?

What happens when we move somewhere where daycare costs even more?  Where the waiting lists are months long?  Who has to stay home then?

What happens if we have that second kid and I take some time off to parent—will I be losing forever the opportunity to have the kind of career I once imagined?  Am I doomed to be the secondary breadwinner, looking at a life of trying to sell jewelry and fake nails to my friends?

My husband and I had a fight the other day about money.  He’d started to say things that sounded like he thought of his salary as something he earned for himself and partially distributed to me for stuff, as opposed to something he earned for our family.  It turned out we were taking our worries out on each other: he felt bad about spending less time with our son (he’s had to work weekends recently), while I was worried (jealous?) that I made so much less.  It bothers me very much that we’ve been pushed in these directions.

Today is one of my at-home days, and I’m busy trying to fill the hours with dishes and knitting and crayons.  Likely my husband will be working again this weekend.  I feel unfulfilled, like I’m turning into the stereotype of a bored 1960’s housewife.

I’m not sure where to go from here.

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Crying: it’s probably not sadness, and it’s probably not deliberate

There’s a great article in The Atlantic today on crying at work.  To nobody’s surprise, it turns out that crying is one of those things that, like standing up for oneself and having kids, hurts women in their careers but helps men.  What particularly caught my attention in the article is the discussion of why people cry, because it gets it right in a way that’s not often discussed.

The article quotes psychologist Ad Vingerhoets on the most common causes of crying:

It’s not usually sadness, per se, that makes people cry. Instead, it’s “helplessness, hopelessness, and the lack of adequate behavioral responses to a problem situation.”

[…] women might be more likely to react to emotionally frustrating situations with a kind of helpless anger […]

I’m a crier, and this description jives with my experience completely.  For me to cry out of true sadness is quite rare, although it has happened.  Rather, I cry in response to deep frustrated anger, or embarrassment, or as a sort of cathartic response to talking about something makes me nervous or ashamed.  If you had to sum up my tears in a single emotion, odds are good that I’m mad, not sad.  There’s no good way to take out rage or shame as a subordinate at work, or as a woman anywhere, and so it overflows as tears.

Another really important point to take away from The Atlantic article is this:

Most people told [professor Kimberly] Elsbach they didn’t want to cry, and they would do anything to make themselves stop.

Yes.

People who don’t cry much have somehow got this idea that us criers do it on purpose as some kind manipulation technique or something.  While I don’t doubt that someone in the history of time has chosen to cry on purpose, the vast majority of us find public crying quite embarrassing and would really prefer that our bodies didn’t do it.  Trust me, if I had physical control over when my eyes filled with tears, you would see me crying a lot less.

Do you cry, readers?  What do you think about the linked article?

Turns out it’s hard to buy a boy a pink shirt

Quite a while back, I wrote about the importance of pink shirts.  Actually, that post is about how I don’t want “gender equality” to mean “girls can be like boys, but not vice versa.”  Pink shirts for boys are just one of the more obvious examples; still, it became important to me that Little Boy have one.  He’s too young to care about his wardrobe—why not offer him a wide selection?

It should’ve been so easy.  Walk into store.  Buy pink shirt.  Dress baby.  But it turned out to be a lot harder than that.

In the store, I got whacked in the face with my own ingrained gender biases.  I couldn’t bring myself to buy my Little Boy a ruffly purple shirt or a sweater with pink sparkles.  I don’t like that, I thought.  And it’s true, I don’t tend to wear sparkly ruffly things myself.  But if my child were a girl, would I have bought it?  How much was my conception of “boy” getting in the way of me purchasing some cute stuff for my kid?

It wasn’t entirely my fault.  A plain ol’ pink T-shirt, it turns out, is a surprisingly rare commodity.  The toddler boys’ section of the department store is filled with staples—T-shirts, jeans, thermals—in a good set of basic colors.  Toddler girls, on the other hand, get to choose from the aforementioned sparkly ruffly things.  “Basics” don’t seem to be a part of girls’ clothing.

After putting it off for far too long, I ordered a couple of shirts for Little Boy from Primary.com, a website promising basic children’s clothing in a variety of colors.  I still had to order from the “girls” section of the website—as if 18-month-old children didn’t all have the same body type!  And the girls’ clothes, of course, run small, so we had to order a size up.

On Monday, Little Boy wore one of his new shirts, in a pleasant lavender, to daycare.  The other new shirt is a jewel-toned pink.  They’re not the most outrageous colors in his dresser drawer; that honor belongs to the blinding plaids given by a well-meaning relative.  Nevertheless, I found myself rather unreasonably nervous.  Would anyone notice?  Would anyone care?

If anyone did notice, they didn’t care.

It doesn’t take instinct to change a diaper

Recently seen on social media: a long post written by an acquaintance, praising her husband for being such a good father.  Or at least that’s what she thought it was.  What it turned out to be was a rather depressing description of how she learned to accept traditional gender roles in her marriage.  About how she was wrong to expect him to be a mother, because of course he couldn’t be a mother, he was a father.

The line that really stuck in my head was about how she had been unreasonable to expect that he would “instinctively” know when to change their kids’ diapers.  But it was OK!  Because he wasn’t overprotective and he had better insight on discipline and [insert additional stereotypically manly qualities here].

Now, in general, I don’t care all that much about how an individual couple divides the work of parenting and running a household, as long as both are contributing.  What works for you is what works for you, and there’s nothing wrong with splitting chores along your strengths.  It’s when it gets justified with explicitly gendered language that it bothers me.

“Instinct” about changing diapers?  Nobody has instinct about changing diapers, at least not in the very beginning.  There’s a reason why newborn diapers nowadays come with those lines that change color to let you know when they’re wet.  Fortunately, for new parents, there’s a simple set of rules.  You know it’s time for a diaper change when:

  1. Your kid stinks.
  2. It’s been more than 2–3 hours since the last diaper change.
  3. Your kid is crying inexplicably and you want to rule out possible causes.

And that’s it.  No instinct required.  If a dad doesn’t figure that out, it’s because he’s not trying, not because he’s male.

This kind of gendered language about instincts frustrates me for two reasons.  One, it lets men off the hook for doing the work of parenting and housekeeping—work which men are perfectly capable of doing.  (This is a good place to note that my husband changed more than 90% of Little Boy’s diapers for the first week, and continues to share that job today.)  Second, this language implies that I, as a women, am supposed to be “instinctively” skilled at this stuff.  I’m not!  And there’s nothing wrong with that!  I learned by doing it, just like anyone else can.

Tell me, readers, what are you good at?  Is it the stuff you’re “supposed” to be good at?

Encouraging diversity (and knitting!) through children’s books

Not long after I posted my thoughts on raising a boy in a world of gender stereotypes, I received an unexpected email.  Like everyone online, I receive quite a few unsolicited emails—typically spam-blasts offering fraudulent part-time jobs to students and equally fraudulent requests to attend fake conferences—but this one seemed more relevant than usual, so I took the time to read it.

The email turned out to be from singer Craig Pomranz, who is also the author of the children’s book Made by Raffi.  He’d seen my post and thought I might like his book.  He was right: I like it a lot.  So much so, in fact, that I want to tell you why.MadeByRaffi-small

(Full disclosure: When I expressed interest in writing a review, I was provided with a free PDF copy of the story.  I intend to purchase a physical copy of the book when Little Boy gets a little less vigorously interested in ripping pages.  All of the opinions expressed in this review are my own.)

Made by Raffi is the story of a boy who feels a little bit different.  He likes to hang out by himself at recess, preferring quiet solitude to rowdy games.  During one of these recesses, a teacher shows him how to knit.  Raffi’s classmates react to his enthusiasm for knitting in the way you might expect, until they realize that the ability to create beautiful costumes is actually pretty cool.

The message, of course, is that boys can and should be encouraged to be themselves and do the things they enjoy, regardless of gender stereotypes.  One part in particular stood out to me: when a concerned Raffi asks his mom if he seems “girly,” she doesn’t say, “Yes, and that’s OK.”  She says, “No, Raffi.  I think you are very… Raffi.”  Because knitting and sewing and arts and crafts aren’t girly, they’re just activities that some people like to do.  (Fun fact: at certain points in history, knitting was an exclusively male occupation.  The idea that it’s somehow intrinsically feminine is entirely a construct of modern society.)

There’s another message here, too, one that applies to kids of all genders, which is that it’s OK to sit on the sidelines and do your own thing.  Raffi’s happy ending isn’t about running off to play soccer with the other kids.  He continues to sit alone, knitting, now comfortable in his own interests and accepted by his peers.  As an introvert, it took me until my late teens to begin to realize that being mostly uninterested in social events didn’t mean there was something fundamentally wrong with me.  I still struggle with this feeling sometimes.

Major credit is also due to illustrator Margaret Chamberlain, whose bright, lively artwork is filled with a diverse cast of children and adults.  Knitting and sewing look like a lot of fun!  (Which they are, I might add, speaking from experience.)  When Raffi sews a cape, the text and illustrations provide enough detail on the process that I can just imagine a child jumping up from the book to make his or her own cape. 

I look forward to finding out what Little Boy thinks of Made by Raffi in a couple of years.  In the meantime, I highly encourage other parents and gift-givers to check it out.

My husband is an equal co-parent

(This Father’s Day post is a day late because I spent Father’s Day hanging out with three generations of dads and ran out of time to finish writing.  Priorities, what can I say?)

In honor of all the dads out there this Father’s Day, especially the dads in my life, I want to talk about giving dads more credit.  I’m torn about using that phrase, “giving them credit,” because on the one hand, dads already get a lot of credit.  Watches his kids for an afternoon?  Wow, what an awesome dad!  Looking for a job to support his family?  He’ll be extra dedicated, let’s hire him. (This is a real effect.)

But we give fathers almost no credit at all when it comes to one very important thing: taking care of their children.  How often do television commercials play up the bumbling dad, baffled by the thought of changing a single diaper, whose incompetence leaves the household in a mass of confusion and chaos?  How many jokes rely solely on the punchline “ha ha ha men are such idiots at parenting”?  Heck, just yesterday my Facebook feed included a “humorous” set of images supposedly contrasting mothers and fathers.  Mom shops with the baby like a normal person, Dad piles random groceries in the stroller on top of his kid.  Mom carefully helps an older child slice vegetables; Dad lets his toddler stand on the BBQ to flip steaks.  Really?  I’m sure there are fathers out there who haven’t got a clue, but let’s be honest, there are mothers out there who haven’t got a clue either.

When dads do take on parenting duties, they still get treated as “substitute moms” or “mom’s support system” rather than fully qualified parents in their own right.  I like what blogger Mannly Mama says about this in “It Ain’t Babysitting“:

If you see a dad out with his kids, let’s stop assuming he is “doing mom a favor” and getting them out of the house. He might be but he may want to take his kids out because he, I dunno, loves them?

Go read her whole post, it’s great.  My husband shared it on Facebook a while back.  The idea that moms are the primary parents is so darn pervasive, though, that when one of his relatives chose to comment on that very link, it was to tell my husband that he was “a good father” because he had “helped [Crazy Grad Mama’s real name] a great deal.”  I know she meant it to be complimentary, but way to miss the point.

Dads are perfectly capable of being proficient parents, and we should both expect them to be and give them the opportunity.  My husband changed all of his son’s diapers during the first week of Little Boy’s life (except for, as he always insists I point out, the two times the hospital nurses did the job).  He taught me how to give Little Boy a bath, and continues to manage the bedtime routine solo on a weekly basis so that I can attend a postpartum support group.  Except for actually making breast milk, there is nothing that I, the mom, can do that he, the dad, can’t.

In fact, for more than six months, between the end of my maternity leave and the start of Little Boy’s time in daycare, my husband used his ability to work from home to trade off shifts of work and child care with me.  While I spent mornings busy with research at the university, my son was home with his father, getting love and attention and snuggles and playtime.  My husband wasn’t doing me a favor, and he wasn’t “babysitting.”  I didn’t have to give him a detailed list of instructions on how to look after his own child.  He’s not a secondary caregiver.

My husband is an awesome guy, no doubt about that, but he’s not some kind of magical miracle father.  He’s just a good parent, doing what good parents do.  He and I sometimes have different approaches to the details of parenting, but that’s because we’re different people, not because one of us has ovaries and the other doesn’t.

I recognize that in many families, by choice or necessity, one parent (and it’s usually the mom) stays home with the kids while the other parent works.  The stay-at-home parent is going to be the more experienced one, and that’s OK.  But there’s a big difference between “doesn’t know this week’s favorite toy” and “doesn’t know where the diapers are.”

Men, as a group, are not doomed to be idiots about babies.  (Or about cooking, cleaning, laundry, etc. etc.)  Let’s not treat them that way.

Happy Father’s Day!

Raising a boy in a world of gender stereotypes

During a recent conversation with my parents, the subject of college-branded baby clothes arose.  (My parents live near my alma mater and are fond of purchasing such themed items.)

“Little Boy’s going to need a new college onesie,” I said.  “He’s already nearly outgrown the one you gave us for Christmas.”

“We’ll keep an eye out,” they promised.  “Mostly what we’ve seen in stores lately is baby cheerleading outfits, and those aren’t for him.”

They’re not for him.

Why not?

For this particular question, the answer is personal taste.  I wouldn’t go out of my way to dress my hypothetical baby daughter in a cheerleading costume, either — it’s just not my style.  And lest you get the wrong idea about my parents, they raised a boy who played with dolls and a girl who won science competitions.  They would be appalled to think that I was using them as an example of sexist behavior, however unconscious.

But our exchange brought up a topic that I’ve been struggling with since Little Boy was born, namely, how do we raise a boy in a way that supports gender equality, without setting him up to be teased or pushing him to be someone he’s not?

The discussion around gender biases in American culture revolves around women.  We talk about how to encourage girls to go into STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math).  Parents of daughters talk about their choice to allow, or not allow, all things princess-y and pink into their homes.  These discussions are necessary and important, because despite all the progress we’ve made in the last 50 years, idiots are still saying stupid things about women’s capabilities in science and women still face systematic hurdles in breaking into these fields.  Not to mention all of the other countless ways in which sexism affects women’s lives.

We don’t talk as much about breaking gender stereotypes for boys.  There are no major campaigns to encourage boys to go into nursing or early childhood eduction.  We focus on guiding girls away from pink, not boys toward it.  When a woman wears men’s clothing, it’s unfashionable at worst.  When a man wears women’s clothes, it’s national news.

I am not — I repeat, I am NOT — trying to imply that boys have it harder or any such nonsense like that.   My white, male, middle-class child was born into a world built for him to succeed.  He will be “playing on the lowest difficulty setting,” as John Scalzi puts it.  Whoever Little Boy becomes and whoever he discovers himself to be, he will have a supportive and loving family behind him.

No, what bothers me about our culture’s current approach is that it still very much implies that there are “girls’ things” and “boys’ things.”  Now we say, “Hey girls, you can do boys’ things too!”  Which is great.  It’s progress.  But it’s not equality.

Let me elaborate with a specific example.  If Little Boy had been born a Little Girl, I might dress her in a frilly pink dress one day, baby blue jeans the next, and nobody would think anything of it.  But how would they react if I put Little Boy in a frilly pink dress?  Most of my friends and family could probably wrap their minds around the idea of allowing an older boy to wear a pink dress if he requested it, but a parent choosing a dress for a baby son would just be …

Weird.

Unnecessary.

Trying to make a statement.

Because “girly” things, pink dresses included, are for girls only.

Hidden in this cultural gender divide is the persistent notion that “girly” things are inferior.  American society can begin to process the idea that girls might want blocks and trains and video games, and that women might want to be firefighters and astronauts and CEOs.  Those are “male” things.  They are “better.”  Of course everyone would want them.

“Female” things?  Dresses and high heels and makeup?  Child care and sewing and ballet?  We don’t encourage boys to try these things to see if they might like them.  We assume that boys could never be interested in such “lesser” things, and so we never even offer.

As with most parenting choices, it’s hard to know what path to take.  I want Little Boy to grow up with as few “X is for boys, Y is for girls” opinions as possible.  I want him to feel free to be himself, whether that means playing on the football team or painting pictures of flowers — or both.  I want him to approach other people not as “men” and “women,” but as individuals with personalities and preferences and feelings.

But I’ll be fighting the heavy weight of culture, and I don’t want to transfer too much of that weight to Little Boy himself.  Children can be cruel to the strange ones.  His peers wouldn’t notice if he wore a pink skirt to daycare tomorrow, but in a few years they will.  I don’t want him to stick out like a sore thumb before he’s ready.

Little Boy will definitely grow up knowing how to cook and clean and do laundry, with a father who does all those things as his role model.  We’ll teach him how to knit and sew, and run and read and mow the lawn.  I’ll dig my dolls out of storage for him, to go along with trains and books and LEGOs.  Maybe I’ll buy him a nice boy doll of his own.  Or many boy dolls, if he shows interest.

Pink shirts?  Yeah, I think that’s going to happen.

Pink dresses?  I don’t know.