* Guest Contributor Shannon Brugh grew up in northern Idaho, but later moved to Seattle to attend the University of Washington, where she received her B.A. in English Literature. After receiving her Masters in Teaching from Seattle University, Shannon went on to teach high school English. In addition to her contributions to Rattle & Pen, she can be found blathering away about motherhood on her personal blog, Becoming Squishy. Shannon still resides in Seattle with her husband and two young sons, where she is writing a book and constantly trying to convince her children to nap.
Before my first son was even born, I remember screaming in half-seriousness, “Don’t put my kid in a gender box!!” I was looking around at all the sweet baby clothes—boys in blue, girls in pink—and wondering why it had to be that way. From birth children are told what is for them and what is not—based exclusively on their gender. Puppies for boys, kitties for girls. Trucks and foot/base/soccer balls for boys, dollies and bows and hearts for girls. It was near impossible to find gender neutral (or at least, not gender obnoxious) items for the baby growing in my belly. Before I knew the sex of my baby, people dreamed about my potential girl and the tea parties and dress up we would play. They dreamed about playing in the mud and rough-and-tumble with my possible boy. But never did those two paths cross. What if my son wanted to play tea party and wear a feather boa? What if my little girl wanted to play flag football and never wore dresses? Why would one of these be celebrated and one be whispered about? The whole thing made me insane. Why is it that so many things are already decided on behalf of our kids simply because of an X or a Y chromosome? And, more importantly, can we change that?
I have two little boys. Two sweet, rambunctious, energetic little boys. And raising them is terrifying. I am fighting battles everywhere I look. I am racing against the clock to instill in them every kindness, every thought, every hope for empathy I want them to have. One battle sits very close to home, and though I don’t know quite how to fight it, it’s a battle I will spend my entire life fighting.
Raising boys in a society that claims to be equal is not easy. It’s supposed to be equal, but of course, it’s not. As much as many of us would like to believe that it is, it’s not even close. James Brown was right. It is a man’s world. So, how do I keep my boys from perpetuating this problem?
This is where I have to get creative. Parenting requires a certain amount of creativity as it is. But teaching boys who already live in a world that applauds them simply for having a penis, to know, to believe, that girls and women are equal to them is tricky.
So how do we do it? First, I think we have to actively teach it. Confront it head on. We have to talk to our boys about respect and equity. We have to tell them that people should be treated equally regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, creed, or preference in condiments. It does not matter. People are people. Respect them and treat them as such. Then, we need to model it. We need to show our boys (and our girls, for that matter) that there is no way they have to be. They have to be respectful and kind, certainly, but they don’t have to vie for power. They don’t have to love blue or football. They don’t have to subjugate. They don’t have to marry a woman—or marry at all. It’s okay if they like pink. It’s okay if their ultimate goal is to be a daddy. It’s okay if they cry.
It’s a complicated world for our children, and our boys, like our girls, encounter contradicting role models and moral compasses every day. They’re told it’s okay to have feelings, but are then made fun of if they cry. They’re told to treat women as equals, but then encounter contradictory images by the truckload in every aspect of the media. Television, movies, video games, music videos, commercials—every aspect of media shows us that women have their place and men have theirs—and never should they overlap.
Think about the images we’re presented with every day. Have you ever seen a commercial for a cleaning product that was directed at men? Who is shown cooking the meals and taking care of the children? Even our pens and Legos are gender specific now.How do we circumvent these deeply embedded ideas of what it means to be a woman or a man? How do we teach our boys and girls to just be?
I struggle with how to balance it for my children. I know that attempting to keep them away from the offending media is wildly unrealistic. (Unless I want to move to the farthest reaches of Antarctica.) They will encounter confusing contradictory images daily and they will struggle to make sense of it all. I will tell them that women are strong, capable and able to do anything a man can do, but they will see or hear things that tell them just the opposite. They will begin to believe in kindergarten that female is the weaker sex when one day, someone “insults” them by calling them a girl.
They will receive conflicting messages in our home, where I embody a traditional female gender role. I stay home with the kids. I do the majority of the cleaning and housekeeping. I do the laundry and the baking and attend to the kids, while my husband works outside the home and makes the money. And, to be honest, this is a role I struggle with. In part, because I feel I’m failing at my feminist duties (thank you Lean In), and partly because, at least for a while, when people ask my children what I do, they will likely say, “Nothing.” Or, they’ll say, “Well… she used to be a teacher….” Though in truth, I spend all day, every day teaching. But because my job is a traditionally female role, it is undervalued and looked down upon. It is minimized.
I want to be a strong, female role model for my kids, but I fear staying home won’t provide that. At times, I don’t feel fulfilled by this work either. The separate me gets lost in the rigmarole of everything that has to be done, and that distinctly separate part of me isn’t nourished. I fear that they will see that. I adore mothering and being their mother. I treasure the time I’m able to spend with them, but there’s more to me than that. I want them to know that women are more than vessels for lust and procreation. I fear that, in my role, I’m inadvertently undermining the very values and beliefs I want to instill in my boys.
On the other hand, I also want my boys to know that it’s okay to want to be your kids—as a man OR a woman. That it takes a strong, loving person to do it. That I am strong.
So, how do I balance this disequilibrium? How do I show both sides and validate both their desire to wrestle, and their desire to snuggle into me and rub their soft cheeks against my arm? How do I show them that women and men can be strong and powerful both in an office and in the home? How do I show them that women can run the businesses and the teams and world if they want to, but may still choose to stay home with their babies for a while? How do I show them that being strong and powerful doesn’t have to be the ultimate goal? Traditionally masculine features and habits and tendencies have come to be equated with the more desirable. Traditionally defined strength and power is lauded in both genders. So how do I show my boys that, regardless of gender, it’s just as “strong and powerful” to choose to be a parent, to be empathetic, to be a caretaker, to express your feelings.
I’d like to try and break down the boundaries, the walls, the boxes that our children are placed in from birth. I’d like my sons to be just as happy—just as comfortable—taking care of a baby as they are throwing a ball around a field.