I’m home, and since school is about to begin, I thought I’d get out my No. 2 pencil and write that time-honored back-to-school essay. My next few posts will be related to the concerns that arose during my vacation, away from the feminist /progressive /urban /pointy-headed /bo-bo milieu in which I live, and which protects me from many daily gender inequities others experience (although I have quite enough of my own as it is, thanks).
As expected, the Dude and I had a good time on our trip to the Midwest, visiting and feasting and playing card games and such. But crammed in there at the odd moment were spells of rumination, wherein I puzzled over the gender-related issues that regularly punched me in the face in ways to which I am unaccustomed. I mentioned in my last post that the Dude’s family, while kind and fun and generally loveable people (five of us, between the ages of 30 and 60, ended up going to a waterpark without little kids and having a blast), is not exactly progressive. The Dude grew up in a pretty traditional family, as far as gender performance goes. Men mow lawns (except when the women do), lift heavy things, and change oil, and women do everything else: cooking, cleaning, shopping, errands, social organizing, and so forth. Men scowl. Women worry. And they also raise children and work outside the home, just in case there were any spare minutes in the day. I highly doubt that any would identify as feminist.
The Dude was in this family, but not particularly of it, at least in that way. Unlike most males of the clan, he was into music and art, not sports. He was introverted, not brash. He liked the subtle, usually verbal humor of his grandmother, not the blustery teasing that his uncles subjected him (and everyone else) to. During family gatherings, he would linger in the kitchen after meals, listening to his mother, sister, aunts and grandmother visit while they cleaned, rather than sitting in front of the game with his dad and uncles.
When we were first dating, I remember learning about his close relationship with his maternal grandmother and sister, as well as a briskly affectionate rapport with his mom (they are not a terribly demonstrative people). I thought that was pretty great, especially since I had more tempestuous relationships with my family. It’s not just that he respected them, or shared a lifetime of memories and customs with them: he liked them. A lot. He enjoyed their company. He thought they were interesting, valuable, downright cool people.
I don’t have children, and I’m not even terribly good with them until they’re in middle school, but to our readers who are moms raising boys (and for all the laydeez out there looking for a decent, feminist-friendly fella), I would say this: men who value the women in their lives will value the women in their lives. That reads a bit reductively, I know. But there’s a lot of truth there. If a man cares for his mother’s feelings, speaks well of his sister, sends his aunts holiday cards and has a long list of inside jokes with his devilish, twinkly grandma, he’s much more likely to care for, speak well of, communicate with and take joy in you and other women as friends, co-workers, and partners.
There’s always the chance that such care might be coming out of a sense of ownership (“I treat my women right, the rest of you bitches are prey”), but if the Dude family had anything to teach me, it was that Oscar Wilde was wrong on this one:
All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his.
The Dude is his mother’s son, inside and out. And I thank my magic pixies every day for it. Moms, you’ve got so much power. No mother is perfect–nor need she be–but knowing how the Dude was (and wasn’t) raised, and the kind of man he’s become, I would suggest the following things:
Don’t do too much for your boys (or girls, but since I’m addressing, as requested, mothers of sons here…). With? Sure. But keeping them ignorant of how to be an independent adult, with basic cooking, cleaning, banking, and shopping skills, along with a sense of purpose and community, will lead them to learned helplessness and a belief in “women’s work.” Give them responsibilites inside and outside of the house. Help them build and maintain friendships with girls. Calmly but consistently question whatever sexist drivel they’ll pick up in the world and bring home to you. Check your own thinking on appropriate gender behavior, and the kind of language that polices those lines when you speak without thinking, as we all do. Encourage your boys to be “on the same team” with their sisters. (This did not happen in my home, more’s the pity.) Expose your kids to older women—neighbors, aunts, friends—who can demonstrate that women are not Woman, and that they are just as funny and interesting and capable and fallible and everything else as men. Employ a male babysitter, if you can. Try to make sure your boys’ male role models—dads, uncles, “big brothers,” etc.—demonstrate healthy, egalitarian attitudes toward women, and won’t undermine all the hard work you’re doing to give your boy a bigger, better space in which to be a man, and as the result, to give the world a bigger, better man.
It’s not revolutionary, but it is concrete. Dads can do these things too. And aunts (I am one) and uncles and twinkly grandmas and babysitters and all the rest. Good luck. It can happen. I know from personal, if not maternal, experience.