I am wondering about some pretty big things these days…
As my daughter enters the world of school and the general public, she is encountering differences in gender, actual and perceived. I have always been cautious of labeling or making gender roles and family make-up have default settings. I tell her that some people have a mom and dad, two moms, two dads, one parent, etc. but so much of what I teach her is countered in this culture through books, movies, and other children.
As a writer, I work mostly from home and take on more household responsibilities than I would care to (as my partner WELL KNOWS). In my daughter’s eyes, I am taking on the “traditional” role in the family. How can I fight what my daughter is exposed to at home and out in the world? At what age should I have discussions with her about gender? She is only three now.
With so much emphasis placed on the adult woman’s role in feminism, how do we know what our young daughters and sons need to hear to have a healthy outlook on familial/gender roles? How do I explain my current role in the family as it is arguably different from the ideals I hold dear?
This letter feels so daunting that it is as though I should end it with “Where do babies come from?”
Dear Wannabe Socrates,
I wish your question was “Where do babies come from?” I could nail that down for you in just a few sentences and spend the rest of the day kicking back and snacking on spiders and lizards.
But, as it happens, I have a lot of thoughts about your actual questions. Before I get to answers, though, let me just suggest that perhaps you are being too hard on yourself. You alone can’t be expected to counterbalance our patriarchal culture. I mean, I guess you could take your daughter and go live off the land in the desert or mountains and start some kind of fringe matriarchal utopia, but something tells me that’s not likely to happen (though tell me if it does – I’d love to visit!).
You yourself acknowledge that the culture is a problem: its books, movies, other children and their families. And there is no getting around that. So you need to be on it. You need to be ON IT. I don’t usually like to recommend other websites besides our wonderful home right here on vidaweb, but visit amightygirl.com. They have plenty of books, movies, Halloween costumes, and other such refreshingly feminist things aimed at empowering girls and creating feminists (yes, both girls and boys). It’s a nice break from all the Disney merch, anyway.
I know your daughter is still small and maybe it seems like a futile effort, but I promise if you tell her Tiana is your favorite princess because she HAS A CAREER as opposed to sitting around waiting for true love’s kiss, I promise you, your daughter will hear that and it will land and stick in her mind, somewhere. But, again, she is still small, and her love for Ariel and Ariel’s fucked up trading-her-best-talent-for-a-chance-at-the-prince isn’t as complex as perhaps we want to make it. Maybe Ariel just has pretty rad hair and a cool scallop shell bra. Let’s not overthink or overwhelm; if you keep your message consistent, and don’t make anything forbidden (and therefore exciting) you both should be fine. Remember, your daughter has to grow up in this culture (Or is the living-off-the-land thing happening? Because I’m half packed…) so she needs to be able to navigate it and incorporate it, hopefully within a feminist lens. If we don’t present the culture and give our opinion, then she will be left to draw her own conclusions on, say, Barbie, when she meets her out in the world. I mean, she should form her own opinions, but you can surely help.
Look, it’s easy to be idealistic, but it’s also really freaking annoying to those of us who live in the read world. Very little, if anything, is simple and straightforward. And parenting is no exception. It may be the most complicated of all! It gets my stinger up when I witness all the smug self-satisfaction flying around out there on the internet. Remember that article people were delighting in? The one telling parents not to tell their daughter she’s pretty? Or the triumph you’ve probably witnessed on your Facebook feed when people post pics of their daughter playing with trucks? Hey, that’s great, but if it were that simple, we’d have no gender bias. And, frankly, do you want your daughter to grow up thinking everyone but her mom thinks she’s pretty? Or do you want her to feel like crap if she prefers dolls to trucks?
The fact is, we need to a multi-leveled approach here and it needs to start early on. Okay, you don’t need to be reading her Audre Lorde before she can roll over, but as soon as she’s old enough to, say, choose one toy over another in a store, she’s old enough to hear your thoughts on those choices. “I would get the Tiana doll,” you might say, “She’s the most interesting, she wants to open her own restaurant! What kind of restaurant would you open? Would you want to be a chef when you grow up? What else would you want to be?”
She’s young now but as she gets older you can give her the tools to counteract the culture. It may not seem like you’re winning or even staying afloat, but she’s listening. With that said, and with her elementary and middle school years approaching more quickly than you’d probably like, remember this: you need to CHECK YOURSELF. What messages is she getting at home? Do you tend to play pretend with her along traditional gender lines? Do you use the adjective “pretty” more than “smart,” “strong” or “brave” to describe or praise your daughter? None of us are flawless and we were all raised in a patriarchal culture, so it is understandable if you unwittingly repeat the same troubles you were raised with. It’s all about awareness, which, from your letter, it sounds like you have.
That you have a more “traditional” family structure is not a problem in and of itself. The goal is for women to have choices in life. For many women, working primarily in the home is not ideal; for others it might be. On the other hand, you seem to feel that your role in the family is at odds with your ideals. If you truly enjoy being your daughter’s primary caretaker, I don’t see how it is at odds with your ideals. If it is a question of finances, and how women are often the ones to stay home because they earn less than men, well then that’s fucked up, but it’s still not at odds with your ideals. Just as owning a doll or a princess dress isn’t inherently wrong just because it’s traditionally “girly,” being a “stay at home” mom or primary caregiver isn’t inherently anti-feminist. However, you do mention some tension with your partner about household responsibilities. That is definitely a message your daughter will pick up on, so it needs to be addressed, ideally after she’s gone to bed.
In the end, what will benefit your daughter is that she sees you pursuing your passion, which you appear to be doing. Talk to her about your writing every day. What a gift it will be for her to see you in such a multifaceted way, as the complex, full person you are. Show your daughter that being a woman is a complex, fascinating, and fortunate thing to be.
And that’s where babies come from.