Monthly Archives: April 2013
Three years ago, I wrote an essay called “Raising an Egalitarian Son” (published in Mutuality Magazine). Our process for doing that was straightforward: don’t use sexist language; don’t push gender-based activities; and don’t watch TV. When one day my then 3 year old son announced, “God is a woman. You can see mama, but you can’t see God,” I knew we’d done something right.
Since then, life has gotten more complicated. My now 7 year old son’s landing process from angel to concrete has been painful. We still don’t watch TV, so being around media-saturated boys has jarred him. When Micah was in preschool, one boy was obsessed with playing monster, while other boys brought heinous-looking action figures to school for show and tell. One 5 year old kid often wore a shirt with a man with a sneer and a huge fist coming out toward the rest of us. Preschool teachers acted like this was normal.
The summer after preschool, Micah avoided boys, assuming they were all this way. And so far, we have found that many are. Our egalitarian son, who has no need to prove himself as “all boy,” has found there are few like him. Why? Is it that most boys are genetically programmed to be aggressive and attracted to violence, while most girls are not? Is our son just an anomaly, while the media feeds other little boys with what they really want?
Lise Eliot, neuroscientist and author of Pink Brain, Blue Brain, writes that though there are indeed some small sex-based differences, “overall, boys’ and girls’ brains are remarkably alike. Just as boys’ and girls’ bodies start out more androgynous than they end up in adulthood, their brains appear to be less sexually differentiated than adult men’s and women’s” (5). The brain has plasticity, and so to a large degree “your brain is what you do with it.” Elliot believes that boys’ and girls’ brains become distinctly male and female adult brains after experiencing a boy set of social expectations and a girl set of social expectations.
This isn’t sexy, as Eliot points out. What’s sexy is the idea of hard-wired, innate sex differences. Sex differences sell. And so research has been reported irresponsibly, which has contributed to the stereotypical yet well-loved idea that “boys will be boys.” (See the books Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society and Neurosexism Create Difference, and Brainstorm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Difference, for more). We then continue to raise boys differently than girls, and the “typical boy” behaviors are reinforced as inevitable while we turn on the TV or stand in line for another Power Rangers toy.
Because I have been aware of the gender difference research since 2005 (in professional journals rather than the popular media), the year my son was born, I know that even in adults there are few things one can even try to predict based only on sex (http://psychcentral.com/news/2013/02/05/men-and-women-may-not-be-so-different-after-all/51222.html). So, I have tried to avoid treating Micah differently based on the fact he is male. Have I done it anyway? Probably. I believe I have been less empathetic toward him overall than I would have been had he been a girl. When I have pictured myself relating to a distressed girl, I’ve heard a softer tone of voice and seen more expression in my face.
When I became aware of that, I began to try hard to change. The other day we had a conversation in the car about each family member’s strengths and skills. My husband Mark said that he thought I was skilled at empathy. Micah said, “That’s an understatement!” So I must have made some progress. But I know I still have archetypes of “real maleness” in my head that I will be confronting the rest of Micah’s growing up years. The best I can do is stay aware.
That’s what I hope to do with this post—create awareness of the ways we mold and shape our children’s brains to fit into stereotypes. When children are babies, boys tend to be needier than girls due to developmental differences (likely due to a less mature hypothalamic-endocrine system at birth, says Eliot ). Yet you will see people peer into strollers talking to the “Little Man” dressed in blue, as though he were already on his way out the door and into the army. Talking to a “Little Woman” infant would seem bizzare, like we’d put breasts on her already. We start early with our expectations of boys.
The path is not as narrow with girls, surprisingly. In the 21st century, girls actually have more choices than boys in what they can dream about becoming. Hence, studies show that girls in mid-preschool begin to have a wide range of toy preferences, including toy vehicles and sports games (Elliot, 110). Boys of this age tend to become more and more rigid, however, and must avoid anything remotely related to girlhood.
Eliot believes this reflects the narrow set of roles for men in our culture. While women can more freely cross into most male-dominated job markets now, men are still ridiculed for taking on jobs like nursing, stay at home parent, or preschool teacher. Society questions their masculinity, virility or sexual orientation, whereas a woman police officer or pilot is still assumed to be heterosexual—if she looks the part, anyway.
I had never thought of boys or men as oppressed, until the experience of raising one. Having a boy has given me the opportunity to see the ways that boys are restricted, the ways that fear and shame diminish them from the earliest age. The fear is that of being seen as girl-like, the shame is that of not meeting up to the standards of the “real boy.” William Pollack, Ph.D., calls this “The Boy Code”—a set of “should be’s” about boys. Boys should be the “sturdy oak”—independent, strong; they should “give ‘em hell” a la John Wayne; they should be “the big wheel”—always dominant and powerful; there should be “no sissy stuff” meaning real human feelings (23-25). Except for anger, which we tend to see as the only masculine emotion.
Mark Gerzon, author of A Choice of Heroes: The Changing Face of American Manhood, notes that in the age of the world wars, boys were raised to be hardened so they could become soldiers. He says the nuclear age means we have to stop raising boys to be fighters, or we will, eventually, annihilate ourselves. He writes, “This is true heroism: the courage to explore oneself deeply and to act with self-awareness….As the threats to human survival change, so does masculinity” (6). A man doesn’t have to be Braveheart to “push the button”—just bent on self-destruction.
It is time to let our boys be themselves in all their variety as human beings, rather than walking representatives of Masculinity. Sure, some will tend toward aggressive play. But some others are pushed into it through shame, when they would rather read or play the piano (see Pollack’s Real Boys’ Voices for their stories). At our house, there is no gender education, except for our own unwitting modeling of sex roles (see my blog post, Raising an Egalitarian Boy, Part 1, for more on that). When Micah puts on a pink shirt, so does his dad.
The other day, I read an article about a writer-dad in Germany whose little son likes to wear dresses and skirts. The dad has taken to wearing them, too. (And he looks great! Check him out here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/nils-pickert/skirt-dad_b_1911444.html). The dad wants to support his son’s phase of development. Dress-up is a part of kidhood and the dad knows that. He also knows how sacred sex roles are to society and he is not going to let his son out there without a skirted escort.
It is going to take that kind of courage on the part of parents to take down the brick walls of gender stereotypes. Blue and pink are just social ideas after all. Prior to the early 20th century, babies of both genders wore frilly white dresses until age 6. Today, the parents of those dress-wearing boys would be vilified.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can decide to loosen up about pink and blue. Yes, start there, with those colors. Commit to never again color-coding a kid. Culture is malleable, just like the human brain, just like the ideas behind gender, which is by definition, a social construct.
This has been evident in our son’s early preference for pink, orange, magenta, turquoise, purple. Micah has always had a singular drive to be himself: rainbow-hued, fully human, fully child. He loves flowers, and trains. Loves cats, and cars. He cries when he gets hurt, still wants to be picked up sometimes when he is tired at the store, and falls asleep at night with his parents beside him. He gets to be 7 now, and a man only when he is an adult. After all, he is a boy, and boys will be boys.
The first person I met who told me he was homosexual was finishing up a doctoral degree at Fuller, a well-known Christian university, in the 1990s. (I was there for a couple of months). He had become sexually active while there, due to all the opportunity for sexual encounters in the LA area. He frequently used 1-800 numbers to meet people. This man and I sort of dated for a bit. He liked me, but, he just wasn’t attracted to women as much as he would have liked to be. It must have been so hard to live two lives, as it seemed he was doing—a day time life and a nighttime life. He told me one time that he would have sexual encounters in bathrooms with men he had just met, and that he longed to say “I love you!” during orgasms sometimes. He wanted, I think now, a long-term commitment with one of these men, but felt constrained by the Christian graduate community of which he was a part.
My comfort level with homosexuality has slowly increased in the past twenty years (see my post “Middlesexed: One Christian’s Incarnational Journey from Fear to Acceptance”), but I have never been able to get comfy with the idea of any one having multiple sexual encounters with strangers, of any sexual orientation. I know that this approach to sex is increasingly common among young heterosexuals, as well. But it’s not healthy for any one, either physically, emotionally or spiritually. So for those people who long to be married, deeply desire to be committed to one person over their life time, I’d like to give my full-on support. Marriage is hard for heterosexuals or homosexuals alike, but nothing like a lifetime of emotionally empty one-time encounters, as my friend was aware of experiencing.
I think if heterosexual Christians want to increase the level of morality in our human community, we would do well to fully support civil unions or marriage rights for homosexuals. And if Christians want to be welcoming to those in the gay community, why not start with affirming their basic rights to stable, committed monogamy. Don’t some Christians still say that heterosexuals who live together are “living in sin”? Well, this is what we are encouraging among homosexuals when we say that two people who deeply love each other cannot have the legal rights of married couples. No one can change their orientation by controlling laws, that’s for sure. But a society in which homosexual people are finding deep and meaningful commitments which enjoy the protection of the law and the support of citizens can only be a more moral one.
Maybe we could bring some healing to people with varying sexual orientations just by acknowledging their basic human rights in this matter. I think about how I would feel if I were homosexual and were continually told by the church that I was sinful due to something I could not change, and that I should not be allowed to have the same legal rights as heterosexuals. I’d be very angry and I wouldn’t listen to anything the church had to say. Wouldn’t you feel the same? What if the issues were reversed and heterosexuality was considered the sin? I can’t see too many celibate-heterosexual-males-for-Jesus banging on the church door, that’s for sure.
Recently, George Barna found that “overall, heterosexuals are twice as likely as homosexuals to attend a church service, read the Bible, and pray to God during a typical week (31% vs 15%)” (http://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/13-culture/282-spiritual-profile-of-homosexual-adults-provides-surprising-insights). Yet 58% of homosexual people in the survey “had made ‘a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in your life today.’” It seems to me that people with a homosexual orientation have been pushed out of the church, left out of opportunities for spiritual growth, and forced into an individual rather than community-oriented faith.
I think Jesus wants everyone to come to him alongside other believers, to know they are welcome at the table of faith, and to be accepted as they are. As Christ-followers, why not begin by supporting homosexual people in their desire for a moral, legal, monogamous commitment to another person? To do otherwise is to unwittingly encourage a 1-800 number approach to love.
Last Saturday, I was at the A.C. Gilbert Discovery Museum for Children. I saw a display of clocks from antiquity, and above it, a quote from Einstein that said time and space are merely human inventions. They don’t exist except in our minds. Not that I can understand this fully, but it got me thinking. We organize our lives around the mere ideas of time and space. Later that day, I had a conversation with a mom who homeschools, who mentioned needing better time management at home. That brought to mind a recent George Barna survey of Christian women, where women were asked about sins in their lives. The top two confessions were disorganization (50%) and inefficiency (42%) (http://www.barna.org/culture-articles/587-christian-women-today-part-3-of-4-women-give-themselves-an-emotional-and-spiritual-check-up?q=women). While David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group, wondered why women are not being honest about real sins like pride and envy (for some reason that blog post is no longer accessible), I think that honesty is not generally the problem of Christian women. Something else is going on.
This morning I googled “time management” and “Christian women.” I came up with oodles of not only articles but whole books on this topic with this audience. I found titles on amazon.com like Meditations for Women Who Do Too Much, and Life Management for Busy Women: Living Out God’s Plan with Passion and Purpose. In fact, I got sucked into reading about one of them. Writing this article has had me reflecting on my own relationship with my day. Why is it that Christian women in particular feel disorganized and like they are not using their time well? This isn’t something Christian men apparently feel. I googled “time management for Christian men” and though there was one book, after that what came up was articles on time management for Christian women.
In my own life, I am one of the other 50 percent of women who would confess one of the Seven Deadly Sins. Maybe that’s because I have more time to sin, who knows. But I do have a “To Do” list every day that I work on before I go to bed each night. If I don’t, things come to mind and I can’t get to sleep. And during the day, it can be hard to be in the moment, as my brain cells reach and connect to solve some problem for my family. My life is unbalanced right now, but leisure time means exercise and alighting here and there on Facebook for fifteen minutes, and pleasure is creative work like writing, and crossing off that one last thing on my To Do list. What about you? Sinfully lazy and self-indulgent? Probably not. So much to do that you feel stressed? Probably.
But who sets the agenda for what we do? I tend to look at justice issues when I write about women. But it may be that there are a lot of women who are in the position of Home CEO, and no one sets the agenda but them and the most pressing need. An unpaid, unstructured job can be a real challenge—like being your own volunteer. How do you choose what is most important? And then, you do so many little things in a day that no one even notices. How do you know when you are doing well in your job? You won’t get a raise or Employee of the Year award. Maybe it’s easy to end up feeling a false guilt in a job like that, especially if you compare yourself to ideas about the ideal woman or mother.
On the other hand, other women probably have too much to do—a full-time job plus kids and housework. Women in this situation are still doing, on average, twice as much childcare and twice as much housework as their husbands (see this article about housecleaning). A recent survey suggests that husbands create seven extra hours of housework for wives a week, while wives save husbands one hour of extra housework a week. I point this out because the feeling of being sinfully out of control of your responsibilities has a justice backdrop to it. In a recent blog (“A Wife’s Tale: How I Stopped the Housework Habit and Started Living”) I wrote about research from a book with the humorous but telling title The Lazy Husband: How to Get Men to Do More Parenting and Housework, by psychologist Joshua Coleman. The author noted that married women tend to compare themselves to other women from the past and present who are busy from dawn to midnight maintaining jobs outside the home, then doing the “Second Shift” at home. They think of their mothers who baked homemade pies and mended their dresses. They think of their friends who start home businesses, and other friends with five kids with five schedules. Husbands tend to not compare themselves to us, but rather, to other men. Easy for them to think (or just sort of feel), “My 10 hours of housework a week is way better than my dad. And look at that guy over there drinking beer and watching football all weekend.” And many men aren’t going to care that much about how the house looks, unless they inherently value neatness, because no one is judging them on that basis. This happens, but let’s call it what it is–unfair.
Some unfairness may come about because women tend to care about so much related to family and home. The one who cares more in a marriage about any issue has less bargaining power about task completion, says Dr. Coleman. If we are the one who cares most about how the kids are clothed, for example, we are the ones noticing the ragged shoe laces or the sleeves-grown-short. That’s two more things on the “To Do” list. It can be frustrating to care about such basic things and to feel you are alone in that. On the other hand, sometimes, I think sometimes we need to be pickier about what we care about. I don’t know if it’s true, but it’s said of women that many of us “re-do” when husbands clean. We could choose to care a little less, if that’s the case. It’s just going to get dirty again, anyway.
And in that non-micro-managing spirit, delegate. A request like, “Do you mind going online and finding some shirts for our son?” eases my load a bit, at our house. And now my husband has owned the task of ordering shirts, and I accept his choices. It didn’t take long for him to catch on, after a few repeated requests. He’s even taken on pants. This is a win-win. I have less to do, and my partner gets the experience of shopping and acquires a basic appreciation for the skills, time and money that takes. He has to start noticing the things I care about, even if it’s only by way of polite reminders and he never actually does it, which is sometimes the case. Who does everything that is asked of us? He has his own priorities, but I can still ask.
Since we can’t change culture, or our husbands, in one blog post, let’s think about how to make our lives a little less stressful in the interim by changing up some terms. I wonder if the ideas of time management and efficiency are hurting us more than helping us. We can’t really manage time, or space, as Einstein implied—and we can’t be in two places at once. The best we can do is control our thoughts and behavior. That resonates more for me when I think of what matters to God. I am interested, with regard to my own life, what would happen if I replaced “Time Management” with the phrase “Thought and Action Management.” Or, would it be more to the point to say “Priority Management” in the spirit of Steven Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People? What really matters in our lives, when there is so much to do—including relax? What can we let go of? Anne Lamott said, in a recent Facebook post, that we should cross a few things off our “To Do” list right after we make one. Are there things that we feel compelled to do, but we can learn to let someone else do, with grace?
Boundaries are hard for us women sometimes, and we each have our own reasons—caring about a lot of people and things, caring too much what others expect of us, or having a hard time crossing traditional gender roles. But to be a woman is first of all to be human, which means we are glorious and limited at the same time. God said that was good, a long time ago. And God gets the last word on women.
The following article was published in longer form in the Autumn 2012 edition of Mutuality Magazine. Micah is 7 now, and I will be posting an update on our endeavor in a future post.
“God is a woman,” my son, Micah, announced one day last summer when he was still 3. Then he added, “You can see Mama, but you can’t see God.” My husband had just explained that it was God who made the peas we were shelling in the shade of our tree. Intrigued by Micah’s response, I assumed he associated my love and closeness to the feelings of warmth and care he experiences from God.
How long will his reverence for me and my Super Powers last? I ask myself sometimes, now that Micah is 4 and has had another year to glean information about God and gender from American culture. The other day Micah was stringing an old computer cable down the stairs. When he reached the kitchen, he said to me, “I’m glad a guy did that and not a woman!” Dismayed, I asked him to repeat what he had said. He looked down, sensing he had something I didn’t like, and replied, “I’m glad Mama cuddles me.” I saw a 4-year old boy again and not another sexist man. So I gently reminded him that women can do all the jobs he admires.
You have to understand that this is a feminist household. I have written a book meant to bring healing to women hurt by the church, and my husband teaches feminist philosophy at a Christian university. At just 2, Micah had heard enough of our discussions to shout, “No more feminism!” My husband asked, “Do you want to know what feminism is?” Micah said, “Micah doesn’t want to know!”
But we do want Micah to know a few important things about women and men. So, my husband and I have carefully selected the words we use with our son. One day our little tyke said “he or she…” instead of “he” to represent a person, and we smiled at each other with parental pride. Other words, like “mankind,” and “craftsman” we change to “humankind” and “craftsperson.” We try to avoid giving God a gendered pronoun, although neither of us finds it easy. The wonder to me is that God is (or was, for one bright summer afternoon) a woman in his mind, and not the Man Upstairs.
With regard to other cultural values about gender, we take creative risks. We let him buy pink sweats and wear them when he wants to. His favorite toothbrushes feature the cartoon Hello Kitty. And we have bought him dolls and pink doll houses. He has always loved the houses, but admittedly, not the dolls. But he does loves decorating and gardening. He stands up on a stool to help Dad make breakfast most days, and he enjoys vacuuming the house.
We have done our best to give our son the freedom to develop into who he is, rather than pushing him to develop into a gender role. Knowing this, you would think our family would look less traditional than it does. My husband and I both grew up with Happy Days messages and models of what moms do and what dads do. To our own embarrassment, we default to these learned behaviors. One day last year as I was getting Micah settled in his car seat to go on a Home Depot trip, he said, “Mom will stay home, because someone has to clean the house!” I am a “Stay at Home Mom,’ which does bring that old 50s show Leave it to Beaver’s June Cleaver to mind. I do clean the house more than my husband does, but not without periodic re-negotiations. I am not particularly handy with a drill or table saw, though I have used both. All of this sends a message: Moms clean the house and nurture the children; dads take you to the hardware store. And this from two feminist parents.
But the fact is that Micah seems to need me intensely right now, and that is why I’m at home with him. I would like to have some clearly non-sexist explanation for Micah’s strong mom-preference. But I guess I should just accept my Super Powers, knowing that someday they will wane and I will return to a humdrum Lois Lane status. I’ll rejoin the respectable “work force” when my son needs me less, and my husband and I will be able to model more equal co-parenting.
If we have made any other mistakes with regard to passing on our egalitarian values, it would be allowing Micah to watch too many DVDs that promote gender stereotypes. If we have made any real gains, it’s because we do not have access to television shows. And yet, I know that avoiding TV won’t make sexism go away. I can steer him, at age 4, away from the images that objectify women and are placed at a child’s eye level in the supermarket check-out lanes. But he will be 14 in just a decade, and by then he will have absorbed many sexist assumptions about girls and women. He will have observed them treated as sex objects, many times, on the cover of magazines, in advertising, on the internet, perhaps from his friends, and of course, when he finds people who will let him watch their television. But I hope that a little boy who intuits the feminine aspects of an omnipotent God and understands the powerful nature of a mother, has the seed within him to become a man who respects women as human beings. With God’s grace, as the seed grows, I trust we too will grow into better models of what it means to be completely human.
I will start this tale with a confession: I have never liked housework. My husband would rather read or write than dust, too, but for some reason that isn’t confession material. I started my marriage with a commitment to fairness. I would do no more housework than he did. We went weeks without cleaning the bathroom, or mopping the kitchen. Yes, I would have liked it cleaner, but my principles drove me. We had a rotating schedule for doing the dishes, which we adhered to, and everything else went to pot.
We began to discuss cleaning after our son was born. We now had a family member around who spent a lot of time close to the floor; our choices affected him, not just us. Exchanges went like this:
“I do too sweep the floor!”/”When was the last time?” or even
“No one cares about a clean floor!”/*silent wrath & ire*
Sometimes we negotiated but it would never really last. I had no idea why.
I think, now, that things got muddled around the term Stay At Home Mom (which I became), because part of my job description is to clean the house. Marion Cunningham said so (a la Happy Days). Well, I sort of bought that for a while (I grew up watching Happy Days, after all), but my job was hard enough as it was, just being responsible for the well-being of a child, and my own well-being. Boring, repetitive tasks that used two brain cells wore on me, and the underlying societal assumption that I was uniquely qualified for such tasks diluted my self-esteem. Finally one day, during one of those discussions, I said, to myself more than any one, “My JOB is taking care of our son!” (my husband had never actually said my job was also to clean). That was when it crystallized for me; I was not unpaid house labor no matter what my title implied.
The author of Lazy Husbands: How to Get Men to Do More Parenting and Housework by Joshua Coleman, Ph.D. notes that our confusion on this issue comes from comparing ourselves to other women and men. Women look at other women, including our mothers (think 1950s) and if we are doing less than they are, we figure we should do more. Men compare themselves to other men, like their own fathers, and find themselves looking quite good. And it’s absolutely true of my husband that he shines bright. From day one, he has prioritized our son: diapering, stroller-ing, feeding, reading books, he has done it all. He uses his handyperson skills as needed and teaches them to me as well. He does occasional jobs I don’t like, such as taking the pets to the vet. He grocery-shops regularly and bakes pies. And when he tackles the dishes, he tackles them—not a single pot is left in the sink (whereas I say “let them soak”). And if you compared me to those 1950s women, to the current “Retro Wives” who can tomatoes and sew clothes, and to all the women who work full-time jobs and then put in 20 plus hours of housework a week, you’d have to say I need help with time management. And so, in light of those positives that make him look great compared to our idea of what other men are doing, and my homemaking imperfections that make me look like I am The Anti-Betty Crocker, we can end up with household unfairness. He looks great, and I am the one not doing enough. It’s easy to buy into those comparisons and not really try for equality.
For me, I finally realized defensive discussions were never going to get anywhere. What I needed was better boundaries. The reason I felt so uncomfortable when people would come to the house and there were dust bunnies running under foot, was that, as Coleman points out, people still look to the Woman as Keeper of the Hearth. If they are going to judge at all, then people judge me for a messy house even though other people live here, too. And if *all* I do is stay at home, why aren’t I cleaning the house? Lazy Wife Syndrome, they must suppose. She watches soap operas (we don’t have cable). She is spending all her time eating Godiva chocolates and reading novels (sounds good, but no). She is depressed (no because I take fish oil and exercise). Coleman is the first person in print I have read to point out the judgment placed on Women-Who-Don’t –Clean-The-House-Well-Enough. And that was so freeing to realize it is REAL. I am not imagining it. My shame is societally induced.
And so, though I can’t completely get rid of that shame, I can see it for what it is. I can choose to live as though it doesn’t exist. I now prioritize my writing over housework. For me, that is “showing up for life,” as author Anne Lamott encouraged in one of her recent Facebook posts. Portland author Ariel Gore (How to Become a Famous Writer Before You’re Dead) says she puts in no more than one hour of cleaning a day. So, inspired by them, I have to actively let the house accumulate dirt some days. Other days, I delegate. Other people in the house choose their priorities, too, though. As I write, the kitchen floor needs mopping and there are dishes in the sink. But you know what? This same week, I wrote an essay that was immediately accepted for publication in a magazine I respect. That’s two in one month. So, I can live with our current standards. Just don’t come by the house without calling first.