Raising an Egalitarian Boy, Part 1
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.