What My Daughter Has Taught Me About Gender
This month you turn three years old, and in the past three years, I’m not sure who has grown more—you, as you’ve changed from an easy-going baby to an inquisitive, dramatic, strong-willed, endearing little girl—or me, as I’ve tried to catch up with being your mother. Sometimes I feel like we’ve both molted out of our old skin and become new people, these last three years.
Part of that growth, in my life, is because of what you’ve taught me about gender. Maybe that’s backwards how it should be—I’m your mom, aren’t I the one who is supposed to have all the answers and explain all things to you? But the truth is I still have a lot to learn about what it means to be a woman, and specifically what it means to be me as a woman, and sometimes I think you’re ahead of me in your confidence in who God has made you and your freedom to be who you are.
I grew up with strictly defined gender roles. Some of that was because I, as I think most children do at the beginning of their lives, assumed that my individual experience was universal reality, and that all men and women were like my parents with their specific personalities and division of labor within our home. For instance, my dad didn’t cook, so I couldn’t imagine a man cooking (until I met your dad). Some of my ideas about gender I just absorbed from the American culture around me, or from my family’s reaction to it—baby dolls were a yes, Barbie dolls a no, for reasons I now sympathize with!
Some of my ideas about gender were shaped by the patriarchal movement, with its insidious mix of twisted Biblical truths, specific historical practices, and imbalanced applications. Boy things and girl things were as sharply defined as two columns—clear distinctions, little to no overlap.
My problem was that I didn’t fit into all the girl things. I hated to hand sew—and still do. Tea parties made me nervous. I did not like the color pink. I absolutely detested Elsie Dinsmore. I wanted to wear jeans and go to college, but those were in the boy column. I liked adventure and heroism and independence, but those were masculine qualities. I decided early on that boy things were cool, and girl things were not. As early as age eight I remember I defined myself as a “tomboy” and thought I was cool because I had eight boys that I played with, to match my age.
It’s hard for all of us, no matter what our background, to grow up and figure out who we are in the middle of all the stereotypes and conflicting messages we internalize about gender.
At age twenty-six I became a “boy mom.” This was an identity I was comfortable with. It kind of hearkened back to my tomboy days. I learned more about trucks from those picture books than I’d ever known before. There was not a pink thing in my house and I was comfortable with that. For whatever reason I expected that all my biological kids would be boys. When I was first pregnant with you, my second born, I thought of you as Brennan Peter because of course you were the second boy we planned on, and when the ultrasound technician told us otherwise, we told her to go back and look again.
What, a girl?! But I’m a boy mom. How do I raise a girl when I’m still not sure what it means to be one?
Three years later, and you are showing me. You are who you are, and your brother is who he is, two unique masterpieces designed by God who, like your parents, don’t fit the stereotypes in many ways.
You love princesses, whether it’s Elsa and Anna, Rapunzel, or Sofia the First. Pink is your favorite color, with purple a close second. You love My Little Pony and all the accompanying combs, crowns, and accessories. You are very particular about what you wear. You love to dress-up and have several princess gowns hanging in your closet. You love baby dolls. You adore tea parties. You get excited about fixing your hair and having pink toenails.
You are probably the most aggressive person in our family. You like stories that have you (usually with your baby doll as a sidekick) beating up the bad guys with swords and chopping them into a million pieces. If you think someone in our family is being threatened, you will take out your perceived enemy with whatever violence necessary (and usually a bit more). For this reason you can be a bit intimidating to your brother’s friends because you don’t get when they are just pretending to shoot each other, and David is in no actual harm. On at least one occasion I’ve heard, “David, protect me from Elanor!” and I know my intervention is in order before injury takes place. You once raced out of the house with a toy weapon intent on attacking a neighbor whom David decided was a spy.
You like Transformers, dinosaurs, and monsters. You like to go fast, whether it’s on a boat ride or in the car. At your brother’s preschool T-ball game when he and the other players were contemplating the shapes of clouds in the sky or something like that, you at age one escaped my notice, ran out to the field, and grabbed the ball. For Halloween you wanted to dress up as Cinderella, and then at the last moment decided your costume was not complete without an Optimus Prime mask accompanied by a scary roar behind it. I love the fact that you saw absolutely no contradiction in your outfit.
Being your mother has shown me how steeped our entire culture is in gender stereotypes, and how confusing it can be to kids growing up. When your brother at age three fell off the toilet, banged the countertop edge, and got a black eye in the middle of the night (a most unfortunate event, believe me!), complete strangers told me approvingly that he was “all boy.” What, I wondered, is particularly masculine about falling off the toilet? Hello, people! Are we just assuming that black eye=aggressive fighter= “all boy”?
While walking through the children’s section of an old church, I saw a sign on the wall basically joking about how little boys behaved so much worse than little girls. It wasn’t funny to me, and I wondered how many children (and their teachers) had been subtly influenced by it over the years. It does a disservice to both genders, I think—a condescending pat on the head to little girls who are expected to be prim and perfect (“what are little girls made of?”), and a grudging expectation that boys will misbehave (“boys will be boys!”). The reality in our family, at least so far, has definitely contradicted this stereotype!
The hashtag #boymom can be used online with descriptions of what it’s like to be a mom of all boys, and all the dirt and adventure and noise that go along with it—and I really think the hashtag should just be #kidmom because goodness knows you, Elanor, supply much of the dirt and adventure and noise in our house right now. Most of the descriptions of being a mom of all boys apply equally to moms like me of boys and girls, and I would think moms of all girls as well.
A blog I just pulled up randomly doing a quick google search “mom of boys” tells me that to mother boys, I must relax my safety standards, be prepared for messes, and have food on hand at all times. Like, girls aren’t daring, messy, and hungry, too? And, a boy who was cautious and neat, and maybe not so hungry because he’s not on a growth spurt at the moment, wouldn’t be masculine? Where do we get these ideas?
A few months ago your brother and I were reading a school assignment about Amelia Earhart, and it bothered me:
“Back in 1910, most young girls liked dolls and frilly dresses. Not Amelia Earhart. She liked to climb trees and hunt rats with a rifle or a bow and arrow. Her idea of fun was to body-slam into her sled and shoot like a comet down a snowy hill. Even when she was a little girl, Amelia planned to be famous. And not famous for doing a ‘girl’ thing. It was her ambition to be the first girl to do something as big and brave as a grown man.” (Hooked on Phonics Master Reader #30).
What? At least this gave your brother and I opportunity for a good discussion. And it helped me to solidify a lot of what bothers me about gender stereotypes:
- Gender differences are strictly defined, often down to specifically assigning colors, hobbies, and personality types to each gender. (What about flying makes it inherently masculine? Or tea parties feminine?)
- Next, it’s either implied or directly stated that boy things are inherently cooler and more fun, while girl things are boring, silly, and safe. (Why would you want to sit inside in a frilly dress when you could instead hunt rats with a rifle? And if you are the kind of girl who would prefer the frilly dress and you think hunting rats is gross or pointless, you start feeling slightly ashamed of what a boring person you must be.)
- So, a girl has two options: resign herself to the boring qualities defined as feminine, or try to increase her value by rejecting that and doing the cool boy stuff.
I don’t want you to think that way. I want you to be completely comfortable being yourself, loving princesses and pink and tea parties. Because those are just as cool as any “boy” things, and the woman who shapes her world while wearing a frilly pink dress to social events is just as important as one who tries to fly around the world.
So go ahead and be you and wear that pink dress. But wear it in with a Transformer mask if you want to, and roar like a dinosaur. Be crazy aggressive (okay, as long as you’re not hurting your brother, his friends, or the neighbor). Learn to fly and fight bad guys if you want to. The important thing is: be you, be Elanor, the girl and the woman God created, not to fit any cultural mold but to fit His purpose.
By the way, I’m not obtuse (even though you already sometimes say “Mo-om!” in that teenage tone of voice that heavily implies you think I am). I get that there are obvious differences between boys and girls, and I think there are some non-obvious differences as well. I even believe that God assigns us in the Bible a few distinct roles, and that we as men and women can at times struggle with specific strengths and weaknesses. I concede that stereotypes exist for a reason. I don’t think it’s wrong to acknowledge these different tendencies, as long as we recognize that they are just that—tendencies that not everyone fits, tendencies sometimes influenced by biological makeup and sometimes by cultural surroundings—and not strict molds and specific dictums or right and wrong.
But qualities like brave or fierce or heroic or aggressive—these don’t belong in the masculine column, while girls are stuck with demure and submissive. You’re showing me that God creates women fiercely brave, aggressively protective, stubbornly bold.
He makes us in His image that way. Denying that part of ourselves to try to fit a stereotype minimizes His design.
Elanor, my princess with the monster roar, be all that you are, and don’t hold back.