"It’s incredibly important to me to keep finding role models and examples that aren't consistent with the norms; that defy, blur, extend, shift what we think of as normal."
CHRISTINA ON RAISING HER TWO SONS (9,13)
PORTLAND, OREGON | USA
Evolution and embracing feminism
The first time I heard the word "feminist" was from my boyfriend’s mom, senior year in high school. She was a single mom, and a dancer, who was getting a Ph.D. in economics. She was also maybe the first woman in my life to show me it was possible to do what you wanted as a woman, instead of just filling an expected role. But it was my college professor and writing mentor, Blanche Boyd, who really taught about the cultural narrative of feminism, and although I valued it intellectually, I still didn't really feel like I related to it. Maybe because it seemed very against men to me, and I’d always been a tomboy. Boys were my best friends in grade school and I always related easily to men and loved them. It took until I was in my thirties in workplace culture, where I was often the only woman in a room, to really internalize feminism as part of my own narrative.
Modern feminism for me is about broadening the conversation—so it’s not just about gender, but about valuing different ways of thinking and being. Modern feminism, to me, is about creating a narrative around valuing diversity—more of a humanist narrative, versus one that’s solely about women’s rights. I think there's something that's a little bit deceptive about using the word “equal” when we talk about opportunity, because it gets misinterpreted as “sameness.” I want the narrative to be about equal representation, opportunity, etc. for sure—but I don’t want to have to show up in the same way that men do in order for that to be true, if that makes sense.
This is one of the things I find interesting as a parent. My kids don’t share adult expectations that boys are supposed to behave one way and girls another. There's a lot more blurring and acceptance of all these different ways of being in my kids' classes. There are children who are non-binary or gender fluid, and my boys don't even blink when talking about them. They don't even think about it. They’re like "of course that person is that way—it’s just who they are.” It's really clear how we've instilled these binaries. How they are mostly constructed, and how the next generation is less attached to those constructions. That's where I would like to see modern feminism go. To go beyond the binaries, the assumptions, the stereotypes that are attached to what it means to be a woman, or a man, or someone who doesn’t identify with either or both.
Still, there is a long way to go to get to that point, and being female identifying person still means that your freedoms aren’t equal to men. And now, in mid life, as the mother of boys, I’m passionate about moving that story forward.
My younger son, R and I were watching an animal video and there was something about mating in it and the narrator used the word sex. At the end of it I asked R, who going into fourth grade, if he knew what sex was and he said he didn’t. I realized that I've been totally neglecting my second child in having these kinds of conversations. With the first, we’d already had several very thoughtfully constructed conversations about sex by the time he was in fourth grade.
And then R said, “I don’t know what sex means but I know what sexist means. Sexist is when women don't get to have an equal say and men think that they're better than women and men want all this stuff and think they deserve it.” His tone of voice when he starts talking is mimicking a macho, chauvinistic tone he’s heard—where? I’m not sure. This entire definition was something he’s picked this up through his own observations.
Instead of talking abstractly about things like sexism, or feminism, I try to wait until a real situation comes up, and then have a dialog to explore together how we might think and talk about it. I want them to have a tangible experience to internalize, vs. just experiencing my beliefs.
And lately, I’ve been able to see how those situational conversations inform their thinking and experiences even when I’m not with them. For example, their grandparents are very traditional New Jersey Italians. They watch Fox News, and have stereotypical perspectives about gender and race. Last summer, my boys spent a month with them in Vermont, and when they came back, both boys expressed deep frustration of having witnessed and listened to the way that their grandfather and grandmother interacted.
Their grandparents are both really loving and affectionate people with their grandkids—but their interactions with each other very much reflects the stereotypical roles of men and women from that that era. My older son L, said, “I think Nonna is actually much smarter than Poppy, but she plays dumb because he would be too angry if she was the smarter one.” He could see how that construct of women was making her play small and he was upset about it. I mostly listened as he told me his observations—again trying to support him in cultivating his own inner narrative, rather than taking mine at face value. But internally, my heart was singing. I was so proud that he could see it, and was affected by the injustice of it.
Being a feminist as a modern man, then, is partly about being able to value and respect the emotions of other human beings. And in this way, both of my tenderhearted, sensitive boys are leading the way forward.
Importance of male affection
One of the biggest things, I think, that’s made an impact on how my boys behave as emotionally well adjusted humans is that their dad is physically and emotionally affectionate with them. He's warm and open, and has never told them things like “toughen up” or “don’t cry.” Instead he’s always supported them in being emotionally expressive, and I think that is one of the reasons the boys are really attached to him. He tells them he loves them often. And they feel his love. And I think this connection to their dad is part of the blueprint that defines for them how men should behave in the world. It’s something I tremendously value and continue to nurture even after we divorced.
And I think that it’s in part because of their relationship with their dad that they really bonded with my partner, B. They are super affectionate with him and are expressive of their emotions. Both of them say “I love you” to B, and in turn he tells them he loves them too.
These are the kind of men I hope to send off into the world—ones who are emotionally articulate and expressive. Who know, and value the freedoms of others, and who know how to advocate for others when those freedoms are in question.
Discussing feminine things
Another way that I try to situationally instill my values about men and women to my sons, is by trying to de-objectify the female body. And while certainly don't intentionally walk around in front of them naked, if one of them should come into my room while I'm dressing? I never cover up. I just proceed and it's just like a part of life and it's not weird. And because it’s not weird to me, it’s not weird to them. The female body shouldn’t be something that boys only encounter as a sexual or fashion object; on the cover of a swimsuit magazine, in an ad selling perfume, cars; in a video game as a gratuitous buxom celebrator of your victory. Rather, the female body should be as obvious, understood and normal, as their bodies are to them. Of course some of this is addressed if you are a boy who grows up with sisters, but as a mama raising two boys in a house of men, it’s up to me to set those norms.
I had a fantastic conversation with R about tampons a few years ago, for example. He was helping me unpack groceries and picked up a box and asked me what they were. I explained matter of factly, and he was like, "Can I take one apart?" My very anatomical description made sense to him, and, after taking one apart to see how it actually worked, he was completely satisfied. I imagine there are many, many men out there who have less knowledge of how tampons work than my then 7 year old.
Similarly we’ve talked about PMS, hormones, breast feeding, etc. all of which R likes to call “woman superpowers.” He’s vernacular, not mine :)
We often also had conversations where I’ll overhear them make an assumption that a girl couldn’t—or wouldn’t want to—do something. Always, I’ll ask them why they think so, rather than immediately telling them they’re wrong. And always, their answer comes down to the fact that they haven’t seen it. They haven't seen a woman do x or y. And so I make a mental note to find more stories about female pilots, black scientists, girls who code, women who are boldly and bravely breaking down the norms and I share those stories with my boys. Like the other day, having pizza, we spent the entire lunch watching Serena play. All of us were collectively in awe.
It’s incredibly important to me to keep finding role models and examples that aren't consistent with the norms; that defy, blur, extend, shift what we think of as normal. And to continue to expose my sons every day to different ways of thinking.
As I said at the beginning of our conversation, I would love for the narrative of feminism to move beyond gender. It would be amazing for the conversation to expand to be a conversation about how all humans have a right to equal freedoms, and that all humans should be striving to be whole, well rounded people. How all humans should be able to express themselves authentically—and have as a part of their repertoire a whole range of expression, from sensitive, thoughtful, tender, and supportive, to decisive, bold, strong, and assertive. It’s not just masculine or feminine, being a well rounded human, you have to strive to have qualities that bridge both.