If you ignore the dog, I am the only female in an all male household. And no, we are not (as all parents of multiple sons are asked time and time again) trying for a girl. And because of this gender imbalance in our house, I feel a sense of responsibility that I fear I am not living up to.
I want my sons to believe, as I do, that women are equal to men. That barring the childbirth/breastfeeding malarkey, I can do anything their dad can do, and vice versa. I want to challenge the shitty gender nonsense they are confronted with every time they turn on the tv or go in a shop. I want them to see humanity first and gender second. I want them to ponder the questions I am still asking myself – like why their dad’s leg hair is somehow suitable for public view, while mine ‘needs’ to be removed, sometimes painfully and often with a financial cost attached. Or why I took their dad’s surname when I married him, instead of him taking mine.
Some days, I think I’m doing alright. Sometimes I have a conversation with my oldest son that makes my heart rise up, as he challenges the tv commercial that suggests that most women are on a life-long mission to find the perfect conditioner for their hair. I start thinking that maybe we’re heading somewhere good.
But then my 4 year old brings me back down to earth with a bump – with his derisive snort at my suggestion that I prefer the picture of the green rocket to the pink ballerina in his story book. He looks at me with clear amusement in his eyes, and tells me “you’re a lady – you like this one” pointing determinedly at the pink ballerina again. This is the 4 year old who still asks for the pink Ikea cup at dinner time, and requested a pink cake for his last birthday. And (temporarily as it turns out) made me feel all smug and right on.
And then the very next day another son makes a throwaway remark that suggests that his dad’s brain is “bigger” than mine. I’m all over this like a rash. “Oh really?” I say. Yup. Apparently, daddy teaches them “about the world”. It’s true. Their dad engages with science and astronomy with a passion I simply don’t share. It’s ok though – he reassures me – apparently sensing the danger he’s in – “your brain is full of cooking and childcare”. Wow. Thing is – he’s got a point (kind of). I do love to cook. I love to bake. Godammit if I don’t love to sew and make stuff too. Parenting also happens to be a professional and personal preoccupation of mine.
But all this sends me into a spiral of self recrimination that our current lifestyle has put paid to the shared care arrangements we were all about when they were younger – meaning that these days the kids see their dad leaving for work every day while my paid work happens behind the scenes while they’re in school. These days I’m consistently the one they see at the school gates, making the dinner, folding the clothes and cleaning the house.
Their comments and assumptions sting and frustrate me. Because they speak to my own personal discomfort that I’m not mothering the way I thought I would. I always imagined (extraordinarily simplistically) my boys would ‘see’ me working outside the home, that they would internalise this as a Good Thing, and go on to be young men who shared my deeply held belief that men and women are equal. Because life’s that straightforward, right?
But then I remember that this parenting lark is ultimately an exercise in hopeful uncertainty. I remember that my behaviour and actions are unlikely to shape their future behaviour and actions in the nice, tidy, linear way I sometimes imagine they will. So as I’m busy tying myself in knots worrying about this stuff, I actually have no clue how my choices will be perceived and interpreted by my kids. Whether their abiding memories of me will be me barefoot in the kitchen or rushing out the door in a business suit, or something completely different I never got round to worrying about. Or whether my pointed remarks in the face of nonsense advertising will make a blind bit of difference in the end.
Buckminster Fuller said “our children and our grandchildren are our elders in universe time. They are born into a more complex, more evolved universe than we can experience or than we can know” which means that in all likelihood, their take on gender roles will be different to ours – as ours are different to the generation that preceded us. They are growing up in a world we could only have imagined when we were their age. They are receiving messages and absorbing information about gender (and everything else) in a way we can barely comprehend. Which is as overwhelming as it is comforting. And either way, reminds me to angst a little less, and trust a little more. Because there’s no time machine to the future with which to reassure myself, about this, or any other of my choices.
My best guess is the most important thing I can offer my sons is a mother who is at peace with herself and her life – whatever that life may look like – and that is where I should be focussing my energies.