As a little girl, I was the quintessential tomboy. I climbed trees, rolled around in the dirt, caught frogs, and played football with the boys on the field of the local elementary school. My parents raised my brother and me in a house of emotional honesty; there was no script to follow based on our gender. It wasn’t always pretty, but it was always real. I never felt limited to “acting like a girl,” either. I could act however I felt, and my brother was afforded the same luxury.
Now, as a mother of three boys, I try to parent the same way. I want to discourage the “boys will be boys” mentality that promotes emotionless (and, at times, violent) behavior as normal male traits. I don’t want my boys to “suck it up” if they’re upset. But here’s the thing: They’re being exposed to gender stereotyping out in the world much earlier than I ever imagined they would be, and there’s only so much I can do to protect them from it.
A couple of months ago, a male classmate of my 2-year-old son was playing with a doll, and his father chastised the child, saying, “Boys don’t play with dolls. Do you know what happens to boys who play with dolls?” I couldn’t help myself when I blurted out, “They become good fathers?” I don’t think that guy is a huge fan of mine now.
And just the other day, my toddler was acting like a toddler, and someone said, “Are you sure you’re not a girl? Because you’re awfully moody.” Unfortunately, I didn’t have a quick comeback at the ready on this occasion, and I was kicking myself for it later.
Because I really thought we were better than this and over this bullsh*t.
See, growing up in the ’70s I believed that the gender stereotypes of the ’50s were fading away for good. Women didn’t have to be barefoot and pregnant. Both parents could work. And today, with the emergence of man-buns, and hell, Olympian Bruce Jenner identifying now as a transgender woman, I would have expected them to be gone entirely. However, it seems like times haven’t changed all that much, in some ways.
There’s still this idea, at least in some circles, that a man can’t be masculine and powerful, if he’s also compassionate and emotional. I reject that thinking. Why must these traits be mutually exclusive? To me, showing emotion is the ultimate sense of strength. I find that to be an incredibly attractive trait in a human being.
My eldest son is almost a teenager. I notice his inability to express his feelings more and more (I mean, we all remember those feeling of hormonal instability, right?). But, teenage angst aside, I want him to understand that being a real man doesn’t mean being emotionally stunted. Rather, working through your emotions for personal growth is how you become a well-adjusted person.
I don’t want my boys to buy into gender stereotypes about women, either. For example, I want them to see that when their mother asserts herself, it isn’t because she’s a b*tch or a man-eater. It’s because she is a woman who knows her worth, and that, in itself, is invaluable.
And just when all of my thoughts get too crazy about the whole situation, just when I start thinking that I might not be showing my kids as often as I am telling them how to act, a member of the opposing team gets hurt during a soccer game. And instead of yelling, “Man up!” or “Pussy!” my child helps his fellow competitor stand, pats him on the back, and says something that makes both of them smile.
There is hope for us yet.