PechaKucha – The power of doing things that scare you

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For 2019 my new year’s resolution was simply the word “open.” I was turning 40, and I wanted to be open to more things, more possibilities, more perspectives. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I wanted to say yes to everything (I’m too picky for that, though I know that exercise has been magical for some), I simply hoped to pause when judgment or old habits crept in and consider a new way of thinking.

Over a year ago I learned about PechaKucha when my friend Kara presented. According to the global website…

PechaKucha (Japanese for “chit chat”) is the world’s fastest-growing storytelling platform, used by millions around the globe.

PechaKucha is what “Show and Tell” always dreamed of becoming.

20 slides. 20 seconds of commentary per slide. That’s it. Simple. Engaging. Spurring authentic connections.

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Parenting and gender norms: part two

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I’ve had a few more thoughts about parenting and gender norms since writing this post. Not terribly long ago, a friend of mine shared a photo of her young son on Facebook, and in it he was wearing a dress and playing with a toy toolbox and a truck. She mentioned something about “raising a feminist boy” and it made me wonder if gender neutrality or gender non-conformity is synonymous with feminism (in this case, anyway). When I asked, she replied:

I think it’s feminist because we’re teaching him that there is no one right way to be a boy and hence no one right way to be a girl. To me, that is very feminist. I suppose it’s also gender neutral, but I personally embrace the term feminist, and it feels more political and more intentional. I think also not denigrating when he chooses things that are more traditionally feminine such as dresses or saying he wants to be a ballet dancer feels feminist to me because we’re not suggesting those things are “bad” by not allowing that choice.

I really like that answer, and it made me think. In the week or so before this exchange, Jonah asked me if boys could wear dresses. I told him that they could, and he asked, “Can I have a construction vehicle dress?” I told him that was kind of a tall order but that I’d see what I could do. I’d never even seen a construction vehicle dress, and I do all of the kids’ shopping.

When any of the kids do something somewhat gender-non-conforming of their own accord, I’m often both thrilled that they haven’t been trapped in a social construct yet, but also a tiny bit concerned that we could be doing them a disservice by not telling them the truth about America. It reminds me a little bit of a conversation that happened at work between two colleagues, both men of color, about the best way to prepare young people of color for the world. One of them felt that to teach young people of color how to behave in a way that will grant them acceptance by a white supremacist society (as opposed to affirming their authentic selves and culture) is an act of racism, while the other colleague felt that not doing so, not teaching them how to “play the game” and stay alive in the country that they live in right now, is an act of violence. It’s not nearly that extreme, of course, whether I allow our young boys to wear dresses, but for some people in some places gender non-conformity can ultimately be a matter of life or death.

I’m impressed when others don’t react with as much rigidity as I might expect. We took the kids shoe shopping awhile back and as we walked in, Jonah spotted some glittery sneakers on a sale table out front. They were in the girls’ section and weren’t his size. When it came time for him to be fitted and find some shoes, I asked the woman helping us if they had anything glittery in his size. She said, “I’m sure we do. They might be pink.” I told her that wasn’t a concern, and she went off into the back room to find him some options. She returned before long with five or six pairs of glittery girls’ shoes, even going so far as to bring some silver mary janes. We didn’t end up buying any, since the ones he loved were light-up sneakers and Kristin hates light-up shoes of all sorts (she thinks they’re tacky and distracting and I can’t disagree completely). But the fact that the salesperson didn’t bat an eye at our request, and that she enthusiastically brought him so many options was so heartwarming somehow. It gave me hope for America.

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Jude in Vivi’s bathing suit, which he emptied her entire dresser to find

Longer ago, before the construction vehicle dress request, we told the kids that we were all going to be attending a wedding reception (it’s this Saturday, actually). All of them were excited, and Jonah said something off hand about getting a fancy dress for the occasion. I was surprised, because despite all of this philosophizing I’m doing, I don’t think that Jonah identifies as anything other than a boy, full stop. He’s never implied otherwise. What I know to be true, however, is that his only experience with weddings and wedding receptions is seeing his moms wear dresses to attend them. Here’s another example of that: I took him shopping last night to buy an outfit for this weekend’s reception, and he initially told me that he didn’t want to get an outfit because he doesn’t like white. I had to explain that guests at a wedding can actually wear any color they want, and that yes brides often wear white but not always, and they usually wear dresses but not always. He seemed relieved, and ultimately picked out a cool button up shirt with space designs on it and some bright colored shorts.

So much of what they believe about the world is because of what we show them and tell them, and when we tell them what we want them to believe about gender not being restrictive, we aren’t telling them the whole story. Jonah is starting to pick up on it, as all of them would have eventually. One night in the bathtub he said to me, “Mama D? I think that maybe there are girl colors and boy colors just a little bit.” I could tell that he added that diminutive out of concern for my feelings. I asked him why he thought that, and he told me that it was because every girl at his school loves pink and purple. Hoping to poke holes in that theory, I started naming off girls one by one, but I don’t think we ever found one who doesn’t love those classic colors. I tried to explain why that might be, the way toys and clothes are marketed, but I didn’t have a well-thought-out answer in the moment. It made me realize that I need to start getting into the nuances of why we believe what we believe, and why others might disagree, and the effect that has on people. We don’t encourage colorblindness, so I suppose we ought to move beyond the idea that gender isn’t a thing.

One of the things that occurred to me during that Facebook exchange with my friend weeks ago was how much the oppression and degradation of women also oppresses men and boys. I hadn’t given that a ton of thought before. All of our wondering about whether or not it’s OK for Jonah to want a dress or glittery sneakers wouldn’t even be a thing if traditionally feminine choices and qualities weren’t so looked down upon. Don’t believe me? Ask yourself whether most people would worry at all over a little girl who preferred pants and trucks and the color red, over dresses and dolls and the color pink. I know people who actively celebrate those kinds of preferences, they almost push them. Being a girl who likes “boy” things is completely OK, but boys who like “girl things? Not so much.

What I discovered following the construction vehicle dress request, was that it’s actually relatively easy to find cool, progressive, somewhat gender-norm-bucking clothes for girls these days, but it’s nearly impossible to find something for a boy. You just have to buy it from the girls’ section, and even then a dress with construction vehicles on it is not easy to come by. If you’ve never searched the web for a dress for a boy, and tried to decide for yourself what the least “girly” dress style might be for a boy, you can’t even imagine what mental acrobatics it requires. By this point I’d decided that I was fine buying him the dress, it was a matter of finding one. I found one on Etsy that was specifically marketed as a “unisex play dress” but while I loved the concept and the politics of it all, I thought that the cut of the dress was actually sort of ugly. I finally found one I liked on some random site I’d never heard of, purple with yellow construction vehicles of all kinds. I was excited about it and showed it to Jonah with Vivi sitting nearby. Immediately she said, “I want a truck dress!”. As I showed him the options, he realized that they also sold shirts and pants in the same pattern, and he told me he’d rather have a tank top and leggings. “Are you sure?” I asked him, “You can have a dress if you want one.” I was worried that maybe he’d picked up on our hesitation somewhere. He told me he was sure.

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So Vivi got her truck dress, and Jonah got a matching shirt and pants, and I need to strengthen my kid-accessible explanation of feminism and sexism and why it’s important to think for yourself.

Parenting and gender norms

My friend Jodi over at Dear Sabrina wrote a good piece about raising gender neutral kids in Sweden that got me thinking. It’s actually something that I think about quite a bit, but I found it to be particularly fascinating to read about the norms for kids in Sweden and to think about how her experiences compare and contrast with ours.

When I was pregnant with Jonah I desperately wanted a daughter. Honestly, I can’t even tell you now why that was. I truly don’t remember what felt so important to me about raising a girl. We found out the baby’s sex at the 20 week ultrasound because I felt like I needed to know so that I could prepare appropriately if I were having a boy. My sister had wanted a boy and found out at 20 weeks that she was having a girl, and struggled a bit with the news (it didn’t take her long at all to come around, however, and her daughter is very very loved). I was due only a few months behind her, and I was afraid of what might happen if we waited to find out in the delivery room and I gave birth to a boy. What if I was disappointed when I met him? That would be awful, and I had no experience to tell me how very unlikely that was, so I decided that I needed to know early so that I’d have 20 weeks to turn my attitude around.

Once I met Jonah it didn’t take me long to learn that it wouldn’t have mattered who I’d given birth to – I couldn’t imagine my life with any other child but him. He was exactly the child for us. But I’m not sure anyone could have told me that and had me believe it without me seeing it for myself.

When Jonah was a baby, I was pretty adamant about not covering him or his room in stereotypically “boy” themes. I picked out bedding for him that had a pattern of teal and blue floral elephants, we refused to buy him clothing or even PJs with things like trucks or sports equipment or even dinosaurs on them. When he was not yet two, a friend from the UK brought him a cute little book called Digger and Skip, about construction vehicle friends working together to solve a problem. From that moment on, he was completely hooked. He couldn’t get enough of construction vehicles, and before long that led to John Deere vehicles and farm equipment. It was kind of amazing to me because he’d seen books on lots of different things before, but this was the first passion that was truly his. We didn’t hesitate to follow his lead, so from then on we were happy to buy him construction-themed clothing and toys, make his Halloween costumes in alignment with his interests, and so on.

 

For his first birthday, some good friends gave him a baby doll and he just never took to it. He never showed much interest at all in traditional “girl” toys, despite my desire to raise him a bit more gender neutral than most boys. On the rare occasion that he did express an interest in something more gender neutral, I sometimes found myself hesitating more than I’d expected to. When he was two, we were picking out a backpack for him for an upcoming trip, something for him to carry a few small toys in, and I showed him a number of different colors online and he chose pink. I was truly surprised, and wondered if he’d be happy with that choice. Doubting it, I ordered three different colors and figured he could choose in person and we’d send the other two back. He saw them and stuck with his original choice. I was actually kind of proud of him, but also a little bit concerned. For that same trip he’d also chosen shoes that were purple with a pale orange (nearly pink) stripe around the bottom. I remember worrying that if people saw him they might think, “oh, of course the lesbian moms bought their son a pink backpack and purple shoes.”

When Jonah was two, he also started asking us to paint his toenails. I remember tossing the question out to my mom group because I had to ask myself: if he were a girl, would I let him have painted toes at age two? Or would I feel like that was somehow sexualizing a two-year-old girl, having her grow up too quickly? I didn’t want to have a double standard at play, so I had to ask myself how I would feel if the tables were turned. After some deliberation we decided that it was fine, and he’s had his toes painted many times since, including a couple of weeks ago. It’s something that I honestly really love about him and I’ll be sad if/when he stops asking. I remember, however, sending him to day care one of the very first times we’d done it. He came home and told us that he’d asked Gladys if she liked his toes and she told him that no, she didn’t. I can’t remember the exact words she used, but I picked up the phone and called her immediately and explained that it wasn’t her place to judge him for something so benign. She could talk to us if she had a problem with our choices. She was very apologetic, and it never happened again.

Recently when we were shopping for clothes for a trip, I was asking him his preferences and he told me that he wanted rainbow striped leggings like one of his classmates had. I honestly did look for them online in a few places, and had I found any that were a truly primary colored rainbow I probably would have bought them, but I kept finding pastels and neons and just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I don’t know whether I was worried for him or worried for us, but I can’t say that I feel good about it (now I feel like I should make more of an effort and find him some). We were also buying shoes again recently and for a moment he expressed an interest in some pinks and purples and I was kind of excited to see him thinking outside of the boy box, but in the end when he had to choose just one, he went with red. On the same shopping trip he did pick out pink shorts, however, and I was tickled. They’re now my favorite thing in his wardrobe.

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When the twins were born I cared far less about the sex of the babies than I had the first time around. We both thought that it might be nice to have a boy and a girl because we’d get a daughter while Jonah would also get a brother and not be too outnumbered by girls in his family, but we both felt pretty good about any combination. We got our boy and girl, and watching them all grow as people has been even more fascinating as I think about gender.

It didn’t take Vivienne long at all to adopt that baby doll of Jonah’s. She absolutely adores baby dolls, and plays pretend with them all the time. When we were in Charleston she even told me at one point that she was nursing the baby in the hammock.

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Well before she turned two, she started carrying around this little toy barn with a soft handle. She’d hook the handle over her elbow and carry it around like a handbag. Both K and I were flabbergasted – neither of us carries a purse on our elbow, and her day care provider certainly didn’t do so. Where was she getting this? Also before she turned two, she started asking to have her ears pierced (without knowing the words). I’d pick her up and she’d reach out and touch my earrings, then touch her own ears and say, “I want some.” She’s also had very strong preferences about her clothes in the last six months or so (again, before age two). On a couple of occasions I laid out a pair of jeans that Jude had outgrown, and she flat out told me that she didn’t like them, and went into her drawers and replaced them with leggings. You might assume that it’s because leggings are more comfortable and flexible, but she’s happy to wear two other pairs of jeans that have a floral pattern. She’s also given me grief about khaki joggers, and will always choose pink and purple polka dot leggings over a neutral.

Most of Vivienne’s clothes are hand-me-downs (from girls), so we honestly haven’t done that much thoughtful selection of her wardrobe. I really don’t mind putting her in tutus because she adores them (and she loves pink), and it’s fun to see our children excited about something they love, even if it does align with gender norms. Still, I’ve been surprised by how powerful some of her “girly” tendencies are. That said, she’s totally fearless, clearly adores and looks up to Jonah, and is just as happy to play trucks with her brothers.

When Jude took to baby dolls before he turned two I was totally charmed. Since Jonah hadn’t been into it I think I’d started to assume that maybe Jude wouldn’t be either, but he started bringing an old Cabbage Patch doll with us on stroller walks whenever Vivi would bring her doll. By Christmas we knew that he needed his own baby, and watching him love it is the sweetest thing.

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Jude doesn’t seem to be at a point yet where he shows much interest in what he’s wearing, so we’ve always put him in pretty standard boy clothes without much thought. Our neighbor actually remarked recently how amusing it was to watch them play in the yard: Vivienne was sitting in the driveway drawing with chalk, and Jude and Jonah were hitting a tree trunk with sticks over and over again.

I’ve also been amazed (and frustrated) by the emergence of Jonah’s fascination with guns and shooting. Is this a boy thing? Another boy mom warned us that it would happen. No matter how pacifist and anti-gun you are, she told us, they will at some point turn anything into a pretend gun. With Jonah it didn’t happen until preschool this year (the first year he’s been in school with boys his age), and he talks all.the.time about his friends who have Nerf guns. We’ve told him time and again that we don’t like guns (and why), that we don’t buy toy guns at our house but that his friends who have them aren’t bad people and neither are their parents, they just believe something different than we believe. When he plays with those friends he cannot wait to play with the Nerf guns. He’s also really into robots lately and walks around pretending to shoot a laser at things all day long. In Charleston he borrowed a squirt gun from his cousin for the week and just adored it. When he had to give it back he tried to reason with me so that he could get one. “It only squirts water,” he said, “so it can’t hurt people or animals so it’s not the same as other kinds of guns.” I finally caved at Easter and put a squirt gun in his basket, but I still cringe when he plays with it in the bath.

Parenting has surprised me in many ways, but watching our children’s personalities and passions emerge and wondering what’s nature and what’s nurture has caught me off guard on more than one occasion. I’m a feminist who majored in women’s studies and thought that I could resist caving to gender norms or buying into the idea that nature weighs heavily on their personalities and preferences, but here I find myself waffling over the tiniest things. I do think that part of it has to do with American culture. A huge part of me takes great pride in watching the kids be completely, unselfconsciously themselves, and another part of me worries about how they’ll (or we’ll) be judged. We’ve told Jonah many times that there’s no such thing as boy clothes and girl clothes, or boy toys and girl toys. He’s even called us on it when we’ve slipped up. One day Kristin mentioned to me that she’d seen some cute clothes at Target in the Cat & Jack line. She said something along the lines of “I only had time to look at the boys’ clothes, but they were cute.” Jonah piped up from the next room “There’s no such thing as boys’ clothes and girls’ clothes.”

Unlike my friend’s experiences in Sweden, I feel like the norms for boys here at school (more so than for girls) are somewhat rigid. I’m actually thrilled when I walk into the brown room at school (the room with dress up clothes) and see a little boy in Jonah’s class wearing a skirt. There have been mornings when Vivienne wants to wear a bow in her hair, and Jude has to have one too, so Jonah asks to join in. We pick out bows for everyone, but when we get to school, Jonah always decides to remove his and asks me to take it home. Every time it’s happened I wonder if he’s starting to learn what’s acceptable for boys and girls, and it makes me a little bit sad. Am I contributing to that?

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Despite my desire to be progressive, I think that maybe I’m a little too happy to be able to tell people that Jonah loves construction vehicles, and to dress Vivienne in dresses and tights that I think are adorable, and to have Jude planted firmly in the middle: our cuddle bug boy who takes his baby for walks and also gets excited about watching basketball. As a non-traditional family, it’s easy to feel like we’re already under a microscope and there’s pressure to show the world how typical and well-adjusted our children are. Still, it’s not fair to project our fears onto them. Gender expectations are powerful and we’re living in a world that reinforces norms constantly. It requires much more intentionality and confidence to go against the grain than I’d assumed.