Saturday, September 29, 2007

Gender confusion

I spent a large chunk of my undergraduate years and my first year in graduate school approaching my field from a "feminist perspective." I put that in quotes because I recognize that it was a conscious framework through which I filtered all of the information I took in vs my present approach, which is "first and last, the text," although I also understand that my processing of the literature still includes a feminist perspective due to the simple fact that I'm a feminist.

But I'm getting away from my point.

As a "feminist scholar," I had long, impassioned discussions about whether gender is innate or constructed. I fell squarely into the constructionist camp, even if I was willing to concede some small corner to the essentialists based on very real biological and hormonal differences.

When I became a teacher, I realized how inadequate theoretical discussions are in dealing with gender differences, especially in early adolescence. Eventually I decided to suspend the internal essentialist/constructionist dialog and look at the issue of gender in a way that was new to me: regardless of the origin of gender differences, I needed to deal with the fact that they existed in a very tangible manner in my classroom. And so I made a conscious effort to understand the differences while not necessarily reinforcing them and while being supportive of those students who didn't fit neatly with expectations.

Add to all of this that I'm a lesbian, and I am very aware of fitting/not fitting into gender lesbian expectations. Wear a dress--am I trying to pass as straight? is it a sort of "drag?" Long or short hair--which set of expectations am I following? or is it, rather, intended as a reaction against expectations?

All of this goes to say that I have put a lot of thought into the issue of gender and have now combined this with my musing about parenting. And being the mother of a boy has meant adding yet another dimension to the issues at hand. Moreover, I frequently find myself struggling between my theoretical beliefs and my gut reaction to situations that involve assumptions about gender.

My son is a very beautiful boy. He was born with a full head of curly hair and incredibly long eyelashes. As a baby, nearly everyone assumed he was a girl because of those two attributes. "He's too pretty to be a boy" was something we frequently heard. (Apropos of nothing in particular, he looks very much like I did as a child, but even more like my youngest sister, who was almost always mistaken for a boy.) We usually would dress him in "boy" clothing, though that was mostly a result of what had been sent to us, since we bought almost no clothes for him in his first year or so.

Eventually, we developed the practice of correcting the gender assumptions of only those people we felt needed to know: medical professionals, of course, and people we knew we would see more than once or twice (neighbors, colleagues, etc.), but not the random person in the grocery store or on the street.

Yet, as much as I might congratulate myself on adopting a practice that didn't involve insisting loudly to all who might hear that my child is a boy, I cannot ignore my initial reactions and my internal conflict. Because I did start out by correcting everyone, regardless of the situation. I could sometimes feel myself getting a little riled up at the frequency with which this happened. And then there's the reaction I had to the few outfits we received that, by my opinion, were more girly than neutral. In particular, I remember snipping the little bow off the front of a purple onesie sent by my mother-in-law. Even as I did it, I felt like a hypocrite--I knew that a bow shouldn't make a difference, but I also knew I would be uncomfortable taking him out with it still on the onesie.

Nowadays, the challenge has changed a little. At his speech evaluation earlier this year, my son scored lowest in "grammar." 1/3 to 1/2 of the questions he missed in that category involved proper use of pronouns, particularly "he" and "she." And he continues to mix them up, mostly using "he" as a default, even if her knows a particular person is a girl. This is more than a grammar issue, however, as he doesn't generally make the distinction between "boy" and "girl" unless he has explicitly been told which one a person is--and even then he might disagree, as when he told me that his cousin can't be a girl because all babies are boys. This is something I generally address on a case-by-case basis, since I emphatically do not want to tell him things like "girls have long hair and wear dresses" and "boys have short hair and are good at sports."

This, in itself, is not a big deal. Most people don't get too worked up about a 4-year-old's misuse of pronouns, and I really don't care, even when it annoys other people. (And from a developmental perspective, this is consistent with some of his issues and I figure it will work itself out eventually.)

But, he has found a way to push me outside of my comfort zone again. And again I hate that I feel this way.

This past week, he came home from preschool grumpy one day. Apparently he was enamored of a little girl's headband and had taken it from her. I explained to him that he couldn't take another person's things, even if he really liked them--this part, at least was straightforward. He was still visibly upset, so I asked if he wanted his own headband. Which he did. So when we got home, I grabbed a bandana and made it into a headband (a favorite hair accessory of mine in junior high). To make it easier to put on, I tied it at the top of his head. And voila, he looked like a girl. The next morning, he of course wanted to wear it to school, calling it his "hair-bow." Giving in a little to my (and Trillian's) discomfort, I swapped the purple bandana out for a dark blue one and put it on so that the tied part was at the back.

I think that I've mentioned before that his school is very explicit about not enforcing any sort of stereotypes, and I am very thankful for this. The teachers encourage girls and boys to play with all toys equally; I have regularly seen boys wearing dresses when they have the dress-up clothes out. And so the reaction from my son's teacher was, "You look so cool today with your headband, binoculars, and sunglasses." (Yeah, he'd chosen some other accessories too.) But I was relieved when we went to his cubby and he took the headband off along with the other items.

On the other hand, when I ran into a couple of classmates later on as my son and I were having a snack after school, I preemptively explained the headband (plus binoculars and sunglasses) with, "He's making his own fashion choices." So while I feel good that I did allow him to put on what he wanted to wear, I still hate my internal cringing.

The feminist/gender studies theorist in me wants to be completely OK with all of this, wants to applaud his nonconformity, to encourage him further. Fuck expectations. Don't follow the crowd.

But another part of me, and I'm not sure what to call it (pragmatist? realist? protective parent? wuss?), wants him to blend in, to "be a boy" without forcing it. He already sticks out from his peers in other ways, do we have to add this too?

I was (I like to think) completely prepared to deal with the practicalities of raising a girl with regards to societal expectations of gender. I'm not saying it's easy, but it's the perspective I understand and I know what sort of outcomes I'd be aiming for. But with a boy, I find that I'm making a lot of it up as I go and still don't know what my goal is.


bubandpie said...

Did you read Susanne's post on this issue, about her son and the pink socks? No answers, but just a poignant description of that awful moment when his innocent joy in the colour took on a tinge of social shame.

In that story, it was a girl who took on the role of reinforcing gender norms - and I notice that Pie is 100% dead-on accurate in identifying people as "man" or "lady," while Bub gets it right maybe 70% of the time. Of course, there are many explanations aside from gender for that gap. But I remember my nursery school days, and how important gender codes were to me - they are comforting, somehow, in a confusing world.

Naomi (Urban Mummy) said...

Such an interesting post. I have 2 boys, and so I am dealing with this as well. The Happy Boy, my older son, was mistaken for a girl about 80% of the time, even when we dressed him in "boyish" clothes.

Like Scooter, he was a beautiful baby, with long eyelashes, lots of hair and a bright smile. Strangely, The Weed, my second son, is even prettier, but, without much hair, and has almost never been mistaken for a girl.

We are working hard to avoid the gender stereotypes. We have a play doll stroller, and I have done a lot of searching to find boy dolls. I could have purchased a baby girl doll, but I'm not a fan of pink and frilly. As well, I suppose, there is a bit of gender typing involved.

My son will play with his doll stroller, cook at his kitchen, build tracks with his trains and play with his dump trucks all in the same afternoon. I encourage all of these things.

My son is also struggling with the "boy/girl" thing, I simply correct him but don't make an issue of it.

No answers here, of course, just some other perspectives.

Aliki2006 said...

This is so hard--I struggle with it, too. I'll *never* forget the time we were picking out toothbrushes when Liam was 4 and he wanted the pink Tinker Bell one and I steered him in the direction of a more boyish one (I think my actual words were "the tinker bell one is for girls"--I can only say in my defense that was very sleep-deprived but I still feel ashamed to this day).

But, that being said, we have succeeded in many other ways at keeping away the gender stereotypes, but it is hard, it really is.

Lisa b said...

It is so difficult to be a scholar and a parent finding a comfortable space between the theory and reality. Ultimately you want your child to be happy and I am willing to compromise somewhat when it comes to my principles because I don't yet know what my children's are (god help me they will be conservative bigots no doubt.)

Erica Ehm had a yummy mummy column about this - not that she is an authority but she did consult a psychologist who told her it was not in her son's best interest to encourage him to keep wearing dresses. She had expected to be applauded for not enforcing gender stereotypes but the psychologist told her at this age those are important for identity.
I don't know how we address this early without setting our kids up.

Michelle said...

If you are "concerned" that your son may turn out to be transsexual as a result of a parent's encouragement of gender role typical behaviours, you have little to worry about.

If he is transsexual (in particular - I recognize that there is a whole range of cross-gender identities out there), he likely already knows - even if he doesn't have the vocabulary or means to express it.

Common among cross-gender people is a sense that something was "wrong" from their earliest memories - no matter what kind of upbringing they have. (I liken the experience to having the "wrong half of the social rulebook", and you just never quite "get it" in terms of social behavior - it all winds up feeling unnatural until the process of gender transition begins)

Nobody knows the causes of cross-gender identity - the evidence is simply too sparse. While socialization factors may well play a role in the ability to adapt, there is no clear evidence that ties childhood cross-gender behaviour to adult cross-gender identity.

Suz said...

I hear this, I really do. Having also taken many a gender studies course in graduate school, I thought that I knew exactly were I stood and why, but our boys have already caused me to rethink in many ways. They love to play with the purses and doll carriages and beads of their little girl friends and, who wouldn't? Those things are pretty and bright and they sparkle. Everything that the boys own is blue or brown or green. So far, it hasn't gone much beyond the house, but I'm trying to be ready for it when it does.

Laural Dawn said...

I soooo hear you on this.
I can relate.
My son went through a phase of wanting to have his hair in pigtails. I let him and his daycare teacher would get upset and take them out. (we switched daycares)

we've also always let him do stuff like play with dolls, etc, and not reinforced the sterotype. But, at the same time when he wanted to be Cinderella for Halloween I drew the line. At home no problem, but I didn't want his daycare friends making fun of him.

I think as parents we have to help with those decisions. Like, I want him to know it's okay to like Dora, but that if he dresses like her he will be teased. It's hard. But, I also know that it looks like these are the kids he will go to elementary school with so in some cases I need to protect him. But, playing with dolls, friends who are girls I totally support.

As for the pronoun issue - Matt knows the difference but calls everyone "guy". The other day I said I didn't like the juice he was drinking and he said to me "when you turn into a boy you will like my juice." I didn't quite know how to respond.

Mouse said...

Wouldn't you know he took the headband off that night and hasn't asked for it since...

And I think that the pronoun issue is less a gender issue and more an issue of language delay/lack of ability in reading facial cues.

Michelle-I'm not worried about my son being transgender... or gay, for that matter. This is more an issue of my frustration with myself that I have such a gut reaction in favor of gender 'norms.'

Laural Dawn-You describe the sort of line we're trying to walk. I'm so glad he's in his current preschool.

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