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.