Thursday, April 11, 2013

Gender Studies from a 9-Month-Old

This entry is part of a continuing series (see also: here and here) in which I explore the learning that has been inflicted on me in the time since I became a father for a second time (fifteen years after the first). Rather than focus on the aspects of this particular time of our development, I've chosen to explore a particular aspect, namely, being the father of girls. 

I've been putting off writing this essay for months now. Most people assume that when I don't do something, it's because I'm a Slacker. My wife, who has been watching me fail to complete tasks for twenty-some years now, has theorized that sometimes when I don't do something, there's a Reason. I think the Reason in this case is the fact that writing about gender issues as a man comes with the following dangers:

         a. Coming off as simultaneously lecherous, sexist, and boorish: "Heh, heh, heh...'gender studies'...heh, heh..."
         2. Descending into a post-feminist rant about how bad men have it these days: "It's really tough for us to get by when we only take in $1 to each of your $0.74."

It doesn't seem that this discovery has made writing this much easier, but I can try to deal with those specific concerns. Regarding the first, I know I may be at times lecherous, sexist, and boorish, but I don't intend to be--and when I do it on purpose, I'm kidding (yeah, that's it, kidding). On the second, I do know how good we have it as the male of the species. Given the relative equality of the sexes in our society now, I can't imagine how things would be if the odds hadn't historically been so seriously tilted in our favor.

So, with that out of the way, here are some observations and discoveries that Ms. Catherine has helped me to understand through her nine months of educating (and re-educating) me:

  1. Gender-neutral - I worry that there is increasingly no such thing as gender neutral toys. When we were kids, we had girls' bikes and boys' bikes (because, I guess, girls are more concerned that their crotch may come into direct contact with their cross-bar), plus Barbies and Matchbox cars. However, there were also lots of toys that were more or less free of gender identity, including LEGOs, Lincoln Logs, saxophones, teething rings, Kermit--here's a game: think of anything at all and Google it along with the word "girl." Maybe, don't do that at work.
  2.  Temperature- My wife lives in an alternate universe that seems to exist ten degrees colder than the rest of the world, meaning that she seems to be most comfortable in the range of 78-88 degrees Farenheit. I, on the other hand, wear shorts all winter, even when I go outside to feed the chickens. The baby's build seems so far to take after her father--that is, like a brick shi...shed. Consequentially, she seems to be more often upset by being too hot than too cold. On several occasions, however, I have been scolded by strangers in public for not having the baby "properly" warmed. Sometimes, this is done by actually reaching out and re-organizing the baby's blanket to the stranger's specifications.
  3. Clothes - We are big on hand-me-downs in our house. Most children outgrow clothes before they wear them out, and every stitch of clothes (and every toy) that comes from a friend, a relative, or a thrift store is an item that wasn't bought at WalMart. More or less half of the other babies in the world are male, and so are the previous owners of many of Catherine's clothes. This means that  we are often faced with a decision: do we care if the child looks like a boy? If we don't care, are we prepared for the scolding that we will encounter from strangers? Can we accept the possibility of  long-term confusion of casual acquaintances who will perpetually call her a cute little fella regardless of how she's dressed at that particular moment? Again, you would think that most clothes fall into the "either" category, and that this is at least the case for girl babies, but not so much. Therefore, we do a tiny bit understand the temptation to permanently affix a little headband to the child, just to be safe.
  4. The low bar - Dads enjoy a secret advantage. Well, secret until Joel Stein ruined the whole thing. Since the gig is up, I will also share it here: people think you're a very good dad if you manage to keep your baby alive while you take it along with you while you go about your daily life. People only think you're a good mom if you entirely cancel your daily life to take care of your baby, while somehow maintaining an immaculate home, and keeping the baby engaged in enrichment activities all day. Here's a parenting tip: if you're going to bring your baby to a bar, a Region Chorus concert, a date, or a demolition derby, I recommend being a dad.
  5. Work - In removing the prohibition on women in combat, the Army recently reignited national discussion of the question of which jobs are not suitable to both genders? When I was in college, I assumed that there were more men in major symphony orchestras because men were better at symphony-level playing (even on instruments like the flute, played by lots more girls in school bands than boys). Then I read Blink, and found out that as soon as auditions became blind, the gender gap began to disappear. It seems that men don't play the trombone better (or even stronger or louder) than women, and I wasn't the only one who thought they did. Men got more symphony jobs because conductors assumed that men would get more symphony jobs. So, jobs still off-limits to Catherine: Roman Catholic priest (and, therefore, Pope); opera baritone; sperm donor; men's restroom attendant; and member of commando (though, presumably not commando) units.
  6. Women's health - Know what a labial adhesion is? Neither did I, but I had to learn. Being a father of daughters demystifies the female body in mystifying ways. I assume it's a similar situation for mothers of boys.
  7. Parents' gender preference - One personality trait of which I'm particularly proud is the fact that I didn't really care whether either of our kids were to be a son or a daughter. Like many other successes that I can boast, this required absolutely no effort for me at all. My chosen sports are tennis, swimming, and watching TV; my chosen recreational activities are choir, musical theater, and reading; my favorite movies are When Harry Met Sally and The Princess Bride; and my favorite TV show is Downton Abbey (no, not gay; why do you ask?). Therefore, it never seemed particularly important which gender my kids were, since either boys or girls could participate in this stuff equally well. If you're struggling with this, let me remind you that having a boy child does not guarantee that you will have someone with whom to throw a football, shoot guns, or argue the designated-hitter rule--also, having a girl child doesn't guarantee that you won't.
I am actively fighting the superstition that writing about gender serves to enhance and worsen gender bias. As a white, middle-class male, aged 18-49, the world is constantly catering to my needs. I grew up thinking that we were beyond racism, beyond sexism, and beyond class warfare. What I didn't realize was that I thought we were past these things because my side was doing just fine. Until Spike Lee told me otherwise, I thought that The Jeffersons was proof that we were done dealing with all of this stuff. I also assumed that I couldn't be a feminist because I was male. I also grew up thinking I didn't know any gay people. Turns out, I just didn't know any gay people who wanted to come out to a bunch of raging, flaming homophobes.

The discovery of my difficulties with talking and writing about these issues may be important in itself. The path of least resistance--always my favorite path--has been to deal only with the gender issues that affect me directly--namely, nothing much. With further thought on this, I may conclude that my daughters should be made aware of all of the challenges faced by those of their gender--that they should see clearly all the obstacles in their way. I may conclude that they should ignore all hindrances in the hope that by stumbling over enough of them they will make real progress. Either way, I think that denial that we still do have gender issues may be over for me, and that a father of daughters is not entitled to such blissful ignorance.

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