I learned, recently, that discussing gender roles is a surefire way to get everyone I know angry at me and angry at everybody I know who seems to support part of what they think I have to say.

It was a messy afternoon, let me tell you.  So, I thought, why not wade in to the fray again?  This time, I can give everyone more and better things to yell about!  My Sunday’s looking open, and it’s been a while since I’ve broken a bottle of Guinness against the bar and threatened someone with it.

I have 7 children – 6 girls, and one boy, smack dab in the middle of them.  My 3 eldest are all nipping at each other’s heels in the race to puberty, and I am finding that The World At Large has a renewed interest in them.  Up until now, most of the direction and the expectations were aimed at me, the mother.  Now I am being told that it’s time for me to quit sheltering them, and let others take it from here.  The girls are on the cusp of realizing their sexuality, after all, and with sexuality comes involvement in long-term relationships, with the accompanying solidification of identity.  That is not something parents can expect to successfully guide their children through.  Kids think parents and sex are a disgusting combination.  Did you not know this?

Before I sign my pubescent children up for the standard fare of teenage-hood, I feel the need to examine what is on offer, here.  The school system, the Church, and popular culture all seem to think that this is a time for girls, in particular, to discover what it means to be a woman.  I’ve spent 34 of my 35 years wondering what it meant to be a woman, and extremely unsure that I met any of the qualifications beyond having a uterus.

As I struggled to fit myself and my worldview into any semblance of acceptable femininity, I spent a lot of time observing how people interacted with my girls.  Here are some things I have noticed –

Most people call little girls, “Princess,” the vast, vast majority of adults do it.

Everyone comments on their clothes and their hair.

People expect me to coddle them more than my son.  No one would bat an eyelash when I let him climb playground equipment by himself at age 2, but my daughters get an average of 3 assists per half hour if I’m sitting on the bench and the toddler is climbing by herself.

People expect me to respond to my girls’ cries by picking them up and removing them from the situation, but I got smiles of approval if I waited for my son to come to me when he went ass over teakettle.  I was actually told, “You don’t want to make her hard!” when I protested a man picking up my toddling daughter who had taken a very minor spill and was self-correcting with some minor whining.

People like to tell my girls what kind of faces to make.  “If you’re going to say no, do it with a smile!”  No one has ever said that to my son.  Ever.

Toys, clothes, and especially shoes that are made for girls are absolutely worthless trash.  Many of them are designed to show off assets that girls that age don’t even know they should want to have.  And they are not designed for any kind of active play.  I can buy shorts and shirts for my son and expect the next two kids to wear them out when they get around to acquiescing to being clothed.  My daughters are no longer passing clothes down to each other – they get holes or become misshapen in about 3 months of careful wear.  If the kids wear them to play outside, the clothes are ruined immediately.

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I could also pick through talks and lessons from church, children’s books, television programming, movies, lunch boxes, magazines, and newspaper headlines, and complain all day about this – girls are taught to sit still and look pleasing/hot.  Girls are taught to look to others for approval, permission, and even a sense of self.

So where do these girls go for power?  If a girl’s identity is based on her relationships and her ability to coax “Princess” out of someone with authority, what will she do if and when people stop swooping in to save and comfort her for a scraped knee, or aid her in getting to the top of the slide?  Will she realize that sending messages of sexual availability can give her both status and power?  When we rush in to deliver our girls from over-exertion and apprehension, we aren’t teaching them to be gentle and pliant, we’re teaching them that they should use other people to get what they want rather than getting it themselves.  We’re teaching them to manipulate others.  And since we’re teaching this to all girls, we’re implicitly teaching them to manipulate men to get what they need.  Is it any wonder that girls are then so likely to obsess about their looks, to dress in ways that make parents and elders so uncomfortable, to become consumed with portraying just the right persona at the expense of other pursuits?

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I think it is vitally important for me to first and foremost, look to my children, individually, to know how to raise them, individually.  When the woman with an issue of blood came to Jesus and touched the hem of his garment, Jesus said, “I perceive that virtue has gone out of me.”  I love that phrase, because it tells me that virtue is not something we put on, like a straight jacket, to prevent our wicked selves from flailing around and laying waste to our surroundings, it is something living inside, that we bring out to bless others.  This is how I attempt to deal with my children.  I try to look at them as fully human people with less experience in meeting their own needs, not as raw material that must be molded into the correct shape.  My job is to facilitate the bringing forth of their inherent virtue, and that often means weeding out actors who wish to direct my kids rather than to support them in their self-direction.

The forces that wish to train my girls to be humble and teachable are not the only ones I feel the need to engage and subvert.  Pop culture – movies, television, music, and all the attendant merchandising that it serves, often portrays itself as the answer to antiquated and burdensome gender roles, and its message to my girls seems to be, “Your body is your currency, and if you give us all your money and all your brain cells, and all your hours, and your will, we will protect the value of your currency.”  We live in a country that spent $8.1 billion on cosmetic surgery in 2015.  In 2014, 92% of cosmetic surgery patients were women, and breast enhancement was the top cosmetic surgery.  But we still don’t have a single, solitary diagnostic test for lactation supply.  If you have trouble breastfeeding your baby, the medical industry in the United States has one drug for you, and zero tests to look at why you might be having problems.

As a stay-at-home, homeschooling mom to 7 children, I get my fair share of funny looks.  If I happen to tell someone I am a die-hard feminist and have named 4 of my 6 daughters after movers and shakers in the suffrage and reproductive freedom movements, I get to watch their eyes really bug out.  What is it that would lead people to believe that feminism is not compatible with bearing children and baking bread?  Why do people who work with children receive some of the worst compensation in the United States?  When did we collectively decide that work that is traditionally done by women is, by its nature, menial and low class?   And why are we perpetuating those myths?  What happens to girls who want to have babies, when we tell them that caring for those babies full time until they are raised is a job for the self-indulgent, the ignorant, and the poverty-stricken?  Why have we discarded the idea that mothers and grandmothers should pass on skills and knowledge to their daughters and granddaughters?  Why doesn’t Hillary Clinton, the feminist with the largest podium in the world, have anything to say about birth justice, or relieving onerous tax burdens on single-income families?  Why are all her solutions to the problems of women focused on programs that simultaneously direct more power and money to government agencies – institutions that are, and always have been, dominated by men?  Where is her concern for the women and girls eking out an existence in countries she is so eager to bomb?

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I value the work that I do in my home – not so much the cooking, and the cleaning, and the wiping of tiny rears, but the creation of a safe place for small humans to chase bliss.  I love to see my children healthy and clear-headed and strong-limbed.  I like cleaning off the dirt they earned during the day, because I like to see the physical evidence of their pursuit of new knowledge.  I value the efforts I make to expose my kids to knowledge and skills, and I value the work I do to inspire them to keep working until their interests become passions.  I cherish the headaches that come from several instruments being played at the same time to different music.  I love the opportunities I get to learn how to say sorry and make it right with a kid who is learning how to own herself and know her needs and desires.

Please hear me, now.  You can’t put a bow on domestic drudgery, call it God’s will for women, and make me love it.  I will always try to get out of doing chores.  Nor can you look at all the boring, dirty, hard parts of my life and tell me I am wasting my time.  Both approaches completely miss the heart of motherhood.  The job that I have dedicated my time, and my health, and my sanity to, is a simple, repeated act of showing up for the tiny people who depend on me.  It’s an opportunity for me to reach into my soul and drag out the best I have to offer, and it’s an opportunity to overcome my fears and my failings.  This is how I Woman.

I will not teach my daughters that God expects them to cook and clean and have babies, nor will I teach them that having babies is a side hobby they might want to fit in around other, more worthy pursuits.

I show them that I value the precious chance I get to be a part of another person’s life and heart.  That’s it.  That’s all they need to know.

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