Wednesday, October 15, 2008

I'm Every Woman

I'm Every Woman

I'm having the biggest ego trip in my life. Lucas, at one-and-a-half years old, sees me everywhere. He notices a woman in a magazine ad and squeals, "Mommy!" Same squeal with the woman on the back of the Cheerios box, the female firefighter in his picture book, and the image of a mermaid in the Starbucks logo is Mommy. (Okay, maybe that last one has more to do with the frequency with which Mommy visits Starbucks.) Every woman depicted, regardless of ethnicity, age, or any remote likeness to me, is Mommy to him. His squeals are embedded with such toddler joy - a sense of accomplishment as he identifies women and relates them to me.

But beyond the ego trip, there is the surprise that at 18 months, he already can identify gender. From the post-modern, leftist education I received, I was under the impression that gender was more of a continuum, and that the male/female dichotomy was more a social construction than an absolute. Yes, I have longer hair than Hubby, but I'd admit to exhibiting many so-called "masculine" qualities too. The stereotypical image of a woman I certainly am not. But there must be some obvious characteristics he is observing that he has decided to tag every woman as "Mommy".

But the most recent development has surprised me even further - he has started to engender vehicles. Little cars are "Mommy" and big trucks are "Daddy" both expressed with the same zeal. I avoid positively reinforcing this differentiation. Where is he getting that from? Before Lucas was born, I was determined we would not reinforce boy and girl stereotypes, that my boy would wear pink and play with dolls. Yet, just as many other ideas I had before my child was born, it hasn't happened as planned. Lucas loves trucks almost more than life itself, with trains (especially Thomas and his motley crew) a close second. He also has a play kitchen and grocery cart - toys that my brother, 15 years ago, would not buy for his boys thinking them too "girly". But I have not bought him a doll yet and I can't bring myself to have him wear pink. So, even though we veer away from television and other influences that are eager to teach him what it means to be a boy or a girl, it is still happening.

As the major players in his life, we are the ones who are constructing the meaning of gender for him. Last week, my husband picked Lucas up from daycare and found him kissing two other girls. We joked about him playing the field, and it became a cute story to tell to family and friends. The other day when I dropped off Lucas, he kissed his male friend which I thought was equally sweet. However, looking back, I realize I didn't acknowledge it nor did I tell that story to any family or friends. And at this age, it's not about heterosexuality or homosexuality, either of which is fine by me, but it's about subtle reinforcements of masculine behaviour and preference. Those subtle reinforcements play out every moment of every day, when Daddy fixes the car while Mommy fixes dinner, when we skip the "girls" section of the toy store and make a beeline for the vehicles, when I refuse to let him use a pacifier that is purple, or when we say things like "boys will be boys" as an excuse for misbehaviour or aggressiveness.

I've come to believe that gender is probably not entirely socially constructed - that boys and girls probably come out with certain preferences. But it's what we do as parents and caregivers to promote those preferences and to hide alternatives that helps them define what is "normal" or acceptable. When we consciously demonstrate stereotypical gender roles or unconsciously hide opportunities for them to view alternate gender roles, we are playing a part in constructing their understanding of gender. When we reinforce gender dichotomies, we define our kids' understanding of what it is to be a little boy or a little girl as oppositional. So, next time my little son points at a Toyota Yaris and says, "Mommy!" and a Ford F-150 truck and says "Daddy!", I realize I need to be the one to climb into that truck and show him that things aren't always black or white.

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