I was nineteen years old when my child entered my life (twenty when he reluctantly saw daylight) and without a moment’s notice I went from a messed up young lower-class drudge to something a whole lot scarier: a Parent. Suddenly, a new life depended wholly on my choices. That’s the obvious part. But as he’s grown, something infinitely more complicated and just as inescapable has crept in. A parent is the only philosopher in the world in the eyes of her young child, and whether she chooses to accept it or not, that responsibility is equally as heavy as survival.
It started with that word so many parents dread: Why? Suddenly, as a sharply perceptive and insatiably curious two year old, my son wanted to know why it was raining; why the dinosaurs died; why humans walk on two legs; why playdough gets hard when you leave it out; why mommy needs to be alone so much; why carrots are orange… the list is endless. And the trite answers were never enough. Without fail, he repeated the question until a point at which the succinct, formulaic responses were exhausted and we entered the territory of theory, critical thinking, scientific reasoning– in essence, of belief, doubt, knowledge and meaning.
I have with such frequency indulged in this kind of questioning myself that it came as a shock to me how exhausting and disconcerting it was to be faced with such demands every day, by a person who still couldn’t put his own shirt on or count to twenty. I realized that however often we might think philosophically, in order to function in the world we wear blinders the vast majority of the time, allowing ourselves the kneejerk assumptions that keep us from existential paralysis. To be faced with an eager mind that has not yet formulated these assumptions is a momentous and kind of terrifying task.
I didn’t have a tried and true method of handling this job, so with much trepidation I faced it as a sort of endless experiment. We would have to teach each other. I would have to listen to what he needed and what he could understand; there was no possibility of preparing some kind of lesson plan to guide him through life.
Furthermore, no matter how intellectually open I tried to be, it was literally not possible to give him answers that wouldn’t guide him in a certain way of thinking. I could be idealistic about it and convince myself I was setting him on the right path; I could alert him to the subjectivity of my explanations; I could feel cynical and try to ignore my limitations, but none of that would change the basic fact that I was molding my child into the person he will become. I am the game master. His responses are his own, but the cues, the board he moves on, are mine.
It’s my job to not just say what comes into my head, but to calculate how it will affect him, and monitor his response. Sometimes it’s distasteful. Sometimes it feels artificial and arrogant. But I remind myself that it’s better than the alternative, which is to attempt, self-deludedly, to deny my power and let my words push him where they will. I hate to judge others, but I see parents attempt that “strange denial” every day, and I see the chaos and confusion in the faces of their children; the parroting back of heartbreaking, thoughtless attitudes. I do not want this.
He walks sleepily out of his room in the morning and finds me plucking stray eyebrow hairs by the bathroom mirror. He wraps his arms around my kneecaps and asks what I’m doing. I tell him. He asks the requisite question. I hesitate. A multitude of answers flood over me. Because I feel obligated to by society’s norms of what and how a female-bodied person should be? Because when I didn’t, I was teased and put down for “looking like a butch dyke”? Because I spend time looking in the mirror disliking what I see and agonizing over the best ways to make myself palatable? Because I can’t excise the part of my mind that insists shapely eyebrows are objectively beautiful?
All those statements are true; but are they the truths I want him to carry with him? No. They are not ideas with which he is equipped to deal. They serve no purpose to him, not now. They are not shameful, but they are sad truths, and ones he not only can’t yet understand, but should not have to. I settle on another truth, one that is kind, to him and to myself in his eyes and mine. “Because I choose to,” I tell him; “I like the way they look better this way, and it’s fine to look however you choose to.”
This registers in his gaze. “I want my hair to look like Shaggy,” [i.e., from Scooby Doo] he says, grinning.
Another day, he asks me why I have so many piercings, and I give him roughly the same answer. “Can I get rings in my ears too?” he asks. “Not now,” I say. “That’s not a decision kids can make. But when you’re eighteen, you can get any piercings you want.” He considers this. “Well, I don’t want to,” he says decisively. He never wanted to. He just wanted to know where he stood. Sometimes, he is experimenting with me, as well, and I’m okay with that.
We are in a diner, indulging my craving for hashbrown potatoes with jalapenos and onions, and he is coloring a picture of two children buckled into a car’s backseat. One of them, who has Princess Leia buns, is becoming blue with orange hair; the other, with glasses and a baseball cap, is getting orange skin.
“Will his hat be blue?” I ask. He doesn’t hesitate to think about this, but I immediately do, and become self-critical. Since when do I buy so wholly into gendered signifiers? Why would I impress such an assumption on him? I try to make a quick save of the situation. “Or her hat,” I amend. “We can’t really tell, can we?”
“This one is a boy,” he says definitively.
He shrugs. “Because I decided he is. They are brother and sister.”
The results of my inadvertent experiment are confirmed. There must have been uncountable instances in which I unthinkingly perpetuated similar gendered, archetypal ideas; so have all the other adults in his life. Regardless of how he chooses to frame it, he understands that cartoon people with glasses and baseball caps are male; those with buns are female; and male-female pairings are by default siblings. I have taught him to assume ideas that sicken me. And I have proven that I still hold those assumptions much more than I’d like to admit.
The good part is: Lesson learned. Now I am more cognizant. When we encounter characters whose sex and gender are not specified, I either use gender-neutral pronouns, or I challenge common practice by defaulting to feminine ones. I’d be the last to say make any kind of gendered assumption, with or without signifiers, is an end goal, but in the interim it’s a way to compensate for the conditioning he’s clearly already internalized.
I watch him to gauge the results. The change is slow, maybe imperceptible. But I try, and I watch and listen. That’s all I can do. That’s all any of us can do. The important thing is to know we’re doing it.