Wednesday, December 16, 2015

"I Don't Like Girls!"

It happened when we were reading Nate the Great. Nate said he didn't like girls, and then Jack concurred. I said, "What about Henri [as in Henrietta] and Izzy and Maggie?" Jack's response was to tell me all about Sebastian and how he's "the messiest in the world!"

I tried not to take it too seriously, but it didn't stop there. Jack also told me quite forcefully that he didn't like pink because it was for girls. "It's okay if you don't like pink," I told him, "but pink can be for anybody--boys or girls."

I'm told it's normal at his age to take gender identification to extremes. He's trying to figure out what being a boy means, because he's only recently become aware of the concept.

But it still worries me when he excludes the female doll from his elaborate playtime scenarios. "I don't want any girls," he says. I just have to remind him that one of his favorite people in the world--me--just happens to be a girl.

And pretty soon he'll have another favorite girl (we hope). We found out yesterday that Jack will soon be having a little sister. His reaction, as you might expect, was one of disappointment: "I don't want a girl. I want a brudder!"

When I was pregnant with Jack, I debated about whether I wanted to find out the sex. My stomach turned at the very prospect of all the pink and ruffles and glitter and princesses that might be headed our way. I have no patience for that junk. This time, I knew we would find out because I wanted the baby to be real for Jack, and right now, gender is what's real to him, whether I like it or not.

Half a year of pre-K 3 has made him all too aware that he's supposed to steer clear of "girl stuff." But now girl stuff will come into his life whether he likes it or not. And I expect he'll warm up to it all--sister included.

Coming up: Another book review? The longest post ever? Complete sentences? Find out next time on Oh, the Iron Man.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Books We Love: "Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress" by Christine Baldacchino

There is something about seeing a gorgeously illustrated book artfully displayed in my local bookstore: I can't resist. And it didn't hurt, with Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress, that I was feeling guilty. Before Jack was born, I said I would offer him all the options, regardless of gender. He would get girls' and boys' toys in equal measure, and that included girls' clothes in the dress-up box. But when it came down to it, the best I could do was a play kitchen and one of my old purses (which, by the way, Jack loves).

So I bought a book about a boy who wears a dress.

My desire to give Jack "girl things" to play with does not come from some crazy liberal desire to make him transgender or some crazy feminist desire to emasculate him. All I want is for him to feel that feminine items, whether they be dresses or dolls or tea sets, are as valid--and valued--as superheroes, trucks, and dinosaurs. This, I believe, is the beginning of truly valuing women and all the emotions, jobs, and pastimes that are labeled feminine. It's not just about wearing a dress or carrying a purse; it's about erasing gender stereotypes. (But I digress. There will be much, much more on this another day.) However, I think my fear of what my husband or other family members would say or think kept me from going as far as I wanted. Morris Micklewhite gave me a way to share something with Jack that I couldn't quite accomplish in real life.

The book is not explicitly about a transgender child. (If that's what you're looking for, here's a good list.) Morris has reasons for liking the dress and high heels from his classroom's dress-up box: the dress is the color of his mother's hair and makes a swishing sound when he walks, and the heels create a satisfying click with each step. He never expresses a desire to be a girl. He still loves stereotypically boy things, like spaceships. For him liking both dresses and spaceships is completely logical.

But his classmates don't see how these things can coexist. "Astronauts don't wear dresses," the other boys in his class tell him. The girls are just as harsh: "You can't wear it! You're a boy!" When the girls see that Morris's mother has painted his fingernails, they chase him around the playground shouting, "Pinky fingers!" And when he sits down to eat his snack with the boys, they all scoot away, saying, "We don't want you to turn us into girls."

Jack has started to sound like Morris's classmates. More than once he's told me, "I don't like girls" or "That's for girls." I will write about how I have dealt with this in greater detail later, but for now I will just say that it hurts my heart when he says these things. It hurts most because I know he doesn't mean them. He has friends who are girls and he loves them. But the world is quickly teaching him, despite my best efforts, that he needs to belong to a certain group, that he must identify with that group if he wants to feel accepted. And identifying with that group means denigrating another.

But really, who wants their child to hurt the way Morris does? Don't we all want our children to feel like they belong? After the snack-time shunning, Morris pretends to be sick so he can miss school the next day. At home with his mother, he feels safe and happy. He escapes into his make-believe world where all of his favorite things--rocket ships, his pet cat, elephants, and the tangerine dress--can play happily together. He creates a gorgeous painting of a space jungle with him in the tangerine dress sitting atop a blue elephant. His pet cat is even wearing a space helmet. He goes back to school with a newfound confidence. Because the boys tell him he can't ride in their spaceship, he makes his own and hangs his painting on the front. The boys are curious. "Are there really elephants in space?" they ask. Morris, who would never think of treating these boys the way they treated him, invites them into his ship to join him on his adventure.

This seems too simple. Too easy. Yes, it's a children's book, so it's going to be simple, but as an adult, I can see so many places where this story could go wrong. For instance, where is Morris's father? Absent fathers in children's stories are pretty common, but in this story, I can just see a certain type of psychologist homing in on Morris's relationship with his mother: Are they too close? Is he overly dependent on her because his father left? Does he just need someone to teach him how to "be a man"? And where is the teacher in all this? I imagine he or she is okay with Morris wearing the dress, because we never see the teacher tell him he can't. But I can see many scenarios in which the teacher, or another adult, would step in and tell him dresses are for girls and he needs to take it off.

But thinking about this story with an adult mind is not the point. I'm glad the book's story is less complicated than real life. The book shows us what would happen if adults and society and advertisements stopped telling our children who they should be. If they got to decide, they would play with the kid with the best imagination, no matter what he was wearing.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Pulling Teeth and Weighing Brains

"Early brain scientists, using the cutting-edge techniques of the time, busily filled empty skulls with pearl barley, carefully categorized head shape using tape measures and devoted large portions of careers to the weighing of brains. Infamously, they proposed that women’s intellectual inferiority stemmed from their smaller and lighter brains, a phenomenon that came to be widely known among the Victorian public as ‘the missing five ounces of the female brain.'"

This passage in Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine could easily be a storyline from The Knick, currently my favorite TV show. Steven Soderbergh's vision of a hospital in early 1900s New York is both modern and beautifully (mostly) historically accurate. And after spending too much time thinking about a current book on the "medically proven" differences between male and female brains (Why Gender Matters) and then beginning to read a compelling counterargument (Delusions of Gender), The Knick's depiction of what passed for medicine in 1903 feels almost uncomfortably relevant.

A perfect example: Dr. Gallinger's wife is sent to an insane asylum, supposedly one of the best. (After her baby dies, she loses her mind. Her husband's solution is to adopt another baby, and of course, in a delusional state, she kills it.) John Hodgeman plays a psychiatrist with revolutionary treatments for mental illness. He believes mental illness is caused by infections, specifically in a person's teeth. So when Gallinger comes to the asylum to visit his wife for the first time, she greets him with a toothless grin. The psychiatrist then informs Gallinger that he plans to remove her tonsils and spleen as well. This insanity was considered sound medicine.

While I was deeply unsettled by the teeth pulling, what surprises me is how little we've learned about the brain since then. We still have only a vague understanding of how to treat mental illness. The medications we use affect the brain in ways doctors don't fully understand--which is why a person with mental health issues may have to try several different types of medication before finding one (or more than one) that works. Doctors have made so many amazing advancements in so many areas that we begin to forget they still have mysteries to solve.

"Even the untrained twenty-first-century layperson can see that [weighing brains instead of measuring skulls] brought scientists only a little closer to understanding the mystery of how brain cells create the engine of the mind, and can sense the unfortunate hastiness of the conclusion that women’s cognitive inferiority to men could be weighed in ounces. It may seem like the same sort of prejudice couldn’t possibly creep into the contemporary debate because now we are all so enlightened; perhaps even … overenlightened? Writers who argue that there are hardwired differences between the sexes that account for the gender status quo often like to position themselves as courageous knights of truth, who brave the stifling ideology of political correctness. Yet claims of ‘essential differences’ between the two sexes simply reflect--and give scientific authority to--what I suspect is really a majority opinion. If history tells us anything, it is to take a second, closer look at our society and our science."

Coming up: Will I actually finally write about the worst book I've ever read? Or will I just continue to stew in my annoyance? Will I find the time to finish reviews of one of the great children's books with a female lead and one of the new children's books that has captured my heart? Find out next time on Oh, The Iron Man. (And I promise next time will come sooner rather than later.)

Monday, November 23, 2015

Feeling All the Feelings

My woman brain won't let me write a post. Okay, I'm sort of kidding, but after reading two books that insist that women's brains are inherently different from men's--wired for emotions, wired for caution--I think I'm starting to believe it.

Seriously, though, I haven't been able to finish a post to put on this blog. I missed my deadline yesterday, and now, here I am typing a placeholder post, just so I don't feel like a complete failure.

I got stuck for a few reasons. One, I read two books that were so full of gender nonsense that my brain got scrambled. Two, I read a great first-person article on Vox that got me thinking about race and gender and the intersection of the two and the fact that I have an interracial marriage and an interracial child, which is something I rarely think about, and, wait, why don't I think about it more? Three, I started to really doubt my ability to say anything meaningful, a feeling that only made me wonder if I really do have a stupid female brain that is keeping me from succeeding by constantly undermining me with self-doubt.

Obviously, I've got a lot of stuff going on. I'm a thinker. I'm an overthinker. So, at least now you know what you're getting into if you follow this blog. I will think stuff to death. But I'll try to do it on my own time and only give you the edited version.

I'll leave you with a quote from that Vox article, "I Never Noticed How Racist So Many Children's Books Are Until I Started Reading to My Kids" by Leigh Anderson:

The YA writer Shannon Hale notes that when she speaks at school assemblies, the administrations often will grant girls permission to attend her lectures, but not boys. For male authors writing books with male protagonists, the school will allow both boys and girls to attend. Hale writes: "[T]he idea that girls should read about and understand boys but that boys don't have to read about girls, that boys aren't expected to understand and empathize with the female population of the world...this belief leads directly to rape culture." It's not a far leap to imagine that white children reading only about white children will stunt their empathy for people of other races.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Zero Things I've Learned from Raising One Three-Year-Old Child with a Penis

It seems every few weeks an article titled something like "11 Things Only Parents of Boys Understand" pops up in my Facebook feed. These articles are often written by otherwise progressive people who for some reason don't see the problem with attributing their children's actions to their genitalia.

And, inevitably, I read these articles (why?!) only to find that I can relate to, at most, one or two items on the list. Yes, Jack loves Star Wars (mostly because I taught him to). But no, he doesn't give better hugs than girls (and why is that a competition, anyway?) or constantly want to wrestle. He loves to sit still and read one book after another--even chapter books--and he's only three. He loves to draw, sometimes for half an hour or more without stopping. Maybe he's the exception. Or maybe the world is full of exceptions and we should stop trying to make rules.

Raising one child (or even two or three) of one sex does not give anyone any special knowledge about all children of that sex. Jack is one special, wonderful little person, but he is an individual, and I have learned nothing from raising him that I can apply to all boys. If I based all my knowledge of boys on Jack, I would think they were all picky eaters who like to sing songs full of nonsense words and sleep on the wrong end of the bed. 

I think people feel compelled to write these articles for a couple of reasons (assuming they are not really into maintaining traditional gender roles for the sake of humanity). First, they are a little surprised when their children fit so well into the stereotypes they were once reluctant to accept. Second, when the parents are women who really wanted a girl or men who really wanted a boy, they feel the need to convince themselves that having the opposite of what they wanted is actually great--or even better than what they originally dreamed of.

I understand these urges. I'll admit, when I imagined having a baby, I always imagined having a girl. I felt like I understood girls better than boys. And why not? I used to be a little girl. But what I found was that Jack ended up being so much like me in temperament and personality that I had little trouble understanding him. It didn't matter that he was a boy.

Being in school has introduced Jack to the idea that he belongs to a certain gender called "boy," and he is very enthusiastic about identifying with this group. It's an instinct we all have--we gravitate toward the people that we understand to be most like us. It always surprises me, though, how many adults have not learned to move past this basic instinct. They automatically put Jack into a category because he has a penis, even though he doesn't fit into that category very well. I can't stop them from doing it. The best I can do is keep teaching Jack that he can love dancing and reading and art and Star Wars and soccer and dinosaurs and those things don't belong to either gender. They belong to everyone.

Coming up: Will I finish Strong Mothers, Strong Sons before it sucks the life force out of me? Will I manage to post more than one thing next week? Find out next time on Oh, The Iron Man.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

That's Just Super

The best way to begin is with superheroes. They saturate a little boy's life from birth. My son, Jack, knew superheroes' names before he knew their stories or watched or read about them. They were on his clothes, in his toy box, on our bookshelves. So when my husband said jokingly, about something or other, "Oh, the irony!" Jack looked at him quizzically. "Oh, the Iron Man?" Barely three, and he had already been indoctrinated.

The superhero tales that inspire huge nerd followings have story lines and illustrations filled with sex and violence. Female characters are all cleavage and half-exposed butt cheeks. Every wrong is righted with bloody (or weirdly bloodless) revenge. These are not the lessons my 3-year-old son needs to learn, and they are not the lessons I want to teach him. The problem is, I love superheroes and so does my husband. Everything from Ant-Man to X-Men is part of our pop culture lexicon. We could hardly wait to share these things with Jack because they mean so much to us. So how do I let my kiddo act out superhero stories without acting out (too much) violence, without learning the wrong things about women, without becoming one of those guys?

When Jack was about two, we started letting him watch a little TV. We stuck to PBS, because it was educational and appropriate. Right around that time, PBS premiered a show called Peg + Cat. The show's main character is a little girl named Peg who loves math, singing, and her hilarious sidekick, Cat. In some episodes, Peg becomes Super Peg, and along with Cat Guy, she protects the city of Mathtropolis from the Arch Villain, Triangulo, and other math-themed supervillains. I saw in this the superhero lessons I wanted Jack to learn: kindness, fairness, imagination, empowerment, fun. If only all superhero stories could be so toddler appropriate.

From there, it got harder. Now I spend a lot of time reminding him that we don't shoot people, or hurt people, or kill people. What I've realized, especially now that we're expecting our second child, is that I need to figure out how to raise Jack in a world that, for the most part, still wants boys to be something very different from what I want Jack to be.

Coming up on Oh, The Iron Man: I will stress about raising my little feminist so you don't have to (or don't have to as much). I'll spend all my time scouring the world of comic books and story books for little-kid-appropriate stories, preferably with strong female lead characters. And I'll read books I would never voluntarily read so I can better understand what I'm facing--for example, Strong Mothers, Strong Sons: Lessons Mothers Need to Raise Extraordinary Men. If the title of that book makes you want to throw up, this is the blog for you.