By Jennifer Berney
When my son was three, as he sat at the kitchen table playing with his Etch-a-Sketch, he offhandedly asked me the following question:
“When Mommy Kellie was a little boy, did she have an Etch-a-Sketch too?”
The wording of this question reveals a lot about our family. To begin with, of course, my son has two moms. I am his birth mother, and so far have played the traditional role of “Mommy”: I’ve been the breast-feeder, the diaper-changer, the lunch-packer, the medicine-giver. But my partner Kellie goes by “Mommy” too. She’s the one he runs to when one of the handles has fallen off of his dresser; she’s the one who brings him to the dump and stops for hot chocolate along the way. My son has never attempted to call my partner “Daddy” and has never stumbled over gender pronouns. And yet, apparently his understanding of gender categories had some room for variation.
“She probably did have an Etch-a-Sketch,” I answered, “but did you know that Mommy Kellie was actually a little girl and not a little boy?”
My son gave me a puzzled look. “When did she change?” he asked me.
“Well,” I answered, “what is she now? Is she a woman or a man?”
He thought for a good while. “She’s a mommy,” he concluded, apparently giving up on the categories I had offered.
Gender was confusing to me too. Before our son was born, I had ideas about raising him gender neutral, not constraining him to our cultural mandates on what colors he could wear or what toys he could play with. I didn’t plan to put him in dresses, but I happily bought a pink onesie and enjoyed imagining him in that. Once he was born, I dressed him in it a number of times. He wore it well. But as he grew older I found I had no desire to replace it with pink t-shirts or lavender sweaters.
I did continue to think about gender and explore this through his wardrobe. I bought a yellow girl’s t-shirt that featured a kitten; I cut off the puffed sleeves and replaced them with straight navy blue ones. On the one hand, it was an act of rebellion: my son liked kittens. Why shouldn’t he be able to wear one on a shirt? On the other hand, it was an act of conformity: I clearly did not want to dress my son in girls’ clothes.
My son is five now, and gender informs our conversations in ways that reveal the values of our culture at large. Recently, after my son had just lost a race to a friend, I tried to explain that winners aren’t by their nature better than losers. I ran this scenario by him: “Mommy Kellie can build a house better than I could ever build a house, but that doesn’t make her better than me, right?”
“No, it just means that she has better skills than you,” he said.
That stung. My partner, an electrician by trade and builder by hobby, offers him a great example of how women can excel at “men’s work.” This is great, but I still worry that our culture has taught him to value her skills above more traditionally feminine pursuits. I tried to explain to him that my skills are pretty awesome too, that making dinner is important, as is teaching grown-ups how to write papers for college (both are things that I do), but I’m not sure he bought it.
In the end, there seems to be no escaping this gender conundrum—no easy way to keep every door open, to convince him that hemming a pair of jeans and installing a dryer vent are both valuable skills and both within his range.
Now that my son is old enough to dress himself, his drawers are filled with Spiderman shirts, Star Wars pajamas, and Transformers underwear. It seems the best that I can do is just embrace and love his boy-identity while trying to make room for balance. Right now balance means that we snuggle in Star Wars pajamas, encourage him to cry when he is sad, and have a “yes” answer on the ready if he ever asks for a pink bike or a Barbie—two things that I’m pretty sure will never happen.
Jennifer Berney’s essays have appeared in Hip Mama, The Raven Chronicles, and the anthology Hunger and Thirst. She is currently working on a memoir, Somehow, which details the years she spent trying to build a family out of donor sperm, mason jars, and needleless syringes. She lives in Olympia, Washington and blogs at http://goodnightalready.com/.