For Mother's Day, Eleanor Black reflects on the responsibility of raising boys to be feminists
Childbirth is a hallucinogenic haze - at least it was for me - but I clearly remember holding my first son at some point during his first day, looking down at his sweet, sleeping face and thinking, "You will be a good man. I am not raising an a***hole."
What I meant was: you will be a feminist. You will not expect unearned privilege. You will treat all people with respect. You will be a man I can admire. This is what I dreamed of for him and for his little brother when he joined the family.
I came of age in the early 90s, when gender was a fixed construct as far as the vast majority of people were concerned. To be a boy, especially a white boy, was to be the luckiest kind of person there was. Jobs were easier to get, money was easier to come by, talent and ability were assumed. To be a girl at this time was to understand that the way you looked mattered more than just about anything else. And not only that, it was the way you looked to boys and men – how did they rate your attractiveness? My girlfriends and I were the kids who had been told in the 80s that girls could do and be anything at all, then went to high school with boys who didn't respect our opinions, ambitions or authority over our bodies. Not all boys, but enough boys.
I was determined that I would not raise boys who believed that the world owed them a golden ticket. I am not alone in this quest. My husband cooks and cleans and takes our two sons to their appointments. I do more of the household stuff because of the way we have structured our family life (and there is complex societal scaffolding that supports and favours our choices) but the boys see the main man in their lives engaged in traditionally "female" pursuits - and that matters.
We have other good men in our lives who are role models too – the boys' godfathers, close family friends, uncles, adult cousins. Men who believe in equality, who solve problems without anger and who can cry without feeling they have "failed". And we have encircled our boys with strong, smart, kind women who love them dearly and show them just what women are capable of achieving.
As a family we talk a lot (too much, possibly; our boys don't know when to zip it) about sexism and racism and elitism and ageism and ableism. We're trying to squash all of those "isms" to the best of our ability. You can't teach a child that men and women are equal if you don't also teach them that people of all races, sexual orientations, gender identities, religions and socioeconomic backgrounds are equal. People are people are people. This is a lifelong undertaking and it's work and obviously we don't always get it right – but we are engaged in the process. All of us.
What I find dismaying is how powerfully the tide pushes against our puny efforts. This week it emerged that the Supreme Court of the United States had voted to overturn the landmark Roe v Wade decision, meaning access to abortion would no longer be protected by federal law. It was time, in the words of Justice Samuel Alito, to "return the issue of abortion to the people's elected representatives", rather than preserve access for the women affected.
This week entrepreneur Nadia Lim was described by DGL chief executive Simon Henry as "a little bit of Eurasian fluff". This week the UN released a report that found Ukrainian women are disproportionately affected by the Russian invasion, in terms of loss-of-income, health needs and personal safety. In some parts of the country, the police are no longer responding to reports of domestic violence.
That was this week.
Growing up is hard. We have tried to create a warm, restful home where our boys feel safe to be themselves without judgment. We present them with healthy options and we help them make choices about how they spend their time. We debunk "facts" from the internet. We limit the amount of onscreen violence they are exposed to. We're paying attention, which feels important and also exhausting.
When they were small, we provided the boys with books featuring strong females and boys who challenged the norm. Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls and Stories for Boys Who Dare to Be Different were favourites. We encouraged their interest in toys that were not "for them". Our younger son had a Shopkins phase, when he collected tiny toy milkshakes and lollipops and broccoli heads with Kewpie doll eyes and long eyelashes. He would pop them into their little hardshell suitcases and take them in the car.
His big brother played with a dollhouse when he was 3 and 4 and had close female friends until he was about 8, when seemingly overnight all the boys at school decided to play exclusively with other boys. I am hopeful that he will develop close female friendships again, as his dad has.
We have been really happy with all the schools our boys have attended but, honestly, there is some work to be done to break down gender stereotyping in the education system. Everyone wears pink on the anti-bullying Pink Shirt Day, for example, but my 10-year-old won't wear his pink shirt on any other occasion because he believes pink is for girls and nothing I can say will change his mind. School uniforms seem antiquated in the way they almost always divide the student body into skirt-wearers and non-skirt-wearers, and there is little thought for the non-binary kids and what they might want to wear. A friend told me her son, 12, was teased for having a "gay" backpack because it was purple. The fact that "gay" is still widely used as an insult on playgrounds across this country is a problem.
Not long ago, I was driving with my 10-year-old in thick Auckland traffic. I needed to merge into the left-hand lane. I put my indicator light on and the car next to me sped up to prevent me moving. Why do people do that – such a hollow victory? I gritted my teeth and waited for an opportunity: finally, a gap. Once I had pulled safely into the left lane, I noticed the guy behind me in my rearview mirror gesticulating with a red face. Then he honked. Repeatedly. I could see no reason for it – we were stopped at a red light.
Suddenly, he got out of his car, walked up and banged on the back window next to my son's seat, giving us both a fright. I rolled down my window and asked him what was wrong. "I was blown away you didn't thank me," he yelled, flapping his arms. Huh. I declined the opportunity to thank him and rolled up my window. My son said, "How did I know that was going to be an old white dude?" We laughed and got on with our day. But I wondered if I was in the wrong. Normally I would wave at a helpful driver, but this man had barely slowed to let me in and I didn't think a wave was warranted. And then I got annoyed that I was dissecting this minor incident at all.
This kind of thing happens to women all the time. It's stupid and petty but it's also indicative of the fact that things aren't right. Angry men think they can take it out on women whenever they want, wherever they want. Would this man have yelled at me if I was a male driver? Maybe. Would he have felt bold enough to get out of his car and confront a male driver about not "thanking" him. I very much doubt it.
It's a simple thing, but this is what I am hoping to avoid, with my precious boys. I don't want them to ever think they are owed a thank you for doing the bare minimum.