“You’re just a girl,” I heard my 7-year-old sputter, and the world stopped spinning.
He was mad at me for punishing his brother, and in a defensive, little brother way, he was sticking up for his idol by trying to argue Kostyn’s case. When I shut him down Evan muttered “stupid” – a word they’re not supposed to use in this house – before his last-ditch effort to dismiss the punishment by dissing the parent.
“You’re just a girl.”
My first instinct was to drag him by the ear to my laptop in the other room, plop him down at my desk and pull up a video of a woman giving birth. Because I’m pretty sure nobody can witness the incredible feats of will and strength and selflessness that a woman calls upon to bring forth another human being into this world and ever use the word “just” again when describing her gender. But I thought that might be a little too graphic for his elementary school mind.
Still. Just a girl? Oh, my son. No. As soon as he said it and saw the crazed look in his mother’s eyes when I walked slowly into his bedroom and dared him to repeat what he’d said, he reneged. “I didn’t say anything,” he pleaded innocently, over and over, until I let him scamper off to find his brother.
I stood there in the hallway staring at my reflection in the mirror. You might think this is an overreaction to a second-grader’s off-handed comment, which I know was designed to make me mad, but I felt sick to my stomach. I considered the fact that he’d been watching me apply mascara at the exact moment he’d said what he’d said, and I somehow felt sheepish for this, as if I was perpetuating stereotypes of girls just wanting to be pretty.
They’re always watching me, my sons. I’m cognizant of the fact that I’m raising future men who will have opinions of women they might not consciously even recognize. But those opinions will someday color who they befriend and who they defend, who they work for and who they hire, who they date and who they hate and who they elect president. Those subconscious opinions will influence whether they see a woman as “assertive” or “bitchy,” as “a bad driver” or “a defensive driver,” as “empathetic” or “sappy.” And all of that, on some basic level, is being formed right here in this house. And in their dad’s house. And everywhere else, which is terrifying.
I began to wonder what subtle gender biases and expectations were seeping into their little psyches just by being in this world. Last weekend I’d helped Evan build a robot from a kit he’d gotten for Christmas, and as I twisted each wire and turned every tiny screw, I tried to ignore his occasional commentary: “Maybe we should have Daddy do this; he’s really good at building things.” Yes he is, exceptionally good. But I’ll be damned if they’re going to grow up in a world where they only see men wield tools.
So yeah, they’ve watched me put on makeup, and they’ve watched me curl my hair, and they’ve watched me try on three different pairs of shoes with the same outfit. They’ve also watched me mow the lawn, and kill giant spiders in their bedroom as they run screaming in the other direction.
They’ve watched me wash the dishes every night and fold the laundry and scrub the toilet. And they’ve watched me hang pictures and assemble shelving units (and half-swear a lot while doing that) and replace batteries and unclog drains and shovel the driveway. They’ve watched me choke back tears while re-reading blog posts I wrote about their baby and toddler days. They’ve watched me compliment strangers, bake cookies for neighbors and let drivers into my lane. And they’ve watched me climb to the top of the jungle gym, dribble a soccer ball, and dance with both of them in my arms.
They’ve watched me fail them, and apologize to them. And they’ve watched me cry, more times than I care to admit.
So what does “just a girl” mean to him? I wondered. Is it all going wrong, despite my efforts? Is it inevitable, this bias? This gender inequality? This ‘just’?
Rather than call them both up for a lecture on how I never want to hear anything like that from either of them, I decided I needed to know where Evan in particular is in terms of defining us – both of us. So I called him over to me, and told him he could earn back Kostyn’s stuffed animals if he helped me out with something first. Always wanting to be his brother’s hero, he said yes immediately. I pulled out a sheet of paper and wrote “Boys” and “Girls” at the top.
“I want you to write down what you think of when you think of these two things,” I explained, handing him the marker. “There’s no right or wrong answers, just anything that comes to your mind. This is not a test. It doesn’t matter what you write, you’ll still get your brother’s friends back.”
He smiled – he still is young enough to love “homework” – and immediately started writing. I walked away. When I returned, he looked up and smiled again.
“I have so many things for girls but I can’t think of many for boys,” he said. I glanced at the paper. Under “Boys” he had written “Like to fight.” Under “Girls” he had written “Some like dolls. Most like pink and purple. Not like to fight.”
“OK, cool,” I said. “How about some describing words? Not necessarily what things boys or girls like, but what are they like?”
“Ohhh,” he said. We got out a second piece of paper and started again. I walked away again. When I came back, he had three things listed under “Boys:” Nice. Mean. Outdoors. This time the “Girls” column was empty.
“I don’t really know what girls are like,” he said. “They’re all different.”
“Think about the girls in your class,” I said. “Or your aunts, or your cousins Cora and Ziva, Grammy, Nana, you know lots of girls.”
He still looked stuck, and I realized I liked that he was having a hard time, that maybe he wasn’t able to lump all girls into a few descriptive boxes. We are not all pink and purple.
I was going to let him go at that. But then I blurted out, “Why don’t you use me then. If one of your classmates asked you to describe your mom, what words would you use?”
This, I knew as I was saying it, was what I really wanted all along: The chance to see myself through his eyes. “Just” what am I to him? I wondered. Not so much “How am I doing as a parent?” as “What impression of half of this world’s population am I helping to make?”
It only took another minute and he was done.
I smiled. I thanked him. I filled his arms with his brother’s confiscated stuffed animals. Then I went back to the mirror to finish blow-drying my hair.