I’m pretty good at having uncomfortable conversations. I’m a therapist. I’ve been talking with people for years about consent, misogyny, and patriarchy. My great-grandmother — who immigrated from Eastern Europe to New York City and managed to become her high school’s valedictorian — marched for women’s suffrage with Susan B. Anthony, for crying out loud.
In other words, I’ve been raised knowing that women can do anything, and should be given the opportunity to do so.
But as each devastating story of harassment, assault, and rape finds a hard-won voice in this #MeToo moment, I wonder if my deep feminist roots will be enough to inform who my son becomes in the world. How do I raise my child to be a post-#MeToo citizen?
The #MeToo movement has demanded that we do the work to earn our feminist credentials; it’s not enough to say “look how I voted” or even “I made a feminist movie or TV show.” We must insist that we and our children treat women with respect and dignity in relationships in all contexts — whether at school or at work, romantic partners or otherwise.
The public discourse around the insidious and ubiquitous reaches of rape culture has reached a pitch that is critical, and overwhelming. Recently, I’ve found myself in conflict with favorite family members and friends — allies! — as these discussions split over generational and gender divides. Last month, for example, I posted an article on Facebook that drew a correlation between a government that doesn’t get consent from its citizens and sexual exploitation. An elderly aunt — a feminist — responded with the suggestion that I was “too angry.”
The truth is, though, I’m far less concerned about the people currently on social media — it’s the future I’m worried about. My son is 18 months old. While we don’t know yet how he’ll identify on the spectrum of sex and gender, I feel a tremendous responsibility to prepare him to be a mindful, committed citizen — a feminist — who invites connection in a way that honors himself and whomever he’s with.
This sounds so beautiful that I can nearly picture my great-grandmother rising from the grave to “like” my Facebook status. But how to accomplish this seems a daunting task.
My son’s library has books with explicit messages, like A is for Activist and Feminist Baby. He has books that feature people of color, women, and girls as the main characters. My husband and I hope that having these stories and images in front of him will help him consider the experiences of people who don’t look like him, even when American history books may (still!) be filled with primarily white men.
We don’t purchase gender-typed toys or colors — my son has a play kitchen, dolls, and pink shirts. My son sees his father cooking, cleaning, listening, and willingly talking about his feelings. (OK — this last one is a work in progress.) But my husband and I agree that our son needs to be as emotionally literate as the little girls in his life.
We’re trying to cultivate empathy, something that seems like the missing piece for so many of the men in the #MeToo stories. We ask him, “So what do you think that kid was feeling when you took his shovel? How would you feel if he took your shovel?” (Based on actual events!) We’re trying to help him pay attention to body language and other nonverbal cues, since not everybody has a loud voice and it’s hard for some people to speak up.
We model affirmative consent. “Mommy, can Daddy give you a kiss goodbye before you leave?” My husband will say as I head to the front door. “Yes, Daddy, I would love a kiss goodbye,” I respond. It feels a bit performative — and a little silly — but it makes the point. We also acknowledge he has the right to give consent, too, and make an effort to ask him his preferences. Instead of just handing him a baggie of Cheerios, we ask, “Would you like to have a snack now?”
In spite of these efforts, I feel helpless against the world outside. Will the values we’re teaching him stand up to the lousy and toxic messages in our culture about women and how to treat women? Or will he become like the self-loathing, self-serving “Cat Person” or the men of Silicon Valley’s Brotopia, who treat women like props and sexual objects?
At some point, he’s going to end up in a room with someone more vulnerable than he is — and that’s the moment I want him to know what he’s made of. I want him to know in his bones that it’s right (and potentially sexy) to pay deep attention to another person’s experience. I want him to value connection with people more than notches in his belt. And, if he finds himself surrounded by so-called “locker room talk,” I want him to have the words and the confidence to stand up for the values he learned at home.
We have the opportunity — and the duty — to take all the social media chatter, all the marches, and all of the anguish of the #MeToo experiences and distill them into values for our children. I don’t know if the efforts we are making at home will be enough in the face of toxic masculinity, but I will know I tried my hardest. On Saturday, my son marched for equality for the second time in his young life. My hope is that someday I’ll show him the pictures and say, “We marched because standing up for equality is important.” And he will believe me because, in this post-#MeToo world, he won’t know any different.