As a parent, I try for lofty goals. Like perfect badass coffee. Like Zionist, piano-playing children with clean nails who turn off the iPad of their own volition and say, let’s just talk. Most ambitious–and perhaps impossible–may be my crusade to raise children beyond society’s limiting definitions of gender.
When I had my first two kids, boys, I was determined to help them find their own way. I would have loved to keep it pure, echoing the test that went viral recently, which explains how to know if a toy is for boys or for girls:
Do you operate this toy with genitalia?
If Yes, this toy is not for children.
If No, this toy is for everyone.
But I knew if I had any hope of actually besting the artificial distinctions, I would have to overcompensate.
I would create a grand utopia. All colors would be welcome in this brave new world: pink and blue equally, and ochre and lime and ruby, too. The boys would know from both a toy stroller and a digger. There would be, I decided magnanimously, dolls and blocks and pretend cupcakes for everyone.
Never mind that the boys rammed stroller, digger, and anything with wheels into the wall without bias. Never mind that the dolls were prodded, poked, and then promptly dismembered. Never mind that as soon as they started watching television and attending school, they themselves drew a line between boy things and girl things, looking somewhat embarrassed for me when I seemed not to know the difference. In those early years, I was just getting started. I dug in, bracing for the long road ahead.
Then I had my third baby, the girl, and suddenly I was raising hell again. Disney princesses were banned–both the obvious male-fantasy variety as well as the more subtle bookish type. Praise, I directed people, should include two parts smart girl/strong girl to one part pretty girl, no exceptions. Also, we would be Barbie-free.
As my girl grew, she climbed trees with her brothers and ran around with a football twice as big as her head, yelling touchdown. And I felt a sense of pride. Even the sway of television and school, which by now I had come to expect, could not dampen me. So what if she put a hand on her hip and a question at the end of her statements a la Minnie Mouse? By the time I got through with her, she would be spouting Women’s Studies theory, and dare I say, presiding over the Supreme Court.
Which is why I was caught off guard the other day when we sat down in her room to play together. First, she built a magna-tile tower with distinct 3-year old Gaudí overtones. Then, she took out her stuffed plush challahs and candlesticks and started to play that she was making Shabbat, imitating me. She puttered around her little kitchen with her plastic frying pan, murmuring blessings. How she beamed.
Something in this stopped me. All along I had been conjuring up ideals that I hoped would help my children transcend neat boxes–not in an arbitrary way, but so as to help them think for themselves, to not be defined by any single package.
Yet at the same time, here I was, teaching them to love a tradition–rich and textured and full of modern interpretations–but nonetheless historically filled with distinct male female roles.
I had made my peace with the fact that my children would be bombarded throughout their lives with society’s gender-driven paths. But I had not realized that in one way, the most intimate and complicated model of these would be me. This seems to be one of the traps of my modern motherhood. It may also be one of its most interesting opportunities.