Monthly Archives: September 2009

PSA: 5th Carnival of Feminists has arrived!

The Fifth Carnival of Feminists has landed over at Zero at the Bone, home of the hard-working and super-fabulous Chally, who deserves a big round of applause and the personal service of her choice (too bad my arms don’t reach to Australia, I hear I’m not half bad at this massage thing) for putting it together. My piece Toddlers are triggering has been included, but hardly stands out among the other excellent submissions.

Here’s a small sampling, primarily ones that touch on parenting:

Kate of Rebel Raising has something to say in Is that child crazy? ‘How much of the time are children behaving in the way an adult would if their life were like a child’s life?’ [Kate is the genius behind I Blame the Mother]

“How Can Feminist Mums Avoid Being Humourless Childhood-Ruiners?” Lauredhel and the Hoyden About Town commentariat have a few things to say on the subject.

Veronica, writing at Viva La Feminista, is wondering about the times when speaking up might make things worse. The post is called My privileged nose & reporting a slap to a baby.

amandaw hits it out of the ballpark with Domestic violence, C-sections considered pre-existing conditions at three rivers fog. It’s about ableism, healthcare, ableism, misogyny and ableism.

At Catspaw, Lucy talks about her experiences at university as a trans woman, including dealing with fellow students, professors and study material. The post is called I’m (Mostly Not) Coming Out. [Lucy is a dear friend and helped me with the Glossary entry on trans, transgender, transsexuality — yes, it’s finally up –, so I had to spotlight hers.]

But they’re all stupendous, and you really just need to go over there and check it out.

Raising him purple: a defense of gender neutrality in early childhood

One of the stereotypes about feminists is that we’d have everyone raise their children completely gender-blind, ignoring and eliminating any sex-based variables that pop up, seeking to create a generation of complete androgynes, indistinguishable from each other, with equality achieved through absolute sameness.

Which is complete poppycock, of course.

Except, well, it kind of isn’t. Because I do think there is value in raising our children in a gender-neutral manner. Not in the stereotypical way, perhaps, in that my end goal is as far from creating a generation of androgynes as one can get, but yes, in that I wish we would dress all our infants and toddlers the same regardless of sex, give them the same toys, talk to them the same — even perhaps give them the same names, because so much of gendering is unconscious, and we are unlikely to treat a “Suzette” the same as a “Steve”, no matter how enlightened we think we might be.

There are several reasons I believe this, but first let me say: I’m not interested in judging individuals, or determining whether anyone is “gender-neutral enough” to get whatever gold star or mental checkmark anyone might be imagining goes on in my head. Honestly? I don’t care that much, and “my best friends” (no, really!) raise their children highly gendered, The Man and I (obviously) do some gendering of the Boychick so we’re not “perfect”, I think you can raise girls in pink dresses and boys in blue suits and still be feminist, etc, etc, and so on.

What I do care about is how we think about these things — and that we think about these things. I care about the pervasiveness and the degree of gendering in society, so that these things aren’t a matter of individual choice, but of cultural prescription. I care that I can hardly find clothing for my child free of sexist characters or stereotyped colors. I care that I cannot take the Boychick out in public without him hearing some variation of “What a big strong boy you are!” or “What a pretty girl you have!” depending on how he’s been gendered in the eyes of strangers that day. I care about the culture my child is growing up in, and more and more entering into and being influenced by as he ventures out of the environment we his parents create for him.

But individuals? As long as you’re doing your good enough (screw “best”), that’s good enough for me — and really, it shouldn’t matter to you what I think anyway. Even if I were judging you. Which I’m not. Honest.

OK, got that out of the way? Good. Let’s talk gender.

I do not think gender is entirely patriarchally created — exaggerated, adulterated, interpreted, interpolated, yes: but not created. Just like sexuality, I think there’s some part of our brain that is filled in with some concept of Who We Are (or for sexuality, Who We Like). Sometimes this matches our bodies — and thus the slot society ascribes to us, whether we appreciate the roles and dictates that go along with that slot or not –, and sometimes it doesn’t. When it does, we hardly think about it, and assume that “gender” is nothing more than culturally ascribed ideals based on our phenotypic sex (that is, our genitals and secondary sex characteristics) — or, that those roles are Inherent Immutable Characteristics, which arise from our sex-gender (since they’re obviously the same thing, right?).

This type of thinking is what is known as cis privilege. Just like heterosexuality used to be (and still too often is) considered the default/only state of being, so obvious it was/is unnamed and invisible, so too is the state of being cissexual and cisgender. But our cis person inability to recognize the sex/gender difference (that is, that assigned gender based on phenotypic sex and inherent gender based on whatever it is in our brains/selves that determines this sort of thing are two different categories which may or may not accord) does not make it any less real.

So, what does this have to do with my annoyance at gendered infant and toddler clothing, and toys, and stereotypes? Only that while I know my child has a penis and testicles, and apparently lacks a vulva and vagina, I do not know that he is a boy. I may think that he is a boy, it is likely that he is a boy, but just like I do not — and cannot until he informs me — know his sexuality, I do not — and cannot until he informs me — know his gender. He might be a boy. He might be a girl. He might be some variation of genderqueer or otherwise fall midway in the gender spectrum, or outside of it altogether. (And for that matter, he might be a high femme boy or a very butch girl, but that’s getting too complicated even for me to contemplate in depth in this blog.)

But let’s say he’s a boy. Let’s say I know — or am willing to take the 90% or so odds — that his gender matches his phenotypic sex, and that his phenotypic sex reflects his genotypic sex (that is, that he is not some variation of intersex, any of the numerous types of being that do not fall into “neat” XX female-bodied women and XY male-bodied men, not all of which present obviously at infancy). Why not then dress him all in blues and browns and trucks and puppies? Why not avoid pink like the plague (and dream of a daughter if I desire demure little dresses and dear little bows)?

The answer to that comes down to a more traditionally feminist (and thus all too often transphobic, but let’s see if I can avoid that) objection to the codification of arbitrary gender roles. This part you’ve likely heard before: why must girls wear clothing that is decorative, delicate? Why must they present as precious, pretty, petite? Why must boys wear clothing that is rugged, dark (or on occasion bold)? Why must they be strong, boisterous (“boy-sterous”?)? What the hell do kittens and butterflies have to do with being female, trucks and dinosaurs to do with being male? (And when we raise children in a culture that colors everything “girl” pink, and slaps truck on everything “boy”, even if we their parents do not, why are we so damned surprised that our highly intelligent and observant children notice this and fall in line with what they feel they’re supposed to like?)

Our children are intelligent and observant, and they will and do pick up on the messages coded in the genderization of practically every product they encounter (and the more explicit messages they hear and see). These messages — still, today, in 2009 — say that girls are for looking at, boys are for doing; they say girls are relational and boys are aggressive; they say that girls do fantasy (unicorns, fairies), and boys do science (bugs, dinosaurs).

These messages are, in short, misogynistic patriarchal bullshit. And I want no part of them, for myself, or for my child.

Do I want him (if he he be) to be androgynous, indistinguishable in all ways from his presumably-female best friend? No. But I would far rather let him learn that he is fundamentally the same as her than that he and she are as wildly different as patriarchy would have him believe.

Are there inherent gender differences? Indubitably — in the nature of highly overlapping bell curves on a population scale. There are differences based on our physical bodies, differences that arise from our hormones once we enter puberty, differences in preferences based on our inborn gender. But these are not absolute differences: they are tendencies noticeable only on the large scale, tendencies the patriarchal arm of the kyriarchy pushes as far apart as it can in an effort to divide and conquer us.

But far more profound are our similarities as members of the same species; far more profound are the individual differences based on inherent personality. I want to honor my child for who he is, who he may be even before I know exactly who that is; I want to minimize the misogynistic messages he absorbs; I want him to recognize everyone’s common humanity even as people differ; I want him to pursue his interests whatever they are, regardless of the gendered coding his society has ascribed to them; and I want to create a culture in which this is true for all children, because if it is not true for all, it cannot truly happen even for one.

He will know his gender one day (he may know it now and be unable to tell me). He will want to create his presentation based on the combination of what he knows his gender to be, what his culture tells him belongs to that gender, and what he as a person simply likes. He may be one of the many, many XY male-bodied boys who simply likes things that go (and why not? trucks are nifty). But unless I give him room — psychic and psychological space, if you will — to discover and create these things on his own, I will never know how much of what he does is what he really wants, and how much is what he’s adopted because it’s what he thinks he’s supposed to do and like.

I’m not opposed to gender (which would be about as sensical as being opposed to gravity); I’m just opposed to its imposition on children too young to know better, but not too young to be warped by all the baggage it brings with it. I cannot say it better than this: “Turn down the volume on the gender coding. Respond to the child’s personality. Let your child be who he or she is.” Not gender-free. Just free to be whatever gender they are — whatever that means to them.

WFPP Guest Post: Be still my feminist mama heart

This piece, by professional feminist and writer-mama Veronica, was originally posted at her personal blog Viva La Feminista. I requested to cross-post it here as part of the Womanist/Feminist Parenting Primer because it’s such a perfect glimpse into a feminist parenting moment.

It’s not so much that her six year old daughter spontaneously comes out with an astute feminist observation — as Veronica points out, much of that comes from her own innate personality, which we as parents can encourage but do not create — but rather the way that Veronica handles it, by affirming the reality of what her daughter sees. Kyriarchy is a virus: it perpetuates itself by getting inside us, obscuring our observations, normalizing a male-centric (among other things) world. One of the most feminist acts a parent can do then is say “Yes, you are really seeing what you you’re seeing. The emperor really has no clothes” — or in this case, the “writers awards” really have no women — “and you are right to point it out.

Be still my feminist mama heart… My daughter and the Emmys

It’s Sunday and homework is all done (actually, she didn’t have any since she won Star Student of the Week. *gloating*), the kid is in her PJs, teeth have been brushed and tomorrow’s clothes are picked up. Yup, it’s a rare night when it’s 8 pm and not much is left to do in our household. We’re curled up in a heap on the couch flipping between the 2009 Emmy Awards and Sunday Night Football.

Our precocious daughter watches men and women pick up separate acting awards. Then one of the writing award nominations are being announced. “So, is this the men’s writing awards?” “Um, no mija. Just the writing awards. But GOOD observation!”

As much as I feel that I am raising her in what I would call a feminist manner, I wouldn’t say that I point out all of life’s injustices like say an awards category where there are only men or only white women. That is for much later in life when I feel like she could handle such a conversation. Only at the age of 6 she makes that observation herself.

This is the same girl who around the age of 2 or 3 let it be known that it’s OK for the baby rubber ducky to have two mommies and at the age of 4 stated that restrooms with sinks and soap dispensers too high for her to reach were bad because little kids couldn’t reach them on their own and that is just unfair. Seriously? You think I taught her that last one? Last month we were in a restroom when she took a step back from the sink and proudly told me that “Mom, now this is a good  kid sink!” Two years later she’s still on the look out for kid-friendly rest room sinks.

I tweeted her Emmy comment and got a lot of retweets. A sign that others not only agreed with her, but a sign to her that she’s seeing it right. She’s got the right lens on her two perfect eyes.

I will always say first and foremost, she was born with an innate sense of fairness. I merely support her and guide her in that fairness. Yes, she takes it too literal in that she believes a 6-year-old deserves the exact same amount of dinner and dessert as her 34-year-old mother. But on the whole she’s usually dead on.

What I find is feminist in this mothering moment is that I knew exactly what she was talking about. I didn’t need to rewind the DVR to see that yes, it was an all dude category. And I affirmed her observation and stressed that it was a GOOD one. I didn’t ignore her, I didn’t make excuses and I didn’t wave her off as being silly.

I affirmed her voice.

And I think that is one of the most feminist things I can do for her as I help her find her way in this world.

Veronica is a professional feminist, mom to a spunky 6-year-old woman-child, and a writer. She’s paid for two of those jobs and working on getting paid for the third. Because really, we should at least be earning a pension for all the shoes we unknot!

Happy Celebrate Bisexuality Day!

Many thanks to Lucy for pointing it out to me. It’s like an unexpected late birthday present!

Apparently, September 23 has been the date for Celebrate Bisexuality Day since 1999. I have to admit I blubbed a little when I heard about it: while I do think events like Pride Day ought to include me and mine, we bi/pan/omni/ambisexuals (and even more so, our trans sisters of every sexuality) are too often excluded, ignored, invisible, even at GL(btq)(rarely i) events. So having a day that explicitly and overtly is for me… well, that’s pretty fabulous.

Since I’m not really up for creating new content at the moment (and the end of Children of the Earth sort of crushed my will to do a nice ranty post on sexuality and slutbunnyism on Torchwood, which is the topic that’s been bouncing around in my cranium for months), here’s a recent comment exchange on an old post of mine on bisexuality, Passing for straight.

Shinynewcoin raised her concerns about coming out as bi while in a monogamous relationship with a man. She says “It seems a strange middling place to be in which I have so much hetero privilege I hardly feel I’m allowed to claim the title, but to ignore it feels like trying to ignore my left arm. … I can’t shake the feeling that while bisexual people are represented on the GLBTI spectrum, I can’t claim a place in it while I still exercise hetero privilege (whether I want it or not).”

My reply to her:

I’m altogether too familiar with that feeling (the “can’t still claim a place while exercising/possessing hetero privilege” feeling), and I can’t entirely dismiss it, because there is something there. There ARE those who, it seems, claim the title for titillation then run back into a privileged world because it’s easier. (When I’m not frustrated as hell with them, I can almost feel compassion, because the kyriarchy has created a system in which to be queer really is that scary and sometimes that dangerous, and it is so much easier to pass for straight.) And no amount of waving my queer flag is going to eliminate my very real, very copious hetero privilege.

But. But. It was the very invisibility of bisexuality — real, sometimes monogamous, nuanced, sometimes straight-partnered bisexuality — that made me so confused for so long (ok, not long compared to some — I came out the first time when I was 14 — but far longer than I’d've liked). There was straight, and there was queer, and never the twain did meet in my knowledge (except in mega-uber-nympho-slutbunnies/psycho killers of bad b-movie infamy), and so I had no idea where I fit. And I know I’m not the only person for whom that is true.

It is ONLY by coming out as bi — all of us, male partnered, female partnered, not partnered, polyamourous, monogamous, serialist, low sex-drive and nymphos alike — that we can do away with that invisibility, and make it easier for the next generation who know they’re not quite gay and not quite straight and need a name and thus an understanding and acceptance for who and what they are.

Just like when I feel out of place in feminist circles because of my life circumstances — taking care of the Boychick during the day, being financially dependent on The Man, not having a degree and a back-up plan — I refuse to allow that to shut me out, because I am feminist, and I am queer, and it is ultimately kyriarchy that creates the systems that would shut me out. I’m a cis white feminist, and a bisexual woman with mountains of straight privilege, so I need to not insist on being centered in those spaces, and to be sure to center others whose voices are more marginalized, whose lives are more at risk. But I will not give up my right to being in them altogether, because that too is a concession to kyriarchy, which would have us be divided and therefore weakened.

Which is not to try to tell you — or anyone else — what to do. I’m not in your shoes, your life, so I can’t know all the factors in your decision. But that’s how I’ve answered those niggling voices (“but you’re not really queer, here, let me chop off that limb for you”) for myself. For whatever that’s worth.

And that’s what this day is about: visibility. Recognition. Saying we exist. Sure, it’s just a day, that few know about. But nevertheless it feels so damn good to have a space at the table, even just 1/365 of the time.

Toddlers are triggering

Raising toddlers is hard.

This is not a radical statement, nor should it contain information new to anyone who has had toddlers, met toddlers, read about toddlers, knows the word toddlers… Point is, it is a well-known and thoroughly-accepted truism.

But why?

I’m not trying to challenge the truth of it: while I think many mainstream-Western parenting practices and philosophies do make the toddler years more difficult (for just one example: by pushing infants away when we should hold them close, then hovering when we should let them explore), I am not about to play a round of Blame the Mother and say it’s our parenting that makes it so. Raising toddlers is hard, challenging, difficult, demanding, requiring us to stretch our minds and our hearts — and our lungs, whether to yell or take yet another deep, supposedly-calming breath.

I think I’ve figured out at least part of why. (And you know I’m gonna say kyriarchy is at the root of it.)

What I’ve realized is that toddlers are triggering. They have almost no sense of body-boundary, feel free to climb and touch and grab whatever part of us they please, they don’t listen to our Nos, they refute our (and the obvious-to-us, “objective”) reality, they ask and ask and ask again, yell at us and throw a completely out of proportion fit if they don’t like the answer — and then try to do it anyway.

Even if you — like me — have been lucky enough to have escaped being raped thus far in life, I don’t know anyone who is not a straight white well-off cis male (and very few of those) who hasn’t been abused in some form; and what I described above, in any other context, would be recognized as the actions of an abuser.

I’m not calling toddlers abusers, of course. I emphatically do not subscribe to the school of thought that we enter the world as little monsters/devils/dictators/savages who need to be “civilized” (or worse, “whipped into shape”) by adults. Rather, we enter this world primed to attach to and learn from the older humans around us, and all of childhood is naught but practice at adulthood. That’s why playing “house” and pretend “work” are universal, why toddlers start mimicking us as soon as possible, why they always want to “help” (no matter how much their “help” is actually a hindrance).

No, the problem is not with toddlers, who are doing exactly what they’re supposed to do, but with the triggers we as parents have brought to this gig: the problem is that we were abused in the first place, that our bodies were not considered ours, that our nos were ignored, that others felt free to violate us, that those who should have protected us instead turned aside and pretended not to see. And for that, of course, I blame the kyriarchy.

In my case, my triggers almost all originate in childhood: a 7-years-older brother who wouldn’t stop tickling me and wouldn’t believe my shouted “NO” (and would use his greater strength to prevent escape or retaliation); the other children (“friends”, supposedly) who would throw away food/treats/toys rather than share with me (just to deny it me); more obscurely but perhaps more universally, regularly not being heard or listened to or believed or obeyed or respected, because I was a child (and a much younger child, at that, surrounded by adults and near-adults); and the laughing — always, the laughing, the laughing when I was hurt, the being laughed at for being me, the laughing at jokes at my expense, the laughing and making it my fault I wasn’t laughing too, the laughing and making me laugh even as I cried, even as I raged inside.

There is an overarching theme here of powerlessness: I was frustrated in the exercise of my own power, abused by those wielding power over me, so when I am confronted with a toddler just learning to exercise his own power, my memories are activated — triggered.

The Boychick doesn’t do those exact things, of course. That’s why they’re triggers, not further abuse and trauma. (And let me take a moment here to recognize just how easy I had it compared to some. I will not dismiss or belittle my own real pain, but I know that too, too many had it — have it — so, so much worse.) Others are attacked by their children, have their children do things that were shamed or beaten out of them (wasting food, talking back, refusing to pick up), hear words and phrases that deny their reality in ways that abusers did to them.

These things are rarely problematic in themselves (even children prone to violent outbursts rarely are capable of actually damaging us, more than superficially at least), but they come too close to sore spots in our past, and suddenly we are back there, we are back then, we are back to being who we were back then, we are powerless, we are young and small and weak in a world of the old and big and strong. And to seek to protect ourselves, our hurting selves who deserve so much love and care and gentleness, we make ourselves the old, the big, the strong, and we lose sight of the reality of our comparative sizes and strengths and knowledge and experience, and we attack back — we yell, we spank; we punish, we shame, we mock; we grab and shove and force; we withhold our love and our approval and the connection all children crave. We hurt our babies because we were hurt, are hurting.

This is almost the definition of — perhaps the origin of? — kyriarchy: creating hierarchies out of whole cloth, using our oppression to justify oppressing others, becoming bullies from a well-intentioned but inevitably inimical desire for self-protection. It is “us v them” because we are too damaged to see — and let ourselves a part of — a healthy whole human “we”. And so the pain is perpetuated.

In such a cycle, it can be hard to be optimistic. There are ways to mitigate — disrupt — this cycle: by recognizing that our reactions are not rational, and not really in response to our toddlers’ actions; by identifying their real origins; by practicing mindful breathing and mindfulness meditation and playful, joyful parenting; by directing our real and righteous anger about our pain at the appropriate sources — our abusers, the onlookers who did not come to our aid, and ultimately the society that allowed and encouraged those actions and inactions — rather than our innocent toddlers; and eventually, gradually, eliminating the triggers of their power over us altogether.

But we are human, imperfect, imperfectable. We will continue to be triggered, with and without recognizing it as such, we will continue to become infuriated, to respond inappropriately. Are we dooming our children to a lifetime as kyriarchs? I am not so pessimistic: from my own life, and in my observation, I think it matters at least as much how we talk about, and what we do about, our less than ideal behaviors. We must not fall into the abuse-apology trap, in which “I’m sorry” is just so many words, and works only to ensure that the abused will stick around to be hurt again. But there is something to be said for modeling making amends, teaching through demonstration (if too-oft repeated) the process of acknowledging and naming our past pains, our current flaws, and taking the steps necessary to reduce our risk of being so hurt — and acting out inappropriately — again.

Toddlers are triggering, yes. But this means we are daily — hourly, constantly — offered opportunities to practice being better people, showing our children what it means to live in kyriarchy without consenting to its further creation.

Not one said it would be easy, this parenting gig, this anti-kyriarchy work, this life. But I cannot stop believing that it is ultimately so worth it.