“You be the baby, I be the mummy”, my son tells me for the seventeenth time today. It’s his favourite game. “You could be daddy”, I suggest. “No, I want to be mummy”. “Daddies look after babies too you know”, “no, mummies look after babies”. As a self-proclaimed feminist I feel I’m somewhat failing at my task to raise a feminist son. He’s caring, but he thinks to be caring you have to be a mummy.
My son has been raised by me, and me alone, from around six months of age. He is exposed to other males; he sees his uncle and grandpa usually once or twice a month and he’s very close to both of them. Yet, he is growing up in an incredibly female dominated environment. His sole carer (a.k.a me) is female, most of my friends are female, his carers at nursery are female, his nan who helps with childcare is female, as are his swim, gym and ballet teachers. You get the picture. Is it any wonder he doesn’t identify with males?
That’s still only half the story though. In an attempt to protect my son from the (almost) absence of his father, I inadvertently wiped men out of his life. I changed storylines in books and amended nursery rhymes; my son’s life was him and his mum and I wanted that to be reflected in what he heard. I didn’t want him to feel like the odd one out. The irony is that a lack of male role models, paired with very little mention of men, made him the odd one out; the only male in a sea of powerful women. He was unsure of what it meant to be male. In comparison, he knew exactly what being female was. Female was mummy. Therefore female equalled: Good. Caring. Safe. Fun. Strong. And all round awesome (OK, so I may be getting a little carried away now, but you get the gist). So is it any wonder that when he grows up he wants to be one. Only I don’t think he actually wants to be one, he just doesn’t know what the alternative is.
There’s glimpses of times when he identifies with men more. After seeing my brother pee standing up, he spent ages trying to copy him. He couldn’t reach the toilet standing up, so he invented his own way of doing it – sitting back to front on the toilet (facing the cistern). It wasn’t quite how his uncle did it but he loved doing it differently to me and he talked about it for days.
But it’s rare. It’s much more common to hear my son telling me over and over again that he wants a baby in his tummy; he wants to be a mummy. He loves to wear skirts and often asks to dress like me. I don’t have a problem with that. He used to dress as a snail and I know a kid who wore a cat costume for about three years. The dressing isn’t a big deal. What is a big deal is the feeling that he’s missing out on knowing what being a man means. I’m not referring to some gender stereotype macho man. I mean my son being comfortable in his own male skin. Maybe this isn’t a popular sentiment in the era of gender neutral parenting but it seems we’re losing the point if we don’t encourage a positive view of both women and men. If he wants to be a skirt-wearing man, that’s fine with me – I mean Jayden Smith pulls it off pretty well. My real fear is that he won’t know how amazing many men are. That he won’t appreciate the important role men play in creating babies (even if only as kind sperm donors) or the brilliant job so many of them do at raising children.
So I’m bringing the male back in. Children learn so much from just seeing their parents. All those loo trips they take with us are probably one of the best biology lessons going – he’s known about periods and eggs since an incredibly young age. Now I’m talking about seeds and beards too. I’ve explained how babies are made – about how the seed and the egg comes together and how, yes, the egg comes from a woman, but the seed comes from a man and you need both to make a baby. I might not be able to show my son what a loving father looks like in person, but I can sure as hell talk to him about how he would make a loving father one day should he wish to be one. Now, as I read to him, I don’t skip the ‘daddy’ parts for fear of him feeling he’s missing out. I talk about it. He hears about caring men and kind daddies. I create the space for him to talk about his own daddy and why he’s not around (much). It’s led to comments that are hard to hear. Comments about how he wants a daddy to live with him too, and I suspect this desire will only increase as he grows older. But the thing is, I can’t protect him from his reality, I can only help him understand how he fits into it, and support him to navigate it as best any three year old can.
And it’s working. Slowly. He’s gone from being insistent he has eggs in his tummy, to also talking about who he wants to give his seeds to (admittedly he may be getting a little ahead of himself there). At bedtime the other night he did his usual baby-parent role play where I get to be the baby and him the parent. “You be the baby and I be the daddy,” he ordered. It was the first time he’d ever said daddy like that. It was followed quickly with, “I got confused. I be the mummy.” Finally, he settled on “I be the mummy-daddy”. He’s told me a few times now that I’m his daddy so it kind of made sense. I like to think of it as his way of telling me he quite wants to be a kick ass solo parent when he grows up too, and that’s pretty much the biggest high-five he could give my parenting. So for now, my son is a skirt-wearing, back-to-front peeing, mummy-daddy and that seems like a pretty awesome person to be when you’re “a bit three”*.
*He’s three and a bit.