I fancy myself a feminist and have since sometime in junior high when I learned what the word means. The work of my household is not divided up by gender roles; we are of the philosophy that if one sees something that needs to be done, one does it. Sometimes I mow the lawn, sometimes my husband cooks dinner and vice versa. I take out the garbage and my husband cleans the bathroom – and on an on I could go with examples. My husband believes that I can do anything (and so do I). So imagine my horror when I told my son that I was going to show him how to fold and put away his laundry his curt, insistent reply was, “I’m not doing that, it’s girls’ work.” GIRLS’ WORK. My knee-jerk reaction was, “WHAT DID YOU JUST SAY?!” which lead my son to immediately apologize – but he had no idea why. My reaction, to him, was the same as if he’d used bad language. I was filled with anger which quickly turned to hurt, then the pendulous, heavy feeling of guilt and failure.
How could my son think such a thing? Where has he picked up this belief? What has he seen that has molded his perception? Oh wait, I know the answers, it’s EVERYWHERE. However, I’ve been able to take a step back from the situation and look at it from a more logical stand point and also through the eyes of a 5 year old.
As I’ve said, chores in my household are not really assigned and they’re certainly not “assigned” by gender roles. I do, however, do the bulk of our family’s laundry. I have no idea why this is. It’s not on purpose and it’s certainly not because I enjoy it. My son, at his current age, is figuring out the world. This is what he sees. Using his own logic and knowledge of the world, he made a connection between laundry and Mama. As much as it bothered and pained me that he had that notion, I’m so glad, in retrospect, that he said it because it gave us an opportunity to address it – which honestly, given our outlook on such things, I never thought we’d have to do.
But I realized at this stage in parenting, I have very little control over these types of things. He is now in kindergarten, surrounded by kids from all walks of life and who will inevitably have different opinions than ours/his. He’s exposed to things and ideas that I love and others that I loathe. I also needed to remind myself that I was applying adult intent to something an innocent 5-year-old said. My son was not about to hit me with some mansplaining garbage, but that’s how I felt.
After he spoke those words, my husband asked him to come upstairs with him so they could talk. I was so stunned that I was really of no use. I overheard my husband talking to him and saying things like, “Mama can do anything and so can I. It doesn’t matter if someone is a boy or a girl.” I was heartened to hear my husband say these things, even though it was not surprising, my husband has always believed that we’re both capable of all kinds of things.
My son knew that he’d said something “wrong.” He’s very quick to apologize when he thinks my husband or I am upset with him. As always, it was important to me that he knew why it was “wrong”, but even more so in this situation. I also wanted to reassure him that I was not upset with him but glad that we had an opportunity to talk. After collecting myself, I sat down and snuggled him on our bed and asked him what types of jobs women do. His reply, “All jobs.” I then asked him what types of jobs men do. His reply, “All jobs.” We talked about how mama can do anything papa can and vice versa.
I asked him about his schoolmates and he began to tell me about all the smart kids in his class and he told me that he felt one little girl was the smartest and the nicest. I asked him if she was smart and nice because she was a girl and his immediate response was, “No! She just is.” I gave him a hug and said, “Exactly.” She just is.
We talked a little more about how it doesn’t matter what someone looks like and that anyone can do anything, and I think I really got through to him. The next morning, he apologized AGAIN without prompting and I reassured him that everything was OK and that I was really glad we talked about it, he said, “Me too.”
I can only hope that we’ve squashed whatever stereotypical ideas that were beginning to fill his head, but I can assure you, I’ll be doing random check-ins to make sure.