By Sharon Lake-Post Web Exclusive – January 1, 2008
We don’t usually divide so neatly along gender lines in my household, but tonight, my husband and two boys ages eight and ten, went to see a minor league baseball game, while I stayed home for a “Girls’ Night” with my three-and-a-half-year-old daughter. The cliché of the stereotyping inherent in this division suffocates all that I know and want and have dreamed for myself and my children.
As a child, I loved climbing trees, and exploring the fields and woods near our house, often accompanied by our family dog. I was the only girl on my Little League team in a small town in western Massachusetts. I was also one of the biggest kids, standing tall in the back row of the team photo, baseball cap perched high atop two full, blonde ponytails. It was the early Seventies.
When I was eight, the composition of my nuclear family shifted dramatically. While I was fortunate to bask in the attention and playful teasing I received from a dear uncle, three male cousins, and grandfather who adored my spirit, my mom, sister and I grew into a solid, supportive unit, with inside jokes and normal daily challenges.
So when I became pregnant with my first child at 31, I just assumed it would be a girl as I, for sure, didn’t know what “to do” with a boy, despite my tomboyish ways. Additionally, my sister had just recently had a daughter so the “girl” gene ran strong among us. I was certain.
It was therefore, a great surprise then that despite my recurring pregnancy dreams that I would have a son, that I actually had a son. After the immediate and complete infatuation that I felt for this new person lying swaddled on my chest, my mind raced to my cousins and my memories of them wrestling throughout the house, up and over furniture and into walls, and I wondered how I would ever “manage” (a word that should be struck from every mother’s vocabulary) a boy. This boy, and his brother who joined us two years later consumed my world with the deliciousness of their essence; the way they ran naked around the house at bath time, through the sprinkler in the backyard or whenever they had the opportunity; the way they learned to express themselves in their own unique, direct, and sensitive ways; and especially the way they squealed, and shouted, and jumped up and down when we called them from the hospital to tell them that their little sister had arrived safe and sound.
I have worked hard (very consciously at first) to make sure that my boys played with “girl” toys and that my girl played with “boy” toys. Now they all play with whatever toy happens to capture their interest and compel them to apply their imagination. It is not uncommon to find dolls, knights, and pirates playing house or to walk into the living room converted into one large fort occupied by my three children.
Just recently, my daughter announced that she’d like superheroes AND princesses on the top of her fourth birthday cake (Spiderman and Jasmine topped the list) . In our house, we don’t talk of “men’s work” and “women’s work”; it is all just work. My husband and I share housework, work outside the home, cook dinner and clean up, have changed numerous diapers and stayed up late to rock little ones to sleep, based on who had the lighter schedule the next day. We have carefully and consistently avoided creating an “us and them”. In our house, we are all “us and them” mixed together.
So while I felt a little relief not to be sitting in the hot sun for four hours tonight with a restless three-and-a-half-year-old, watching what is by its very nature a slow game, I also felt a pang of fear that despite our best efforts, I might not be able to continue to balance and integrate our different genders and identities. This fear quickly disappeared when my daughter and I decided it would be a treat to finger paint. We spread out the mat on the floor, took off any clothing in danger of permanent damage, and started to mix paint on our papers. Initially, I was a hesitant participant, trying to figure out how I could “manage” (there’s that word again) the inevitable mess; using a wooden popsicle stick to paint with (the activity is called “finger painting” for a reason). I wondered how long it would take to clean it all up and allow enough time for stories, brushing teeth and bed.
The more that we mixed colors on our papers and then with each other, it struck me how my children have consistently “mixed” various elements of themselves and me. They have compassionately required that I apply my professional strengths and personal warmth to numerous issues at hand. They have required that I combine my love of sports with the need to sit quietly and color. They have invited me to be an adult who remembers how to play like a child (it IS possible to cook dinner and make Play-Doh worms at the same time).
More importantly, they have granted me the space to see past preconceived norms about how boys and girls and sons and daughters and mothers and fathers “should be”, and allow us to be “us” as we continue to grow and change and develop. They have encouraged me to end up with both hands in the blue and red finger paints, trying heroically to make my favorite shade of purple, and enjoying it so much that I didn’t even care how long it took to clean up.