For those of you who don’t keep obsessive tabs on the goings on here (gasp! You don’t?!) I’ll catch you up real quick.
I wrote about a parenting breakthrough I had with Jo who will kick, bite, hit, head-butt and then laugh when angry. The post got lots of attention, and 60 or 70 parents, mostly moms, responded about how their kids, mostly boys, did this same thing. I was so moved by all the comments and struck by this pattern of boys behaving this way that I wrote another post speculating about where all this boy raging was coming from. Then I re-wrote that post due to an insightful comment on my Facebook page about gender. I re-wrote it because I realized that while my experience is about boys and while I see and hear this happening a lot with boys, I’m sure it also happens with some girls too, and I honestly can’t imagine the additional challenges of having a girl behaving this way. So I re-wrote the parts where I generalized about boys into generalizing to kids.
Since I did that, there have been some interesting comments in the vein of “Wait?! I thought we were now in this great raging boys club and now you’re expanding it to all kids, and we’re parents of boys. I liked it when you firmly identified as a mom of a boy. Don’t stop doing that!” I also got a fair number of, “Yes, my girl is like this too, so thank you for including me.”
And I’m left here pondering what I think about all of this—the old “are boys and girls wired differently?” conversation. The old nature vs. nurture conversation. The old “how do you talk about your specific experience and bond with people like you and also keep things open enough for different voices to join in?” conversation.
So here’s what I have to say about all that.
I think boys and girls are wired differently. Boys have penises. Girls have vaginas. They have different hormone combinations coursing through their little bodies. I also think boys and girls are wired very similarly. They both have brains and eyes and hands and are human and tend to prefer macaroni and cheese over most any other food in the world.
Anyone else appreciate the “nails” theme in this series?!
In terms of inclusion/exclusion, I think something is lost when we try to include everyone in everything because one of my most profound joys in this lifetime is seeking comfort in people who share my experience. I’m talking to you, mom’s of “bad” boys! Also, I think something is lost when we get super exclusive, because one of my other most profound joys is learning from people who are really different than me. And having my mind blown by them. Hello, dads of mild-mannered, craft loving girls.
I want both things, damn it.
I am the mom of a particular breed of boy, and I’m going to talk about that without any apologies. I want you all to write from the hip here too, and not worry about generalizing about patterns you see in boy and girl behavior. I get it. We all see patterns. My big caveat is this: while some of the differences between boys and girls are rooted in biology, the differences between them that we see and talk about are culturally re-enforced to the max. We think boys are like this and girls are like this, we notice what confirms our thoughts (ignore what doesn’t) and make it true.
Also, I want to make room for our boys and girls to surprise us. For the record, when Jo is flinging his limbs wildly about, he’s often wearing one of his favorite shirts–it’s (gasp!) a turquoise “girl” shirt with puffed sleeves and a starfish on it.
He’s also very nurturing of Cal and regularly shouts, “Mom, Cal’s on the stairs again—it’s a safety problem!”
Thanks to a really insightful comment from one of you on my Facebook page, I decided to go back and change the title and some of the content of my last post about raging boys.
I like this post, but I must admit I’m not keen on the slight ‘gender essentialism’ edge to it. Labeling this type of behavior as somehow a ‘boy’ thing isn’t really a good thing for either boys or girls. Also in my opinion it’s really not that clear cut. I have a boy who is (at least so far) the total opposite of this- very physically cautious etc. this describes our friend’s daughter far more accurately. A mom I talked to recently with a wonderful spirited ‘wild’ daughter was lamenting the fact that everyone seemed to think this kind of behavior was fine from boys and wrote it off as ‘boys will be boys’ type stuff, but saw it as almost unnatural and totally unacceptable in a girl. Since having kids I see so many examples of how much we try to stereotype them. When we see behavior that confirms our bias we note it, but when we see anything that runs counter to our bias we ignore it. Boys or girls, the same principles, solutions and dilemmas apply so why pigeon hole?
Since honesty is my bag here, I have to admit that I felt really defensive after reading Ruth’s comment at first. “But I wrote it because I have a boy, and 99% of the comments on my post about Jo’s badness were from parents of boys.” And then I thought some more, and had a back and forth with Ruth and decided that she was right. Parents of raging, wild, aggressive girls probably feel less open about it than those of boys, so I probably hear less from them. And like it or not, this kind of behavior is something that’s more tolerated in boys. Based on my own experience at the playground, I can only imagine what onlooking parental wrath I’d incur if my 4-year-old girl kicked and then dumped sand on the little boy sitting by the slide.
So I want to broaden this discussion from parents of boys to parents of kids. Are you the parent of a kid? Do they rage? Do they head-butt you and then laugh? Well then step right up. I re-wrote this for you.
I have a few friends who have separated from or divorced their partners after having kids, and from my vantage point, this is the biggest difference between their lives and mine: they have scheduled time alone. Sometimes 2 or 3 days in a row. While the kids are with their partner, they go dancing. They stay out late. They hang out at home and sit in their quiet, empty houses.
And I know it’s not all shiny triumphant alone time. I’ve listened to their heart ache and debilitating sadness and anger and disappointment. And when their kids are around, they’re the one on the hook. Solo. But they have more kid-free-time than I do.
I want the marriage and the time.
I had this eureka over lunch with a friend, while we tried to corral Cal and eat dim sum. She explained the revelation of unstructured time without kids.
Unstructured. Time. Without. Kids.
If you’ve been at this for a while, the mere thought of that might just blow your skull.
So I just called AJ and requested a time divorce. Why the hell can’t we schedule time during the week when one or the other of us is off?! Just clocked out. Not because we have a class or a plan or a thing we need to do. Just because we both need time when there’s nothing to do but what we want just then. We could alternate so that every other Wednesday night is ours to do whatever the eff we want. Or one Sunday a month. Or both!
Sure, there have been plenty of times in the last 5 years when AJ or I have gotten away for a few hours, a day, a whole string of nights even.
But every time, it’s a full-on negotiation. You have to ask, consider the delicate balance of getting both parents’ needs sort-of met, coordinate your schedule with your friends or the dance class and make sure it works for your partner and various feeding/napping schedules. Not to mention transportation if you happen to only have one car. Which we do. It can be a real palava.
This is why the time divorce is genius.
It’s pre-scheduled. No need to scramble or quibble or squabble. No need to “go to yoga class” and instead drive a revelatory 2 blocks to the park by your house where you feel emancipated and strange. And then you just sit in the grass in your yoga pants talking to friends on the phone for the next hour because you can.
You see, under the agreement set forth in ye olde time divorce, sitting in the park in your yoga pants talking on the phone is allowed–encouraged even!
Imagine yourself frolicking in an open field of unstructured time that is scheduled into your week.
Now, wipe the drool from your chin. And go file for a time divorce.
A few months ago, a friend sent me this practical account of how a woman got rid of a placenta she never wanted in the first place. It casually flew in the face of the false dichotomy between crunchy, placenta-eating home birthers and epidural princesses. On a whim, I sent an admiring email to the author. Any woman willing to reveal her own complexity in an embarrassing tale of human waste disposal is a friend of mine. I invited her to write a guest post here, and hot damn, she wrote one. Enjoy.
My boyfriend, Scott, was in Arizona with his dying father and I was at a diner with our two sons. My older son was rolling creamers across the table for the younger one to fling on the ground. I overheard our waitress say to an older couple who had just walked in, “Someone is in your booth.”
She nodded in our direction. Unknowingly we had occupied “their” booth. Aware of how territorial old people can be about booths, I stiffened. The couple sat down near us, and then the husband began to silently watch us.
“Whatever,” I said to myself and then became distracted with the blue crayon my youngest was chewing.
The old folks ate swiftly and left. My children were covered in syrup, so I asked for the check.
“It’s been taken care of,” the waitress said and nodded to the booth where the couple had been sitting. I had spent the better part of my twenties—a time before back flab and pregnancy-induced skin tags—in Mission District bars and no stranger had ever picked up my tab. I asked the waitress to mind my sons while I ran into the rain to thank the Samaritans, but they were gone.
“What was that all about?” I asked her when I returned. She smiled in a certain way. Like the way you smile when you assume you’re in the company of your own kind.
It was really early; I was alone with my kids; I don’t have a wedding ring. Of course the couple—and the waitress—thought I was a single mom, which I’m not.
At this point, I became aware that silence was a form of deception and what I should say was, “What a goddamn nice gesture. It’s been a rough week because my boyfriend (super strong emphasis) is away with his sick father.”
Why did I lie by omission? Because there was something shamefully thrilling about passing as a single mom, who as everyone knows is society’s toughest of the tough.
I asked about her life. Her shift had started at 6 a.m., so she had to wake both her kids at 5:30. Then they went back to sleep on the babysitter’s couch. “Not so bad,” she said.
She had parted ways with her kids at the crack of dawn, and the suspenders on her diner uniform were pushing her boobs out to either side. But she wasn’t complaining.
I complain. For what? Not only do I have a partner, but he’s of the best stock, scooping baby poop out of the bath drain, telling me he wants me, working his ass off. I have my mom who not only watches our baby once a week but also lugs the recycling to the curb. I have the hardest working nanny in the North Bay. The list goes on.
After our first son was born, neither for the love of Christ nor money could Scott and I stop playing the who-has-it-harder game. Thankfully we’ve let that go.
But in my mind, I’m still a contestant with other moms. Why? Because Scott works nights? Because I have two boys? Because my kids are less than two years apart in age? Because all my friends live at least an hour away?
It’s not sympathy I’m after. Just acknowledgement: What you’re doing is hard. But does anything I’m doing even qualify as hard? Some people handle hard better than others. I’m ashamed that I’m not one of them.
I left the restaurant with the waitress still under the impression that we were in the good fight together.
Several months later, I returned to the diner with my family. Scott and the boys were there, as was my dad and his wife. I was telling them the story and getting close to the climax – “they picked up our bill” – when the same waitress came to take our order.
She acknowledged me. And then she scanned the full table, took in my reality, pursed her lips, and poured the coffee.
Jennifer Liss enjoys writing about life in the great parched state of California. She lives in Napa with her boyfriend and two young sons. She makes her living as an education and curriculum writer.
The thing I love most about blogging is the conversation it inspires. I have a whip-smart blogger friend who responded to my Mother’s Day post about Katty Kay and Claire Shipman’s article The Confidence Gap. She wrote,
I don’t disagree with the sentiments in this article, but in general I’m not wildly keen on this new direction feminism seems to be taking, of the Lean In ilk – i.e. the reason women don’t have equality with men is an intrinsic problem with women, e.g. that we aren’t confident enough, or that we don’t “Lean In” enough rather than external factors such as discrimination, workplace policies etc.
i.e. it’s not the system that needs fixing- it’s you.
This kind of thinking is becoming increasingly common and gives a way too easy get out clause for employers and law makers in my opinion.
She shared Jessica Valenti’s article that calls the confidence gap “a sham,” citing it as a good summary of her own criticism of Kay and Shipman’s (and Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In) focus on addressing sexism from an internal, confidence-building perspective.
This argument has become very familiar because I’m a woman and I live in the Bay Area and I’ve read Lean In. I’ve had a version of this conversation too many times to count.
I understand the worry that my friend and Valenti and a lot of the feminist critics of Lean In have — shifting our focus to ways that women can/should “fix” themselves blames inequality on women and lets the larger structural forces of inequality off the hook. I see their point. If the whole story isn’t told, then it is an easy way out–if the towering structures of sexist oppression go unmentioned, then discussions like these can easily slip into a 101 on why women are the problem. But doing the equal and opposite–throwing Sandberg and Kay and Shipman under the bus in order to defend a focus on structural inequality–deprives all of us of a revealing and potentially empowering part of this story. And ultimately, it weakens the cause we’re all trying to advance.
The reason I and many other women dig Lean In and The Confidence Gap is because they reveal to us that our chronic self-doubt or perfectionism or shrinking back in meetings is not an isolated personal problem, but rather it’s an individual reaction to a structural problem–a micro symptom of a macro structural issue.
Suddenly, I can see the forest for the trees! I doubt myself because as a woman, I’m constantly being doubted. My talking less and making sure my proposal is perfect and only applying for the job when I meet every single qualification are all fair responses to a system that’s stacked against me. It’s not because I’m a terrible communicator or because I’m an idiot, it’s because I exist within a structure that breeds that kind of behavior.
Feminism is a cause that needs to be championed internally and externally, because its effects are both internal and external. And when we throw out the baby with the bathwater, as Valenti does in her article, we waste the energy of our cause on posturing rather than parsing out the specifics of our disagreements.
Even so, this criticism of Valenti’s is well-founded.
Kay and Shipman dismiss the importance of institutional barriers upfront, writing in the introduction that, while there’s truth behind concerns about sexism, the “more profound” issue is women’s “lack of self-belief”.
Women’s lack of self-belief is a huge effing problem. Is it “more profound” than their earning less than men for the same work or crippling second shift that women shoulder as working mothers? No. But is it a symptom created by the larger structural issue? Yes. And we do ourselves and our cause no favors by leveling such blunt criticism at writers who are analyzing research that reveals the individual symptoms of structural gender inequality. We desperately need to illuminate both the symptoms and the causes if we’re going to cure the disease of sexism.
Don’t we all agree that structural sexism sucks and needs to be addressed? Can’t we also gain some liberation from seeing how those structures influence the way we see ourselves and choose to act in our every day lives? This is a case of the micro and the macro both feeding into each other. Pitting one against the other is not productive.
I’m all for addressing the towering structures of misogyny and inequality built into our system. I’ve also felt better and bigger and stronger in my few days since reading Kay and Shipman. I resisted my own urge to over-prepare for a meeting yesterday and was able to think more creatively and on my feet as a result. And instead of saying, “I know a little bit about script writing” in response to an inquiry at work, I replied, “I’ve freelanced as a script writer. I’d love to help.” Surprise, surprise, I’m now on the script writing project. And I love it.
In leaning in and addressing my own internal confidence gap, do I feel like I’m shouldering responsibility for gender inequality and letting the system off the hook? Hell no. In fact, I feel pretty kick-ass and more equipped to go out and deal with all that structural crap.
The cause of feminism will only benefit from sexism being addressed both internally and externally. Let’s support women who contribute to telling the whole, complex story of inequality and throw this either/or thinking out the window.
If there’s one thing worth reading on Mother’s Day, this is it.
I’ll tell you why.
1) It’s really long and involved. So if you are a mother yourself, you can plea Mother’s Day and hole up in the bathroom, or luxuriate in bed even!! and have about 20 minutes to yourself while reading it.
2) It may rattle you, just like this statement rattled me:
The natural result of low confidence is inaction. When women don’t act, when we hesitate because we aren’t sure, we hold ourselves back. But when we do act, even if it’s because we’re forced to, we perform just as well as men do.
And the great thing about being rattled is that it can lead to us trying, in small ways every day, to change our habits.
2) If you are a man, you should also know about this, since it affects all of the mothers you’ve ever met, including your own. My hope is that after you read it, you’ll encourage the women in your life to take up more space and to try on crazy statements like “I’m gonna try this and see what happens.”
3) Using this article as a springboard to change our habits can create a world filled with a bunch of self assured women with children. Legions of moms who proudly and unflinchingly answer the question, “Do you work?” with “Are you asking if I have a paid job? Or about the work I do all the time of raising human beings?” Imagine seeing the women in your life champion their expertise on a daily basis and take their mistakes in stride rather than talking themselves down. The thought gives me chills.
If I haven’t convinced you already or if you just don’t have the time or inclination, then you can just read my little cliff notes version here and talk to your friends like you did read it.
If women continue to habitually make self-effacing comments like, “I think so, but I’m really not sure” or “I’m really bad at this,” then our children will learn what we did: It’s most important that women not ruffle feathers and play nice. Fit in. Don’t talk too loud or too much. Before you trot your ideas out into the world, make sure they’re perfect.
I’m shocked at how much more easily and instinctively the men in my life step up and take their place. AJ applies for jobs even when he doesn’t meet and exceed every single requirement. He assumes he is smart and can figure it out. He authoritatively offers his opinions even when he’s not 100% sure. There is just a fundamental way that I see AJ and the men around me taking up space like it’s assumed that they should. The women I know often struggle with this, because we’ve been coached implicitly and explicitly our whole lives to make room for others, be kind, defer.
…the result is that many girls learn to avoid taking risks and making mistakes. This is to their detriment: many psychologists now believe that risk taking, failure, and perseverance are essential to confidence-building. Boys, meanwhile, tend to absorb more scolding and punishment, and in the process, they learn to take failure in stride.
As I was reading this I had to work through my own criticisms. “Not all women want to be CEOs. What’s wrong with wanting to be a stay at home mom?” My answer to myself: nothing. Nothing in the world. My second answer: Women CEOs and stay at home moms would all benefit greatly from a confidence boost–a willingness to turn their ideas into actions even if they’re not 100% sure they’ll succeed. The impact of our children watching us try new things and sometimes fail but not blame ourselves and try again is just as powerful as a woman exec. changing company policy in the direction of more paid maternity and paternity leave.
I’m also resistant to any argument that women need to be more like men in order to succeed. But couldn’t we take the confidence page from the man playbook and make it our own? Couldn’t we turn more of our ideas into action and assert more of our opinions and put our own female spin on it? What would our confidence look like if we internalized it to the point that we didn’t have to look to the example of men to remember how to do it?
Today, on Mother’s Day, I will practice confidence.
It is the factor that turns thoughts into judgments about what we are capable of, and that then transforms those judgments into action.
I will practice thinking that I am capable. And using my capability to try. And if it doesn’t work out, I’ll try not to blame myself and to shrug it off and try again. Sigh. This sounds hard. Like any sort of work I’ve ever done in trying to shift my habits.
But they’re just habits, people. We can change ’em.