I was recently reminded that I am a NEW stepparent, and as such I have MUCH to learn. It was a weird “off” moment that I’m still trying to make sense of, but here are the basics:
It was a Monday a few weeks ago and Ethan (seven) had the day off from school, but was a regular workday for us. My work has been slow so I took the day off. He has a friend in his second grade class who’s mother has kindly watched Ethan a few times this year when school got out early, so I volunteered to take her son, also. Let’s call him Chad.
Chad is a good kid. I sometimes get a little annoyed with him because he is obsessed with what is cool and what is not. The last time I had him in my car I was listening to the Beatles and he wasn’t sure what he was supposed to think about them, so he asked me how many followers they had. I remember how important that stuff felt when I was in grade school, so I get it. I just wish I could protect Ethan from that crap
Ethan asked to go to a trampoline park and I got permission from Chad’s parents to take him. I don’t know if this is a thing everywhere but trampoline parks are big in Salt Lake City right now. It’s basically a warehouse with a raised floor made of a series of trampolines and play equipment that pairs well with trampolines, such as basketball hoops and zip lines. The kids love it. (I actually tried to bounce for a minute once, but quickly realized that my spine is too old for that kind of jarring action, and that my bra was not designed for anti gravitational maneuvers. I managed to get back on to solid ground without doing permanent damage to my body and then got myself tucked back in without breaking any decency laws, but lessons were learned.)
I got the boys buckled in the car and pulled up the address on my phone. As soon as Siri’s voice came up, however, the boys groaned and launched into throwing shade at my phone, which basically consisted of repeating the tirades they have heard from their fathers about Siri. I have personally witnessed several arguments between Ethan’s dad and GPS technology and mostly have found myself taking Siri’s side. Of course it won’t work if you follow every other thing she says, then decide she doesn’t know what she was talking about to begin with, make an abrupt turn in a nonsensical direction, and get yourself lost. Remember the good old days where men just wouldn’t ask for directions? Now we foist directions on them, leading them to mansplain to a robot who can’t pick up on the passive aggression or sarcasm, and the result is the same: arriving dismally late and frustrated to a place you only sorta wanted to go to anyway. Which isn’t to say the old way was better. I just remember it being quieter.
I was ignoring the boys posturing and focusing instead in Siri’s helpful and completely correct directions when I heard this from the back seat:
“Siri is a girl and Alexa is a boy,” Chad said. “Alexa can multiply in the thousands and Siri can’t even add one plus one.” This was followed by laughter.
Before I could stop myself I interjected, “Siri and Alexa are BOTH girls.”
As if that was remotely germane. I should have said that neither are girls! They are both robots! Their developers gave them female voices because it feels natural to give a woman the bitch work of timing your abdominal crunches, reminding you to pick up the dry-cleaning, and to “find out if Burt Reynolds is still alive and report back to me.” (Yes, these are examples of my recent Siri activity. Burt Reynolds died, by the way.)
The boys didn’t respond to my inane interjection. They seemed to be surprised to discover that I was still in the car and heard this conversation. Nothing like being made to feel like a chauffer driving two little lords around in my own goddamned car.
What the fuck? I thought. I know Chad’s mom and she is a badass. She’s an athlete and she teaches advanced education techniques at the university. Does he say crap like that around her? He certainly seems comfortable saying it in front of me.
We parked at the place and I signed them up for three hours of bouncing. Then the guy at the front desk told me that I’d have to buy them each a pair of anti-slip socks if I didn’t bring some from home, so he threw that on the total, which came to around $60. I tried to hide my reaction to the number, but I could hear my mother’s voice in my head saying, “Good gracious; for that price they should leave with a framed degree in bouncing!” I handed over my credit card and the man gave me two pairs of socks. They were black, with little pink ribbons printed all over them. The boys looked at them in horror. Before anyone could ask, the man at the desk said, “October is breast cancer awareness month.”
The boys took them with frowns but they put them on and skittered off to bounce. This time I didn’t bother to hide my reaction, which was a wide smile and a thought bubble that said, Thanks for the justice, Karma! Totally worth the $60.
I happily settled in with my Real Simple magazine and a coconut La Croix and waited for the three hours to pass, which it did uneventfully. By then, the boys were bounced out and ready for lunch. It wasn’t until they went to the lockers to get their shoes that they remembered the pink ribbons on their socks.
“Gross! I HATE pink!” Chad yelled. “He peeled them off and kicked them away from him. “Pink is the WORST color! I’m throwing these in the trash.” He pinched them between his thumb and index finger like a bag full of dog shit and threw them into the trash with a dramatic gesture.
Ethan laughed. “Me too!” he said. “I HATE pink!” He had already given the socks to me to hold while he changed back into his (oh so masculine) Pikachu socks and I had dropped them into my purse. He dove into my bag (which is oversized and full of odds and ends; I call it my Mary Poppins bag) and started rooting around for them.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“I want to throw mine away, too!”
“Well, too bad. I didn’t spend good money on those just so that you could wear them a few hours and then throw them away. If you don’t want them just because they are pink I’m sure some other kid at Goodwill would be happy to have them.” I knew even as I said this that you can’t donate used socks to Goodwill, and that my refusal to allow him to follow Chad’s lead had nothing to do with the wastefulness of the action, but yet again, it was the best response that came to my mind. “Reduce, reuse, recycle!” won out over calling two second graders “a couple of chauvinistic-shit-for-brains-assholes!” in public.
We got to the car and the boys buckled in. It was quiet for a minute and then Ethan said, “Rachel, I don’t have to like pink. It’s just a color.”
I took a deep breath. “That’s true,” I said, starting the car. “But is that all it is about? Just the way you feel about a particular color? Or does it have to do with the fact that you are both boys, and pink is a ‘girl’s’ color?”
I couldn’t take my eyes off to road to check the rearview mirror as I pulled out of the parking lot and merged onto the busy road, but I imagined them exchanging a glance that said, How did she know? I thought that was our thing! We didn’t even mention girls! In that way that every generation thinks it is completely original and paving its own path. But I don’t know what they did. Probably just stare at their shoes. It was only the long pause between the question and Ethan’s answer, “No…” with an implied ellipsis or even a faint question mark at the end that told me I hit home.
“Oh, okay,” I said. “I guess I misunderstood. But I want to talk to you more about this later.” My mom never hesitated to blast me with a correction when my friends around, but I always told myself I wouldn’t do that if I became a parent.
We got home and I got them set up downstairs with food and a movie and then I went out to rake leaves. I had dozens of thoughts and emotions pushing down on me and I needed to get some space to try to manage my oversized reaction. Maybe, if I had given birth to the child and spent every day since with him, this little exchange wouldn’t have bothered me. Maybe I would have picked up on that point, years ago, when he started pre-school and began taking his cues and values from the other children. He would have started the process early – the process of learning that boys were the best and the things they like is cool and girls are bad and the things they like is shit. Maybe he would have bought into it so gradually I wouldn’t have noticed it. Or maybe I would heard some of these statements before and thought, Oh, this is normal. This is the way it goes. The girls say the same things about the boys and how they hate… blue? Maybe?
But I’ve known Ethan for three years now and I haven’t heard anything like that from him. And it wasn’t just showing a preference. The thing that shocked me was the hatred. The disgust in Chad’s voice and his forceful declaration of male supremacy with the Siri thing, and then the way he threw those socks in the trash. It was boastful, actually. “Look at how much I can hate this!” he seemed to say. And it was so infectious. Ethan wanted to be just like that; hateful and cool! Clearly they were trying to impress one another and that was leading to some gleeful one-upmanship. But still. The HATE!
I realize, of course, that I’m primed to be triggered by something like this. The last few years have been focused on stories of the systematic misogyny that women experience in this “developed” country and I’ve spent countless hours thinking about my own stories and what we have learned and how I want our culture to change as a result of all this difficult work that has been done bringing about a reckoning. One question in particular that I have been meditating on is, “Where does it start? Who plants the seed?”
I grew up in a decidedly patriarchal religion that made it clear to me from an early age that being female limited me in the role I could play in the world. I remember being told that women will always be paying for the sins of Eve. That is not official Mormon church doctrine, but it sure seems to be a precious grudge for a lot of Christian folks. Then, when I was a teenager, I had my first experience dealing with a boy who was too hopped up on hormones to take my sweet and ladylike “no, thank you” for an answer. Like me, he was raised on stories about how ‘boys will be boys’ and that it is the girl’s responsibility to save both parties with her own clear headed dedication to her own chastity, so I knew that was “my job.” But damn, no one had prepared me for how many times the hand will reach out to be smacked away, or how many times “no” won’t be taken for a final answer. Finally, before he could wear me down, I managed to escape. As I drove home in the dark I suddenly thought about Eve. Am I really supposed to believe that Eve pressured Adam into this? Because there is no way. I bet Adam bit into ALL the apples, wore Eve down until she ate one or two, and then asked her to take the blame. And when she hesitated he told her she was pretty and then she lost all ability to resist because she was a damn fool and no one prepared her for this bullshit.
But I digress.
Growing up, I was told I couldn’t do certain things and simply not encouraged to do others. At university, I experienced the way men pursued women and then viciously retaliated if their advances were denied. I sought help from university resources and got shrugs. What do you want us to do about it? They seemed to say. I heard stories about women at parties being taken advantage of while unable to consent to sex and the event being witnessed by other male party attendants who did nothing. Because, Bros before hos? I guess? Finally, my senior year, a friend of mine was murdered by a sexual predator who decided he needed what he needed more than he thought my friend deserved to have the rest of her life.
That was twenty years ago. Last year, a student at the same university was murdered on campus by a boy she dated briefly and then rejected. She reported his stalking behavior to campus police, but nothing was done. What do you want us to do about it? They seemed to say.
That’s when I realized that this world is no more safe for my nieces than is was twenty years ago when I was a young woman being told that I should always be nice and likable and respectful of the priesthood, but also to avoid short skirts and walk home in the dark with my keys in my hand in “ready position.”
Again, I ask: where does it start? When do men learn that their needs come first? Obviously the murderers in these examples are the extreme cases. But if you walk into a room at a frat party and you see an unconscious woman being raped and you back out slowly and go get more beer instead of intervening, what is going on in your mind? At the risk of making an oversimplification of the matter, it seems to me that you do not see the two people in that scenario as equals. That there is some port in your mind harboring the belief that a woman is less than a man. Maybe a 70% person.
It probably seems completely insane to suggest that the seed of that belief was planted by little boys on playgrounds, repeating what they have heard from older brothers and fathers, reassuring each other that they are, in fact, the best! Boys rule! Girls drool! But what if that is where it starts? What if that is the genesis of the darkness? What if those shitty little kid thoughts take root and you don’t even think about it, and then you grow up and one day you are that ex of mine (who totally thought he was a feminist) who told me that it didn’t think it made sense to force companies to fix the gender pay gap because it would be difficult and expensive. Then, when I asked him, “what if it were a racial pay gap?” he said, “Oh, that would be different!” Because somewhere deep in the brain he thought that a woman is only 70% of a person! (And no, that is not the day we broke up, because I was lonely and probably had just bought tickets to something and didn’t want to go alone.)
Maybe I’m totally off on this one, but I gotta tell you… the Mormons I knew as a kid who told me that men had special God given powers but a woman’s job was to make babies and do what they were told were not much more articulate than a couple of grade-school-aged boys.
All these thoughts were hitting me like hail stones as I raked leaves and cried freely behind my sunglasses. I thought with sudden sympathy about the deadbeat parents that claim to be going out for some cigarettes and then drive into the sunset, never to return. Which is when I remembered that all this anguish started over a pair of socks, and I had to stop and laugh.
I took a deep breath and told myself that the lifetime’s worth of shit that this incident brought up for me was not about Ethan and that I was not going to put that on him. But I was genuinely upset, and I needed him to understand at least a small part of why.
Later in the evening, after Chad went home, I was in the kitchen making dinner when Ethan came in and asked for a snack. I got him settled and then I asked if we could talk for a minute.
“I’m a little upset,” I said. “I’m wondering if you can guess why?”
He looked down at his snack and deflated by about 20% as he said, “the pink.”
“Yeah, that’s part of it,” I said. I don’t know how to have heavy conversations with children, but back when I was a boss with 10 or so people reporting to me, I read a book about keeping disciplinary messages short. Get to it, make the point, move on by turning the page onto another topic. So that was what I decided to do.
“I’m glad that you and Chad are friends,” I said, “but he has some stupid ideas.” I waited for him to remind me that we aren’t supposed to say ‘stupid,’ which is his rule not ours, but he didn’t. “That thing about Siri being a girl and not being able to do math? That’s not okay. And like I said today, you don’t have to like pink. But you didn’t say ‘I don’t like pink,’ you said, ‘I hate pink!’ And I’m not stupid. I know what that means. You know that?”
He didn’t try to argue; he just nodded this time.
“It’s not okay to believe that boys are better than girls, just like it is not okay to believe that white people are better than Asian people, or black people, or anyone.” Ethan is one quarter Korean so I knew that would get his attention.
“You know, there are things that I am better at than your dad, and there are things that your dad is better at than I am. I’m better at fixing things, which is something that typically people think of as a boy thing. And you know your dad is a brilliant teacher. Did you know that, not that long ago, public school teachers were all women? It’s true; that was something people thought of as a woman’s job.”
The boisterous kid who was showing off for his friend was completely gone. He was looking down at the counter taking his punishment until I said this bit about school teachers and then he looked up, surprised. I knew I’d managed to get something across to him and started to wrap up the lecture.
“Look, like I said. I like Chad and I’m glad you are friends. But I think I can speak for both myself and your mom when I say that there is no way we are raising a boy who doesn’t treat girls as equals. So whenever I hear your friends telling you to hate girls and things associated with girls and I don’t hear you respond and say, ‘no you are wrong,’ then you can expect to hear from me at some point after because my job is to make sure that you aren’t getting bad programing like that.”
Ethan nodded. After a pause, maybe once he realized I wasn’t going to say any more, he said, “I’m sorry, Rachel.”
“Thank you,” I said. “I accept your apology.” Then it was time to turn the page. I asked him I needed help deciding on a dessert. “I have ice cream or frozen chocolate chip cookies that I can throw in the oven. What do you think?”
I didn’t typically reward my employees with fresh baked cookies to bribe them into liking me again after I told them off, but I wanted Ethan to know we were fine after our first memorable disagreement. And anyway, I was the boss. It was their job to give me cookies. My motto as a boss was: Make me like you, if you can!
I know it wasn’t perfect, but I’m proud of that conversation. I think I handled it well. And I haven’t decided that misogyny begins on the playground. I’m sure it is more complicated than that, but honestly, it’s as convincing an origin story as any other I have heard. But working through my reaction to this incident, I did have a thought that, as I have been given the gift of becoming a stepparent after years of thinking I would never have a child in my life, I am not going to squander this opportunity. I am not going to tell my nieces to watch their hem length or carry their keys at the ready. I’m going to tell my little boy that pink is beautiful and that girls are badasses, who grow up to be badass women like his mom and me.
When he is older, I’ll tell him that “no” means “no” and “yes” means “yes” and that boys are feminists who look out for others. But not yet; that conversation is a few years off yet. I’ll have to make a note, once we get there, to stock up on cookie dough. We’ll need a lot of cookies for that.