Gender, feminism and fatherhood


July 1, 2015 by Dadinator

If I wind my life back a few years I was full of a humanistic, liberal (small l), post-modern hubris that I think afflicts many males. I was certain that through my life, through my choices and through my exposure to the 21st century that I was absolutely immune to being sexist. I wasn’t a feminist, but I was a decent guy. I had loads of female friends who I respected a great deal, I was a great listener, I had worked for and alongside women throughout my career and within my relationship all our major decisions were made together.

I could do no wrong.

I wasn’t part of the problem. Right?

I didn’t get the idea of “quotas” for female representation in political parties. Surely after laws were changed and everyone accepted that equality was a good thing this stuff would take care of itself, right? I mean equality is the default position, we’ve just screwed it up through cultural heritage and through strange quirks of history. Right? The tide was turned, the real battles of feminism were over (suffrage and discrimination in the law), the rest was just a matter of time.

Then I started raising my own children. One boy, one girl.

We have a play kitchen which both kids enjoy. Today The Mamanator remarked on something that I had never observed, or perhaps never noticed. When The Lad cooks in the play kitchen, when he finishes he always calls out “Breakfast is ready!” When The Lass cooks in the play kitchen, when she finishes she always calls out “Dinner’s Ready!”

I cook breakfast. Guess who cooks dinner?

My kids have made the distinction between myself and my wife, between man and woman and they have set up pinned parts of their emergent identities to our genders, I don’t know how deep it runs, but it exists. And The Lass isn’t even 2.

Who cooks breakfast and dinner isn’t really the point. The point is that my children are already starting to form their own views on gender and gender-roles. This is a natural developmental step that children make around the age of 2 or 3, boys and girls start to identify as “boy” and “girl”, partly based on the biology they see in the bath each night, and partly due to us explaining why mum and dad look different in certain areas of the physique. Kids aren’t dumb, they work this out fast.

Then they observe what mum and dad do. I work out of the home, The Mamanator works in the home. The kids see this and are used to the ritual of me leaving for work in the morning. I cook breakfast because I’m a morning person, The Mamanator cooks dinner because she’s home during the day and has the ability to get stuff together for it. I do less around the house because I am around the house less.

All of this stuff, what we do and how we do it, feeds into my children’s sense of gender identity.  It calibrates their consciousness of sex and gender in the world. Things I do consciously and unconsciously splat together somewhere in their minds, like bad claymation, and form into a couple of clumps  of swirly coloured play-dough that strangely resemble poo, labelled “man” and “woman”, I’ll introduce them the other gender identities another day.

To a large extent this is out of my control because once upon a time I was 3, I was exposed to my mum and my dad and my own views coalesced in a similar way during my formative years. It’s been moulded and shaped by 35 years of movies, tv-shows, books, internet sites, social interaction, memories and experiences. I’ve also taken conscious control of parts of it, but there remains a tonne of subliminally learned baggage that dwells in my head.

I don’t know how much of it I want to pass on to my children. Nor do I know how to avoid passing it on.

You see, patriarchy isn’t about a high council of “Man Power* Inc.” that actively works to exclude women from some sky-scraper in New York. Patriarchy isn’t about the card-board cutout stinky sexist caricature you see in sitcoms. Patriarchy isn’t one person or one organisation.

*Not to be confused with these guys.

It’s an invisible, systemic, cultural and subconscious pigeonholing people on the basis of their gender that we all do on some level and that we all can’t help doing. It’s ball and chain jokes; words like “slut” or “ho” or “bitch”; males obsession with seeming “STRONG” in capital letters all the time; it’s no change tables in men’s bathrooms; it’s “you throw like a girl!”; it’s gendered violence; it’s the glass ceiling….

It’s thousands of other things that cause a dissonance in our brain when expectations we didn’t even know we held are broken, a little moment of shocked “oh?” when we find a woman in a “man’s job”, or a man doing “women’s work”.

And that cultural monolith is what feminism seeks to dismantle.

Importantly, though, it’s something I am now more aware of, and it is something I hope to make both my children aware of as they grow. They are little, the complexity of the world – or perhaps its lack of complexity – awaits them. But as they grow and learn I want to make sure they see things about me:

  • Their dad cries
  • Their dad talks and listens and will comfort them if they are upset
  • Their dad plays with them
  • Their dad can care for them, without mum around
  • Their dad and mum are equal partners in this family, and they love and respect each other, even if they don’t agree all the time
  • Their dad will talk about how he is feeling
  • Their dad is creative, expressive and loves to write, sing, act and dance (badly)
  • Their dad sucks at sport, and is okay with that.

I suppose that’s not that radical a list for the year 2015, but wind the clock back a generation and I’m certain it would have looked quite different for most households.

The Mamanator has her own list too, which is impressive. She is a smart, driven, confident and capable woman.

Alongside that I want them to understand some things about themselves:

  • Both Lad and Lass help around the house
  • Both Lad and Lass can share any toy or activity, there are no “boy’s toys” or “girl’s toys”
  • Both Lad and Lass can choose their own favourite colour pink, blue, puce…. I don’t care (in fact it changes about 5 times a day at the moment)
  • Both Lad and Lass are allowed to cry, ask for cuddles and say “I love you”.

It’s not much of a list for them so far, it will get longer as they grow, and it will also grow more complicated, and I’m sure that things will crop up and surprise me as time grinds on. I look forward to it. I hope I can foster in them a kind of self-reflectiveness so they come to realise they see the world through their own lens, and whatever it may be it will be imperfect, but it is also something they can take control of.

Boys and girls are not the same I just don’t see the need to remind them of that fact, they know. Maybe doing that will be enough.


7 thoughts on “Gender, feminism and fatherhood

  1. Simplify.Create says:

    Great post! It’s amazing how early kids will develop their own perceived gender roles, just from role modelling. We are lucky to also have a household where most tasks are mum or dad tasks. And I am very quick to shut down comments such as ‘but cars are for boys’ (thanks MIL), because cars are fun for everyone. Just ask my daughter 🙂

  2. Martine@themodernparent says:

    Love it. I work from home, and do a large part of the household chores, my husband works out of the home (and certainly contributes to the household chores) and with 5 sons it does require conscious effort to break down some of those gender roles, especially when we are kind of living them. I like however that you outlined the other other areas that I think we are doing ok at. My husband shows emotion, makes it ok to cry, plays with them, dances in front of them (quite badly but still…) and me….. Well I’ve just started boxing classes which has impressed my boys!

    • It’s so important that boys see men who express emotion. I cannot emphasise how important it is. I want, as most parents do, my kids to feel comfortable in themselves without worrying about seeming “butch” or “pussy”. I loathe that kind of language.

      Like all of us, I just hope it works!

  3. Lauren Hunt says:

    Great post! This issue of gender identity in children really makes me think. And I get so annoyed when I see books like ‘stories for boys’ or ‘colouring pages for girls’ – Target even had signs up saying ‘boys toys’ and ‘girls toys’. There is no reason why girls can’t play with trains and boys can’t play with dolls.

    • Of course the reason you have “stories for boys” and “stories for girls” (to use one example) is so families like mine buy 2 books, that’s the only reason, and it angers me. With MAN ANGER! GRRRR!.

      It actually carries on into later life with marketing to men of traditionally “female” products like skin-care creams and stuff, it’s full on. Also goes the other way of course. It’s such a crock.

  4. Grace says:

    Last week I had such a busy time at work, dad had to take on all dinner duties. That’s just the norm in this house. I like to think there’s an increase in similar situations. As for gender specific toys, my son picked out the pink unicorn at Target once and man, the looks we got from other shoppers. One day they’ll catch up with the times 🙂

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