I’m having the biggest ego trip in my life. Lucas, at one-and-a-half years old, sees me everywhere. He notices a woman in a magazine ad and squeals, “Mommy!” Same squeal with the woman on the back of the Cheerios box, the female firefighter in his picture book, and the image of a mermaid in the Starbucks logo, Mommy. (Okay, maybe that last one has more to do with the frequency with which Mommy visits Starbucks.) Every woman depicted, regardless of ethnicity, age, or any remote likeness to me, is Mommy to him. His squeals are embedded with such toddler joy – a sense of accomplishment as he identifies women and relates them to me.
But beyond the ego trip, there is the surprise that at 18 months, he already can identify gender. From the post-modern, leftist education I received, I was under the impression that gender was more of a continuum, and that the male/female dichotomy was more a social construction than an absolute. Yes, I have longer hair than Hubby, but I’d admit to exhibiting many so-called “masculine” qualities too. The stereotypical image of a woman I certainly am not. But there must be some obvious characteristics he is observing that he has decided to tag every woman as “Mommy”.
But what has surprised me even further is how he has started to engender vehicles. Little cars are “Mommy” and big trucks are “Daddy” both expressed with the same zeal. I avoid acknowledging this differentiation, but he repeats himself until he knows I’ve heard him. Before Lucas was born, I was determined we would not reinforce boy and girl stereotypes, that my boy would wear pink and play with dolls. Yet, just as many other ideas I had before my child was born, it hasn’t happened as planned. Lucas loves trucks almost more than life itself, with trains (especially Thomas and his motley crew) a close second. He also has a play kitchen and grocery cart – toys that my brother, 15 years ago, would not buy for his boys thinking them too “girly”. But I have not bought him a doll yet and I can’t bring myself to have him wear pink. So, even though we veer away from television and other influences that are eager to teach him what it means to be a boy or a girl, it is still happening.
As the major players in his life, we are the ones who are constructing the meaning of gender for him. Last week, my husband picked Lucas up from daycare and found him kissing two other girls. We joked about him playing the field, and it became a cute story to tell to family and friends. The other day when I dropped off Lucas, he kissed his male friend which I thought was equally sweet. However, looking back, I realize I didn’t acknowledge it nor did I tell that story to any family or friends. And at this age, it’s not about heterosexuality or homosexuality, either of which is fine by me, but it’s about subtle reinforcements of masculine behavior and preference. Those subtle reinforcements play out every moment of every day, when Daddy fixes the car while Mommy fixes dinner, when we skip the “girls” section of the toy store and make a beeline for the vehicles, when I refuse to let him use a pacifier that is purple, or when we say things like “boys will be boys” as an excuse for misbehavior or aggressiveness.
I’ve come to believe that gender is probably not entirely socially constructed – that maybe boys and girls do come out with certain preferences. But whatever the case, it’s what I do as a parent to promote those preferences and to hide alternatives that helps them define what is “normal” or acceptable. If I demonstrate stereotypical gender roles or unconsciously hide opportunities for him to view alternate roles, I am playing a part in constructing his understanding of gender. If I reinforce gender dichotomies, I will define my son’s understanding of what it is to be a little boy as oppositional to little girls. So, next time he points at a Toyota Yaris and says, “Mommy!” and a Ford F-150 truck and says “Daddy!”, I realize I need to find a way to climb into that truck and show him that things aren’t always black or white.
Liesl Jurock is a writer, an educator and a mamma – in other words, a creator. She blogs about her journey through motherhood at http://mammalogs.blogspot.com and in currently developing a book of mamma-stories on new motherhood.