My teenagers come home from school bursting with questions about gender-neutral bathrooms and what it means to be non-binary. I talk to them about sex versus gender, biology versus culture, but it doesn't make sense to them. "How can you change your gender like a pair of jeans?" they ask me, and I find myself falling back on outdated notions of gender to explain the feeling of being misgendered.
Not all boys like blue or play with trucks, and not all girls prefer pink and love Barbie dolls, I explain. Gender is broader and more inclusive than these rigid stereotypes, and people who identify as non-binary or gender-fluid shift between these roles, borrowing from both or none. "But everyone does that," they tell me. I realize they're lucky to have been raised to believe their gender doesn't define them — but too young to see all of the ways in which society still insists it does.
My teenagers are 19 and 17, a son and boy-girl twins. In my early days of parenting, it never occurred to me that it was possible to raise my kids without gender. I had my oldest kids in the late ‘90s and early 2000s; back then it seemed revolutionary to give my sons dolls and my daughter trucks. Society and I were still a long way from thinking about gender as a fluid spectrum.
Still, I've always done my best to raise strong, independent adults who aren't afraid to question the status quo, rather than focusing on superficial trappings of success. Bucking stereotypical ideas of gender roles was just part and parcel of raising the type of adults I want my kids to become, and how I envisioned myself as a feminist parent.
I'd like to say that my commitment to raising progressive kids was a resounding success, but it often feels like I'm trying to stem the flow of a river with a stick. No matter how much I talk to my kids and model tolerance, I'm still only one person. My kids absorb more from their friends, the media and (god-forbid) Twitter than I ever could've imagined when they were toddlers. No matter how much I force them to confront their own biases and "-isms," sometimes I've had to admit that my kids are no more progressive than the rest of the pack.
I began talking to my kids about sexism and rape culture during the Steubenville sexual assault case a few years ago. My kids were in late middle school and early high school then, and I was shocked to discover they didn't understand the concept of affirmative consent. Only a few years into their teens, they had already absorbed a heaping helping of misogyny. I quickly realized that I'd waited too long to have these difficult conversations.
Why did I ask my daughter to babysit her younger siblings more than I asked my sons? Why did I ask my sons to carry heavy items in from the car instead of my daughter?
And a funny thing happened: They began questioning me about my own views. Sure, I've always encouraged my kids to dress and play however they like, and I didn't miss a beat when both of my sons came out as bisexual, but why did I ask my daughter to babysit her younger siblings more than I asked my sons? Why did I ask my sons rather than my daughter to carry heavy items in from the car? Soon, I was forced to admit that I'd absorbed plenty of damaging societal messages of my own. If we were going to unlearn our internalized patriarchy, we were going to have to do it together.
My sons weren't thrilled the first time I pulled into the parking lot of the grocery store and told them to go buy tampons. They were embarrassed, but they figured it out (eventually, after a couple of frantic phone calls). Through time, they've stopped batting an eye when tampons appear on the grocery list, and sometimes they even ask me questions about what it's like to have periods.
I was surprised when my daughter said she wanted to join her high school football team, and my heart caught in my chest, but I still said yes. (I was perhaps even more surprised when the school agreed to let her play without a second thought.)
At first, my daughter complained about hauling in 50-pound bags of dog food into the house, and my sons didn't want to babysit their little sisters, but now my daughter tells me with pride that she carries her own heavy bags to the car — even when the cashiers offer to help. My sons have forged deeper bonds with their younger sisters. Everyone cooks, no one cleans well enough, but all of them do every bit of it.
In the past, I took my own progressiveness for granted. Perhaps I even gave myself more credit than I deserved. I didn't always believe that raising kids of all genders to cook, clean, do yard work and buy tampons was a radical act. Pushing myself to raise my kids outside gender norms has demanded more of me, but it's also given my kids the freedom to be themselves — no matter who they might be.