Let’s Hear It for the Boys… And Girls

Another great contribution from Stephanie Phillips: “This could be our last big surprise in life,” […]

Mockingbird / 7.18.14

Another great contribution from Stephanie Phillips:

“This could be our last big surprise in life,” I said to my husband on our way to the gender-reveal ultrasound of our second child a couple of months ago. He laughed at the melodrama of the statement even as we both acknowledged that the news was likely to be anticlimactic, since the perinatologist had already guessed–and we had suspected–that we were having another boy. An hour later, our suspicions were confirmed. I was set to be the lone female in a house populated by Y chromosomes.

It works out well that my husband’s genetic material is so male-dominated and overbearing, since I’ve always hoped for blue–as I told a friend, at the end of the day I’d rather clean up a mess than talk about feelings. I grew up with a sister and all our cousins are female, so my side of the family was due some testosterone infusion. But I quickly grew aware, in all my pre-parenthood research, that, from potty-training to puberty, I didn’t know the first thing about boys–and I set out to change that.


The books provided one part of my education; life supplied the bulk of it. Marriage was my initial teacher, its lessons coming through the immersion technique of daily experience: nodding is not necessarily a validation of comprehension; clutter is not proof that I and my gender are being collectively disrespected; lack of response from a male is not the silent treatment–it’s just an alternative form of communication, typically an affirmative response. About a year and a half into my crash course on men, my husband and I welcomed our first son. Despite my plans to be a laid-back parent, I anxiously watched for milestone achievements and “normal” development. Our pediatrician’s office even thoughtfully provided a list at every well visit of activities he should be able to perform–and for a rehabilitating rule-follower like myself, raised on the religion of people-pleasing and performance-based merit, to be handed this list was akin to an addict being offered a hit. But my boy worked his way down that list at his own pace, seeming to navigate the world on a separate timetable. Especially compared to my niece, fifteen months older and, as a member of the female gender, way different from my own child in terms of development. Swimming in a wading pool of knowledge, I continued to compare my son with my sister’s daughter for the first couple of years of his life, asking myself why he seemed to lag behind.

It drove me crazy–until it set me free.

And wouldn’t you know, one of the most powerful agents in my liberation was the other guy in our house? Whenever I let anxiety get the upper hand–for example, questioning whether his preference for a singular episode of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse predisposed our son toward an end of the behavioral spectrum–my husband talked me off the ledges I created with a demeanor I found excruciatingly calm and unflappable until I realized that these qualities were meant as gifts of grace to me. As a part-time working mother, I had a tendency to take on everything myself, shutting my partner out while taking on a martyr complex about all I had to do.

Annex - Russell, Rosalind (His Girl Friday)_02

Gender roles are more fluid than ever in our society, and just like we embed our identity in everything–career, children, relationship status, socioeconomic class–but its unassailable source, we seek our freedom in these roles as well. The problem is not that women are doing more outside the home and men are doing more within it; the problem is that we consult our feelings as an ultimate authority on how to handle these changes. And, for me, self-righteous indignation is a feeling that is all too close to the surface.

When Matt Lauer asked Mary Barra whether she could be a good CEO and mom, my hackles flew up. “How dare he?” I roared to my husband. “He would never ask a man that!” I should know by now that those hackles of indignation signal something far more complicated and less noble than a crusade for justice: I am trying to prove myself. When we fall into the timeless trap of attempting to demonstrate our worth with our performance, we turn discussions into defenses; conversations become courtrooms. Gender relations have become gender wars because we suspect others are viewing our gender as a limitation. For my part, this kind of scrambling usually means I’m struggling to protect some projection of myself to the world; I don’t like the way I’m in danger of being seen–as less than capable. As less than doing-it-all. As less than perfect.

It’s a vanity project, really–this reliance on anything other than grace to prop up my self-image.

But once again, as it always does, grace stepped in through the cracks in my argument, the holes in my own efforts. “That’s because no one really cares about the dad’s role,” my husband replied, and since he’s not prone to martyrdom, I listened. What followed was a discussion of the various ways we each felt manipulated and misunderstood by the ongoing gender wars: I feel undervalued in the world; he feels undervalued in the home. His point is more than anecdotal, having been supported by statistics and the nod-nod-wink-wink “subtlety” of commercials and TV shows that paint men as domestic idiots.

If I’m being honest with myself, there’s a reason I leave my Harvard-educated husband with instructions when he’s home alone with our son, or why I set out a predetermined outfit for him to clothe the boy in–and it goes beyond fearing a two-year-old will venture into the world dressed like he’s escaping a zombie invasion.

I want to have a corner of the world–no matter how small–that I can control. That I can be “the best” at.

We’re lying to ourselves if we don’t see that the subtlest and most overt forms of sexism as they exist on both sides are born of anything other than sin. Of that desire for control, even over other people. Certainly, there is a range of behavior that exists, and most of us operate our law-abiding existences far from the brutality, most often against women, that society rightfully finds repugnant. But focusing on any behavior at the exclusion of the heart will ultimately lead to surface changes only, much like focus on the law at the expense of grace just exhausts us in our endless efforts to self-reform.

maxresdefaultWe need to recognize, shy away from trivializing, and appreciate the value in our differences. To see our respective genders as gifts–to ourselves and each other. Trust me, this isn’t always easy. As someone who has recently traded working outside the home for within it, I tend to stifle an inner, self-righteous scream, sensitivity flaring, whenever I find myself washing a dish or picking up an article of clothing invisible to the male eye. Then I remember the particularly pungent diaper that my husband changed this morning, or the way he cleaned up our son’s blocks earlier, and I wonder if this sudden urge to burn my bra and carry an EQUALITY sign around the house might itself stifle my ability to recognize the tender ways grace is changing each of us–making us more ourselves and turning that into a gift we give each other.

So perhaps the question, rather than whether a person can be a good CEO and parent, is whether she is pursuing the priorities at work, home, and in the world that make her the person and parent she was uniquely made to be. What is “good”, anyway, compared to full of grace? This world, in its pursuit of simplistic definitions for good and bad, places way too small a premium on the kind of mutual servanthood that is a part of deep love, that leads to a counter-intuitive form of freedom. The kind of freedom that grows an awareness of how multi-faceted life and each other are, of how my tendency toward order and my husband’s toward spontaneity may just end up complementing each other, combining perfectly in the grin of a two-year-old face that is a perfect blend of both of us.