I’ve been getting into a little bit of Gender Trouble lately. That is, I’ve been reading Judith Butler’s book by that name for a class I am teaching. And though it is, as one of my colleagues said recently, “one of the hardest books I’ve ever read,” I’ve managed to grasp several bits of it and those bits have me thinking about motherhood. Now Butler doesn’t talk about motherhood, but she does talk about Freud and gender identity development in the family, among many other things. In her explorations and critiques, she looks at some Freudian concepts, in particular as they related to the way we categorize people into one of only two categories—male and female—even though, as she argues, these biological “facts” are just as constructed as the gender ideas we graft onto them. She talks about the roots of identity development and how we come to see ourselves in gendered ways. So I’ve been thinking about how directive even the most open-minded parenting is, how it moves children into restrictive categories that they then struggle to maintain or break from for the rest of their lives.
I have fancied myself the kind of parent who pushes up against gender norms and works to expand the social parameters for what it means to be a ‘boy’ or a ‘girl’ in these times. I’ve tried to let my children live more freely than the standard social norms would have them live. But in looking back at my mothering over the past—dare I say it—two decades, especially in light of Butler’s ideas, I think maybe my work on this front isn’t all that impressive. I really did only know two categories for gender so at best I think I made boy-ness a little roomier for my son and girl-ness a little roomier for my daughter but I didn’t really think any larger than that. I made it a lot easier to be a boy or girl in my house and to do it in self-determined ways. But I didn’t challenge the gender binary, the split into just two genders. Now, after reading Butler, I wish I’d known how. I realize that if I had, I wouldn’t have been doing it in a vacuum. I realize that family is but one place where children learn how to “do” gender, that it’s probably impossible to live fully outside of gender norms, that what works within family cultures often doesn’t translate well to larger cultures and that this has consequence for the lives that children live. And I did make a good bit of progress in moving my own thinking beyond the stereotypical categories and restrictive thinking I learned—from everywhere–as I grew up. I suppose that is no small feat. Even so, I wish I had been able to do things even more differently, radically even.
I wonder what life and identity would have been like for my children had I used different frames for thinking about them as people, had I done something different with the question after their births “Is it a boy or a girl?,” had I the courage or the faintest understanding of how to live, myself, outside of a gender binary. Oh sure, I engaged my own micropolitics when I could. I employed what I call “strategic confusion” at McDonald’s when they asked whether I wanted a girl toy or a boy toy in their happy meal; I looked for the most gender neutral clothing I could find—discovering to my surprise then that it was much harder to do this for my son than for my daughter; I let them wear what they wanted and didn’t use derivatives of the phrase “because you’re a boy/girl” as justification for anything; I bought dolls for him and a truck for her and books that offered images of resistance for them both; I bought art supplies for their friends’ birthday gifts. I had conversations with school officials on behalf of both of them regarding one gender or sexuality issue or another. I got comfortable with other people’s discomfort with the choices I made. The list goes on. But I wish I’d known how to do it bigger, how to challenge social structure more profoundly. I wish I’d known how to construe “biology” differently. I wonder how our family would have been different if I had.