Why does it take so much work to be a boy, to be a man, to be masculine? The entire concept of “masculinity” seems entirely contrived. When I observe the effort that men go to to be male, especially among other men, it looks like an energy drain. Being masculine looks utterly exhausting. Even with all that energy spent I imagine the worst part of it all is that, in the end, the process is unrewarding as well.
The male half of the gender binary requires a lot of policing, especially when children are in the early years of gender indoctrination. The man box is a very small box, and it takes a lot of force to get little boys to learn to squeeze themselves in that space.
When I was 21 and I found out I was pregnant. After the initial shock was over, I started thinking “please don’t be a girl”. I know what it is like to grow up as a girl – it involves a lot of self-hate, self-doubt, and people invading your personal space. For a lot of girls and women, that breach in personal space will often involve force.
I refused to find out the sex of the fetus. Browsing the stores, it is plainly obvious that gender indoctrination begins even before birth. People wanted to know the sex so they could buy me gendered clothes, gendered toys, even gendered diapers. Fuck that noise.
The baby was born a girl. At that point I had lost the fear of giving birth to a girl. After 9 months of preparation and reading, I was well prepared to protect my potential daughter from people trying to push her into their gender expectations. The first few years this meant that I would challenge peoples’ ideas of gender to their face. Why do you want her to have those toys and those clothes? In more recent years I have started asking my daughter questions about the gender boxes that are presented on TV, in movies, in the toy and clothing aisles, and especially in advertising. By asking her questions, she has come to recognize that she is being sold gender. At 9 years old she recognizes the gimmick and the fallacy of gender binary. So far she is not interested in buying what is being sold.
What I was not prepared for was raising a boy, and now I have two of them. When my daughter would cry people would say “oh no, she’s sad”. When her little brothers were babies and they would cry, people would say “Ugh oh, he’s angry”. By far, the most important thing in male gender indoctrination seems to be a vigilant policing of signs of feminine behavior being expressed in a little boy. The worst thing that a boy can do is express himself in a manner that comes across as female. And never did I expect to see this happen to my own sons, at the hands of their own father.
When I had my second child, the introduction to male indoctrination was abrupt and six years later I am still shocked at the process of this indoctrination. My second little one was very quiet and alert, as long as he was being held he was happy. His big sister has always been boisterous and confident, she and her father are naturally very loud people. Myself and my second child are both generally quiet and sensitive to too much noise or activities happening around us. My children’s father did not bond with our new son. He was a petite baby, with blonde hair and blue eyes. He would rather lay in the arms of an adult and make eye contact, while being smiled at and spoken to softly. His father went through a dark transformation after the birth of our son. He was fine with us preventing our daughter from being raised with an effort to avert gender indoctrination. But now that he had a son, a son that displayed what he thought of as feminine characteristics, things changed for the worse in our family. If our baby boy started to cry, he would put the baby down and sit there angrily while the baby learned to cry it out. My children’s father and his family would claim the baby was angry when he was crying, and that he had to learn to cope with that. These are the same people who would quickly pick up my daughter at the first sign of her lower-lip quivering. When our little boy was one year old I ended up in the hospital with ruptured ovarian cysts. I was still solely breastfeeding him, and the separation was difficult for those few days. When I was released from the hospital and got home, I saw that my little guy was sick: stuffed up nose, glassy eyes, low-grade fever. My mother-in-law and my children’s father gave me a report on how badly the one year old behaved, how he kept throwing angry tantrums, “we just laid him down and let him cry. He will learn that he can’t act out like that”. I felt rage flow through my insides. He was very obviously sick, yet they were so blind by their drive to shove him in the man box that they neglected to care for him properly. During that hospital stay I also found out that I was pregnant again. Eight months later I had another little boy in my life.
My third child was a full pound and a half heavier than the other two when they were born. He was definitely a solid looking little guy. Their father was ecstatic. He marveled at how strong-looking his new baby was, and how tight his little grip was on his finger. I felt sick.
The father of my children does not treat them equally. I am hesitant to say that he has shown preference to our oldest and youngest. The better way to describe it is that he has shown a consistent disapproval towards our middle child, and it is directly linked to him not fitting inside the man box.
My children are allowed to express themselves in the ways that make them happy when we are home together, but their behavior changes as soon as their dad comes home. He has bonded better with our youngest child than with the other two children. Recently I noticed that he is starting to become more active in reinforcing male behavior in our youngest child. We were at the pool a few days ago, and he took the youngest to the bathroom. Since it is usually the kids and I out together, the kids are all accustomed to going in the women’s bathroom. When our youngest headed towards the female bathroom, his father said sternly “that is the girls bathroom and you are a boy, you don’t want to go in the girls room. You are a boy, you go in this bathroom. We are boys!”. This was not merely directing the child where to go. He was chastising our child for acting outside the man box, he was adding another small education on what it means to be a boy: that being a boy means wanting to not be a girl, it means rejecting things that are perceived as feminine.
This morning the children were playing dress-up with old clothes. My daughter handed one of her old dresses to her youngest brother. He was angry. “I am a boy, I don’t wear girls clothes! I want boy clothes!”. I was not the only one who was shocked, the other two children were taken aback as well. Before I could even open my mouth, my daughter said “there is no such thing as girl clothes and boy clothes, we can wear whatever we want”. Since my youngest gets to spend more time with his father than the other two children do, I think he has been getting a gender education that his siblings have not been exposed to and that not even I am aware of how active this education is or how long it has been happening. Now that I am aware that it is happening, I know that I need to take action to deprogram whatever damage has been done. I called the youngest over to the computer. “Look, boys wear dresses too”. I showed him a picture of David Tennant wearing a kilt, his eyes brightened. Our whole family loves Doctor Who, and the 10th Doctor is our favourite. “Doctor wears dresses? That’s cool,” he said, then off he went to continue imagination play with his siblings. He told his brother and sister about the picture, they all came over to take a look. “More pictures of Doctor in a skirt, mum” they told me. We also found some picture of Captain Jack Harkness in a kilt as well. We did more image searches for “men in skirts”, and looked that the different styles and the different types of men wearing skirts. They wondered why they only ever see men walking around with pants on. My daughter, again, began to explain before I could form the correct words to answer them. She explained, “Boys are taught that they are not allowed to act like girls because it scares a lot of grown-ups. So boys think girl stuff is bad, or they are afraid to let other people know that they like girl stuff.” There was a quiet break, then my oldest son says “Doctor is brave to wear a skirt. People might make fun of him but he doesn’t care because he thinks skirts are pretty”. My youngest son replied, “yeah, Doctor is brave”. And then they ran off to play Doctor Who together.
I will not sit back without fighting back against the gendered indoctrination being pushed on my children. My children are sensitive and caring little people, and their father and other adults are regularly trying to bully those aspects of the boys’ character out of them. Being forced in the man box means having your emotional well-being stolen from you. More than anything I hope for a happy, emotionally healthy and rewarding life for my children. Forced gender identities and gender expression, little by little, removes the potential for that kind of life. I am a feminist and I want gender equality – that means I want all children to have the chance to develop in an emotionally healthy and loving environment, not an life spent living in the gendered label given to them by society. We need to end the bullying towards little boys and the policing of their behavior and emotions through gendered labels.