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Raising an Egalitarian Son

“God is a woman,” my son, Micah, announced one day last summer when he was still three. Then he added, “You can see Mama, but you can’t see God.” My husband had just explained that it was God who made the peas we were shelling in the shade of our tree. Intrigued by Micah’s response, I assumed he associated my love and closeness to the feelings of warmth and care he experiences from God.

I ask myself sometimes, now that Micah is four and has had another year to glean information about God and gender from American culture. The other day Micah was stringing an old computer cable down the stairs. When he reached the kitchen, he said to me, “I’m glad a guy did that and not a woman!” Dismayed, I asked him to repeat what he had said. He looked down, sensing he had said something I didn’t like, and replied, “I’m glad Mama cuddles me.” I saw a four-year-old boy again and not another sexist man. So I gently pointed out to him the woman who teaches plumbing and electricity on a few of his do-it-yourself videos. I reminded him that women can do all the jobs he admires. 

You have to understand that this is a feminist household. My husband teaches feminist philosophy at a Christian college, and I have written a book meant to bring healing to women hurt by the church. At barely three, Micah had heard enough of our discussions to shout, “No more feminism!” My husband asked, “Do you want to know what feminism is?” Micah said, “Micah doesn’t want to know!” 

But, despite our quest to be egalitarian, we still let Micah watch DVDs of Ask This Old House, because he loves to learn about home repair. On these shows, he sees only men do the jobs that he wishes he could do too. (Approaching his fourth birthday, his big question was, “Am I a man yet?”). The guys on this show—his heroes—often address only other men, even though both husbands and wives work together renovating their homes. Though we will discuss such issues with Micah, I cannot undo all the messages conveyed to him in mediums that can dominate a child’s world. But I will not subscribe to cable until he is twenty-two. Super Mom won’t give up without a fight.

My husband and I have carefully selected the words we use with our son, understanding that his first notions about gender would be inherited from his parents. One day our little tyke said “he or she…” instead of “he” to represent a person, and we smiled at each other with parental pride. Yet, even the order, with “he” always coming first, and with our fading “…or she” too often tacked on at the last minute, tells him something about who comes first in our society. Other words, like “mankind” and “craftsman,” we change to “humankind” and “craftsperson.” We try to avoid giving God a gendered pronoun, although neither of us finds it easy. But how proud I was of our efforts on that summer day under our tree when Micah felt the freedom to give God a feminine gender. A year later, with visits to several traditional churches behind us, I wonder if Micah feels confused…is God a woman, or a man? Of course, God is neither, because God is spirit, but this is difficult for many of us to fathom, four-year-olds included. The wonder to me is that, in a culture which so easily assumes otherwise, God is (or was, for one bright summer afternoon) a woman in his mind, and not the Man Upstairs.

With regard to other cultural values about gender, we take creative risks. We let him buy pink sweat pants and wear them when he wants to, ignoring stares from neighbors. His favorite toothbrushes feature the cartoon Hello Kitty—one pink, one blue. And we have bought him dolls and pink doll houses. He has always loved the houses, but, admittedly, not the dolls. He rearranges the furniture, and vacuums the houses with a miniature vacuum. His passion, in fact, is vacuums—of which he has nine, in various degrees of working order. His other loves are home repair and architecture, male-dominated arenas. But he also loves interior design and gardening, and can name many indoor plants and any number of herbs and vegetables at the local garden center. He stands up on a stool to help Dad make breakfast most days, and of course, he vacuums the house. 

So, we have done our best to give our son the freedom to develop into who he is, rather than pushing him to develop into a male or female gender role. Knowing this, you would think our family would look more interchangeable, less defined by traditional gender roles. But, no. Becoming less sexist in actual practice presents the biggest challenge to us in helping Micah learn egalitarian values. My husband and I both grew up with Happy Days messages and models of what moms do and what dads do, and how they do it. To our own embarrassment, we default to these learned behaviors. One day last year as I was getting Micah settled in his car seat to go on a Home Depot trip, he said, “Mom will stay home, because someone has to clean the house!” For a moment, I saw our lives as Micah does. I wasn’t planning to clean the house, but, from his perspective, that’s my job. And it is partly true. I am a “Stay at Home Mom,” which does bring Marion Cunningham or June Cleaver to mind. I do clean the house more than my husband does, albeit not without periodic re-negotiations. I am not particularly handy with a drill or table saw (though I have used both), and all of this sends a message: moms nurture kids and clean the house; dads take you to the hardware store. And this from two Christian feminist parents.

But the fact is that Micah seems to need me intensely right now, and that is why I’m at home with him. I would like to have some non-sexist explanation for Micah’s strong mom-preference. But I guess I should just accept my Super Powers, knowing that someday they will wane and I will return to a humdrum Lois Lane status. I’ll rejoin the respectable “work force” when my son needs me less, and my husband and I will be able to model more equal co-parenting. 

Meanwhile, we are working on less time with the Ask This Old House team. If we have made any other major mistakes with regard to passing on our egalitarian values, it would be allowing Micah to watch too many DVDs that promote gender stereotypes. If we have made any real gains, it’s because we do not have access to television shows. And yet, I know that avoiding television won’t make sexism go away. I can steer him, at age four, away from the images that objectify women and are placed at a child’s eye level in the supermarket. But he will be fourteen in just a decade, and by then he will have been bathed in many sexist assumptions about girls and women. He will have observed them treated as objects, many times, on the cover of magazines, in advertising, on the internet, from his friends, and, of course, when he finds people who will let him watch their television. But I hope that a little boy, who intuits the feminine aspects of an omnipotent God and understands the powerful nature of a mother, has the seed within him to become a man who respects women as human beings. With God’s grace, as the seed grows, I trust we too will grow into better models of what it means to be completely human.

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