This post is written by Julie Merberg, mother of four boys and author of the children’s board book My First Book of Feminism (for Boys).
In public, I’m a proud, girl-power T-shirt-wearing feminist. I’ve spent a lifetime showing my boys that women can be smart, strong, entrepreneurial and every bit as tough as them—except for the wrestling part. (I will never understand the thrill of rolling around beating the crap out of your siblings.) I’ve taught my 4 sons how to fish and ride bikes and play tennis, to craft and bake hamentashen and work hard. I’ve done some things right. Screaming at them to pick up their dirty socks while picking up their dirty socks is not one of those things.
In the privacy of my house full of boys—a home that in retrospect seems destined to have been messy and chaotic, I was in a constant state of attempting to impose order…by myself. For way too many years, I did all of the gathering of Legos and laundry, the bed-making, the table-clearing and dish washing in our home. On the many occasions when I pointed this out to my husband, he insisted that he would absolutely clean—but that I always took care of everything first…The trouble with that rationalization is, in a game of “who can leave that pool of sriracha on the table longest?” I’ll lose every single time.
If I had done a better job of making my kids take on simple tasks—such as putting away their own toys—when they were little, I might not be struggling with teens who’ll think nothing of leaving wet towels on the floor and fuzzy razors on the sink. They don’t share my conviction that it’s nicer to slip into a neatly made bed at night, so I have shifted my focus to teaching them respect. They might be happy living in a pizza-box-strewn man cave, but I’m not. And they should care because I care.
This gender divide on housework extends beyond my home and starts early, I learned while doing research for My First Book of Feminism (for Boys). (Yes, I did research for a board book.) Studies have shown that from a very young age, girls naturally do more household chores than boys do. What’s more, boys expect to be paid for doing chores! I am ashamed to confirm that last summer when I finally put my foot down on the cleaning situation, I actually negotiated a fee with my then 9-year-old for emptying the dishwasher! (What is wrong with me?)
Abysmal role modeling on the housecleaning front was not my only feminist fail. I wish I had been infinitely cooler the time my oldest (now 19) was five years old, and chose a hot pink down coat from the Lands End catalog. I told him they were out of that color. I told myself that the bright blue would bring out his eyes. But the truth was, I didn’t want to spend the winter explaining that my beautiful boy with his long blond ringlets snuggled into a pink hood was not a girl. I burned with the shame of knowing I was being closed-minded for an otherwise liberal New York City mom. But what I understand now is that my failure was much bigger than closed-mindedness. I was actually hampering my kid’s creativity! Letting children choose their clothing, color their hair, pick their toys and generally assert their preferences encourages them to experiment and builds their confidence. Telling them “that’s a girl color” or “you can’t play with a boy toy” shuts them down. It’s not only bad feminism (perpetuating what now seem like totally antiquated gender norms). It’s lousy parenting.
The flip side is that good parenting: teaching children to respect others, to be responsible, to speak up for what’s right…is also good feminism. My four sons are too big for me to hold them my lap and read my newest book to them. But while I was working on it, they gave me the kind of feedback that sparked some intense dinner table conversations about their own tween/teen take on feminism…And bit by bit, as I’ve replaced my need for cleanliness with a deeper need for equality, some of the ideas in the book have taken hold. In September, my oldest wrote a forceful blog piece about Brett Kavanaugh in which he described sexual assault as “a male problem that women have been tasked with fixing.” I nearly wept. Around the same time, my 10th grader took over the household laundry one day when he ran out of underpants. (Not out of a deep respect for his mother, but…he does the laundry now!) My thirteen year-old (who will be taller than me any minute) has started carrying the groceries. And one of these days, I’ll get my youngest to unload the dishwasher. For free.
You can buy My First Book of Feminism (for Boys) on Amazon.