A few weeks ago, my son asked if he could interview me for a class project. The assignment, as he explained it to me, was to interview “a powerful woman.” It’s hard to turn down a compliment like that, so of course I said yes.
That interview turned out to be a good experience for both of us. First of all, it gave me a chance to talk to my son about some things we’ve never really had occasion to discuss–the fact that I was raised in a deeply traditional household, for instance. There were no expectations of me, really, other than marriage and children. My son was astounded to discover that I had mostly bumbled my way into college and, later, graduate school. He was also surprised learn that I didn’t call myself a feminist until I was nearly 30 years old. (I’m a professor of English and Women’s Studies in my non-blogging life. You can understand why this came as quite a shock.)
I don’t remember acknowledging an explicit shift in my thinking about feminism, but after my daughter was born, I simply couldn’t understand how any human being would fail to revere this perfect little person I had created. The idea that her gender should have something to do with how much someone respected her, or how many opportunities were afforded to her, just made no sense. She should be able to wear blue overalls without being called him. She should be able to run around outside without people cautioning her not to get dirty. She should have all the love, all the respect, all the joy, all the opportunities. Everything.
I felt the same way when my son was born, a few years later. I wanted him to grow up and become his own person, whoever that might be. Above all, I never wanted him to think there was only one path for a boy to follow. Whether his passion was art, football, or something else entirely, it mattered that he knew I’d be his strongest supporter. But I also knew his struggle would be different. Professional chefs are often male, for instance, in spite of the fact that cooking has generally been viewed as feminine. (Somehow, getting a paycheck blasts the feminine sheen right off that kitchen knife.) For him, the struggle would not be for the right to access opportunities; he would have to carve out a space for himself beyond the narrow bounds of traditional masculinity.
Becoming a mother changed the way I felt about almost everything, but especially about feminism. And being a feminist mom has meant many different things. When my daughter was in elementary school, for instance, it meant telling her that boys are taught to be mean to the girls they like–but she didn’t have to accept that behavior. “You need to explain to him that you aren’t friends with people who are mean to you,” I said. “If he likes you, then he needs to respect you. That’s how it works.”
When my son was being bullied by a classmate, being a feminist mom meant encouraging him to stand up for himself–respectfully–and ask for help if that didn’t work. (And then, of course, I followed up with his teacher, so we were on the same page.) While fewer schools tolerate aggression between students anymore, even at the elementary level, there’s a distressing willingness to fall back on the belief that boys will be boys. That’s particularly true here in Texas. Boys are expected to be tough enough to deal with whatever the world throws at them the moment they arrive.
Becoming a mother–and then being a mom, every single day, for the past 23 years–has changed me in many way.. For one thing, I’m braver than I ever imagined I could be. I have no choice: you mess with my children, I’m the one who intervenes. But I’m more conscious of the choices I make for myself, too, knowing that my children watch how I conduct my life and learn from my example. Often, that has meant making the difficult choice rather than taking the easy way out of a situation. I walk the walk because I’m a mom, and because my children are watching.
And I’m a better person–a better feminist–for having done this. I’m more focused on equality and respect in my everyday life, not just as ideals but as a lived reality. Those ideals are, contrary to popular opinion, the central concerns of feminism.
That’s something my son understands, thanks to the fact that he was raised in a feminist household. he was raised by both a mother and a father who value equality above all else. He also understands that equality doesn’t mean sameness. Women and men don’t have to be identical, but the world will be a better place when they are treated with equal dignity and respect.
A slightly different version of this piece appears on The Huffington Post.