A Crisis of Faith: Gender-Neutral Parenting in a Gender-Obsessed World

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Driving down a rural road, tears welling in my eyes, my voice scaling octaves and my hands banging the steering wheel as the breakdown I never saw coming comes barreling toward me like a freight train.

I was on my way to Kohl's.  To buy running shoes.

Track shoes, to be exact, for my son.  The same son we drove hundreds of miles to Kansas for the national USATF meet last year.  Shoes that same son wasn't sure he wanted.

"What is going on?!?!" I screeched to my wife, riding shotgun and not looking so comfortable doing it.  "He quit basketball. He quit football.  He quit soccer.  He quit karate.  And now TRACK?!?!  We can't let that happen!  We can't let him be a quitter.  Or a do-nothing-er.  Baseball is not enough.  And he's probably just going to quit that too.  And have you seen him run?  You've seen him run!!  He's so GOOD at it!!  He's so naturally athletic.  WHAT IS GOING ON?!?!"

Ok, let me translate that blubbering mess into sane people words: I don't believe in bored kids.  Active kids are happy kids.  They're moving and sweating and growing and learning and socializing.  Sport is good for the body, mind and soul.  Add to that a naturally athletic build and good speed, and it's a done deal.  I am a good mom and good moms keep their kids in sports.  Period.

"Babe, remember what Dr. Heiny said..."

Dammit, I hate it when she does that.  And by "that" I mean interrupt my hysterical moments with calm, rational thoughts.  Just rude.

So flashback to last year's annual check up with our pediatrician.  Doc looks at me and says, "Mom, you don't have a football player on your hands.  You have a dancer.  Or an artist.  He's not aggressive enough for team sports.  He may do them now, but it won't last long."

As taken aback as I was, I couldn't really disagree with him.  Munchkin was the only one on the basketball team with his legs crossed as he sat on the bench.  He admitted to me that he would pass the ball instead of shoot because a teammate probably wanted a chance to score a goal.  And from a very young age he declared that football was too "tackle-y".  And these things weren't problems for me, or so I thought, because I believe in gender-neutral parenting.  As in, you like what you like because you like it, not because society told you that you should.  So crossing your legs?  Fine if you're comfy.  Football not your thing?  Hey, I don't like getting hit either.  Gender has no bearing on the color of your shirt, the games you play, and least of all your worth as a human being.

But Munchkin?  Oh, he disagreed big time.  As we left the office that day he said, "Mommy, I don't like what Dr. Heiny said about me.  He called me a wimp.  And I'm not a wimp.  I'm tough."

Even as I write this the tears well up in my eyes.  My 8 year old was offended by the idea that he would be good at something other than the normal boy things.  He heard "dancing" and "art" and thought "weak".  Despite my strenuous efforts at creating a genderless household where the phrases "boy this" and "girl that" are adamantly corrected ('the only thing girls can do that boys can't is give birth"), our heteronormative society had still left its mark on him.

And on me.

Teen in pink t-shirt via shutterstock

Because when you take a look at history,  you see that (male) youth athletics were developed and promoted at a time when fathers were away from their sons (war, work outside the home)  as a way to promote aggression, competition and physical activity (heteronormative male attributes) and counter the influence of moms and (female) school teachers.  So why was I, the gender-neutral parent, pushing so hard for my son to take part in this gender-inculcating social activity?   Why was I, literally, crying over track?  And while yes, sports do develop leadership and cooperation and critical thinking in kids, they're not the only activities that can do that.

But there I was, an hysterical hypocrite.  Not believing in the very words I preached.  Having a crisis of faith.

Doubt is a pain too lonely to know that faith is his twin brother. -- Kahlil Gibran

I won't say that the crisis is over, but I am thinking more clearly now.  This may be the last year that Munchkin runs track.  Truth is, I'll miss seeing his long stride and will always wonder, "what if?", especially as he grows into what will undoubtedly be a 6ft+ frame.  My days at the baseball field are probably numbered as well and I'll have to find another way to work on my tan in the spring.  But I can accept these realities because I also know that my Munchkin will be just fine without those activities.  He is a great dancer who was nicknamed "Dancing King" by his 3rd grade class (teacher included).  He's an aspiring artist and film director who is working hard on his first graphic novel and hopes to be published by the age of 12.  He is kind and gentle.  He is a thinker and a leader.  He has a strong sense of what is just and fair.  Truth is, those are the things that really matter.  Truth is, I'm raising a human being - not a boy, not an athlete - no matter what society tries to say to the contrary.

I know that my faith is almost utopian.   I know that what I have set out to do, parent in a gender-neutral manner, especially in this world, may seem crazy.  But it's what I believe is right in my heart of hearts and it's what I believe is right for my child.  Do I worry?  Of course.  Does my worry degrade into silly panic attacks at random moments?  Sure.  And that's ok.  That's called being a parent.

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