I’m Trying to Dismantle Gender Roles, But Society Keeps Getting in the Way

“Lupin’s a boy dog, right?” my 3-year-old Tzivia asks me, about our fluffy rescue mutt. “Are there girl dogs?”

Tzivia and Lupin, 3 years ago (photo by Justin Snell)

I stifle a laugh and give her the sex vs. gender talk again:

“We know dogs’ sexes, but not their genders, because dogs don’t care about gender. Remember how for humans, parents guess gender based on the baby’s sex, but as kids get older, they can tell us about their gender? Well, dogs never tell us, so for pronouns, we can just stick with the guess, based on their sex,” I recite, amazed she’s listened this long. “But, yes, Lupin has a penis, so his sex is male. Inkling, who we met earlier today, is a female dog.”

“No, no, no,” she says, insisting that, since Inkling kept jumping on her when they met, Inkling must be a boy dog.

“Because girls are calming and sweet.”

My jaw drops. My husband and I turn to each other, stunned. Where did she learn that?

Tzivia has a mom (me) and a dad (my husband), who have both managed to be mostly stay-at-home with her. Honestly, I take her to library times and playdates more than he does, but we both do it. We both read to her, take baths with her, cook for her, sing to her. We both co-slept with her (during my post-partum depression/anxiety, she mostly slept on his chest, woke to nurse with me, then right back to his chest again, because for a while, I just couldn’t).

Skin-to-skin with Dada, the day she was born

We both laugh about farts with her and scream with her, and we both change the pronouns in books so sometimes that kid with the ponytail is a he and that adventurous bear cub is a she, and more than anything, we just use they for anyone who hasn’t told us their preferred pronouns.

And yet.

Immediately, I want to blame someone — a grandparent? Another kid? I’d blame TV if she watched more than the occasional Daniel Tiger and Reading Rainbow. Certainly the rockin’ Sleater Kinney music videos we’ve brought her up on didn’t teach her this.

Awesomely wild

But then it hits me: she sees this culture. Like, despite everything we say and do and read, she can see the reality that so many women are everywhere we go doing the majority of the loving care, while men are often not present in nurturing roles (if they’re even present at all). Yes, I think it’s getting better, but we are still teaching gender equality in an unequal world, so regardless of how we structure our own home and the stories we tell, she sees the reality of the present. We just cannot do this alone.

We read her Who Are You?: The Kid’s Guide to Gender Identity (a must!), teach her that gender is play, that it’s very, very important to some people, but she can continue to choose throughout her life what gender(s) feel right to her, what words and what pronouns. The couple times she’s asked what it means to be a girl, we’ve told her a girl can be anything and do anything.

Still, she sees the rigid gender roles. She can see that at Library Time, there’s a female teacher singing to us while 15 women (and, on average, one man) snuggle their littles on their laps and learn the songs they’ll sing to them at home and in the car and at the grocery store. She knows all her little friends’ mamas and often finds comfort in their hugs. For every man in her life who is “calming and sweet,” there are 10 or 20 women.

I know she said something positive: not that boys are mean, but that girls are sweet. And “sweet” is certainly a great thing to be. Let’s all be mostly sweet. All people. All dogs. Sure.

Lupin and Tzivia in our hammock

But when most of our children are surrounded daily by caring women, and later they learn about power differentials — men making more money, all those male presidents — what will be the takeaway lesson? How many little kids will learn nurturing is women’s work? How many won’t even register it as work at all? Our family is trying our best here, but is that ever enough to overrule the ruling culture?

Also, this dog upset her by jumping up at her, even when she told her to stop. Tzivia said, “No,” and the dog didn’t listen; the dog kept touching her. And Tzivia read that as male. She’s 3 years old.

We’ve all got some more work to do.