My Son’s President
“We nominated a woman for President!” I exclaimed to my 15-month-old son as he wiggled in his high chair. “Hillary shattered the glass ceiling!”
He flashed a goofy, gap-toothed smile and smeared banana in his hair.
Like countless others, I’ve been feeling a swell of emotions on the heels of the Democratic National Convention and Hillary’s historic nomination for the biggest job in the world. As a feminist, a graduate of Wellesley College (Hillary’s alma mater), and as someone longing for a just and equitable future, the optimism of this moment runs deep for me.
But I’ve also been struck by what it feels like to witness this history as the parent of a son. And I’m surprised by how few people have written or spoken about the significance of a female presidential nominee for boys.
Over the past week, I’ve gotten misty-eyed while reading Facebook posts by many friends — mostly mothers of young daughters, clinging to the lyrical power of “standing here as my mother’s daughter and my daughter’s mother” — the phrase that Hillary so eloquently wove into the cadence of her acceptance speech. I was riveted as Michelle Obama spoke about how her daughters, Malia and Sasha, will now take for granted a woman’s ascent to the presidency, just eight years after their father made a different kind of history as the first black President of the United States.
On the final night of the DNC, my own father — a parent of three daughters — emailed my sisters and me:
“I want to thank all three of you for allowing me to more fully bask in the glow of this historic night. While I’m sure many men can enjoy this, a father of three superbly educated, empowered women may be able to enjoy it even more.”
I don’t know what it feels like to have a daughter, and I’ll admit to a pang of yearning for that feeling — especially now. I’ve always imagined parenting a strong-willed girl who loves soccer and playing in the dirt. I picture her carrying a Hillary action figure in her pocket or marching at a rally for reproductive rights, just like I did when my parents brought me to the 1989 March for Women’s Lives in Washington, D.C. when I was seven.
But here I am in 2016, parenting a boy who loves tractor wheels and front-loaders.
What will it mean for my son to watch a mother and a grandmother lead a nation? How will a woman in the most powerful position of leadership change the way my son understands how leaders behave, struggle, and take risks? What will he notice about how a female president is judged? How she exhibits vulnerability? How she responds to violence? How she perseveres in the face of hardship?
My son’s life is different from the lives of many boys, especially in how he will understand gender roles. He has two moms who work full-time outside of the home. He has a female pediatrician, a female rabbi, and a grandmother with a PhD — experiences that were entirely unavailable to women just a few decades ago. His favorite babysitter is a transgender man of color who graduated from Wellesley — a journey that was unthinkable in recent history.
And yet, my son’s life is situated in a much larger context in which sexism and gender stereotypes are tossed around in everyday encounters.
“Looks like he’ll be a football player!” a stranger in a local coffee shop declares, while gazing at my son’s four-month-old thighs. “Or a dancer,” I reply.
“What a sweet and gentle girl,” says the woman in the Greek fish market, noticing my son’s purple shirt and the butterfly barrette keeping his hair out of his eyes. “Thank you,” I respond. “He is sweet and gentle.” “Oh, I’m so sorry!” she exclaims, apologizing for getting his gender “wrong.”
Of course, I’ve internalized plenty of assumptions and stereotypes myself. Even though I was raised to understand that God is neither male nor female, I spent decades imagining God as a wrinkly old white man with a gray beard who lives in the sky. And while I grew up knowing that women could be doctors and lawyers, I pictured most doctors and lawyers with gray beards just like God. Ask me whose job it is to cook chicken soup for Passover, and my immediate thought is “grandma’s!”
I’m not proud that I absorbed these antiquities, especially as a graduate of Wellesley. But they’re rooted in real oppressions that I’m still learning to unlearn, even on the brink of electing our country’s first female president.
In her 1969 student commencement speech at Wellesley, Hillary stated, “The challenge now is to practice politics as the art of making what appears to be impossible, possible.” Forty-seven years later, that challenge is more alive than ever.
As new ideas swirl through my son’s elastic mind, while strawberry yogurt swirls across my kitchen floor, I hope my son will be spared at least some of the barriers that tug at the sleeves of impossibility.
At the very least, I want him to point to a picture of Hillary and shout “President!” never knowing that the world ever existed differently.