If I had been a boy, my parents would have named me “Jeremy.”
Trying to imagine myself as the opposite gender is uncomfortable. It’s a mental chasing of my own tail; I keep going around and around until I feel slightly sick. I can’t know exactly what Jeremy would be like, but I want to know. I keep thinking about him.
I want to know how he would feel about women.
I used to think I didn’t feel anything about women. I visited a women’s college but chose not to go there. I’d competed in a co-educational environment all through school and never felt that being female put me at a disadvantage. In fact, it wasn’t until my mid-thirties, after having a son, that I began to consider sexism a bigger force in my life than I had been willing to admit.
Soon after my son was born, I wrote a post called “Why I Don’t Want a Daughter.” The piece was so full of good-natured sexism that it could have been read as satire, although I didn’t intend it as such. I earnestly argued that I loathed the calamity of pink, sparkly accessories I might find on the floor of my hypothetical daughter’s bedroom and that I dreaded “girl drama” — the exclusion, the manipulation, the gossip. “A boy will punch you in the face,” I wrote, “a girl will concoct an elaborate scheme to shame and demoralize you.” Commenters on that post called me “self-hating” and “misogynistic.” At first I took offense, but their accusations planted a doubt that would eventually work itself to the surface.
Why did I hate “girly” things so much? What caused me to regard a tiara as if it were a tube of ricin? What had driven me to send this Facebook message addressed to my husband’s testicles: “Thank you for giving us a boy so I don’t have to go see Frozen on Ice”? I rewrote that post several times, trying to clarify what I meant. And as I wrote, I uncovered what I’d learned over my lifetime about being a woman. It was not easy. I’d type a memory, and then I’d close the screen of my laptop right away and go do something else. Whenever I opened it, that memory would be there, waiting for me. I’d scroll down to get away from it, sometimes averting my eyes.
Here’s the first thing I remember. I am about nine years old. My aunt and uncle are staying at our house, and we are listening to our new cassette tape of scary sound effects in preparation for Halloween. A woman, presumably being chased by a murderer or ghost or murderous ghost, wails, “No! No! No!” My father says to my uncle, “We know what that sounds like, don’t we?” They both laugh. I can’t remember what I say or do, but something prompts my mother to tell me they are laughing at “a private joke between men.”
I know what the joke means now: it was another version of the “husband harasses wife for sex” trope. As a girl, I didn’t need to know exactly what it meant to grasp the larger truth: a woman’s worth lies between her legs, and because of that, she will always be a victim. I felt a curious mix of fear and shame, a feeling I pressed down.
The feeling would come surging back at certain times in my life. After a joke told to me by my high school boyfriend: “What do you call the part of the woman around the vagina? Useless.” In bed with my first college love, who cannot remember my name as he reaches for a condom. In my twenties, having been asked by my new boyfriend if I’d ever been raped. When I say no, he tells me I am lucky.
It’s impossible to know how hearing a rape joke at nine would have affected Jeremy, the boy I would have been. I imagine that he could have been unsettled by it, although not being a girl, he wouldn’t have felt anger or shame quite the way I did. But, like me, he would have a learned a lesson about women, a lesson that might have turned him into the kinds of boys I dated.
They were nice, regular boys.
That’s what so damaging about sexism — its insidiousness. It’s perpetuated by good people, like my parents — kind, generous, loving people. But if we want to change the conversation about how we raise our daughters versus how we raise our sons, we need to accept that being nice, regular people isn’t enough.
It’s hard to start that conversation. I’ve never been comfortable criticizing my parents. Their sacrifices made me who I am. My mother’s decision to adopt a traditional role, staying home with me while I was young, shaped me. It was her voice, reading the books I loved over and over, that instilled in me a love of words, her voice that helped me find my own voice as a writer. What is unspoken about my upbringing, though, is just as important, and I needed to articulate it as I came to terms with my feelings about being a woman and having a daughter.
My mom stayed home with me until I was in fifth grade. Even after she started working outside the home, she still did all the cooking, all the cleaning, and all the laundry. She served my father and me. I never saw her pursue anything she enjoyed. I never saw her go anywhere outside of town without my father. I think that’s why a part of me hated my father. I’ve always loved my parents dearly. Yet somehow, I still grew up seeing my mother as a victim of my father, simply because she was a woman.
At some point, I started to identify more with my father and to shift the hostility I felt toward him to my mother. I began to accept his sexism as a father’s natural protectiveness over his daughter, while I resented my mother for trying to entrap me in my own womanhood, the way she was trapped in hers. My father saw driving as a man’s responsibility and got angry every time I’d come to visit with any of my boyfriends in the passenger seat. But it was my mother whom I last talked to before my road trip out West with my then-boyfriend, when she told me, “You stick to him. You stick right to him, you hear?” And it was she who told me on moving day, “You let Joe drive that truck, you hear? Don’t you try to drive it.”
I was insulted, a feeling I squelched. Joe, my boyfriend at the time, was a 35-year-old man-child who wore a sarong with no underwear, never remembered to pay his electric bill on time, and was almost always high. He was the one of the least responsible candidates for driving a moving truck, and certainly not more capable than I. My mother had intimated that as a woman, no matter how capable and responsible I was, I was still less able than a man. She never would have said that to Jeremy.
When will my family treat me like an adult, I kept wondering. When I’m married? When I have my own child? The answer was neither. When I was in my mid-thirties, I made the sixty-mile drive home for my baby shower. The elderly great-aunts greeted me by clasping my hands and looking worriedly into my eyes. They asked, incredulous, “You drove here all by yourself?”
No one would have said that to Jeremy.
It takes only one offhand remark to teach an entire lesson about womanhood. When my mother scoffed at a woman with a hyphenated name, I learned that I wasn’t supposed to keep my own name when I got married. When my father said, ”If you’re not ready to stay home with a child, then maybe you’re not ready to have a child,” I learned that a woman’s career was not as important as a man’s and that I would not be a suitable mother if I kept my job.
He wouldn’t have said that to Jeremy.
Jeremy wouldn’t have been taught what girls and young women are taught:
You are passive.
You are limited.
You are fragile.
You are dependent.
You cannot be alone.
Perhaps I scorn the “girly” things to assert, I am not what you say I am. To reject an existence I find worthy of contempt.
Yet I realize that rejecting femininity isn’t the answer. As long as rigid gender roles exist, neither I nor Jeremy will have complete freedom.
I need better for both of us. I need it to be OK for Jeremy to sit in the passenger seat.
Abby Byrd mothers, frets, writes, teaches, and corrects other people’s grammar in an undisclosed location on the East coast of the United States of America. Her work has appeared on Scary Mommy, BLUNTMoms, Mamalode, In the Powder Room, and The Mid, and in two anthologies. She is working on a memoir about her decade-long search for a partner and why correct use of the semicolon may not be the most important quality in a mate. Follow her on Twitter (@AbbyBWriter), on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AbbyTheWriter), and at her blog, Little Miss Perfect (abbythewriter.com).
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