Mothers and Sons: Feminist Parenting and the Conundrums of Raising Males
What does it mean to be a feminist parent? In a JFSR roundtable last fall, a group of feminist scholars in religion addressed this question from a range of perspectives.
The complexity of raising a son as a feminist parent was made evident in essays by Judith Plaskow, Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder, Fawzia Ahmad, Kate Ott, Peggy Schmeiser, and myself. In the lead-in essay, I contributed some brief notes on the history of feminism and mothering before addressing my own situation as an unmarried graduate student mother to a middle-school age son, Luke. As a young mother, I attempted to teach Luke to transcend gender binaries by encouraging him to play with toys and peers on the basis of interest rather than gender-coding. Indeed, “girl” things and “boy” things in children’s culture remain rampant as a recent viral video reminded us. Described as a “tomgirl” by a peer, as an elementary age kid Luke often blurred gendered binaries in his self-presentation, friendships, and choices of toys.
However, in the year that has passed since first writing my essay, my solidly teenage son has arrived at a place where he does not want to be reminded of his former Barbie collection or fondness for other “girl” things. I am reminded that, as Judith Plaskow writes, I am “not the only, and perhaps not the main, agent of his socialization.” (134) From the youngest of ages through adolescence, children are shaped by a range of messages, values, and consequences about the structures of society. In her essay, Kate Ott points to studies that indicate even young children are able to understand “a great deal more about our systems of oppression than we recognize (or want to admit.)” (145) Feminist parents face the challenge of instilling in children an awareness of these systems and their location within them. Whereas my essay asked how to teach my son to question the gendered boundaries of these systems, Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder expresses her concern “whether society has room for an African American male to be “all boy” and grow to be a free man, period.” (138) Indeed, race, class, gender, sexualty, and able-ism are interwoven oppressions structuring society and shaping the contexts in which children are (differently) socialized and in which we must parent. Thus, for me a conundrum is how to socialize a child within a system that as a feminist I also critique?
Fawzia Ahmad reminds me in her essay that the complexities of culture can also be a resource. As a single mother of South Asian descent raising children in the U.S., Ahmad describes how she drew upon dual cultures to be empowered as a parent. Despite the challenges of parenting, it is a meaningful and significant role to shape the next generation. As Peggy Schmesier eloquently writes,
Like all feminist mothers, I will strive to raise him as a respectful, informed, and courageous supporter of the dignity and equality of all people, and a believer in the imperative to live sustainably with others in his natural world. He deserves nothing less and will hopefully push me to so much more. (152)
The everyday practices of parenting not only shape children, but may also teach us as feminists new questions, perspectives, and directions to consider.