Storytime and Decentralizing manhood: Tubby, pt. 2

A has moved on from his Tubby obsession since I wrote the first blog post about the book, but I still wanted to revisit it. Last post, I talked about Tubby and whiteness. Today, I want to use Tubby to talk about decentralizing & redefining boyhood/manhood.

Tubby never implies a gender of the baby protagonist in either the words or pictures. I find myself really intentionally using the gender-neutral pronoun ‘they’ in reference to the baby, though I admit one of the first times I read it (of thousands at this point), I realized I had been referring to the baby as a ‘he.’ It’s not uncommon in American society for gender-neutral characters/things/animals to be assigned ‘he’ as a pronoun. There’s an awesome (and free) zoo near where we live, and I often hear parents referring to almost every animal (without obvious genitalia, lol) as a ‘he.’ De-normalizing boy/man as the assumed gender is one thing I try to be conscious of in my day-to-day interactions with A.

I am human, of course. Sometimes, I’m sure I assume ‘he’ when I’m super busy or feeling really tired. We haven’t completely abandoned gender in raising A, particularly in how we dress him, though I do try to push back at hyper-normativity whenever I can. Trucks and dinosaurs are great, but so are dolls and art and play-cleaning (he’s currently obsessed with a vacuums and brooms and all things cleaning) and science and nature and all sorts of things. Blue and red are great colors, but so are pink and green and purple and orange.

My mentality is that the world is going to smother him with trucks/dinosaurs/blue/red so much already that I don’t need to encourage it anymore. He will get those messages from school, media, people on the street. I can use our home to encourage him to be interested in things (often stereotypically feminine) that the world won’t push on him.

Using ‘they’ as a gender-neutral pronoun when reading books or encouraging non-normative interests are small ways of decentralizing and redefining boyhood/manhood. It happens during storytime with books like Tubby. It happens when I’m buying him new kid silverware, and I pick the green & purple unicorn-themed fork. It happens in all sorts of mundane, tiny moments of parenting.

It’s not enough, but it’s a start.

Opportunity Hoarding

My sister introduced me to a podcast about parenting called ‘The Longest Shortest Time.’ On a recent episode (8.30.2017), they interview the author Eula Bliss. About two-thirds of the way through the interview, Hillary (the host) and Eula have a brief exchange about opportunity hoarding as White parents. Here’s my own transcription:

Eula: … I think quite a few of the parents in my community and in my circle actually see some version of opportunity hoarding as their duty—as what they are supposed to do for their child…

Hillary: Because, like, why wouldn’t you get them the best opportunities?”

It’s a brief 30 seconds, but the idea really struck me: opportunity hoarding [as a parent] is the phenomenon when you advocate for the best resources and opportunities for your child. There’s an almost evolutionary compulsion to want your child to have the best of everything. It’s engrained in us that we should loudly promote what is best for our child.

The problem is that my voice, as a parent with racial and class privilege, is already prioritized in society. When I compound it with a parent’s natural tendency to opportunity hoard for my child, parenting becomes a clear mechanism for the exacerbation of power along the lines of race and class.

During the interview, Eula argues that opportunity hoarding can be as simple as being the loudest parent to your child’s teacher. By drawing the teachers’ attention to your child, you are draining the teachers of the energy to focus on other parents and children. Eula has made it a personal policy to advocate to her son’s teacher only if the change would benefit more than just her son. Now, there are obvious exceptions to this—if your child has a physical or learning disability, for example—but I like her point overall. Opportunity hoarding as a White parent is a compulsion that we have to overcome if we, as parents, want our actions to promote justice.

So, my questions to myself: When have I participated in opportunity hoarding for A, particularly in the school setting? What can I do to ensure that my opportunity hoarding instinct (a natural, evolutionary compulsion, I would argue) is redirected to benefit more than just A?

Here’s one mundane example: recently, I’ve been thinking about asking A’s daycare teachers to give him seconds at breakfast and lunch. Since A moved into the toddler classroom a few weeks ago, he’s constantly asking for food when he gets home [an adorable combination of the ‘eat’ and ‘please’ signs, along with a persistent whine, repeated about a million times over]. I wanted to ask his teachers if he could be offered more food if he finishes his plate. This seems like an innocuous request, but opportunity hoarding can happen in small, mundane ways. Since listening to the podcast, I’ve altered my strategy: I’ll ask if any of the kids could be offered seconds of the food. It’s a really simple switch, but instead of advocating for just A, I’m advocating for everyone.

 

 

*P.S. Obviously this strategy as a way to promote social justice wouldn’t work if A went to an all-White, all-wealthy daycare, but choosing a daycare is a separate mess that I can get into later.

Birthing a human

I actually really loved giving birth. And I don’t mean I really liked the end result, but the process sucked. I mean I actually liked GIVING birth. I liked being in labor; I liked pushing. When my OB asked if I wanted a mirror to watch A come out, first I asked ‘Am I going to see myself poop?’ (she assured me no, though I don’t know why I cared), then I said ‘Sure!’.

In the internet world, you often hear this birth-positive narrative from moms who’ve gone the ‘natural’ route (aka, medication-free). I was about as far from a medication-free birth as you can get: I had Pitocin to encourage contractions after my water broke at 38 weeks, and then had an epidural at 2-3 centimeters dilated. One thing I do have in common with women who chose a medication-free birth, though, is that feeling of empowerment: I felt powerful, and I felt in control. I respected my doctor, and she respected me.

Now, I know a lot of this has to do with luck and privilege, which I will get into in future posts. Here, though, I want to say this: how we talk about birth can be an act of social justice. I know this blog is dedicated to mundane moments of parenting, and pregnancy/childbirth is far from mundane. How we TALK about pregnancy/childbirth, though, creeps into daily lives without even realizing it. Through chatting with friends, watching TV, or browsing the internet, images of pregnancy and birth are actually pretty ubiquitous. Outside of the natural birth world, there is a dominant narrative of anxiety and fear around pregnancy/childbirth. It is a huge and demanding physical experience to have, don’t get me wrong. But it is something that our culture teaches women to fear in small ways every day.

Talking about birth in a positive, empowering way isn’t just for women who choose a medication-free birth; it can be for anyone. I would encourage anyone who is pregnant or wants to be pregnant to consciously start curating positive images of pregnancy and birth and censoring the anxiety- and fear-driven ones. Living in a patriarchal society means that women have to be very concerted in their efforts to shape how they think about pregnancy and birth.

At times, during my pregnancy, I did think I was just trying to trick my brain into being positive. That patriarchal fear-driven narrative of pregnancy/birth is a pernicious, insidious thing. There were times when I felt nervous, anxious, and afraid. That’s normal and not something I’m ashamed of. I used mantras, yoga, and mindfulness to get me through that. Other women may use other strategies. You have to find what works for you.

In future posts, I want to reflect on how my Whiteness and class privileges changed how I gave birth and experienced in pregnancy. But today, I want to focus on this one message to anyone who is pregnant:

YOU ARE A MOTHER FUCKING BADASS. YOU LITERALLY HAVE A HUMAN BEING INSIDE OF YOU! THAT’S SO FUCKING COOL!

 

*P.S. Whenever someone asks me if I need help carrying something now, I often respond, ‘Nah, I’m strong as hell. I literally pushed a human being out of my body once.’ And you can still feel like this if you had a c-section: you literally GREW A HUMAN and had it CUT OUT OF YOU. That makes you badass as hell!

Are temper tantrums social justice opportunities?

A is almost 13 months, so walk into our house almost any day and it’s likely you’ll see some sort of minor temper tantrum within twenty minutes. It normally only lasts 10-30 seconds, but it can be a theatrical treat: back-arching, nose-crinkling, fake crying. And this can happen in response to almost anything. Today, I didn’t let him chew on the bottom of my gross flip flop. How dare I!

As easy as it is to [half-] jokingly complain about these moments, I consider them opportunities to cultivate a critical social justice skill in my son: empathy. My in-laws lovingly make fun of one phrase that I’ve seemed to say to A every time he starts to fuss:

Are you feeling frustrated?

The response is an attempt to recognize and name the emotion that A is feeling in those moments. To manage a temper tantrum by acknowledging what he is feeling, first and foremost. To legitimate his emotions. I’m sure he really is frustrated that he can’t chew on my shoe, no matter how ridiculous that seems to us.

The way we talk to kids about their emotions—particularly our sons—is a one of those mundane, critical acts of social justice. Too often, boys are subtly (or not so subtly) taught to mute their emotions. Speaking to A about his emotions cultivates his emotional intelligence and ultimately models compassion for him. By saying You seem really sad right now!, I want to encourage him to recognize and honor emotions in himself and (later) in others. Particularly in the cultural context of toxic masculinity, I try to be cognizant of using “emotional vocabulary” with A—and to teach him not to be ashamed of expressing or recognizing his emotions.

I’ve recently started pointing out illustrations in books of characters showing a lot of emotion. It’s a similar idea: that small, mundane act encourages him to recognize emotions in others and build empathy for them.

Empathy is a necessary–though not sufficient–step in becoming a human being who cares about social justice. It teaches us to care about others’ emotional states, even if they don’t match our own. Empathetic people can still be racist, sexist, etc., of course. Blame human social psychology and all that in-group/out-group BS for that. BUT an anti-racist/sexist/oppression person inherently must be empathetic. It is a prerequisite, but not the only one.

*P.S. I don’t think this is a revolutionary approach by any means–lots of parents have being doing this for years. Still, I do think it is still helpful to consciously and explicitly state what might be an unconscious thought or practice.

A Turkish Name for an American kid

“Give your daughters difficult names. give your daughters names that command the full use of tongue. my name makes you want to tell me the truth. my name doesn’t allow me to trust anyone that cannot pronounce it right.”—Warsan Shire

Naming your child isn’t a mundane moment of parenting, as this blog claims to be about–it’s actually one of the most powerful moments of parenting. Their name dictates how the world will treat them and how, in turn, your child will view the world.

My husband and I both grew up in the U.S. He in a college town in Missouri, me in a small city in Pennsylvania. We both grew up watching Hey, Arnold and playing with Beanie Babies. We both attended high school right at the Myspace/Xanga era of social media (what a time to be alive!). But there was one difference: my husband, though for most of his childhood and adolescence was in the US, is Turkish. His parents first moved here before he was born, with his older sister in tow, doing anything they possibly could to make ends meet as graduate students. After my husband was born, they moved back to Turkey during my husband’s toddlerhood. My husband has a Turkish first name that he now goes by (and that his family has always called him), but when he was growing up in Missouri, he went by an Americanized version of his middle name (“John”). To many who know my husband from that time in his life, he is John.

So when it came to naming our first born, it’s kind of weird that we chose a Turkish name for A. I admit that, for the first few months of his life, when I would introduce my son to strangers, I would have this weird mixture of pride/embarrassment when I said his name (that was my own ish that I’ve since gotten over). My name is Olivia, after all, a relatively common name in the United States. I always wondered what people would think when I said, ‘Hi, my name is Olivia, and this is my son [insert Turkish name].’

Is naming your child an act of social justice?

There’s lots of reasons we chose a Turkish name over a name more common in the US. Most importantly, we (and my husband particularly) want our son to have a strong Turkish identity. My son, for all intents and purposes, is White. He certainly passes for White. But because we named him what we did, instead of Nicholas after my grandfather which we considered, the world inherently treats him differently. And that’s ok.  He understands the world in a more nuanced way because he will hear people struggle with his name, ask him to repeat it, or quietly try to avoid using it at all. My husband lives with that hidden curriculum of names, and we decided it was worth passing down those lessons to our son.

Ultimately, the name is a family name—my son’s great-grandfather’s. There are arbitrary cultural boundaries on what seems ‘American’ and what seems ‘other.’ We are allowed to honor my husband’s family without skepticism.

While Shire’s poem has a gendered aspect that I haven’t talked about, her words are applicable nonetheless. His name makes you want to tell him the truth.

Charlottesville.

Heather Heyer was the child of a mother out there, who undoubtedly received the worst news of her life yesterday. There may be a small bit of solace knowing that she died with her middle fingers up at Nazis, but, honestly, for a parent who is grieving, I can only imagine that it is little solace indeed. She gave her life because of the White supremacist regime, and her mother grieves…just as millions have throughout American history.

My husband and I have brought A to a few direct actions and protests throughout his twelve months of life so far. Not enough–never enough–but some**. When my husband heard someone was killed in the counter-protests in Charlottesville yesterday, the first thing he said is ‘I get so scared when A is at rallies like that.’ I’m scared, too. Of neo-Nazis driving cars into crowds and hurting my baby. Do I have a right to bring my child to events like that, when there is a risk of a White man (the most common type of terrorist in the United States) doing something so grossly violent? After all, my goal in life is for A to be safe and healthy, above all else. At the same time, don’t I, as a White parent, have an obligation to bring him?

Yes, the events of yesterday made me scared to attend protests with A. The way that Black and Brown mothers are scared every day when they let their babies, no matter what age, out of their house. This shouldn’t be about my feelings. I can be scared, have those feelings, acknowledge them and that they make me human. And then move on and move forward. Recognize the terrorism that occurred in Charlottesville yesterday. Mourn the life that was lost in Charlottesville. And still continue to show up, with A when I feel it is safe, to events, rallies, and direct actions.

And when I don’t feel like it is safe for A, continue to show up in those small, mundane moments of parenting. Continue to show up at bedtime while reading. Continue to show up during diaper changes and during playtime. Parenting communicates social messages of power, whether you are at a direct action or not. Use the opportunities that you have.

P. S.

Before the women’s march, this article helped me decide to bring A.

**I don’t want this to sound self-congratulatory or trying to prove that ‘I’m different than all the other White people because I’ve been to a few rallies’ I don’t deserve that label White activist, and I’m sure I am complicit in supporting White supremacy sometimes, even as I actively try to disrupt it in my day to day life.

Storytime and Naming Whiteness: ‘Tubby’ by Leslie Patricelli

My son has had a favorite book for the last few months—Tubby by Leslie Patricelli. It’s a sweet tale about a baby during bath time, with a mom, dad, and a surprise dirty dog on the last page. I’m guessing he loves it because the baby’s face is particularly expressive or maybe because I make a funny ‘bbbbbb’ sound with my lips on the page when the baby is pretending to be a motorboat. Either way, it’s almost always the book he holds out to me insistently repeating “doh, doh, DOH” (which seems to be baby for ‘please read this to me!’).

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First, I want to state what I think is obvious but still worth stating: it’s not bad that my son reads books about a White family with heterosexual parents doing a sweet, mundane ritual like bath time. Being White isn’t something I want my son to be ashamed of. But the goal of this blog is to be conscious of how the banalities of parenting are some of the most powerful moments that communicate lessons around power and social identities. So, let’s take a moment to be conscious…

He sees a White family with heterosexual parents doing bath time at least twice a week (did I just admit to only bathing my son twice a week?!). The problem is not that the characters are White, but if and when he becomes exposed only to White characters. When White becomes the invisible norm that he learns not to see.

By the end of the day, when its bedtime and he’s holding out Tubby insistently–I’m tired but he’s being so freaking cute–I can’t help but read it one more time. In those little moments, I sometimes say something like this: 

“This is a really nice book about a family just like ours. What isn’t as nice is that there are only characters with a skin tone like ours, because most books written for you already show people that look like us. But there are people with lots of different skin tones in the world, so it’s not very fair that most books only show people that look like us, is it?”**

It’s my hope that these types of comments gently refuse to allow Whiteness from becoming the invisible norm against which all else is compared. Naming Whiteness is the start. It’s not sufficient, but it’s something.

Surprisingly, there’s a lot I want to say about a book with only 72 words in it (yes, I counted), so I’ve split up my comments into two posts. I’ll post ‘Tubby pt. 2’ soon.

 

Happy wiping,

Olivia

**P.S.

Yes, I know my son is only twelve months old. Yes, I know he really has no idea what I’m saying. I want to give myself a few years of practice/habit-making in making comments like this!

Can wiping butts be woke?

Can wiping your kid’s butt be an act of social justice? I guess it depends on who is doing the wiping, what type of wipe you are using, what are you saying as you wipe, how you involve your kid in the wiping process, etc. It’s these questions that keep me up at night (apart from my one-year old son, sometimes)—[How] can the daily activities of parenting be acts of social justice, particularly for [upper middle-class/cis/hetero] White parents of a White child?

To me, parenting for social justice means prioritizing critical thinking in your child about how society organizes power along the lines of race, gender, class, sexual orientation, ability status, religion, and other social identities. It means actively pushing against colorblindness, heternormativity, cisnormativity, rape culture , toxic masculinity, etc. in your child. Parenting for social justice is obvious when you bring your child to direct actions and rallies, but this blog is dedicated to understanding how the more banal acts of parenting (for example, butt wiping) can in and of themselves contribute to a more just world.

My son (‘A’, as I’ll refer to him here) turned one year old last Saturday. I probably changed his diaper at least three times just on his birthday (his dad had to work all day, but I know his grandparents tackled a few dirty diapers that day, too). Did any of those moments of our lives promote social justice?

Once a week for the second year of my son’s life, I am going to write about my trials in answering that question and other questions around ‘parenting for social justice.’

Let’s speak poop to power together.

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