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gender roles

I See You Spilled Your Sexism. Watch While My Son Cleans that Up for You.

My husband started teaching our toddler how to clean up after himself. The minute a little tea or milk would fall on the table or floor, he would ask our son to bring a mop from the kitchen, wipe the stain and then say, “Clean!”

At first, Ochoa was wobbly and did only a semi-neat job, but he has since become quite the pro. In fact, he now volunteers to clean others’ messes, too.

But one recent guest didn’t take too kindly to his newly earned skill. The middle-aged lady frowned as she watched Ochoa putter about with his mop. Then she turned and told me, “But he is a boy. Why are you teaching him that?”

Really?

It wasn’t a shock – I know this kind of belief in traditional gender roles exists. But it wasn’t a fight I was prepared for as a parent. I have, fortunately, been part of an equal household all my life. My father cooked on innumerable Sundays. He helped us get ready, fed us breakfast and dropped us to the bus stop every day of our school lives. He brought us medical supplies many fathers would consider taboo. On the other hand, my mother worked for a considerable part of our childhood. She was the ‘mechanic’ of the house, repairing fans, fridges and rickety furniture with ease. Neither ever told us, not to attempt something because we were girls.

After getting married, I tried to bring in that kind of fluidity in my own familial setup. It wasn’t a Herculean task; my husband had moved out of his home to study every early in life. Living in hostels and PGs made him realise the importance of being self-sufficient. From cooking to cleaning, he picked up all domestic skills. His father swam against societal tides before him; in a gender role reversal for the time, he was in charge of cutting vegetables and fruits for the family’s consumption every day.

We sought to raise Ochoa the same way – with gender socialization as a non-issue. We dress him in his older cousins’ (all girls) old clothing; our like-minded buddies gift him kitchen sets and a Casio.

But Ochoa will soon leave the safe confines of our home and be exposed to staunch opinions on how boys (and girls) should behave. I now feel an urgent need to tell off people who spout stereotypes in front of my son, but yelling at people is seldom effective.

So, we deliberate on simple but effective tools for fighting the good fight – anticipate subtle but consistent logic against sexist statements and compile facts and examples from our society or pop culture as much as we can. Many of the people whose mindsets we’re striving against are distant family, which makes it trick. Sometimes we respond with careful questions (and counter questions) about their own history or upbringing to draw out the illogic of their belief in traditional gender roles. Most of these debates are not met with great fervour by the adults, but we hope standing our ground helps our toddler understand such outmoded ideas should be challenged.

Other times, we anticipate scenarios and prepare responses. My husband, when other aunts tell him to sit while I serve them snacks, pointedly yet politely responds with, “I like serving food to my friends and family and soon Ochoa will be lending a hand!”

And still other times, I or my husband falter. We don’t speak out. We’re tired or we can’t figure out how to respond courteously. But the frustration we feel thinking about the missed opportunity later strengthens our dedication.

Having Ochoa means we have to not only be able parents but be able persons first. If we keep challenging people who think that’s unnecessary, then Ochoa can grow up to be a person doing things he loves, making real friends, creating real value. When I get frustrated, I let my grandmother’s words be my guiding light: “I gave birth to five daughters and faced wide criticism. I didn’t let it bother me because I knew I was going to raise five capable humans.”

I may have given birth to a boy, but I am raising a capable human, too.

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