On being Mum to three boys and a feminist

Like many of you I’m a strong advocate for gender equality, for breaking glass ceilings and ensuring girls grow up not just believing they can do or be anything, but also ensuring we get to the point where that belief is a reality. Yes, these feminist goals are heard around us constantly, and for me, annoyingly so. I wish we didn’t need to talk like this anymore, but sadly we do.

I grew up believing I could do it all, have it all, and do anything I wanted. But over the years since I’ve been a mother that belief now needs to accommodate my role as a mother and wife. I’m not the only one I have to think about anymore – it’s a jigsaw puzzle putting together the needs of myself, my husband, our children, and our mortgage. So my realism kicks in, resulting in that slightly watered down belief we’ve all heard before – we can have it all, but not all at the same time. This is the basis on which our family operates right now, and my husband and I work together to rearrange the pieces of our puzzle as our family life and careers evolve.

In spite of this delicate balancing act and dose of realism I’m grappling with, it doesn’t mean that my belief in equal rights for women (i.e. feminism) has been watered down.

What the dictionary says about feminism...

But at this point, you may be thinking, as a mother of three young boys, why do I care so much about feminism and the future generations of girls? What value can I really add when our home is top heavy in testosterone? What sort of impact can I have when I don’t have any first hand insight into raising the women of tomorrow?

These questions are amplified even more as I battle with gender stereotypes thrown at me nearly every time I set foot out of the house with two or more of my sons. The looks of pity, incredulity and amazement at how I cope with wrestling my male tribe at times. “Isn’t it exhausting?”, “That looks like total chaos!”, “I don’t know how you cope”, “You always look so busy”…. And some of these are comments on days that I consider a good day. I might not look like an oil painting, but rolling with the punches and embracing the chaos is my modus operandi these days.

Without thinking, these comments fall out of mouths and reveal two inherent assumptions - first, that boys are cut from different cloth and that they are just wired differently to girls; and secondly, that parenting boys is a lot harder and more challenging than parenting girls (at least during the stage we are at).

The fact is we (myself included) all stereotype all the time. But how does this stereotyping help the seemingly endless campaign for gender equality? It doesn’t. From an early age, we look at boys and girls as different. I’ve written about this before – about the comments I received when I was pregnant and declaring I was about to mother a third boy. But, I get it. I do understand where these comments come from and I am not angry, my friends!

And today, with my 3 boys I know I am often exhausted and running around the playground like a crazy woman yelling at one son not to jump off a cliff edge, while saving another son from falling off a slide, all the while with a darting eye trying to watch the third son run around, charging with a stick and his shirt off. It really does resemble a scene from Lord of the Flies at times. But which parent of 3 kids under the age of 6 isn’t frazzled at times and pulled in multiple directions?

Granted, my boys are on the energetic, spirited and active end of the spectrum so I get it. Adopting a stereotype, my boys are probably the typical ‘boys’ boy’ and here the first assumption is correct in our case. My boys, and other highly energetic and physical ‘boys’ boys’ are not wired the same as the calm girl who will gravitate towards the dolls and drawing table, and sit still. Instead they gravitate towards the cricket bat, tennis ball, basketball, sofa to jump off or hallway to scoot down. And that’s just what goes on before breakfast.

These are not our sons and this has not happened in our house - yet. Photo - Wix.

But the second assumption goes to the idea that parenting boys, particularly boys like mine, is a lot harder than parenting three girls, or any three children of any gender for that matter. Yes the physicality you get with some boys is so demanding, and the noise levels are deafening at times, but who’s not to say it’s any harder than parenting 3 bitchy little girls who are ultra-demanding squealers and won’t get their hands dirty?

So instead of leaping to assumptions, we should embrace the boyishness and spirited energy as something special, but also acknowledge and seek out the similarities between the sexes – the key is not making it a girl or boy thing. Parenting 3 kids of any flavour is a big challenge.

Back to my question, as a Mum of three boys what can I do in this ongoing campaign for gender equality? I see my role as privileged and pretty unique – I have a chance to raise three feminist men. Even writing that sounds a bit unnatural, but it’s a task that is hugely important and really is a bit of a gift. My husband and I get to do our best to raise gentlemen, to raise sociable, respectful and empathetic males who truly view their female peers as equals – or indeed admire them as being more successful than they are, if so warranted. I want them to grow up being champions of their female peers in everything they do.

Equal superheroes.

They hopefully won’t bat an eyelid at the concept of equal rights when they are my age and will be working on the pieces of their family puzzle with a much more flexible, progressive approach than perhaps we have been able to do.

And yes, raising boys comes with its own set of challenges, but perhaps not what you think of immediately. Yes, there is a concerning risk of concussion if they play rugby or the risk of that rough and tumble play going one step too far. But we have other fears – that perhaps our parenting will let us down at some point and our son might be the one accused of rape, that our son will be the one bullying some other kid or he will be stalked on social media, or that he will suffer an eating disorder or other self-esteem issue which paralyses his confidence and social development. Just like raising girls, parents of boys too have similar deep fears to worry about and some of them are exactly the same as what parents of girls face.

But my husband and I need to be the ones to drive into our sons the importance of respecting girls not only in the classroom, but at parties, after a few drinks and during those mindboggling years when they’re trying to work out what their bodies are doing as they transform into men. Let’s not even get started on the stage when they are 18 and leave home. My role in the feminism movement couldn’t be anymore important than in this context.

So while there are differences – some of them more glaring than others – in raising boys, at the end of the day raising any child has its share of common challenges combined with other issues unique to that personality or child’s character. We all want to raise healthy, happy, respectful, decent and confident children who treat each other equally and with the respect and dignity they deserve. By eliminating the bias that stems from an early age, we help each other in this campaign by acknowledging that parenting every child is hard, and every child is both similar and different to the next one regardless of gender.

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