Note: discusses relationships between gender/sex and anatomy.
This morning my daughter asked me if her dad pees out of his butt.
Back up for a moment. Mr. G and I are both feminists (shocker, I know), and committed to applying what we believe about gender equality and female empowerment to how we parent. Part of what that means for us is providing our toddler with accurate, age-appropriate information and terminology about her body and human anatomy in general.
So when she started saying a few months ago that her pee comes out of her butt, I explained to her that it actually comes from her vulva. (“Urethra” seemed like more detail than a 2 year old really needed.) Of course she wanted to know if her dad and I have vulvas, too. I explained that I have a vulva too, but her dad doesn’t. I may have explained that her dad has a penis. If I did, she didn’t remember.
Back to this morning’s conversation, then, which went something like this:
Kiddo: Does papa pee from his butt?
Me: Uh, no…*pause* Papa pees out of his penis.
Kiddo: He pees out of his penis?
[This may have gone on for a couple more rounds. Nightmares of my daughter randomly going up to strangers and blurting out “penis” – or worse, asking them if they have one – may have flashed through my head.]
Kiddo: Do you have a penis?
Me: No, I have a vulva.
Kiddo: Do I have a penis?
Me: No, you have a vulva too.
And so on. It became clear that she had more questions about this, so I explained further that her dad’s penis is in the same place as her and my vulva is.
And then I felt a moment of panic, because I could see she was heading towards asking more general questions, not just about her body or her dad’s or mine, and I didn’t know quite what to tell her. Translating what I’m so accustomed to writing here on the blog – gender isn’t determined by genitals, that sex and gender both come in a diverse array, not in rigid, mutually exclusive binaries – for a toddler? I didn’t quite know where to start.
Telling her boys have penises and girls have vulvas was out, of course, as it’s not true. Most boys have penises and most girls have vulvas, but some girls have penises and some boys have vulvas? Closer, but potentially more complicated than she can understand right now, and leaves out intersex and/or nonbinary people, whom we haven’t really talked to her about yet.
I finally settled on “Most people either have a vulva or a penis.” This seemed to satisfy her. And it seemed to me like an answer that gave her the information she was curious about without imposing universal claims on other people’s bodies or genders, and also leaving space for future conversations about sex and gender.
This brief conversation set of a frequent line of thought for me. Namely, about how the uncertainties and unexpected challenges of parenting are compounded by our choice to parent our child according to principles we weren’t raised by, and to which we’re quite new ourselves. And this applies to much of my life outside parenting. It can be scary territory.
Coming to believe something different that what you were raised to believe doesn’t erase all your prior socialization. I have a lot of lingering discomfort around talking openly and honestly about anything I was taught to consider “sexual.” This morning, some part of me was deeply uncomfortable with discussing not just penises in the abstract with our daughter, but my husband’s body specifically. Despite the fact there was nothing remotely sexual about our conversation, that it was simple, age-appropriate curiosity, that my daughter had a right to an honest answer and I had no reason to withhold one.
And at the same time I was conscious that shutting down, redirecting the conversation, or otherwise denying her an honest answer would send the message that these things were secrets, not to be discussed, not to be asked about. In fact reacting that way would have had, in the long run, the exact effect I was socialized to perceive in the conversation: it would have taught her to sexualize bodies, by seeing knowledge about them as taboo.
It may not be so long before my daughter can sense my hesitation, my searching for words, my awkwardness and desire to bolt in these conversations. I know these kinds of conversations between parents and children are often (always?) awkward for at least one party. But I don’t want her to think these things are secrets or wrong to ask about. For her sake as well as my own, I want to to work to make minimize my discomfort with talking about sex, to have a healthier attitude about it.
And this is the other scary part: I’m figuring out how to do this on the fly. Which is also part of the nature of parenting. Still, as a parent who has consciously rejected much of parenting “wisdom” from the communities Mr. G and I grew up in, I feel a heightened sense of being in uncharted territory. We have so few models for how we want to relate to to the kiddo. The conservative evangelical blueprint for “doing things right” as a parent is now mostly a set of guidelines to what we don’t want to do as parents.
Figuring out what we should do instead? That’s a lot harder. That requires actually seeking out people and communities who’re forging new models for parenting. Models that are often not as socially supported as “traditional” conservative models. Models that can seem less time-and-trial tested, less proven – even as I realize that the supposedly “time-tested” models haven’t worked out so great so far, certainly not for me or many people I know.
This is one of the things I think people who haven’t spent much time in or around conservative evangelical communities (or similar high-demand groups) really don’t understand. About why people stay, what people get out of it. One of the big attractions is the psychological assurance that having someone tell you what the “right way” to do things can bring. More than that, it’s having a whole community of people who are ready to affirm the exclusive awesomeness of this “right way,” who you can look to as “right way” examples and success stories. It’s the power of a common vocabulary, shared commitments and frustrations, living out the same blueprint together with so many other people.
This might sound contradictory, given what I’ve written about the ongoing negative impact this cultural emphasis on always “doing things right” has had on me personally, and how the seemingly endless litany of things you have to make certain you’re doing the right way is an extremely powerful means of controlling people. And it is absolutely that.
But part of what makes it so powerful is precisely the sense of security and community it offers, feelings that can coexist right alongside intense negative feelings about striving for the unattainable standard of “God’s way,” or not being able to choose how to live, or not being able to escape an oppressive family or church community. In fact it can be precisely this deliberately cultivated and ingrained confidence that one is doing things “God’s way” that gives people the ability to so thoroughly repress or deny negative feelings about being part of a high control religious group. That’s part of what makes it such a powerful tool for manipulating and controlling people.
And the flip side of this is that when you leave such a group, you suddenly find yourself without the roadmaps and blueprints and authority figures you’d relied upon to instruct you in every detail of how to live your life. It can be terrifyingly disorienting. At least, it was for me. I felt like anything was possible, anything was permissible, and that wasn’t a good thing. All of a sudden there are so many ways to do things, and no way to know which ways were right and which were wrong.
Of course, this is exactly how I was trained to feel if I ever seriously contemplated not being a Christian. We’re totally depraved, so left to our own devices, what we want or think is best is usually wrong, wrong wrong. Choose between the safety and support of the group that gets it right and fucking everything up all alone.
And this is why I’m so grateful for feminist parenting blogs like bluemilk and Raising My Boychick. They make me feel not quite so alone in trying to cobble together an approach to parenting that doesn’t always come organically or easily. Because that kind of community support is important. Not a community that dictates a blueprint for “doing things right,” not a self-congratulatory, exclusionary community, but a community struggling together to turn ideals and principles into action, providing support and shelter through all the complications and unforeseen challenges and unsolicited lectures about how we’re doing it all wrong. Ideally, anyway.
All of that from a question about whether my husband pees out of his butt. Make of that what you will!