Writer's block and the elephant in my room

Any religious conservative types out there worried about the influence of my feminism on my kid can rest assured that mine is an uphill battle with a steep incline. Indeed, they can comfort themselves in the knowledge that rigid expressions of the gender binary are so widespread and ingrained here in Italy that my barely-two-year-old kid has a pretty clear idea of the difference between "man" and "woman". The other day Peanut presented me with these Esselunga trading cards and explained which one was mummy and which one was papà. Let's just say, I'm not Shrek. I'm actually pretty cute. And very feminine.


It's funny because ever since I started writing about feminism and motherhood about two years ago, I've never managed to tackle this elephant in my room, i.e the gender binary in Italy. I've made little comments here and there, but nothing even approaching thoughtful analysis or discussion. In fact, one of the best observations came not from me but Elizabeth Petrosian, the author of the amazing blog Letters from Florence, in a comment to a link I posted:

Has anyone been to Oviesse (or any other Italian store, for that matter) and tried to shop for little girls' clothes????? These places VOMIT pink at you, to the near-exclusion of all other colors. How I heartily miss Target, Kohl's and Gymboree, where girls get their fair share of the spectrum, in stylishly innovative ways, I might add. And I can report to you from the front lines (i.e. elementary school)--tomboys in Italy are practically non-existent. These little chickadees have D&G jeans, mini-cures (i.e. manicures for the midget-set), rhinestone-studded boots, and uber-coordinated ensembles the likes of which belong on the red carpet at the Emmy awards. Gag. Sorry, but Italian mommies need to get real.

Partly what's blocked me is the overwhelming vastness of this topic. I haven't yet managed to tease out one digestible blog-post-size subtopic. I've been even more determined to try to find a way in since I received an email several months ago from a friend I've known since high school. Her words touched me so much and encapsulated a central mission of what has become this blog. She agreed to be quoted, but I've removed the names.

I was just reading something that made me think of you ... an article about parents trying to raise their children in a gender-non-specific way ... and why did that make me think of you, well, only because of how you said, way back when you were pregnant, that the whole colour-coding for gender bothers you. I have to tell you, I didn't get it back then, and I do, now. See, for babies, I never thought it matters, what colours they're exposed to, that is, they don't know the difference anyways, and I must admit, I've always dressed my baby boys in blue, my girl in pink. As babies. But with my kids, now, if [my husband] ever says, [my son] has to have the blue cup, [my daughter] the pink, for example, it drives me nuts! I get it now, how ridiculous that is, and how damaging it could be ... besides, [my son] is SO "boy" interested in wheels, machines, numbers, whereas [my daughter] is SO "girl" more interested in art, reading, writing, and she abhorring numbers ... that I don't think we'd be able to curb their natural born interests even if we tried. Still, despite their certain preferences, I'm also thrilled to see [my daughter] reading Captain Underpants (it's hilarious how much she loves these very geared-towards-boy books, about boogers and farts, etc!), and [my son] wearing pink piggy slippers, or dressing up with [my daughter] and playing with her more "girly" toys. I see, now, how encouraging both sides of each of their natures, is good for them, and how the whole redneck idea of nurturing only boy traits in boys, girl traits in girls, will never allow them to even attempt to understand the opposite sex, or that side of themselves. ... I just wanted to let you know ... basically, that you taught me something, something important about parenting, in that one small comment you made.

I similarly learned something important about parenting from this great post by Jane Ward at Offbeat Mama, "Queer Parenting for Heteros". It starts from the premise that "queerness" be "delinked from both homosexual sex and lesbian or gay identification" and "as Foucault suggested, is more a 'way of life' than a way of having sex."

I recall when I first met our neighbor and friend D., who is a lefty and dedicated stay-at-home father of two sons (J & C). At the time, the older son was a spirited 3-year old, the kind of kid who can run in circles for hours on end, and who liked to destroy toys, plants, etc. D told me the day we met, "J is a real boys' boy" and went on to explain that J. had once tried to hit their family's cat with a softball bat, and D., horrified, called a fellow stay-at-home dad for support. D was relieved when his friend told him, "look, this is really normal behavior for boys. J just has a lot of testosterone coursing through his system and he doesn't know how to handle it yet." D told me this entire story in front of J, who, as a result, heard his dad call him a "real boys' boy with testosterone coursing through his body." Of course another story that could have been told about J's behavior is that older toddlers—regardless of sex or gender—have a lot of energy, are aggressive, like to break things, and don't have a fully developed sense of the effects of their actions. Or yet another account could have simply emphasized that J—who is now a quite peaceful and more soft-spoken 7-year old—was a having a bad day when he picked up that softball bat.

Imposing gendered meaning on nearly everything that children do is a shockingly pervasive and, I think, very damaging, habit. D's description of J as a "boys' boy" is a phrase I have heard from mothers describing their male children as young as 7-months old, children who are doing things like throwing food, getting dirty, and banging on furniture (again, these are infant behaviors, not male behaviors).

I have thought about this passage so often since I read it. I can't tell you how many times people say what a boy Peanut is because he's rambunctious, aggressive and adores motorized vehicles of every shape and size. He also begs me to paint his toenails, loves dancing to classical music, pretends to breastfeed his bunny and is obsessed with newborn babies. So...

This "queer" approach described by Ward is like a promised land of parenting for me, one that, if I'm honest, feels impossible to practice in my current circumstances. I will nevertheless try my damnedest. The following especially shows the utopian possibilities that lie even beyond the boundaries of typical feminist or "progressive" parenting (and would cause your average Italian parent to run screaming for the hills):

Many progressive parents take a kind of tolerant "wait and see" approach to their children's gender and sexuality, wherein they basically produce a very normative gender socialization and presume their kids are heterosexual, and then wait to see whether their child manifests any signs of queerness, which they will attend to should the situation arise. But even though these parents are prepared to love their children should their kids someday present themselves as queer or gender variant, they aren't actually communicating to their children that queerness is something worth celebrating now, as opposed to lovingly tolerating later. Queer parenting means that children are enthusiastically introduced to queerness and genderqueerness so they know that their parents really welcome any queerness that they want to explore.

For now, all these words by others will have to suffice as my first crack at the elephant, while I work on doing more. In the meantime, an email like the one above from my friend is so comforting; it makes me feel like I don't need to be in a hurry. It also inspires me to dream big. To think all it took to spark her to think a bit differently was one little comment.

Have you ever been inspired to think differently by some ostensibly simple thing someone said? Or, conversely, like me, found out that a casual comment you made had more resonance than you could have imagined? Also, if you live in Italy, what have you noticed about how girls and boys are raised here?