Dear Mom—

I was out for drinks the other night with some friends, all parents of tweenage girls, and the topic of conversation drifted towards talk of the eating issues (and accompanying bullying) that our daughters face.  I am concerned for Isabella (and all these beautiful young women) and know that she will undoubtedly encounter her share of struggles as she grows up in a world that has such a narrow definition of what it means to be a beautiful woman.

As I sat there listening, empathizing, and worrying, I couldn’t help thinking that our boys face issues all their own, but I rarely hear them discussed in conversation with other parents or getting much play in the media.  Still, in 2014 no less, young men are presented with a narrow idea of what it means to be a man.  Any parent who has set foot in a Toys R Us or shopped for clothes at Target knows that the majority of products marketed for boys—from t-shirts to pajamas, bed sheets to iPhone apps, magazines, and books—are related to sports, competition or violence. For good measure we allow a side helping of superheroes, trucks and trains, and space travel.

Certainly there is nothing wrong with boys following an interest in any of these things, the trucks, the superheroes, the sports. Certainly there are boys who don’t want to wear Skylanders pajamas or play with Nerf guns, and there are parents who don’t fall into the trap of only supplying those kinds of toys and apparel for their boys. However, what bothers me is that this division still exists between boy toys and girl toys, boy colors and girl colors, boy activities and girl activities. And unfortunately, if boys don’t take much of an interest in the boy things, it marks them as different, which I think is a code word for girly.  Of course the next stop after that is being called a fag.

I don’t blame you or dad for encouraging me to participate in sports as a kid.  As I mentioned earlier in the week, I turned out okay and am pretty well adjusted.  If anything, I recognize how challenging it is as a parent to buck these societal trends and ingrained stereotypes.  Patrick and I are caught in the thick of it as we try to parent Jordan and Isabella, and most of the time it feels like our failures far outweigh our successes.

I don’t think we have ever purchased Jordan a doll, a toy that related to cooking or sewing, or anything that was pink. Instead, we steadily encouraged his love of trains and Legos, and have been desperate to find a sport for him that he likes. The irony is not lost on me that he seems to not be so fond of competitive team sports (what’s that they say about apples falling not far from trees?).   Isabella has not escaped the gender role stereotypes; I’m sure there are lots of Seattle moms who cringe when their daughters come to play at our house because of the big pile of Barbie dolls upstairs.

One of the benefits of having a household led by two men is that our kids see men doing all the work, the lawn-mowing and appliance repair, and the cooking, cleaning and laundry. Patrick and I have the chores we have taken on (I’m on laundry and Patrick does grocery shopping) but it comes from a place of liking those chores (or perhaps hating them less) rather than having to do them because they fit an expected role.

I saw you and Dad doing this, at least to some extent, when I was young.  Did you feel hemmed in by gender roles? As the first woman in your family who worked full time outside of the home, I often wonder how you managed to negotiate a world that was different from the one your mother lived in.

As parents, you did encourage me to do sports and to fit with that particular gender expectation, but you and dad also both went out of your way to meet me where I was and encourage my other interests.  You volunteered for every play I was in during high school, and spent hours backstage helping with make-up and costumes.  The excitement and support I got from you and dad both at the end of a show (or a piano recital) was immense and validating.

I recognize that Dad had to push himself out of his comfort zone on numerous occasions. I have a vivid memory of a particularly warm and sunny Saturday afternoon when Dad was asking me to come outside and play catch in the backyard. I wanted to stay inside instead, eager to practice the new-found skill I was cultivating at making tissue flowers.  Although he was less than pleased, Dad came into the kitchen, pulled up a chair, and asked me to teach him how to make one.

Almost 40 years later, I am frustrated that as a society we are not farther along.  Although there have been palpable changes, I wish that the gender role expectations were less rigid and less powerful than they are for my kids. However, I’m going to use you and dad as my role models, and do what I can to parent the kids I have in front of me, trying to validate and cultivate their unique interests and personalities. We try to present our kids with a wide variety of choices, sending Jordan to gymnastics classes as well as soccer, not forcing Isabella to wear dresses when she doesn’t want to, and encouraging both of them to join us in the kitchen to cook and bake.

Your actions as parents let me know that I was loved and that my interests were worthy and valid.  Gender stereotypes are not going anywhere soon, and that is one of the things that makes parenting today as difficult as it was for you and Dad.  Patrick and I push forward, hoping to raise children who feel loved, respected and cherished for who they are and whatever they pursue, and feel like they have many, many options in front of them, despite what society may tell them.

Love, Christopher