Growing up there were three ways I learned that gender roles are fluid.
1. My mother worked for most of my early years. As a child, I probably couldn’t tell you what she did at her job. But I knew she worked on computers (still a male dominated field) and that most of the other mothers didn’t work.
2. Free to Be You and Me repeatedly told me that girls could do whatever they wanted and could be as competent doing it as boys.
3. My father taught me to be handy. He only had girls so passing down his knowledge to his sons wasn’t an option. I learned from my dad how to use power tools, hang stuff and wire and fix stuff around the house.
I never really thought much about gender roles as a kid but I do often as an adult. Throughout my adult life there have been times when I went out of my way to learn or do something that was typically done by men. I drove the 15 passenger van at work. I carve the turkey at Thanksgiving. I am the one who put together the bed from IKEA that took six hours. I hook up the televisions. And, I buy the cars.
This week for the 7th time in my marriage, I bought (or leased) a car. Being able to go into a dealer and competently buy a car was important to me. Just like carving the turkey, in my mind, this was something men do. They buy the family cars. So before my husband and I bought our first car 17 years ago I read everything I could about being a smart consumer. I listened to audio books and podcasts over the years. I learned to price out apples to apples and ask for my price. I learned how to play the dealers game. My husband, who is the most comfortable gender non-conformer, loves to come for the ride. He’s not bothered by his role. He loves to see me demolish the dealer and get the best possible deal for the car.
This time though we brought the kids along for some of the car shopping. They were able to see the process. What they saw was their mother in action and their father taking a step back. They enjoyed the free snacks and drinks the various dealerships had to offer. It was a good time.
But over the course of the week my son asked me a lot of questions about how to buy a car. My daughter didn’t say much about it. It suddenly felt really important to continue to show my kids that gender roles are socially created concepts and that there is nothing that either one of them can’t do. Seeing my son clearly get the message that women buy cars too might seem inconsequential. And it is. But also, it isn’t.
As a society, we often rightly focus our energy on teaching girls they can do anything. But we don’t spend enough time also sending the same message to boys. Boys need know that girls can do anything. Boys should see women doing what they presume men do. They should see women truck drivers and plumbers and construction workers. Boys need to see their mothers buying cars and fixing things and carving the turkey. Sure it’s important to show boys that men do laundry (thank you Jeff Pearlman for conquering this one) and school pick up and diaper care. That’s all important so that boys grow up knowing how to share the load.
It’s equally important though, for mothers to teach their sons what women can do. I felt like this week I took a step forward in that area. And it felt great.