The Sunday Rumpus Essay: Raising A Feminist Son

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I sat beside the Christmas tree with my son, Mosley. I could see the reflection of the red and green lights, strung around the pine, in his dark brown eyes. It surprised me that he didn’t grab at the ornaments or try to snap the needles off of my brother’s tree—both concerns that led to my decision to skip the Christmas tree in our home this year. Mosley is one-and-a-half, curious, and at times can be quite rambunctious. The fate of the tree might have been different in our apartment without the distraction of other children around to play with.

I watched as Mosley engaged a friend’s daughter. The young girl was two—almost three—and Mosley stood at eye level with her and was much huskier. He greeted her with his bright, crooked smile that showed both rows of teeth. She was shy, uncertain of him or the rest of the scene. I watched as the young girl inched toward her mother, never making eye contact with anyone, if not only by accident. Mosley followed her as she moved, closing the gap of any space between them. Aw, he likes you. Give him a hug, her mother said. He reached out and caressed her cheek, his smile never faded. The young girl turned away, her eyes now glued to the floor; she looked more sad than shy. Please keep your hands to yourself, son. She needs some space. I pulled him closer to me and away from her. Oh, I don’t know what’s wrong with her. She’s always so shy, her mother said to me.

The conversation changed, and the kids occupied themselves with new toys, but this stayed with me. A part of me feels silly for over-analyzing, because Mosley’s barely a toddler—still a baby in my eyes. Of course he doesn’t know the appropriate amount of personal space to give someone. He sees another human his size and he’s ready to play. But when is it the right time to begin teaching him about these things? About personal space, keeping hands to himself, or perhaps the harsher reality—some people don’t want to play with him, at all, and he still has to respect that.

*

I’m a month into training for my new job, and I’m getting into the groove of the new cadence of each day. Just a month ago I spent my time at home with Mosley, marveling at every new milestone, and the mere thought of leaving him could bring me to tears. Now here I am, driving down the freeway in rush hour traffic. I feel calm, unfazed by the slow speed of my car and enjoy the few extra minutes to decompress. A familiar song by Chris Brow comes on the radio. It’s got the kind of catchy tune that makes you want to bob your head and arch your back. I turn it up and sing along to the degrading lyrics with a mixed joy and shame. I know every single word, even Tyga’s verse, and I feel proud with every fuck-bitches-get-money type line I repeat perfectly on beat. I’m reminded of Roxane Gay’s essay “Bad Feminist: Take Two” where she confesses:

I want to be in charge and respected and in control, but I want to surrender, completely, in certain aspects of my life. Who wants to grow up?

When I drive to work, I listen to thuggish rap at a very loud volume even though the lyrics are degrading to women and offend me to my core. The classic Ying Yang Twins song “Salt Shaker”? It’s amazing. “Bitch you gotta shake it till your camel starts to hurt.”

Poetry.

(I am mortified by my music choices.)

…Like most people, I’m full of contradictions, but I also don’t want to be treated like shit for being a woman.

I am a bad feminist. I would rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all.

I think about the birth of Mosley, and all of the dreams I already have for him at the ripe age of one. I know how I want him to see me—strong, smart, capable of anything and everything. This is how I want him to see all women, but me especially. I think back to those first colicky months and his incessant crying throughout the night. I remember my partner teasing him: “Oh my baby, you cry just like a girl.” What are you talking about? I asked, You cry more than me, so he actually cries just like his Dad. My partner, caught off guard by my snarky response, asked: “Why are you so upset? I was just kidding.”

Why was I so upset? I had watched mothers around me for years, and I heard those strong, capable mothers use the threat: “I will call your Dad if you don’t behave!” many times over. I wondered why that made the child immediately behave, or fearful, rather than the parent in front of them telling them “No.” I worried it started with harmless jokes, the kind that demeaned the female or made her appear weaker, and therefore less respectable. My son will be a feminist, I decided. He will respect women, just as his father does, but even more. I will make him understand the female struggle.

But, how? Like Gay, I am full of contradictions. I bob my head, approvingly, to degrading rap music. I’m so numb to the word “bitch” that if anyone were to use it as a weapon against me, I’d probably giggle. I don’t like to lift heavy things, and will gladly piggyback on the excuse that that is a “man’s duty.” But I’m not Susie-Homemaker either. The only appliances in my kitchen that get any action are my microwave and my crockpot. I want to work, get paid a fair wage, and make important decisions. I value my own opinion, and every once in awhile I believe I have a brilliant idea. I’m complicated. No more or less complicated than Mosley’s dad or uncle or grandfather. Imposing all of these dreams and expectations onto my one-year-old is also one big contradiction. He’ll grow to be just as complicated as the rest of us.

*

Mosley was just a day or two old when I realized how badly I wanted to breastfeed. It didn’t occur to me, when my partner and I sat through parenting classes and watched video tutorials on how-to nurse, how important it would become to me. I didn’t know how much I would weigh my success as a new mother on breastfeeding. I also didn’t know how difficult it could be, or how little control I had about whether or not my newborn would actually latch.

One year and a half later, we’re still nursing. Mosley is “assertive” (as one friend put it) when it comes to breastfeeding. He gets hungry or thirsty or wants comfort, he pulls my shirt down and latches. I can feel both pride and frustration in the same moment. When I was asked by a conservative family member to cover up while I nursed, I told him that I would nurse wherever and however I pleased. I was proud of myself, and my son. Yeah! Women’s rights! Free the nipple! Normalize breastfeeding! 

Then there are times when I feel frustrated with nursing, when I tell Mosley, “No. No milk right now,” and he claws at my shirt anyway. I feel ashamed when I’m wrestling with my toddler in public, while he’s trying to expose my nipples and I’m trying to cover them up. Of course, I’m grateful—and so damn proud—that we have been able to breastfeed for this long. But I also wonder how I can teach Mosley about bodies, and boundaries, and that “no” means no when I cave almost every time. Because how can I champion nursing on demand, and not actually live up to that?

Like so many other things, our breastfeeding relationship is complicated. This relationship is also a two-way street that both, Mosley and I, have to navigate. Some days I’ll have to say “No” with conviction, and deal with the tantrum. Other days I’ll never be with a shirt on. One day it will all be over, and I’ll be nostalgic for these times once again.

*

I look at Mosley’s face and see traces of myself in him. My sister says he looks just like me as a baby, except, “So. Much. Cuter.” I see it in his straight, sleek, brown hair and the way his shaggy bangs are matted to his forehead with sweat. Sometimes, I see it in his dark eyes that, in the right light, blend in like two large, black pupils. I see my partner in him, but not in particular features—Mosley’s face is still so small—I see it in his skin, milky and porcelain-like. I wonder on which spectrum my son will be perceived, for his light skin and male privilege or his minority features. I want Mosley to see himself in the latter. I do not want him to succumb to the temptation of privilege, but advocate the need for equality.

I want Mosley to embrace all that makes him unique: his Jewish and Catholic family, his Polish, Russian, Filipino, and Italian roots. I want him to not take for granted the hardships (on both sides of his immigrant family) of coming to America and building a new life. I also want him to know our contemporary struggles, the oppression of minorities and women that still exist in this generation—Mosley’s generation. I want to teach him about bodies, boundaries, and consent.

I understand that these lessons unfold over time. I will not bog him down with the history of women’s suffrage. I will start with “yes” and “no,” listening for cues, and reading expressions. We’ll talk about what makes us happy or sad or angry, and investigate why that is. We’ll talk about what it means to be respectful, and how doing the right thing doesn’t always have its rewards. We’ll talk about forgiveness, and trying hard, and being better everyday.

In these lessons I hope he’ll see our strengths, our nuances, our wild contradictions.

***

Original artwork created by Pristine Cartera-Turkus.


Joelyn Suarez lives with her family in San Diego, CA. She holds an MFA from UCR, Palm Desert. Her work has been featured in The Coachella Review, NoiseMedium, and Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers. She is writing a collection of essays titled Are We Home Yet? More from this author →