‘Is your father a man or a woman?’ This is a question that my child Pumpkin, was asked at daycare during an English oral exam. He got it wrong, and I was thrilled. This is supposed to be a no-brainer for anyone his age (he is three going on four years old) but his circumstances are very different. You see Pumpkin’s mother is a gender bending feminist and in some ways a bit of a crazy person. Probably the only one for miles, and definitely the only one at Pumpkin’s school.
When Pumpkin was born, and was at that age when all babies look like, well, babies, people would always ask whether Pumpkin is girl or a boy. A question that as often as I could get away with, I declined to answer, and tried to always dress Pumpkin in gender neutral colours. People showed mild elation that he was a boy, and told me how lucky I was to have a boy the first time around. That boys were easier and cheaper to raise. Almost four years down the line-the girl/boy, male/female binary is still a mystery for Pumpkin. When asked whether he is a girl or a boy, Pumpkin’s response changes depending on what he is doing. When playing, he sometimes demands that we call him Lady. He will not respond unless we call him Lady, and to him Lady is a tough talking character that always carries a gun that Lady never uses. Other times he is Mother and everyone in sight is a baby, and he goes about the duties he has watched mothers around him carry out. Just today he was Girl. Girl wears sunglasses the size of saucers and writes a lot. You see, to Pumpkin, girl is not assigned by sex or gender-it’s a role he can play when he wants to. So are the terms boy, and man and woman and every other member of the social gender assignment committee.
So when a teacher asks Pumpkin whether his father is a man or a woman, it is genuinely a difficult question for him to answer. Even without the influence of his mother’s gender bending tendencies, Pumpkin comes from a single parent household. For his whole life he has lived with only his female parent. And has seen what society calls his ‘mother’ carry out what society calls a ‘father’s’ duties. Ask Pumpkin what gender his mother is and the response will be the same. He will shrug his shoulders, and say he doesn’t know. As far as he is concerned, Mummy (who he chooses to call Auntie Sheena often) is a sexless genderless character that’s just Auntie Me. My parenting of him has nothing to do with whether I am a woman or a man. Just recently his grandmother asked him if he’s going to be an engineer when he grows up. Pumpkin shook his head no, he does not want to be an engineer he wants to be a boy. A boy is something you can become-not someone you are born.
The un-gendering of my child is something that I have done consciously, but not forced on Pumpkin. He lives in a world where everyone will tell him that he is a boy (or even that he is a man) and should behave accordingly. My sphere of influence is very limited. And eventually he will realize that my opinions and world view differ considerably from practically everyone else that he will come across. It’s sometimes seems to be a futile exercise, but one I believe is important in raising a different kind of person. A person that is not a slave to patriarchal gender stereotypes and all the misogyny and misadry that they come with.
Like many other little boys, Pumpkin just loves cars and moving things. I nurture his interest in cars and machines, as I would if Pumpkin were a girl. I believe that Pumpkin likes cars because cars are fun and cool. I myself love cars and moving things. Pumpkin also loves to cook (he insists on wearing the frilliest apron he can find in the kitchen) and has become my trusted sous chef. He insists on being part of every activity, whether it is gardening, cleaning, cooking, laundry, driving around on a lazy Sunday or doing nothing. He has grown up in a space where no one tells him consistently what he can or cannot do, what’s for girls and what is for boys, or who he can or cannot be. Or what society’s expectations are of him as a boy. He is Pumpkin, and as Pumpkin he is who he wants to be, when he wants to be it.
Many people feel that all the confusion and social decay is happening because we have forgotten our places in the gendered social system. If women could do what women do and men do what men do, all our problems will be solved. Raising Pumpkin the way I am, goes against everything society has taught. People have said to my face that allowing Pumpkin to paint his toes is what will turn him into a moffie (homosexual). Or that telling him it’s okay to cry when he is hurt or scared will make him soft. Pumpkin is only three-and there is no telling who or what he will become or what he wants to be. But if he can grow up knowing that just because society calls him a man, it does not mean that he is limited or restricted to the roles he is presented with, or that he observes. All I can do, all any parent can do really is try. And teaching him that sex and gender are far less important than patience, empathy and gentleness must be a step in the right direction.