September 17, 2023

A loaded question for “perfect” parents

So, here is a sentence that threw me for a loop recently. A trusted female companion I shared Alex’s and my blog project with said: that looks all good and nice, what you write about seems to make sense (i.e. issues of gender normativity and restrictive gender roles), but aren’t you afraid that your husband wearing skirts around town might make life hard for your son later?

First, I was unsure how to reply. Few things hit new parents as hard as the suggestion that your and/or your partner’s behavior might be harmful to your child. Really, the well-being of your child is a kill-all argument for a whole range of vastly different things. But let’s just say that, as a new mother, I have had to learn quickly that a lot of these statements about the well-being of your child have to be examined very closely for normativity contamination – especially because so few people do this when threatened with the reproach of irresponsible parenting. So, this question rubbed me the wrong way because the phrase “make life hard for your son” rings a warning bell I have learned to listen out for.

What’s in a question? Pondering some conservative assumptions

There’s a lot in this couple of sentences that is worth pondering for a minute. My well-intentioned, friendly companion said this to me woman to woman, in a private conversation about my life with my partner. Note her use of “being afraid” – being afraid of the consequences of your partner’s behavior, while unable to otherwise manage or influence the situation. Is that the typical, expected  woman’s place in traditional relationships? So, having this thought cross my mind, my first response is: no, I am not “afraid”. I am not just a passive observer of my partner’s behavior, without any way of framing and/or influencing said behavior and its effects on the life of our son. Fortunately, my partner and I talk about things and I am sure he would never consciously behave in a way that hurt our child or me. If there is a problem, we work it out together. How old-fashioned is it to think a man behaves in whatever way he pleases and woman and child just “have to take it”, no matter the consequences? This friendly companion’s statement assumes that, really, deep down I have a problem with what my husband does (dressing in traditionally female clothing) but cannot solve this problem because ultimately, what happens is solely my husband’s decision. Neither thing is true.  

My friendly companion also said what she said because she knows I live in a small town in the Bavarian countryside that has a reputation of being arch-conservative. Before saying what the incentive for this blog-post is, she had already asked me several times “how come” I ended up living in this place – a city being, in her opinion, a better fit for the likes of my husband and me. By that she means “unconventional” people who aren’t just academics but also “do weird shit” with their education. Such as challenging what “normal” life is and looks like, not only with their writing but also dressing “inappropriately” in public. Not something that is necessarily popular with the locals – and yes, we are not a part of that group as it is. We are not just people who behave weirdly but also non-locals. I agree, that can make things tough.

A city vs country issue?

However, firstly, who says that our behavior would stand out less in a city? Are cities inherently less traditional, less conservative, more open and more accepting of difference? To that I can say that most of the more intense experiences I have had of people staring, laughing, pointing fingers, talking behind our backs, and even taking unauthorized pictures of my beskirted husband and me happened when we went on trips to larger cities. I do not know whether the people acting in this way were city people or country people, but what I do know is that we were a novelty that deserved this kind of (sometimes rude) attention. That was the case even in a place where people are supposedly forced to grow more accepting of differences because they encounter them a lot more frequently on a daily basis, as cities tend to bring together a huge range of diverse people. You might say that, of course, the problem of intolerance, ridicule and aggression towards social elements perceived as alien and uncomfortable is not necessarily a city versus country issue. I couldn’t agree more!

I think, whether you live in the city or in the country, you will find around you not only those who are more open-minded and those who are intolerant, but also a whole bunch of people who are just indifferent. In fact, sometimes I get the impression that living in the country might give you as much or even more freedom to behave individualistically. My feeling is that in the country, population density and social stress, which in my opinion is one major contributor to the frequency and intensity of social conflicts and aggressiveness in the city, tends to be lower, or at least there is more space to get out of each other’s way. Therefore, you do not encounter as high of a level of social stress and anxiety as you do in most cities.

Where people feel less “squeezed in” as well as relatively secure and relaxed, they might generally be more pragmatic, more tolerant of and less aggressive towards elements that are different. Yes, they might stare and talk about you if your outfit is unusual, and some might turn away in disgust. However, in a close-knit community, it is just as likely they would strike up a conversation with you and ask you questions, which would initiate dialogue about the meaning of your clothing choice. And while some might still just shrug their shoulders and most will probably not go out and promote gender-related social change themselves, they would most likely not lash out at you if they find you to be a friendly person with “strange” ideas. Firstly, people tend to relate to others in more personal ways than in the city, which means that you stand more of a chance to be seen as a person, not “a strange thing” to point and laugh at from the shadows of anonymity. Secondly, live and let live is the motto of many people in the little country towns I have lived in up to this point, even if a bit of gossip about those things that fall out of line is, of course, always enjoyed, too.

Today, the city/country divide has become so much more fluid in a world that requires people to move away from their home towns for reasons of work, education, family, or some other opportunity. And many city people flee the city to do their best work in the country. Innumerous world-class authors, thinkers and inventors illustrate that point. Long story short, we need to stop assuming that everyone who lives in the country is most likely a bumpkin without tact, sensitivity, intelligence and/or education and without knowledge or understanding of the current gender debates, out to ostracize anyone who behaves in a non-conformist way. We also need to stop assuming that city people are necessarily the polar opposite: open-minded, educated, liberal, worldly. Humans will be humans, after all, anywhere.

Why experimenting with clothing might make you better parents

Having said all this, let’s get back to the central question at hand: why a beskirted/beheeled man might be the better father, in the city or in the country. In our case: a better father to our son, specifically. Of course, I do not want my son to face ostracism, ridicule or bullying because of his father’s clothing choices. However, stopping at that thought might be too short-sighted. Let’s assume that indeed, our son is laughed at by other kids in school because his dad wears skirts (that will not necessarily even be the case). Doesn’t the question of how to handle that depend on what you want your child to learn in life? Do you want them to learn that when they feel social pressure, they back down, step back in line and force others to do the same, at the expense of their freedom of personal expression? Or do you want to teach them how to stand up to said pressure and manage it effectively? I personally lean towards the second one, even though I know that talk is cheap. I would not want to force my son down this road at every price, that’s for sure, taking the risk of physical and emotional injury – but should I not at least give him a chance to learn with his parents’ support, to become stronger and to trust his own instincts when it comes to identity and self-expression? This assumes, of course, that we as parents have the resources, knowledge and experience to help our son navigate his complex social context successfully. Time will tell if we do, even if we feel pretty confident now. Nevertheless, in my book, it is worth trying even if this is the tougher path – while, of course, listening carefully to what my son has to say about this, too.

However, there is another point to ponder. In my opinion, my husband’s clothing choices offer a lot of opportunity for discourse, learning and growth, whether it be for/with the people around us or our child. I personally believe that people should have the freedom to choose what personality traits they want to express with their clothing as long as it does not injure others. Wearing a swastika on your clothing in the Western world, for example, injures others because it demonstrates disrespect for millions of disenfranchised victims of chauvinism in the past and in the present. Wearing a skirt and heels as a man might challenge others’ conservative values and closed-mindedness, but it does not hurt in the sense that it negates their experiences and their humanity.

Isn’t it high time to have this kind of discourse with others, too, no matter where you live? And isn’t it also high time to show our kids that identity is fluid and negotiable, so that they learn to think about where they really stand instead of just blindly following everyone else? My husband sometimes wears traditionally feminine attire because he wants to show his stance on gender equality as well as his opposition to overly conforming and/or toxic masculinity. He wants to show others that not every man needs to live up to the norms of “boy” and “man” culture, its chauvinisms and latent or overt aggressiveness, sometimes to their own and others’ physical and emotional detriment. Be the man you want to be, not the man others tell you to be. Define your own identity, stand by your beliefs, and do not let others beat down on you for it. Use your words, seek dialogue and understanding, foster human connectedness. All this is what my husband stands for as a man. I ask you: isn’t he the better father if he doesn’t just talk about this but rather shows his little boy how this is done, how he can truly be himself without hurting others? I firmly believe he is.

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