I’d Rather Be a Cyborg…: The Unexpected Inter-sectional Feminism of Losing My Hearing

20170823_143656 (1)My hearing has never been good. Normal hearing is something I’ve had to work to maintain all my life with surgeries and procedures in doctors’ offices. Over time, I’ve progressed to having irretrievable below-normal hearing in the upper frequencies on my left side. I am hard of hearing, and as I age I will only become more so.

Knowing this, accepting it about myself is important in situations where faking normal hearing could cause problems, like when I’m standing in a noisy airport security line, talking to an officer, a fellow short-lady, through a pane of glass taller than both of us. Instead of gambling, guessing what she wants, I say, “Sorry, I’m hard of hearing,” explaining that I can’t meet her halfway and she needs to bear more of the burden of communication than she’s used to—which really just means she has to stop being verbally lazy and ask me about the yoghurt I forgot in my bag in a louder, clearer voice. The upper frequencies–voices of women and children–are less heard, and until they are, they need to be louder. The sexism built into my language tells me to call voices like these “shrill,” a word meant to shame people into silence, but a word which, for people like me, simply means “audible.”

My deaf sister-in-law says I need to stop introducing my condition with “Sorry…” Wheelchair users aren’t expected to stare down flights of stairs and tell anyone they’re sorry. I get it, and I’m working on it. I’ve even realized why I’ve always suffered a little stab of anger whenever someone doesn’t hear me and lets me know by saying, “Sorry.” The implication that anyone needs to apologize for not hearing—or not seeing or not walking—is ableist and backward. The idea that intruding on able-bodied privilege with requests that accommodations be made to social and physical structures that dismiss and deny special needs is something that demands an apology–I hate it. I do feel sorrow for the decline in my hearing. But I’m not responsible for it. No one owes anyone else a normal level of natural ability in anything, including hearing.

Anyways…

I noticed the decline in my hearing once I switched from working at home to studying in a large, crowded university—especially when my studies are in a new language where the skills and strategies I use in English to guess and gloss over what I don’t hear can’t be applied. While my Chinese reading and writing is quite good for someone at my level, my ability to understand what I’m listening to is bad. By the end of the month I spent living in China this summer, I realized that, some of the time, when I was giving my stock reply of “I can’t understand what you’re saying” what I really meant was “I can’t hear what you’re saying.” Coming home to my English-speaking family, I saw for the first time how much trouble I was having receiving all kinds of messages, including ones in my native language.

The audiology clinic asked me to bring an able-bodied handler with me to my hearing test, but I rebelled and came alone. The appointment was a sad trip back in time to when I was seven years old and facing my below-average hearing for the first time. Strangely enough the list of words I had to repeat in the soundproof booth hadn’t changed in all that time. The list was an odd, old-fashioned collection—and old-fashioned means sexist and Anglo-centric. The words were meant to be recognizable to elderly men. “Whitewash, inkwell, cowboy, baseball.” I asked, “Do you have lists in any languages other than English?” No, of course they didn’t. English was confounding my test results. Once I realized the list of words was taken from Tom Sawyer, once I knew I was amassing a set with a theme, I could guess them even more easily than usual.

I’ve never worn eyeglasses, and my childhood surgeries completely extinguished any interest in getting my ears pierced so I’m just now learning to tolerate a foreign object against my ear. My hearing aid penetrates much further into my head than I expected. It’s an infiltration. “I’m a cyborg,” I told the technician–not a word from the clinic’s list.

Back at our house, with my new circuitry, my youngest son was relieved I hadn’t come back with a hole drilled in my skull, and my oldest son congratulated me on my “augmented reality.” I smirked. “You mean, like your glasses?” That’s all a hearing aid should be for someone outside of Deaf culture who comes to be hard of hearing later in life. It’s eyeglasses for the ears, the restoration of a baseline. Cyborg-me knows it but does not know how to believe it yet, and sits by herself flexing her jaw, tipping the electronic node against the inside of her post-human head.

That Time I Stole a Truck

oldkeyOn the first day of this fall semester, I opened the door of my garage where, strangely enough, my car was parked. To my surprise, blocking the foot of my driveway was a skid-steer and a one-tonne flat-bed truck. I was trapped. Unless I was prepared to sprint twenty kilometres, I wasn’t going to make it to school.

The machinery belonged to the contracting company that had been repairing sidewalks on our street. But there was no trace of the men who had left it there to blockade my house. Except for me, the street was deserted.

“Hey!” I called out, just in case. “Is anyone here? Come on. You’re kidding me.”

No one was coming.

The name of the construction company was written on everything so I phoned their headquarters. I spoke to a guy who identified himself as “I Just Work Here at the Office” and I offered to arrange to have their gear towed away if it was too inconvenient to send someone back right away to move it for me.

Mr. I Just Work Here and I hung up. And while I waited to see what he could do, it occurred to me that fastidious craftsmen like these might be too meticulous to bother with details like securing their vehicles. Maybe my freedom didn’t depend on tow trucks or whims of construction workers. Maybe I could free myself.

Sure enough, the truck was unlocked and the keys were in the ignition. I climbed inside, cranked the key, backed up — beeeep, beeeep, beeeep – and, because I am a genius, moved the truck down the street to where it wouldn’t be obstructing anyone.

The work crew was back on the block by the time I had finished and walked back to my house.

“What were you thinking parking across my driveway? I had to move your truck myself.”

“You went in our truck?” the dude said. “That’s—not legal.”

Now, this is not a story of one of my finest hours. I am neither a gracious nor a composed character in this weird little suburban vignette. But give me a little credit for not saying the words “prosecutor’s wife.” Give me credit for not tossing my hair and saying, “Oh, you want to play that’s-not-legal with me, do you? Well, you forcibly confined me in my home by blocking the exit. That could be a criminal offense too, ya know.”

All I said was, “Yeah. Go ahead and recover your stolen property. It’s parked right there.”

“You can’t do that.”

“I did. And your correct response is, ‘Sorry for your inconvenience, ma’am.’”

He never said those words but he did move the skid-steer without my help and I did get to school. I felt a little bad about the scrappy conversation. The construction goofballs are just a bit older than my oldest kids, after all. I’m patient and empathetic when my own big kids mess up and this was a lapse in character for me.

But I didn’t feel sorry for moving the truck myself. Life—what’s left of my life, in particular—is too short for sitting around getting mad and late when the keys are right there, dangling from the ignition.

managehairWhile my oldest kid was working his first part-time job, as a stock-boy in a grocery store, he showed me this picture. It’s about unsatisfied but mostly civilized customers who don’t want to argue with teenaged frontline workers and primly insists on taking their extremely important retail grievances to a higher court. Notice the model in this picture is a probably little younger than me.

I’m getting closer to the age of the lady below. This is Kathy Bates in “Fried Green Tomatoes” acting out in a parking lot. I always thought this was a dumb scene – a grown-up smashing her car into someone else’s because they were rude and put her out and deserved it. The scene is still over-the-top but it’s starting to make more sense.kathy

I don’t want to talk to the manager. I don’t want to phone the office and wait for a guy. I don’t want answers anymore. I don’t want anyone to get in trouble. I just want results. It’s not about a haircut or hormones or insurance coverage (like it was for Kathy Bates’ character). It’s about time–four decades littered with the usual amount of smoking crap and a complete lack of desire to know where it came from or who put it there. I just want it gone even if I have to muck it out myself.

If the clichéd catch phrase of young women these days is supposed to be “I can’t even…” maybe the catch phrase of women my age should be “I can even…” And I if I can do it without someone  coming out of the office to help, I’d actually prefer that.

Beware women my age. Don’t box in our vehicles. Don’t start ridiculous arguments with us, panic when they’re not going well, and then try to say we came up with the whole feminism thing not because we’re actually suffering but so we can fib our way onto some bogus moral high ground. Women my age are not actually nasty or crazy. We have our wits about us. We also have skills and knowledge and experience. We aren’t hobbled by our sweet babies anymore. We have each other. We can see for miles. And we may insist on being called ma’am.

Arriving at the “Twilight” Party Years Too Late

The words have been said so often by so many millions of lads to so many millions of lasses, that they must be worn to tatters. But when you hear them for the first time, in some magic hour of your teens, they are as new and fresh and wondrous as if they had just drifted over the hedges of Eden. Madam, whoever you are, and however old you are, be honest, and admit that the first time you heard those words on the lips of some shy sweetheart, was the great moment of your life…    L.M. Montgomery, 1924

While my husband was away from home this winter, fighting crime, I fought to keep my happiness from capsizing. Little sorties became important, like roaming alone through Wal-Mart during Valentines week. It was there, in a seasonal hearts-and-flowers display, that I found a three-in-one DVD collection, the trinity of twenty-first century young adult romances, the first three movies of the Twilight series, for $9.99.

I have a secret weakness for young adult romance (secret up until a moment ago, anyways). I spent my teen years reading Greek drama and the Victorians. My idea of escapist reading was L.M. Montgomery. My idea of desperation reading was my mother’s Stephen King collection. The Sweet Valley High novels on my sister’s side of the room neither interested nor tempted me.

My appreciation for YA romance is an adult-onset phenomenon but it’s genuine. When I paid $3.33 per flick to catch up on Twilight five years too late, I expected to be indulging in a guilty pleasure. Ironically or not, I wanted to like the series. I understood a lot of people didn’t like it. But haters’ gonna hate, right? And Stephenie Meyer and I have more in common than just our professions. Rock on, Sister Meyer. Thanks for the good time. That’s what I hoped to be saying.

But instead of cheering, I was groaning my way through Twilight.

“Nooo.”

“Whyyy?”

“Dooon’t.”

Carol and Mike from the Brady Bunch

There wasn’t a lot of dialogue in the movie version of the story. The film was mostly heavily filtered frames of pretty scenery, clunky CGI action shots, quiet staring, and slick soundtrack. When there was talking, the lines were often awkward and incongruous. For instance, big daddy vampire and his bride—the Cullen “parents”—were written and played like Mike and Carol Brady.

Sometimes, when I wondered why a character says something in a certain odd way, I’d find out it was because he was repeating a stand-out line from the original novels. What was more puzzling than these strange lines were the ones that weren’t nearly strange enough—the obvious lines a writer might jot down in a first draft but then refine into something more nuanced and artful as the story matured.

“Never go for the obvious kill,” a Twilight vampire warns a werewolf, “They’ll be expecting that.”

Never a truer word…

Forty minutes into the fourth movie (yes, I keep buying them) Twilight’s appeal started to *ahem* dawn on me. By that point in the movie, nothing has happened except exactly what we knew would happen. In all that time, the couple gets married. That’s it. The plot doesn’t advance a single step. It just delivers in hair-shoes-makeup detail what it’s been promising all along. It’s “fan-service.” Twilight gives its target audience, mostly teenaged girls, precisely what they want—the pretty boys, the comfy wardrobe, the smooching, the cool parents, the social one-up-manship— everything, right down to each word of dialogue. That’s the genius behind the series. The entire endeavor is fan-service.

As a jaded old lady and a writer in my own right of fiction approaching a Gothic love story, my first reaction to Twilight—the groaning—was about weariness with cliché, disappointment with the people behind the story and the audience in front of it for going for “the obvious kill.” As a demographic of writers and readers, we can do better.

Romantic piggy-back: looks like it can be pretty boring

But L.M. Montgomery’s advice (the quote at the beginning of this piece taken from Emily Climbs, her folksy, nineteenth century flavoured, Maritime-y take on the gothic teen romance) is worth considering. So sit down, Madam—or Sir—and remember high school dating. I remember it as a cringe-worthy mess marked by a few perfect moments—iconic moments that are a lot like everyone else’s perfect moments. Epic piggy-back rides, private musical recitals, handmade jewellery, working on a car together, catching someone staring from across the parking lot, secret knocking at the window, dancing in public with everyone gawking because it’s obviously a huge deal (or so we imagined) —those aren’t just personal moments. They’re ones we share with each other and with stories like Twilight.  That’s what makes them clichés: their truth.

Twilight is criticized for the expectations it fosters in young girls about romantic love. I don’t know if there’s much anyone could do to prevent those expectations. The romantic words, the gestures within the story are fairly universal in contemporary Western adolescent relationship scripts—or, at least, in my old diaries. Maybe those expectations are just as inevitably widespread. Twilight didn’t strike a nerve with young women because it unearthed the vampire fad at just the right point in history. It resounded because it told our own stories back to us, without trying to dress up or disguise the worn out “tatters.” It didn’t so much create young women’s culture as it reflected and codified what was already there.

Here is where I could plough into the fact that movies like The Avengers and Transformers perform the same fanciful but clichéd reflective function for young men only they get away with it without the searing social commentary leveled at Twilight for no reason other than sexism. I could, but instead I’ll stick to girl-talk. I’ll continue with L.M. Montgomery and her description of what our sweet, tattered words look like to onlookers:

Everything had suddenly become ridiculous. Could anything be more ridiculous than to be caught here…That’s how other people would look at it. How could a thing be so beautiful one moment and so absurd the next?

This is what impresses me most about Twilight: its refusal to balk at its own ridiculousness, its headlong dive into the absurdity of everybody’s love story. I don’t know why she did it. I don’t know whether it was calculated or not. But I’m going to choose to believe Stephenie Meyer is a brave writer. She wrote what we all know, what so many people apparently wanted to hear repeated. And she did it with that “unflinching” spirit critics usually praise. It’s like a teenaged girl stood up and used her own fingers to flip off the entire literary world. There’s something fierce and kind of admirable in it—but nothing that can keep me from flinching my face off.

6 Ways Men Can Talk About Feminism Without Sounding Like IDIOTS

I want to help.

There’s a lot of ignorant talk about feminism in my social media feeds lately. And I want us – no, I want you, men — to be able to talk about women and feminism with all the good will you intend and without the whole thing backfiring, blowing up in your face, biting you in the butt — whatever ironic disaster metaphor best describes that awful, idiotic feeling of trying to speak respectfully only to find you’ve botched it.

“You crazy! I’s just tryin’ a help!” My favourite line from Glen in “Raising Arizona”

I’m not talking to depraved, deliberate “Hey Baby” misogynists.  And I’m not addressing domestic sexism where men talk about “babysitting” their own kids or “helping” with housework in the places where they live and eat. I’m talking to grown, educated men who attempt egalitarianism and make a mess of it. All of the following faux pas come from my own experiences. I’ve heard them said, often directly to me, by men who should know better. Sometimes they’re said combatively, sometimes just clumsily, but always ignorantly. So let me help.

Men, do not say:

1)      “I’m the only man here so I’d better be careful.” This statement, spoken by men when they’re outnumbered in a group of women, says you are behaving differently than you would if you were surrounded by men. It implies you fake deference for women in our presence but will speak more freely and truthfully when we’re absent or properly subdued by the unspoken threat latent in an abundance of male bodies. Don’t be careful. Be kind. Don’t be fake. Be honest. And if your honesty is going to offend us, fix it in a genuine way, not simply by censoring yourself. Definitely don’t expect us to be charmed or grateful you’ve put on your bogus lady-manners for us.

This “outnumbered” statement is doubly offensive because it implies women are volatile and violent and it’s only our typical lack of ability to physically dominate men that keeps us sweet. It suggests we’ve been waiting to indulge in violence against men. The further implication is that the standard male-dominated power structure is needed to preserve the peace.  The same “logic” has been used to justify racist regimes. It doesn’t apply to women either.

2)      “I wouldn’t dare have an opinion on that…” This statement is often meant to be a jocular, humble approach to women’s issues. It’s a man admitting he’s not an expert. While that’s nice, it also effectively ends conversations where women have more relevant or detailed knowledge and experience than men. Just because men may not be experts in an area, just because in the end they may have to defer to women on a subject, they are not excused from participating in discussions of these issues. All women’s issues are human issues important to all genders. Refusing to risk talking about them is not respect. It’s marginalization.

3)      “Can you explain to me how this is sexist?” Even when this is an earnest question, it’s problematic. To some of us, this question sounds like you’ve pointed to the sky on a nice day and petulantly demanded, “Explain to me how that’s blue.” Sexism is so vast and pervasive, so much a part of our worldview, it can be hard to address. We do want to talk to you about sexism. We want to help you understand the sky. But it should take some effort on your part. Do some research. Prepare yourself to talk with us about feminism. It will take time. I can’t explain decades of social theory and a lifetime of discrimination in one pithy quip you can carry in your wallet and pull out to test if things are sexist. The key to understanding sexism is empathy – looking at things the way someone else, someone of a different gender, would see them. Though empathy can never be perfect, it is a skill that can be cultivated. But no one else can do it for you.

4)      “I have a mother (wife, daughter, sisters, etc.) so it’s not like I don’t know anything about women.” Hey, everyone is related to females. That’s how our species works. You are no more of an expert on women for having a mother than anyone else born on the planet. So don’t expect us to be impressed or to add any weight to your claims just because you’ve got close genetic or legal ties to women. We can already tell you’re related to women by the way you, you know, have skin and guts and breath.

5)      “My lady-friend says feminism means XYZ and you don’t XYZ therefore you are not feminist.” There is no Feminist Rulebook, no Feminist Gestapo that storms our houses, inspects our feminism, and revokes our title if we don’t adhere to strict, narrow guidelines. Feminism is like any complex, big-tent idea system – like communism or capitalism or Islam or Christianity or other ideologies loosely shared by huge, varied groups of individuals.  One of the things holding feminism back is in-fighting between women. If you foster those schisms, you are an opponent of feminism, not an ally. Don’t think we don’t know what you’re doing. Let us agree to disagree without fomenting more discord. Especially since we don’t recognize a central arbitrator of what’s good feminism, you’d better not dare to cast yourself in that role. A woman is a feminist because she says she is. She does not have to negotiate her feminism with you.

6) Don’t talk about our gender as if it’s a magic power. Good women are good people — nurturers, caregivers, etc. — because of choices they make, not because there’s any magic determinism in our sex organs forcing us to be good. Give us some credit. Don’t understate and diminish our free will or our humanity. Just like you, we can always choose to be bad. Some of us do. An angel acting angelically isn’t all that special. A real person choosing to act angelically is and it deserves respect, not a bunch of sentimental, simplistic mumbo-jumbo.

Bonus (So I don’t have to rename the post): Enough with “beauty.” Unless you’re judging a beauty contest, it’s not appropriate to comment on strangers’ appearances. Especially when spoken to a group, it comes across as insincere, patronizing, and placatory (see item 1). It can even seem creepy. A good rule is if you wouldn’t tell men they’re beautiful in the same setting, don’t tell women they’re beautiful. Too much is said about how we look anyways. Set it aside and appreciate other things we bring to social life.

There now, back to the social media fray.

Here Baby, There Mama: Don’t Politic My Hair

Let me tell you about the angriest I’ve ever been with my husband. Our not-quite-two-year-old son needed his long, wispy, angel hair cut. He hated haircuts and would carry on like a calf getting branded. It was always awful. My husband told me he’d take care of one particular haircut by himself. He took the baby into the bathroom and buzzed his head with electric clippers.

I was furious.

Yes, the baby’s hair grew back. And no one – not my oh-so-scolded husband, not anyone – has ever buzzed it again. The baby is fifteen years old now. His hair is still light blond but it’s also thick, silky, and he wears it long. I love it. Everyone loves it.

That’s the angriest I’ve ever been at my husband. I’m very lucky. I have an excellent husband. I also have an excellent mother. Guess what makes me angriest about the way she raised me. Once again, it’s haircuts. I’m not one to try to blame my mother for everything. She was and is wonderful to me and my six siblings. But she is a demon in a hair salon.jennyshort

Her first six children were born within seven and a half years. No, she’s not crazy. She’s just talented at pregnancy and babies. My mum is never happier than when she’s raising a baby. I don’t understand it — the same way I don’t understand people who are happiest when they’re cooking or playing soccer or doing math.

With a family like that, I guess Mum needed some short-cuts – literally. Five of us are girls — though it was hard to tell from looking at us when we were kids and our mother was choosing our haircuts. Mum had this idea that short hair on girls was “stylish” and modern – that and it didn’t need any time consuming combing or binding with elastics.

amyshort

Some people look fine in short hair. These people are not in my immediate gene pool. We all looked horrible. We knew it even though our mother raved about how pert and bold we were and how boring and backward our girl-friends were with their gorgeously normal shoulder-length bobs. But we were respectful, filial girls and I didn’t rise up and put an end to my mother’s terrible haircuts until I was in the tenth grade. That was when I grew my hair long – crazy long – and never went back. My sisters have thrown off their chains and grown out their hair too.

We all have the hair we want now. We’re educated, independent women exercising control over our own bodies and using a whole lot of high-end conditioner every morning. That’s the happily ever after, right?

Unfortunately, personal preference isn’t the only thing being read into hair length lately. Some click-baiting doofus wrotesarashort an article in response to the recent Hollywood revival of the pixie cut that made my childhood so awkward. He trolls on about how women cut their hair short to perturb and alienate men. The article has been answered by far more thoughtful pieces claiming long hair can be a patriarchal weapon meant to signal reproductive receptivity and with it, submission to oppressive forms of traditional gender roles.

Actually, for most people from my ethnic group anyways, long hair is just the natural state of all hair, for men and women. It’s now been unnaturally politicized by both sides of the gender divide. One of my brothers-in-law snapped and told my sister she had to cut her hair because she looked like the wife of a fundamentalist cult leader. I guess that wasn’t the impression he wanted his colleagues to have of their successful family business. My sister keeps her hair long anyway and sometimes twists it into a tight, top ‘o the head, power-bun that is authoritarian and formidable and totally awesome.

maryshortI admit I’m still insecure enough to worry whether anyone mistakes my long hair as a sign there’s something oppressive in my relationships or worldview – something amiss with my feminism. There isn’t. I’ve written more in defense of feminism than many people will ever read in their lifetimes.  I have nothing to be insecure about.  Part of enjoying my personal autonomy is invoking my right not to cut my hair if that’s what makes me happiest.

All that anger from the beginning of this story – with my husband and my mum – it’s petty. I’ve let it go and moved on. Even in the teeth of the crises, I never had much to complain about.  Unless it’s a token of religious observance, everything that’s said about another person’s hair length seems just as petty to me. And in realms of pettiness, what’s important aren’t the choices we make but the fact that we are free to make those choices.emshort

Sometimes, as Freud is rumored to have said, a cigar is just a cigar. And sometimes, a haircut is just a haircut – no social agenda, no revolution, no patriarchal violence – just pretty protein sprouting out of a scalp. When it comes to the way I wear my hair, all I’m trying to say is that I love it long – on my sons, on me, on my sisters, even on my mother herself.

Me, My Mum, and My Sisters Today

It’s Me, Writing in “The Awl”

It’s Me, Writing Psychoanalytic Feminist Film Criticism

This week, I drafted a blog post I liked too much to keep to myself.  Instead of posting it here, I sent it to a cool New York City website called “The Awl” and 48 hours after pitching it, the story was published.  It’s doing well — getting tweeted and shared and picked up by other news sites.  There is an audience out there who gets it.

However, I realize all the psychoanalytic feminist film criticism in it might be off the beaten path for many of the kind people who know me personally and read my stuff out of love.  The “Awl” article assumes readers have already heard of and dismissed the trope — the flat, stock film character — known as  the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl.”  The term was coined by critic Nathan Rabin in reviewing a movie where a sad young man is rescued by a “psychotically chipper” woman.  Rabin explains, “The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.”

My article is a cheeky look at a possible source of this self-indulgent, embarrassing character.  Something tremendously compelling must keep male-writers coming back to it.  The piece was a lot of fun to write and I’m enjoying people’s reaction to it.

Maybe give it a read here:

Manic Pixie Dream Mom – The Awl, Jan 10, 2014

Mothers of All Brothers at the Mall

My sister had just posted a new picture of her baby on Facebook.  In it, my big-eyed, beautiful niece was wearing layers and layers of frilly pastel ruffles.  Beneath the picture, I wrote, “I didn’t know ruffles were the big thing right now.”  Even for idle social media chatter, my ruffle comment was pretty idle.  I didn’t expect anything to come of it.

But then, out of the vastness of time and space, through the miracle of post-modern social networking, another comment came answering back from an old friend of mine.  I didn’t know she and my sister were in touch.  I was surprised.  Frankly, they hardly know each other.  Frankly, my friend and I hardly know each other anymore.  We were closest during our early teenaged years, before I outgrew the worst of my hideous phase and started encroaching on her boy-chasing territory.  Things had been very quiet between us for a very long time.  But now that ruffles were on the table, she had something to say to me about them.

“That’s because you are the only girl in your home,” she told me, “And I don’t think that ruffles were ever your thing…”

She was right about that.

“…Little girls LOVE ruffles,” she continued, emphasis in the original.  “And sparkles, and tiaras, and glitter, and magic wands.  Maybe you should see if you can get a girl to balance out all of that boyness in your house.”

Maybe I’m crazy but it read like a smack-down.  It sounded like my family of nothing-but-sons was being called out as karmic.  She may as well have written, “You like boys, do ya?  Well, take THAT, boy-stealer.”

I replied by doing what anyone put in my position would have done: I quoted out-of-context Bowie lyrics at her.

“There’s only room for one and here she comes, here she comes.”

Unlike me, my old friend – the ruffle expert – has a daughter.  She goes shopping for tiny frilly dresses while I’m pushing a cart full of black and navy sweatpants.

I’ve heard people remark how tragic it is that mothers of boys don’t have as much fun shopping as the mothers of girls.  The idea is familiar enough to make it feel like everyone must agree.  But who actually makes this complaint?  I took a straw poll, pulling comments out of Internet parenting forums dedicated to mothers of all-boy families.  I was looking for any self-reports of mothers being disappointed about not being in the market for pretty dresses for anyone but ourselves.

Here’s what I found: hardly anything.

Every now and then, a long, sad venting post would appear where a mom of boys lists everything about parenting that hurts her.  Once she’d started brainstorming her disappointments, she’d usually toss in a line about shopping.  But in pages and pages of healthy, happy chit-chat about raising boys, it was nearly impossible to find any boys-only moms complaining about the lack of sparkles in their laundry.

So who keeps talking about how sad we must be?  It seems the people most likely to think shopping in the pink section is important are people who are actively enculturating a little girl with prissy, Western notions of acceptable gender roles.  These people care very strongly about it.  But guess who doesn’t care much about it?  Everyone else.

Groaner at the Scholastic Book Fair

Groaner at the Scholastic Book Fair

Shopping may be a strange and backward place for flagrant plays of gender politics but it’s a real one.  Most of the time, gendered shopping is a marketing tool meant to get parents with kids of both sexes to buy double the merchandise they need because pink bicycles burst into flames if boys try to ride them.  It’s got nothing to do with what’s good for the human psyche and everything to do with selling products.

When it comes to underwear and tampons, I can see the wisdom in dividing the marketplace between the sexes.  But when I walked into the Scholastic Book Fair at my kids’ school this winter and saw a table labelled “Books for Boys,” I got angry.  Thanks, Scholastic, for making sure arbitrary gender division in education and the arts stay staunchly and clearly defined.

And thanks, I guess, to everyone harbouring any compassion for women who only mother children of the opposite sex.  Go ahead and feel sorry for us.  In truth, there are reasons for boy-moms to feel a little lonely – a little empty.  They’re real and I believe they’re profound.  The reasons women might mourn for never creating another human in their own image are existential, rooted in our personal identities, our senses of our own immortality, and our fears about dying alone.  And that makes the suggestion that our feelings are all about vapid unfulfilled shopping fantasies outrageously offensive.