An advice column for folks who don’t like to be told what to do.
My son is 16, mostly kind, mostly woke, mostly respectful. However, even though he says he is a feminist I have my doubts.
He is a ballet dancer, so he is surrounded by strong women and girls. He also has me as a mom, and his sister is a badass. And yet, still, I have doubts.
He swims in the same racist and sexist sea as the rest of us. I want him to be an ally to his female peers. I want him to support his sister, but I am scared of the messages he gets from the world.
I make him read Toni Morrison and Roots and other great books by and about strong women. And yet, TV and the world could still corrupt him, I fear.
How do I raise my son to be a feminist?
I’d appreciate your thoughts,
Oh, honey. I hear your fear, but I would encourage you to dig deep and separate your own complicated feelings about men from your assessments of your son’s behavior and capacity to be a feminist.
What do I mean by that? Let me try to explain by telling on myself a bit.
When I was pregnant with my oldest child I prayed that my baby would be a girl, because I knew if I had a son I would never have another child.
I have two older brothers. The oldest, who is ten years older than me, struggled mightily with addiction and anger for many years. As a young child I watched him rage at my parents and at my other brother. Once I aged into my teen years, I was the target of his rage and bullying more times than I care to remember.
The younger of my older brothers sexually and emotionally abused me for over a decade, from when I was about three until just before my thirteenth birthday. Like our oldest brother, he has also always struggled with addiction and anger. His emotional abuse of me continued, intermittently because I controlled his access to me with singular dedication, until our father died in 2014.
There were various moments in my youth when I thought one or the other of them might kill me, either on purpose or because they just became so angry that they lost control of themselves completely. I had seen them destroy property and break windows with each other’s heads. The younger of them did actually threaten to kill me more than once. So, my fear was not entirely unfounded.
I knew intellectually that there are plenty of older brothers in the world who are good, kind, protective, and loving. But I didn’t know how that happened, and I didn’t feel capable of healing well enough to raise one. So, when I got pregnant I prayed for a daughter. If I had a daughter first then I could eventually have another child, preferably another girl, I will admit. As long as I didn’t have to figure out how to raise an older brother, however, it would all be okay.
Oh, how the Universe laughs at my plans! Always, always, always.
Despite the fact that I have sex with men primarily, I have always believed the men I loved and trusted were exceptions to the general rule when it comes to that subsection of our species. When I think about men in the aggregate I’m like, nope. Don’t like ’em. At best they are clueless and entitled, with unacknowledged power and control issues. At worst, they are dangerous.
As a result, generally I am a woman who prefers the company of other women. I rejoiced that I had gotten what I prayed for when my babies were born — not just one, but two daughters. The three of us had a great girl party going on. It made me very happy.
So, imagine my response when I found out that my beautiful oldest child was trans. I had birthed an older brother, a dude. Girl party was over.
God bless my son, because he was very patient with me as I wrapped my head and heart around his true gender identity. Over time I came to understand that he was still exactly the person he had always been, one of my favorite people in the whole world. But first I had to grapple with the feeling that he had gone over to the enemy team. He had joined the category of “people I do not ever instinctively like or trust”.
In order to support my boy in growing up to be a man, I had to admit I had a lot of really heavy presumptions and biases about men that I needed to deal with. If I didn’t do the work to confront myself I was setting him up to carry my baggage about men, which would translate into tremendous self-hatred. Self-hatred makes people dangerous, to themselves and others. If I didn’t get my act together, I was going to raise a dangerous man, just as I had always feared.
I don’t hear in your letter the depth of trauma that I was dealing with, but I do hear in your doubts the belief that despite what you have taught him, and what you are seeing in his actual behavior, he may inevitably join the ranks of men. It would be worth ruminating on what your assumptions and feelings are about who men are inherently, so you can make sure you’re not projecting any of that material, which is really your material, onto him.
At the same time, you are absolutely right that your son is, like all of us, swimming in a toxic stew of misogyny and racism. The reality is that he is sexist, just like all white people are racist. Not because he is inherently bad or didn’t learn enough from you, but because that’s the culture in which he has been raised. It’s the water he swims in. You expect too much of yourself if you think you’re going to be able to raise him not to be a fish.
Sexism, like racism, is deeply invested in keeping the men it privileges as unconscious as possible of how the system works, or even that the system exists. It sounds like you have done tremendous work with your son to make the unconscious conscious. You’ve made sure he took the red pill, shown him the matrix. He can see the water he’s swimming in.
That is the best and only skill he needs.
You want him to be a feminist? Don’t teach him to try never to be sexist, as if such a thing is even possible. Teach him that he is sexist, like all of us, and when he encounters sexism in himself he needs to acknowledge it and be accountable for it. It’s not a reflection on his essential nature that he has absorbed sexism. Encourage him to never take it personally, but to always take it seriously.
Teach him that with introspection and accountability he can be anti-sexist. The work to be anti-sexist is the work of a lifetime, for all of us. There is no shame in it.
Confronting sexism in others, particularly other men, is another lesson in how to separate the fish from the water, the sinner from the sin, so to speak. Teach him how to hold others accountable for sexism without the presumption that their sexism says anything about their essential humanity. Teach him to always connect the dots back to the system, and not accept easy answers that suggest the problem is just one individual.
Being a “nice guy” isn’t the answer to sexism, any more than taking down one bad guy is going to dismantle the system. It’s never about one guy, it’s not about your son, and it’s not about you. We’re all just trying to swim consciously in this misogyny.
If, in addition to all of the good lessons you have already given him, you can teach him how to confront sexism in himself and the world with both dedication and compassion, you will have done incredible feminist work. And you will be sending a great feminist man out into the world. That’s damn fine parenting right there, mama.
Thanks for walking this journey with me. Love to you and yours.
Want to walk further together? A new Walk With Me is published every Wednesday at noon (EST). You can also catch up on recent Walk With Me columns below.
Do you have a question about relationships, sex, parenting, politics, spirituality, community? Send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “Walk With Me”. Let’s walk each other home.