Girls Rule. Boys Drool.
"You know, Emma's a kind of a tom-boy," says my niece, Rosie. "It's because she has a brother." It is late June and as has become their habit, my nieces Rosie and Francie, who are 10, are staying with me in Albany for the week. I have come to enjoy the time we have together, all three of us, especially because I get to see life from their perspective.
"I guess that makes me a tom-boy, too, you know, because I have brothers?" I say half joking. Rosie is quick to see the connection. "Oh, you. You are definitely a tom-boy," she says with a gleam in her eye. I know she has just paid me the highest compliment. I also know that she and her sister don't think very kindly towards what they call girly-girls, meaning girls who are less than physically inclined. I don't ask Rosie how she got to be a tom-boy, though I think I should. After all, she doesn't have any brothers, just an older sister and Francie, who is her twin. Still I am interested in these distinctions. "So how can you tell who is a girly-girl and who isn't," I ask. She says, "Believe me. You can tell. You know, Brittany Spears? Girly-girls dress just like that."
This is the 4th summer that the girls and I have had together. They spend the week doing the usual things. They swim, they play ball, they swing, they read, they draw and they even climb part way up the wind generator tower. One day when we are in the garden picking greens, I begin to show Francie how to weed. I point out pig weed, Johnny Jump-ups, vetch and witch grass. When we come across a bunch of small oak seedlings, of which there are hundreds this year, I get the idea that instead of pulling up a perfectly good and viable seedling, we should put it into a pot. I suggest they take a couple of seedlings home to their place in Rangeley and plant them with their father. Over the next couple of days two seedlings potted become 10, each of which has four green, tree-sized leaves.
Though we travel to the library in Norway the first day the twins are here, by mid-week Rosie comes to me looking for something more to read. Though most of my children's books are packed away, I do come across one. Published in 1976, "Stories for Free Children," is filled with unusual stories. Stories which would be in the politically-correct, we've-heard-it-all-before category, back then were considered forward-thinking. Of all the stories, there is one that my son, Aaron, as a young child, always begged me to read. The story is called "X." Written by Lois Gould, it is about gender.
In the story, because of a scientific experiment, only the parents of Baby X can know its sex. The idea is that Baby X be raised without regard to gender. X learns to do both boy things and girl things. In school, Baby X manages to keep its gender under wraps. The kids line up alphabetically and Baby X is allowed to use the bathroom designated for Staff. At first the children can't figure who or what Baby X is. Then they begin to emulate Baby X, who is good at a lot of things. The boys begin to bake and the girls begin to play ball. The parents are in an uproar about Baby X's influence, but Baby X is allowed to stay in school without ever revealing it's true identity. The story assures us that when gender begins to matter, meaning when Baby X is ready to think about having it's own Baby X's, everyone will know the sex of Baby X.
It is the next morning and amazingly I see that Rosie is reading "Baby X." In fact, she is so intent on reading, she hardly looks up when I tell her that this was one of Aaron's favorite stories All she can say when the story is done is, "But it never says whether Baby X is a boy or a girl."
"I think I liked it because it was weird. All the stories in that book are weird," says Aaron when I ask him about it a few days later. "Maybe it's because it started me on my love for science fiction." We talk about his childhood . I tell him what I used to think about gender. That boys and girls started out the same. That you could raise a boy and a girl to do the same things. That it was mostly expectation and conditioning that defined what qualified as male and what as female. He didn't feel compromised by the way I had raised him, but he was prompted to say, "There are some things that girls need to know and other things that boys need to know in order to survive."
It is a few days later and I am now at my brother's place examining the oak tree seedlings. Two of the 10 seedlings are dead, but the rest look promising. I still feel amazed by these seedlings and the fact that it takes an oak tree 75 years to reach its peak in terms of producing seed. Even then only the most perfect conditions, like spring coolness and sufficient water, will allow the acorns to sprout. Though only one acorn in ten thousand will grow into a tree, because there are female flowers and male catkins on the same tree, it takes just a single oak and a bit of wind to make a new tree. I think I should tell the twins about all of this before they plant their trees. Instead I ask Rosie a question. "So what do you call a boy who seems to do girl things?"
Posted by Pamela at March 4, 2004 7:06 PM
She looks at me as if the answer is obvious. "Of course," she says, "You call him a tom-girl."