Why Raising My Son Finally Made Me A Feminist

It turns out there's way more to this than superheroes and Elsa

by Stephanie Kaloi

kid's torso with stuffed animals and action hero dolls and pony dolls

You hear it a lot: giving birth is a transformative experience. They say it’ll change you, that you might not even recognize yourself after you become a parent. And to a degree, this is true: you try adding another human life to your household and see if you can keep the boat from rocking. But at this point in the game (nearly seven years after my son was born), I’m much more interested in how parenting helped me grow—and specifically how becoming a parent to a son turned me into a capital F, don’t engage me unless you’re prepared to be educated, Feminist.

It’s not that feminism was particularly new to me, or that a child crawling out of my uterus made something click. I already knew that feminist co-parenting would be important in our family, and as the offspring of two sociologists, I knew our child would receive his or her fair share (and then some) of High Level Discussions as they pertained to sexism. We didn’t find out the sex of our baby, and I spent a lot of time imagining life with a daughter and life with a son. Both included heavy doses of glitter nail polish (which our son still rocks), superheroes, video games, and every color of the rainbow.

My son’s birth stirred up something in me, something that took awhile for me to even recognize, let alone put a name to. Sure, my husband and I met in a Gender Studies class, but I wasn’t parading around talking about feminism all the time. When my son was born, the issues I spent a lot time working with, for, and talking about were political—I was pregnant during President Obama’s first presidential bid, and was entirely wrapped up in combating the racist rhetoric that seemed to engulf my home state (Alabama) at the time. It’s not that feminist issues didn’t matter, they just weren’t my everyday focus.

Fast forward a few months, and I started getting pretty mad. Not screaming in your face angry, but… frustrated by seemingly little or unimportant things that actually mattered a lot. Take, for example, the way our son’s first pediatrician always spoke to exclusively me, even when my husband was at the appointment and fully prepared with everything the pediatrician needed to know. Or how people would ask if my husband was babysitting while I worked, or treated me like the world’s worst parent when I went out of the country for a week with a friend, leaving my two year old at home.

It was rocky at first, and I quickly realized I couldn’t abstractly rant about how white men have wrecked the world because I’m married to a white man and raising a white man. Instead of ranting, it became increasingly obvious to me that there were going to be plenty of Things We Needed To Talk About. Things like consent, workplace imbalance and wage gaps, and that it’s ok if his partner is smarter than him. I didn’t know that having a son would mean that I would need to talk about this incredibly, painfully early. As he’s been aging, I’m realizing how much it matters to me that he learns those things, and that I be the one who tells him about them.

We don’t chase girls to make them love us

My son started preschool when he was three and a half, and the first thing he realized about preschool was that it would put him in close proximity with the opposite sex. Before I dive in, I want to put it out there that we’ve never been the type of parents who make a big deal of boys or girls, and we’ve always wanted our son to feel free to be attracted to ANYONE that he feels attracted to… but dude has tended to gravitate to females. Ok.

Within a week, we were hearing from the teacher that while our son was super engaged in preschool and doing alright, there were a few… social cues that needed some work. The biggest? Trying to kiss every single girl that came anywhere near him.

Our household is pretty heavy on the love. Emotional, mental, physical: my husband and I aren’t making out all the time in front of our son, but he sees us hold hands. He sees us kiss one another, quick kisses before this or that. He hears us tell one another and him about all the love we have for each other, and we all hug and kiss and just crush on one another as much as possible. It had never occurred to us to teach our son about how we express our love to OTHERS, because he wasn’t expressing it to anyone else. Cut to preschool, where he’s spending most of his time figuring out to hold this girl’s hand or that girl’s, where he’s chasing the girls who are running away, where he’s pressing himself up against girls because he just can’t deal with how amazing he thinks they are.

We had a bunch of choices here. We could have played it off as, “Oh, it’s all sweet and innocent” (and it was). We could have gotten mad and angry (and we didn’t). Instead, we started what has turned out to be a long, long string of conversations about how forcing yourself on another person because you think you love them isn’t what you do. It turns out there’s no real right or wrong way to introduce the concept of “no means no” to your son, it just matters that you do it.

don’t lie to yourself because that’s what you’re “supposed” to do

My son and I were at another movie when we saw the first preview for Frozen. It was the super cute one, with Olaf and Sven are chasing Olaf’s carrot nose around on a frozen lake. He was immediately hooked, and gleefully insisted that we had, had, had to see it. Movies are huge in our house, and going to see them is something my son and I share, so I naturally agreed.

Much like many, many other children around the world, my son was immediately in love with Frozen. He was so in love that he insisted that we stay and watch the entire closing credits (this is still something he asks to do) so he could listen to the song and bask in the post-Frozen glow. He also asked if we could see it again, as soon as possible. I loved that he loved this movie about two women and their bond, so we did.

He openly loved the movie for months afterward. He would belt out “Let It Go” on the playground, sing it at the grocery store. He squealed over Frozen gear and happily gushed to anyone, anywhere about how much he loved it. And then all of the sudden, it stopped. Someone at school decided that Frozen wasn’t cool anymore (mostly because his older sister still loved it so much), and that was, apparently, it.

That didn’t mean that he stopped talking about it at home, and it didn’t mean that he never asked to watch it again (because he did). It just meant that when he was at school, when his friends were over playing, or when we were out in public he would act like he just couldn’t stand anything to do with Elsa, Anna, and the gang. And sure: it’s a movie? So what? And I also realize that this is what kids (and many adults) do: we want to fit in, so we lie. But I hated that he felt like he had to hide something he truly loved because someone else might make fun of him.

So that started a new set of Big Discussions, and this time they were about the importance of honoring who you are. I feel like a lot of people—men, women, everyone, all of us—spend a lot time dishonoring ourselves. I want to raise a boy who grows into a man who is a generous, kind, and supportive partner (if he chooses to be a partner at all), and I think the first step is raising a boy who likes himself, and who doesn’t hide from who he is, who doesn’t belittle others because he’s not sure of himself.

manly men include girls in their games

As with most (all?) things parenting, this topic, the idea of being a feminist and raising a feminist, never dies. Our current struggle concerns the group of kids my son spends a bit of time with each week. There are three boys and one girl, and the boys have lately been leaving the girl out of their games.

At first it wasn’t on purpose, it just.. happened. The boys wanted to pretend to blow things up, the girl was like, “Guys: no.” So they just stopped asking her to play, but then the adult supervising quickly realized that this meant she just wasn’t playing with anyone when it was time to play. So our latest Big Discussion is how about men—the real ones, the kind ones, the ones who are doing this thing alongside the women they’re around—don’t leave women out of their plans. That including girls in your games (especially the only girl) is important. We’re spending some time talking about how there’s no way to know what a girl will bring to a game if you don’t invite her in the first place, and that making false assumptions based on stereotypes isn’t how we roll.

bringing it all back home

I recently read something along the lines of this: we learn 95% of what we teach. Never has this been more clear to me than working through many of the things we’ve worked through as parents. All the conversations I’ve had with this little dude, this guy who likes to pretend to blow things up while rocking glittery nail polish, have made me realize how much this stuff matters to me. I’ve grown as a mom, as a wife, as a human, and one of the greatest gifts our parenting journey has given our marriage is that my husband has also grown as an individual and a partner. He’s now infinitely more comfortable with who he is, and how he defines masculinity for himself—he’s no longer hung up on how others perceive him or what “they” think he should be, he’s happy being the exact kind of man that he is (because remember: we don’t lie to ourselves because we’re “supposed” to). This, in turn, makes our marriage a more equal and truly joyous relationship… plus it’s just nice. Thanks a bunch, Feminism.

Stephanie Kaloi

Stephanie is a photographer, writer, and Ravenclaw living in California with her family. She is super into reading, road trips, and adopting animals on a whim. Forewarning: all correspondence will probably include a lot of punctuation and emoji (!!! ? ? ?).

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  • Saxyrunner

    Love love love this!

  • Laura C

    Offspring of two sociologists fist bump!

  • Kayjayoh

    [sharing this]

  • clairekfromtheuk

    this discussion is awesome. fact

  • eating words

    Love this so much. If any of you are Metafilter readers, this reminds me of the epic thread about emotional labor from last summer (which I only just discovered and am obsessed with): http://www.metafilter.com/151267/Wheres-My-Cut-On-Unpaid-Emotional-Labor

    • Did you see this PDF that organizes the whole thing?


      • eating words

        Yes! It’s a really great summary (and still so huge).

      • AGCourtney

        While I’m familiar with the concept of emotional labor, this thread/PDF was new to me, and I just read the whole thing and ahhh, I don’t even have words. Thank you so much!

    • Arie

      I had to come back and say thank you for linking. I’m still at the phase where I’m staring, open-mouthed, at my computer screen, but HOLY WOW did I need to read this.

    • Meghan

      Wow – ditto Arie. THANK YOU for linking to that!!

  • macrain

    I’ve been thinking about this a LOT. I am pregnant with my first child, a baby boy due in May. At first I was thrown I wasn’t having a girl, but now I’m kind of stoked I get a raise the kind of kid (and one day, man) that you are talking about here. My husband will care for our son part time (he’ll spend about 20 hours a week with another caregiver), and if someone calls it “babysitting” I think my head will explode. It’s the same thing when women praise their husbands for “helping out” with household chores or bath time. I mean of course be appreciative of what your partner does, but these are shared responsibilities!

    • Emrae

      So much this. Our first baby is due in June and my husband is a teacher, so after the first year of life our child will spend significantly more time with him than with me, especially in the summers. On top of that, my husband is a much more natural caregiver than I am, and if someone calls what he does “babysitting” my head will explode too. It’s so insulting to the husbands because it implies that they aren’t responsible for childcare or housework and even worse – that they don’t care. I can’t just choose not to change a diaper, and neither can my husband. Shared lives = shared responsibilities!

    • Eenie

      My partner and I have talked about how we are both looking forward to raising a son specifically because we want him to understand feminism. We are looking forward to a daughter too.

    • Lulu

      Loved this piece on not calling it “helping me out”: http://www.scarymommy.com/why-im-done-asking-my-husband-to-help-me-out/

      • I have trouble with this one. While I totally agree with her points on the phrase “helping me out” diminishing his value, putting undue responsibility on her, I also take offense to being forced into a bitchy nag by saying things like “Can you just get your shit out of my way?!” That brings up a whole host of other problems. I struggle with this big time. And my husband is very “helpful”. It is helpful to me that he do what I ask him to do. I just wish that I didn’t have to ask. But I don’t think that’s ever really going to change.

        • macrain

          Yea I mean- I struggle with this too. It’s a much handier idea in theory than in practice, and it’s not hard to understand why women put it that way. Even right now when I’m pregnant and my husband is asking me where to put the baby’s stuff as if I’m the authority, it’s kind of like- of course he’s asking me that. I’m the one with the big belly. I don’t know how to set up parenthood so that it’s an equal partnership with equal responsibilities, where we are BOTH the authority. I think having him care for the baby more than me will help that, but those are just my circumstances (I mean- I am thrilled that’s what they are, but for a lot of women that’s not the case).

          • La’Marisa-Andrea

            Lol. Three years later my husband still asks. I just tell him “oh you decide” and he does. It’s hard for men to unlearn their own social stuff even when they are the most feminist of men.

  • Meghan

    Shared this with my kickass bff, who has an adorable seven month-old son. :) Thanks for writing this great piece!

  • HKay

    While I agree with all of the points you mentioned, I don’t really feel they’re really gender specific (as in they apply mostly to boys). I have a 5-year-old daughter and a 2 year-old son and funny enough, I am going through the “no means no” with my girl right now: that is relevant to children of all genders. She is very persistent and has a hard time accepting no. Forcing her brother into a hug or insisting she helps him is a trigger for many fights in our household right now.

    Also, I’d have a problem putting my son through a “men don’t shut women out” discussion because I might be introducing a gender issue when there might have been none. I’d only do it if it was very clear that gender is the issue. The thing is children sometimes shut other children out. I’ve witnessed girls shut out boys, boys shut out girls, and children of a mixed-gender group shut out a shy or hesitant child. I feel there is a risk in saying “men don’t shut women out” that we’re already telling them at such a young age that women are weaker and might need more attention. That men are doing the “shutting out” hence they are in the more powerful position. Pointing out the fact that she’s a “girl” might end up with them resenting the adult for making them include “the girl” who doesn’t play like they do.

    I’m not saying not address the issue, I’m just saying leave gender out of it. Include the “child”. Find a game or way for all to play so no “child” is left out. “People don’t shut people out.” instead of “men don’t shut women out”.

    At some point, gender (especially when it comes to sex) will have to be a big part of the “no means no” discussion. Especially how “being aroused” literally lowers your IQ and ability to judge which makes people vulnerable to making very bad decisions and hurting others. For now I am leaving gender out of most discussions (I even correct my husband if he uses any statement that says “women don’t….” or “men don’t… “, to say “people don’t ….”), unless my children are explicitly pointing it out (like “but mommy, boys don’t wear skirts” when the two year old wanted to put on his sister’s hot pink skirt on top of his PJs).


    • Amy March

      But gender isn’t out of it. There is a gender issue. We live in a gendered society. That’s like suggesting that we just pretend race isn’t an issue.

      Also, it sounds a lot like you’re suggesting that “being aroused” leads to an increased susceptibility to rape someone? Which is just not true. Being aroused doesn’t make you more likely to rape someone, and using “vulnerable” to describe that state of being increasingly likely to commit a violent crime is absurd. Rape is about power.

      • HKay

        This is not like pretending race isn’t an issue. It’s pointing out the issue when it clearly exists for the children, not projecting our issues on them. For most of us, it is a gender issue because we adults live in a gendered society and see it as an issue. But the kids? They’re playing there, for all we know, they shut someone out for the pure reason that they don’t like the way that child plays. We notice that they are all boys and the one shut out is a girl, and suddenly gender is the issue. BUT perhaps it wasn’t. Maybe they were not aware of it and we come in and tell them it is. Don’t we all want to live in a world where our gender isn’t a factor in most decisions? I think the fastest way there is to live that reality and not project our biases until we notice there is gendered behaviour (like not wanting to admit that he loves Frozen because he’s a boy -> that is clearly a gender issue and I would address it head on like she did.)

        To put it another way, if a group of girls shuts a boy out, no one would come and say “real women don’t shut men out”. We’d most likely say that it hurts other people’s feelings to be shut out (we’d be focusing on the hurt feelings and social behaviour, we wouldn’t get wound up in the gender of the children).

        Also, if it came across that being “being aroused” leads to an increased susceptibility to rape someone then I explained myself very badly. People can be hurt by sexual acts and decisions without it having to be rape. I think what I had in mind when I wrote that is not violent rape but the subtle one. I’ll admit, one of my nightmares is that when my son is a teenager, he would be in the midst of things and he wouldn’t hear/recognise a no when it comes and will only stop too late. He’ll end up hurting someone else (I truly believe this can happen to well-meaning decent people). I spend a lot of time thinking how can I teach him and protect him from this.

        • Amy March

          Protect him from raping someone? This is nonsense. Male arousal does not bring with it an inability to “hear” or “recognize” no. That is not a thing that happens to well-meaning decent people, it is a thing rapists do to people because they do not care to stop themselves. No rape is subtle.

          And the fact that you think it is- is a part of our gendered society. A society that doesn’t immediately and loudly label statements like this as an integral part of rape culture. No part of male anatomy makes ears and brains not function.

          • HKay

            Oh my, I think I opened Pandora’s box here. I guess that’s what happens when arguing online with two sleepless nights in a row under my belt.

            A couple of things left to say and then good night from the other side of the ocean (don’t want to hijack this post into a rape discussion):

            – arousal can cloud a person’s judgement

            – this applies to people of all genders
            – I believe there is a possibility that when a person is highly aroused (like about to orgasm) might miss WEAK or NOT-VERY-CLEAR messages from a partner. If you believe this is nonsense and it only happens to evil power-hungry people that were raised in dysfunctional homes, fine. I don’t. So we’ll just have to disagree.

            Oops, that was three.

          • Amy March

            If you believe that the faint possibility that someone a second from orgasm might not hear a faintly whispered no is an any way an actual thing that is happening and contributing to rape and sexual assault in this country, you are wrong and wasting your time on things that don’t matter. That scenario is a fantasy concocted to explain away men who rape as not evil.

        • Sarah

          Firstly, the situation you describe IS rape. Saying that being aroused leads to an increased susceptibility to rape someone and worrying that your son might be too turned on to recognise a no in time are literally the same thing.

          Secondly, I agree that arousal can cloud a person’s judgement, just as fear or anger or joy could, but I’m concerned that you think this applies specifically to men. All humans can make bad decisions in the heat of the moment – deciding not to worry about a condom, having sex outside and not realising they might be seen/heard, saying really cheesy porno stuff that makes you cringe afterwards (been there). The idea that this is the point at which gender becomes a big part of the “no means no” discussion just makes no sense to me; if anything, I think this is the part where gender is least significant.

          I hope you don’t teach your son about this, because I think sitting him down and explaining that as a man he might be so caught up in sex that he doesn’t notice his partner revoking consent could give him some pretty harmful ideas that wouldn’t have existed otherwise.

        • Mooza

          As a woman who has trained at a rape and sexual violence centre to give workshops to teenagers about consent and gender issues, I’m sorry you are getting so much criticism for your subtle but sensitive point. Most (84%-87%) rapes are not violent and occur between acquaintances. We teach masculinity and femininity to our children in a way that easily turns grey situations into terrible misunderstandings. We teach boys that girls want them to take charge, teach girls that beautiful princesses are also silent. The movies and porn these kids watch (don’t kid yourselves, they watch it) portrays people having sex without ever having to utter a word, because it would “spoil the moment” (this is the response I usually got from teenagers when asked if they would speak during sex). Those actors just magically seem to know what the other is thinking… sex is never awkward and you should never, ever talk about it (eww gross). So… yes, it’s important to realize that perceptions and expectations can lead to very bad situations and a lot of hurt and damage. Men who rape are not always “evil” as some commentators seem to think, just like rape doesn’t only happen to “those kind of women”. This world would be so much easier to handle if it was that simple.

    • Kayla

      I loved 99% of this piece, but I agree. Any time you start talking about what “real men” do, you’re perpetuating the idea that there is such a thing as a “real man,” and, consequently, a “real woman.” I think that’s a really harmful frame.

  • Meagan Prior

    As a feminist preschool teacher, I just really wanna thank you for this. Currently, my class had 11 boys and 3 girls and a lot of this stuff comes up. The consent thing is huge for me, as a few of our boys LOVE to give hugs and kisses to everyone and I have to talk with them about consent all the time.

    Also, even with a vast majority of boys, Frozen is still very popular with my kids and we have had to talk about how some people think its a “girl movie” but we are all allowed to like whatever we want. Its tough though, because many of their parents try to discourage them from girly things.

    Sometimes its refreshing to hear the feminist parent perspective