E’s been doing an interesting thing a lot lately. It’s a subtle thing, but we always seem to notice it when she does it, and she did it several more times today. She’ll be having a typical conversation which consists of non-stop chatter, endless recounts of events that have really happened in her life that can suddenly turn on a dime and become such fantastic tall tales that you sort of lose track of the storyline and your eyes glaze over and you nod in perfect syncopation with the emphasized words and throw in the occasional really?? and she only stops for food or a bathroom break. Wait, she doesn’t stop for a bathroom break. She just keeps on telling, only now at a much louder pitch to compensate for the extra three feet away from you that she is, and the louder words ricochet off the hard tile surfaces until you have to clamp your hands over your ears or just retreat to a different floor. Wow, I really went off on a tangent there. Gee. Wonder where she gets it from.
So she spins these tales, the one this afternoon generated by her field trip tomorrow to see the symphony. Here’s the shorthand version:
EJ’s mom is driving to the concert tomorrow so EJ will ride with her mom, but not in the big van with the rest of the kids. I will ride in the van because you are not going, and neither is daddy. Remember that time that we went on that field trip and daddy forgot to take his car seat out of the truck and put it in the backseat of your car, and you had to unbuckle my car seat out of the car and you kept saying how hard it was to unhook and it was really hot and you weren’t very happy that daddy forgot to take out the car seat of the truck and then you called him on the phone? Do you remember that, mom? Well, maybe I will remind him to take the car seat out of the truck and put it in the backseat of your car, but I’ll tell him not to buckle it in because then it will be just as hard to get it out again because daddy fastens it really, really tight, and then it will be the same as last time, except it will be on the other side of the car. Because my car car seat will still be attached on this side.
And I don’t want you or daddy to go to the concert tomorrow because I really like to ride in the van, but maybe you could just meet me there and hear the Babar part and then go back to work or to lunch. In the beginning of the story Babar’s mother is killed by a hunter and she is dead. He shoots her. Dead. And Babar is really sad and then a witch [rich] lady helps him out and lets him stay with her but then she has to leave and he is really sad but he gets to play with his cousins and the music is really loud when the hunters shoot. ALL the hunters are loud, even in Peter and the Wolf, but we aren’t scared because we are four and we know that it’s coming because we’ve been reading about it and why is that little boy standing in the backseat of that car? Why is he not in a car seat? If a policeman sees him he will be really mad at him and maybe at his mom too. Is his mom going to get in trouble or is he going to get in trouble? Policemen are nice until you do not do what they say, then they are angry and use their angry voices but they still like you but they are a little nervous. If I stood up backwards in my car would you have to go to jail? Maybe if I popped up really fast and then jumped down on the floor. But then he [she pointed at a car that had pulled rather quickly and without signaling in front of us seconds before, causing me to put on the brakes] might hit our car and I would have to go to the hospital in an ambulance.
And the story went on and on and on, but that thing that she does, it’s a pause and then a breath and then the offering up of the opposite gender so that it is clear that she makes no assumption on the gender of the subject based on what they are doing or what job they hold. She doesn’t pause for any other part of the story, and she doesn’t even give much thought to this. But she does it every time. And it’s really cool.
I’m not sure why she does it. Maybe we consciously say he or she when referring to someone in a specific occupation. I know I notice it a lot in my own field. Most people default to “he” when talking about architects, engineers. I know when I answered the phone at my old job it was assumed I was the secretary, and not the project contact. Our pediatrician is female, our pastor for eight years was as well, but we’re often asked what his name is. We all do it. That aggressive driver is a “he” before I even confirmed it by looking, that bad driver who nearly clipped the front end of my car was a “she” before I even saw her face. We all do it, and maybe not because it’s habit, but because it’s easier. “Him or her, he or she” is longer, more formal, and more often than not, unnecessary. So it’s cool that she does it, as a matter of course, and she does it consistently if she just doesn’t have enough information to choose one over the other. “Hey Mom, at the doctor today when you got your stitches, did she have to give you a shot first? Or, he?”
Fourteen years ago when I went into architecture school I actually received a small scholarship that was “for women entering a non-traditional field”. I laugh at that now, where the ratio is nearly 60% women in any given studio program. Of course, it’s not in the workplace, but that’s another post entirely. We do our best to let E explore things around her and try not to limit that field by giving her a lot of gender-specific toys – whatever that really means. She enjoys her Lego’s, her markers, her baby dolls and kitchen in equal amounts and her cars rank above even her parents sometimes. Her school is structured in the same way, and I delight in the neutrality of the play spaces that welcome everyone as much as I delight in the differences of each family that attends there. I hope she is surrounded by this openness for the rest of her life. I know we both benefited from having parents in an equal partnership; we certainly balance the tasks of our daily lives as equally as we can. And I’ll try to follow her example more often, and not assume before I’ve gotten a better look. And who knows? In a year we’ll have a new president, and the question just might be What’s his name? Or hers?