Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Cowboys and Children

Last weekend I took a trip on an airplane. The craft was only about a third full, so us travelers spread out; I got a whole row to myself. We were heading to Midland, a small town on the west Texas plains, and the man across the aisle from me was a cowboy: fancy western-style belt, jeans, boots, tanned and sun-worn skin, and a twang. He looked to be about 60, and with him was a little girl, probably 5 or 6.

While boarding was still in process, he sat with the little girl and patiently read to her from her little kid books. He was gentle, and he spoke to the little girl in the voice that people use when talking to small children. I started thinking about dearly-held ideas about natural talents. Men aren't nurturing. Women are more caring and responsive to the needs of children.

I know it's just a story about one man on a plane, but I see this regularly. I see men at the grocery store with their small children and no woman. I see men in restaurants helping their child make his way to the bathroom. I see dads post pictures of themselves playing with their kids on Facebook. And then there it is again; people saying with their words that men and women are different on this count while the world clearly shows me a different story.

I'd argue the difference may be there, all right, but it's lessening because it was never natural; it was always socially constructed. Men aren't naturally less nurturing. They just didn't want to bother with childcare. When you care for children, it's a constant negotiation of your needs against theirs. It's a give and take, and it's very other-centered. If you've got the choice to feign being terrible at that job, allowing you to essentially then focus completely on yourself and avoid the "trap" of sharing your time with another, why would you not take it? If you can simply say, "I'm not good with kids -- you do it!" leaving the woman in your life to then take care of the sometimes boring and sometimes maddening minutiae of life, why would you not? I see women and men every day who buck the stereotype. Of course, one of these women is myself. I feel no special affinity for children. My uterus doesn't lead me toward them as if magnetized to their cuteness. I try to avoid them as much as possible, partially because they make me feel even more awkward than I usually do. And that man on the plane clearly had no trouble being nurturing to that little girl.

Midland is a tiny airport of only five gates, and not many flights go in and out. The man was on my return flight, minus the little girl. This isn't an extraordinary story. It's not even particularly original to talk about whether or not these traits are nature, nurture, or unquestioned societal beliefs. But I'm regularly confronted by people parroting all kinds of beliefs about the world, repeating to me statements that so many take for granted like, "Women are more compassionate," or, "There's a little bit of truth in every stereotype. That's why they exist." We make so many assumptions. We skim the surface of ideas that have given us a sense of security, a way of approaching the world, and it would be nice to just put down our assumptions for a minute and pay attention.

Part of me wants to assume that I don't even have to say any of this, but a larger part of me knows better.

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