The Nature of Gender

Part of the reason I invested the time in writing yesterday’s post, which was rather less connected to my topic than might be usual, was to set up today’s post.   And now I find I can also tie it to the Modern Love column in today’s New York Times.   It’s a lovely column by Jennifer Finney Boylan about her experience of being Maddy.  (Or is it being a Maddy?)

Boylan is transgendered.  She began as her children’s father but, during the course of their childhood, transitioned to female.   It’s her older son who christened her “Maddy” when it became clear to him that continuing to call her “daddy” was going to be absurd.

Part of what Boylan writes about, of course, is gender.  What I want to think about here is gender and parenting.

That’s hardly a new topic for me.     It’s also a topic of particular concern for lesbian mothers and gay fathers and their advocates, as well as for single parents.  That’s because lesbian, gay and single parents are subject to the criticism that their kids won’t/don’t have a mother and a father.  

Now if you say “a child needs a mother and a father” as opposed to “a child needs two parents” then you are making a certain assumption about what female parents and male parents are like.  Actually, you’re making an assumption that male parents and female parents are essentially different.  (Otherwise, two male parents or two female parents might well be just fine.    Of course, you’d still be critical of single parents, though.

This assertion–that male parents and female parents are essentially different–is often supported by an appeal to the natural order of things.  And this is where the thoughts I’ve been working on the last few days tie back in.

I think it is all to easy to just say “men and women are naturally different” without thinking about it terribly hard.    Particularly in the realm of parenting, you can start with what is a pretty substantial natural difference–women give birth and men (for very much the most part) do not.

But what else do we know about the natural differences between men and women?   And what is the importance of those differences?  In fact, there’s an enormous range of variation among men and an equally enormous range of variation among women.   I think we sometimes obscure this by emphasizing conventional similarities and discounting some of the differences.

So, for example, when we notice boys engaged in typcial boy-type activities we say (or we hear others say) things like “boys will be boys.”  In doing so we affirm that this is what boys are like.  If boys engage in girl-type activities, we tend not to see that as part of the wide range of things that boys do.   We don’t marvel at the range of human behaviors.   Instead we might worry that it is aberreant or unnatural.  And at the end of the day, what we’ve done is create a narrower range of what’s “natural” for boys and mark some behaviors as unnatural or unhealthy or at the very least, unmanly.

I think this leaves us with ideas about when men are like and what women are like which are a good bit more constrained than the reality.   And of course our ideas then shape our realities and our expectations for ourselves and for others.

All of which makes me wonder about whether mothers are naturally or necessarily different from fathers, or whether we’re just being asked to accept the invocation of “nature” as a way to avoid thinking hard.


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