A few things I learned at my cousinâ€™s recent baby shower:
1. How to spell “pacifier.”
I didnâ€™t realize I didnâ€™t know how to spell pacifier until I looked at a word scramble containing all its letters and swore they didnâ€™t spell anything.
2. Itâ€™s possible to host a gender neutral baby shower.
That is, for the guests, not necessarily the baby. My cousinsâ€”the pregnant one and her sisters who helped plan her showerâ€”had word games and more athletic, physically challenging games. They invited a lot of men, and although only four showed up, we all still played and had a good time.
3. We are socialized to believe certain things about pregnancy.
There was a clue in a crossword puzzle about cravings, and everyone knew the answer was â€œpickles,â€ but Iâ€™ve never met a pregnant woman who actually wanted pickles (with her ice cream or anything else but a burger).
4. When teachable moments present themselves, we donâ€™t always know how to teach the lesson we want taught, even if the lesson is crucial to the betterment of society.
I have an adorable two-year-old cousin. (BTW, youâ€™ll hear â€œcousinâ€ from me a lot. I donâ€™t have any siblings.) We call her â€œNoodles.â€ Sheâ€™s spunky, loud, comical and daring. In photos from her second birthday, her facial expressions include duck lips and an open-mouthed wink oddly reminiscent of Popeye. Sheâ€™s been known to use the phrase â€œShut the f— up,â€ with abandon and also exclaim, â€œAww, he said a bad word!â€ upon hearing a pastor say â€œhell.â€ (At least, thatâ€™s what I think he said. That or maybe â€œass.â€ I wasnâ€™t there when this happened, and later I couldnâ€™t get her to repeat the bad word she was referring to.) Like most toddlers, Noodles loves to play, and sometimesâ€”likely because she has a 12-year-old brotherâ€”she loves to play rough. Sheâ€™s been put in time out in daycare more than once for playing with other kids as if they were him. At the same time, my cousin is also quite feminine. She wore earrings and painted toenails before she could walk, and she likes to make herself â€œPRETTY!â€â€”caps because sheâ€™s always yellingâ€”with fingernail polish just as much as she likes to wrestle.
So when I saw another toddler, this one a slightly older boy about half an inch taller than she is, slowly approach Noodles and hold out his hand for the diaper pail she played with gleefully after it had been used in one of the physical baby shower games, I wasnâ€™t sure what would happen or how the room mostly full of black mothers would react to the scenario. Would my cousin yell, â€œMine!â€ and hit the other toddler with the pail? Should she do that? Whatâ€™s the proper reaction for a two-year-old to have? Sharing is a good lesson, but this was also one of those classic child incidents in which one child had no interest in the item until the other child did, so if she handed the pail over and moved on to something else, the battle would continue.
Also complicating this, in my head anyway, was the other child being a boy. If someone were to suggest, â€œNoodles, just give him the bucket,â€ she could learn very early to relinquish something she considered hers just because a male wanted it, and he could learn that just because heâ€™s a male, he should get it. (As united as black feminists on Twitter tend to be, I could easily see a room full of black mothers inadvertently teaching this. And with my and my momâ€™s generations both heavily female, every time a cousin finds out itâ€™s going to be a boy, I hear, â€œGood. We need more boys in the family.â€)
I know you think Iâ€™m doing too much, but Iâ€™m not. Children use gender stereotypes in their playâ€”and adults feed them stereotypesâ€”as early as two years old. I donâ€™t know how the other kid is being raised, but Noodles alternates between wrestling and accessorizing. If the other kid isnâ€™t getting any balance in the messaging he receives about how males should act, it could be a lesson he acts out later. A new U.N. study out of Asia asked men why they were forcing women to have sex. â€œAnd the most common answer by far was this sense of sexual entitlement; that men felt entitled to women’s bodies regardless of consent,â€ James Lang, one of the reportâ€™s authors, told NPR. He went on to say that â€œmen who believed that men must be in control; that men must be tough and able to use violence â€¦ Those men that held those kinds of visions of manhood were much, much more likely to use violence.â€
Before you get upset, please understand that Iâ€™m not using a U.N. study on Asians to demonize an African American boy who may not yet even know anatomical differences between males and females. Iâ€™m saying perceptions of masculinity are formed early, and here was a chance to impress upon a girl and a boy what kind of women and men they should grow up to be. And what happened with that chance?
The other boy spotted Noodles playing on the floor with the pail. He left his seat and slowly approached her. She picked the bucket up and hugged it to her chest. He extended his hand. She backed up. He stepped forward. She hugged the bucket tighter and screamed, â€œNo!â€ and backed up until she was in the corner with nowhere else to go. He snatched the pail out of her grip and walked away. Noodles burst into tears and ran into the arms of one of the few men at the party.
I took a private moment of silence for feminismâ€™s defeat, and then heard a woman say to the boy, â€œGive it back!â€
Itâ€™s been more than a week since this happened, so Iâ€™m not 100 percent sure what happened next. I think the boy set the bucket down near Noodles but didnâ€™t exactly give it back. I know she stopped crying, and Iâ€™m certain no apology was given or demanded by Noodles or the adults. We moved on to food and cake, and until I caught the NPR story on the rape perpetrators study, I figured this wasnâ€™t worthy of a blog post. Now Iâ€™m back to believing I missed an opportunity, but Iâ€™m not sure how in that moment I could have taught the lessons I know I want every boy and girl to learn.