(Not) in search of gender role models

People often ask me if my parents made sure that my brother and I had men in our lives. After all, we had two strong women raising us, but no fatherly figure to teach us what men should be and do.Image

To be honest, that last sentence is my problem with the notion that children need a core male and female role model in their life. What does it mean, to show a child how to be a man or woman? I love Caitlin Moran, but I’m certainly not taking all of my womanly advice from her and her alone.

You see, there is no single uniform correct way of being a man or a woman. If I had a father, there is no guarantee that he would be a good male role model. What if he was overly aggressive, or overly passive? Far too loud, or far too quiet? All behaviours exist within a spectrum, and so we cannot say that there’s an ideal combination to role model, nor that any single individual should provide the sole basis for a child to construct their identity.

Instead children end up piecing together their own gender identity from the multiple experiences and examples in their life. That’s why it’s good for children to have lots of positive adults around them, and why it’s not absolutely necessary for them to have both a female and male parent permanently present.

My brother and I may not have had access to a father figure. However, we grew up in a society full of men we could watch, listen to and communicate with (and this allowed us to assess for ourselves those positive attributes we thought healthy men should enact; a glorious pick ‘n’ mix gender toolbox).

When I was about eight and Reuven five, we ended up getting a male childminder, Michael. Michael would collect us from school and look after us until our parents got home from work. In the intervening hours he’d entertain us with visits to the park or swimming pool, the cinema or the library.

Michael was great. My absolute favourite game was when he pretended to be a lion and we all got to rough & tumble in a happy heap.

I recently asked my mum, Leah, if my parents had chosen Michael because he was a man – so that Reuven and I could spend more time with a male figure (and bearing in mind that we managed to get through several childminders throughout our childhood, the rest of whom were all women – clearly we must have been too much trouble!).

Leah’s answer surprised me, as I’d always assumed that had indeed been the reason. She told me that they’d placed an advert and that Michael had happened to respond. At first they’d been unsure, but he had glowing references, having previously worked looking after two little boys of two gay men in America for three years. His gender didn’t really come into it: he was the best of the bunch, so got the job.

Reuven and I ended up with Michael in our lives for a year or so. Was it good that he was there? Sure. Was it necessary? No. Many children have fathers that they live with, but barely ever see, because they’re always at work and home after the kids are asleep. What was so interesting about Michael, was that the role he performed was a caring one, one that has traditionally been seen as belonging in the female sphere. Reuven and I got to spend time with a gentle, nurturing man, who showed us that a man’s relationship to a child need be no different from a woman’s.

Michael was probably the man whose influence in our lives was strongest for the shortest period, because we spent so much time with him during that year. If he hadn’t applied for the job though, my parents wouldn’t have gone looking, specifically seeking, a similar male role model. Why? Because in a society like ours you’re surrounded by male and female figures anyway, some positive, some negative. It’s not the gender that matters, but the individual. For positive male role models, we had our grandpa and uncles, male teachers and sports leaders, fathers of friends. More importantly though, we had parents who showed us that everything a man could do (with the exception of a few biological functions!), a woman could too. Feel free to ponder this notion whilst listening to some music from Aretha Franklin & the Eurythmics: Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves

Reuven has grown up into a wonderful young man, secure in his masculinity. Among his many achievements are the following: piloting planes; winning gymnastics prizes; marching annually across Holland; being a blackbelt in taekwondo; salsa dancing; a masterful knowledge of Chemistry; cooking a really great curry. Why should any of those be because of, or in spite of, his gender? He is the fabulous person he is because he has watched, listened to, and taken inspiration from all of the good people in his life, whether male or female, and decided who he wants to be using his own skills of discernment.

Reuven didn’t need a father to take him to football, because his mothers were happy to do so. And he wasn’t pushed into football either, but given a choice of activities, and chose gymnastics, later replaced by the Air Cadets, later yet replaced by martial arts and dance. We are all too hung up on the idea that some activities and some behaviours are intrinsically male or intrinsically female. I don’t feel like I missed out by not having a father. Rather, I feel like no opportunity was denied to me on gender grounds, no conversation labelled off limits, no way of being insisted upon. Our mothers didn’t try to make up for the lack of men in our life by finding others; they instead brought us up with an emphasis on people being defined as individuals, and not by their sex and gender.

Reuven and me at a civil partnership party, 2010

Reuven and me at a civil partnership party, 2010


6 thoughts on “(Not) in search of gender role models

  1. Lucy

    I recently had a lengthy discussion with friends about male role models in the context of single parents and lack of male teachers, i directed them to your blog for a more accurate representation than i could give!

    Great post as always x

    1. shoshana1989 Post author

      I think, as with everything, this question probably depends somewhat on the individual circumstances of each family, whether they’re single sex / single parent by choice or not, and whether there are other influential factors at play. The press loves worry-mongering over single mother families, but I imagine that the cause of any issues is not necessarily connected with the gender/number of parenting adults, but rather because single mother families tend to face other very real problems, such as poverty, structural racism and gender discrimination. Some research has even shown that in middle class families, boys raised without a male influence in the home do even better than boys who have both a mother and father (though I’m not sure why would that would be)! I guess I essentially think that if you choose to create a family and invest your time, and love, and energy, you’re (almost) always going to have a happy, successful one :)

  2. londonweighting

    Really interesting post Shoshana…I have to admit I’ve always considered this issue by thinking whether I would miss growing up without my dad in the picture – which I certainly would. But actually it’s probably far less about the fact that he’s my primary male role model and more about the person he is to me and the part he plays in my life. Sounds obvious I suppose!

    1. shoshana1989 Post author

      Haha, yep. I’d miss either of my parents if they weren’t around, so as you say, it’s about the people raising you, not their gender. A slightly different way to think about it might be to consider whether, if your dad was gone, would any random man do as good a job and fill the hole your dad’s absence would create? Probably not :P
      Thanks for reading and commenting! Looking forward to more from London Weighting :)

  3. Pingback: Shoshana’s lovely reflection on being raised by two mothers and why their gender does not matter. | zfem

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