In Focus 29th July, 2016

Talking about Gender and Sexuality as a Feminist Mother: It only gets more complicated.

This article was originally published in the November 15, 2015 edition of In Plainspeak, an e-magazine on issues of sexual and reproductive health in the Global South.

This article is guest post on our blog. The author’s views are entirely his or her own (excluding an unlikely case of hypnosis) and may not reflect the views of Breakthrough.

“Mamma, look, that’s a boy giraffe, I can see his penis,” exclaims my four-year-old daughter in delight at her discovery as we stand watching the stately animals at the fabulous Mysore Zoo. Far from cringing at the over-loud tones of my daughter, I beam at her, “That is clever of you.”

The comfort with discussing gender and sexuality has a flip side too that needs a large dose of humour and a lack of concern for your reputation. On another holiday, six months later, while visiting the Ranthambore National Park and staying in what used to be the hunting lodge of the erstwhile Maharaja of Jaipur, my by this time 4.5-year-old daughter exclaimed in horror at the number of decapitated heads of tigers and other animals that were part of the hotel décor. The full stuffed animals fascinated her as much as they horrified her, largely because she wanted to discover if they were ‘girls’ or ‘boys’, and much to my dismay (in full view of other hotel guests), would go peering at their nether regions to see if she could “tell”.

The first anecdote was one moment of smug success in my agenda to raise a well-informed, sex-positive child, who was comfortable with her own body, but in general the task of a feminist mother determined to talk about sexuality alongside the everyday is fraught with uncertainty. And so I worry. I worry that I will give her ‘too much information’ and destroy her ‘innocence’. I worry that I will give her too little information and she will stop asking me.

My strategy, derived from conversations with other feminist friends, and resources like TARSHI’s fabulous The Yellow Book for parents, has been to answer questions accurately when they were asked. It took me a while to learn about age appropriateness, though. The first time she asked about the difference between girls and boys, I began a serious monologue on XX and XY chromosomes. A few minutes later, she gave me a very puzzled look. “Mamma, what do these chromo-things have to do with boys not wearing dresses?”

Lesson number one: make sure you are answering the question that was asked!

One day at about age four, she saw me putting on a pad so she wanted to know what it was – the diaper story, which I had used in the past was now implausible given that she had stopped wearing diapers at age two.

So I told her.

And she asked, “Every month?”

Me: “Yes, every month”

She: “Blood and more blood?”

Me: “Well, not that much blood but, yes, some blood for a few days, and then it goes away.”

She (singing): “And then it goes away and next month it comes back. And then it goes away and next month it comes back. And then it goes away and next month it comes back.”

That evening she wanted to “see the blood”. So I showed her. She was fascinated rather than horrified. And so for the next few months, she would sometimes, out of the blue, ask, “Have you got your period?”

And then one day, she stopped asking. If she sees me with a pad, she might say, “Is it your period?” but mostly she ignores it. It’s part of the ordinary rituals of life.

Lesson number two: apparently show and tell works.

Nonetheless, despite this apparently smooth process, I was concerned about her telling her classmates or friends. (You never stop worrying.) So I ventured gingerly, “You know, about the period thing, if possible, don’t mention it to your friends because they should hear it from their mammas”. “Okay,” she said, leaving me a bit shell-shocked at her lack of questioning. “It’s hard to explain, anyway,” she added, perhaps noticing my puzzlement.

I have written about feminist mothering both in academic journals and in the mainstream media. I am acutely aware of just how privileged I am both in terms of friends and colleagues with whom I can talk about many of these concerns, as well as access to resources and a language in which to articulate my politics as a feminist mother. And yet, one is never sure if one is doing/saying the right thing. But then, one is also aware that there is no one right ‘thing’ to say or do. And the best one can do is try.

Yet, on some days I wonder if it’s enough that one tries. We’ve tried hard to give her a sense of claim to her own body. We let her know she doesn’t have to hug anyone she doesn’t want to. I tried to give her a language in which to articulate it: “It’s your body,” I’d say. One day she told me, “The boy behind me in school tried to push me down because I was standing and blocking his view. So I told him, ‘It’s my body – you don’t have to touch me, just tell me to sit.’”

On some days I know trying is good enough.

Earlier this year, she heard me having a conversation about the US Supreme Court judgment on same-sex marriage. “What were you talking about?” she asked. Trying to be brief, I told her that now women could marry women, and men could marry men in the US. “What about in India?” she asked. “No. Not yet,” I said. “The law doesn’t allow it.” “What’s the law?” she asked. “The government,” I tried. “The government?” she asks, looking confused, “the one who won’t give the poor people houses?” I see myself now getting trapped in multiple narratives of marginalization, and only just barely stop myself from spluttering. I try again. “You know, actually, many women fall in love with other women, but in India, marriage is not recognized. So you won’t get a paper saying you are married.” “But can you still get married?” she persists. “Well, yes, sort of,” I say, trying to see the idea of marriage through the largest possible lens and resisting a critique of the institution itself, “But it’s better if the government recognizes it.” I wasn’t sure if she got it but to my relief she stopped asking more questions.

A few weeks later, she told her grandmother, “When I grow up, if I decide to marry a girl, I will have to go to America to do it because the government in India doesn’t recognize girls marrying girls.” My mother was not pleased with me. “Why are you confusing her?” she asked. Mentally pumping a fist into the air, I looked at my mother, “What confusion? She understands it clearly!”

On some days, having tried makes you triumphant.

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