Recently, in helping someone rewrite her own perception of herself, we got into a discussion about so-called gendered behavior.
Clients who take my writing workshops and haven't been inundated with gender studies are often not aware that so much of what we do is because we are conditioned to behave a certain way based on what was said when we emerged from the birth canal: "A boy!" "A girl!" Soon enough came the pink vs. blue, the dolls vs. vroom vroom toys, the princess clothing vs. the rugby shirts, and so on. Yes, young women now play rugby, too, but it's the exception, not the norm, and how often are they later spending obscene amounts of money at the hair salon while the guys grab the most inexpensive shampoo and are good to go?
I am not here to dispute that generally speaking, hetero men seem to be genetically disposed to be able to identify the make of a car from a quarter mile away, while women are oblivious to anything besides the fact that a moving vehicle went by. Four wheels? It moves forward? It's a CAR!
What I'm particularly interested in at the moment is how we negotiate gendered behavior in relationship. It's so easy to either overdo the traditionally feminine when dealing with a guy. We're still all confused about whether we're allowed to take the first (or second) step, who should make the hard decisions, which job is the one to keep when sacrificing income for parenting--when that's possible.
Just take the dating 20-something, for example. She has rules. She had a lovely time on the date last weekend? And she hasn't heard from him? She still doesn't text. Rules.
Or, she can burst through the rules, to what possible discomfort and detriment to her self-esteem? Is it still all a game?
And those already in coupledom get in tangles about who decorates, who cooks, who runs the social calendar, who writes the holiday cards, who shops for groceries, who balances the checkbook.
In heternormative relationships--the ones between a man and a woman--these conflicts seem to be unavoidable.
Try writing it out. What role do you play in the family, whether it's coupledom, a traditional parents and kids arrangement, or two-incomes, no kids. Make a list.
Now, what do you wish you didn't have to do? What activities would you prefer to do, yet you don't get the chance, or your partner criticizes the way you approach them?
Shaking up the gendered definitions can really open the door to taking new leadership positions in families. Alternating leadership, depending on one's particular skills and inclinations, can bring about so much more balance in relationship. But you probably have to talk about it, too. Otherwise, your partner feels you are overstepping those rigid gender boundaries.
Today, I read a wonderfully perceptive New Yorker column about Gone Girl, the movie. Columnist Joshua Rothman is right--the movie (and the book) are all about the roles we still assign to men and women in American society, despite all the gender expectation busting we think we've done since the 1970s, despite all the weapon-wielding Ninja trained heroines in modern mainstream film. Note their hair is usually still perfect.
American masculinity is still a complicated jumble of testosterone driven dominance and unemotionalism. American femininity still involves the Gothic victim, though she is fortunately now in conflict with the accomplished woman trying (even if failing) to climb ladders of various sorts.
What ladders have you tried to climb, ladies? Does it make you feel rotten that we're so overtasked that making it to the top of even the children's jungle gym seems stressful these days, not playful, like it might be? What have you sacrificed? What parts of yourself lie dormant due to gendered expectations?
And gentlemen, what parts of yourself have you silenced? Do you even know your true feelings in stressful moments? Write about the last time you were befuddled when trying to figure out what you really feel about a relationship or a situation at home.
Now, consider how someone of the opposite gender might have handled the situation. Give that person a gendered name if that helps. Suspend judgment.
How is it different from the way you can see yourself behaving?
I bet you'll learn something that will help you negotiate the next delicate situation or argument with more aplomb. Reach out to the other side, but be conscious you're doing so. It can be powerful!