It was a long week, for so many women including myself, one in which it was hard to not get thoroughly discouraged about the state of the world. Thankfully, within the walls of my own house, things looked a little brighter. My husband, God bless him, was an constant encouragement and said so many of the right things that I lost count of them. And my son, who is fast becoming a little man, brought me unexpected hope through a bath time conversation.
He’s been having trouble sleeping since the school year started, stalling about getting to sleep at night because his little brain can’t stop, and waking up before the sun in the morning for no explainable reason. We were talking through new strategies to try this week on Wednesday night, his first night back from his dad’s, while he was in the bath.
I’d just suggested we try moving up his bedtime by a half hour, so that he would still get more sleep even if he was up early. As I left the room to get him a fresh towel, I heard him singsonging these familiar words, “early to bed and early to rise…”.
Automatically, I was getting ready to correct his gendering of the rest of the aphorism as he continued, “makes a man…”. But then he stopped mid-sentence. “It should really be human, not man, Mom.” He paused again. “Or I could just say someone,” he continued, half to himself. “‘Early to bed and early to rise, makes someone healthy, wealthy and wise.’ Yeah, that’s better.”
“Yeah,” I agreed, “that is better. Where’d you learn to do that, anyway? Who taught you to think about saying person instead of man?” He looked at me like I was crazy, “Mom. Don’t you remember? We talked about this…” And he went on to describe in very specific details a conversation we apparently had months ago, which I don’t remember at all.
He’d been listening, though. Sometimes I think he’s not, especially when he’s playing Minecraft or watching youTube videos of other people playing Minecraft (I will never understand why this is fun for him). But as Elizabeth Grasham reminded me in her powerful sermon this week, children often hear more than we think they do. What they overhear can have a profound effect on them. We can have a profound effect on them.
As intentional as I am with my parenting, and careful about what I say to the kids, it’s still easy to forget in a week like this that the words I speak that will have the most lasting impact are not the ones I speak from the pulpit, but the ones I speak to my family. My parishioners hear me once a week; my family hears me every day. And my son reminded me with his self-correction that the patriarchal structures of our country, our faith, and our language are changing already, right in my own home, inside the mind and heart of a boy who will grow up to be a different kind of man.
The weight of the system is unbearable when I’m called to speak truth to power in my work, and I feel in danger of being crushed. But within my own family, I have the power to create a place of open dialogue, where gender doesn’t determine whose voice is heard, where every person understands that they too have power to re-create the world in which they live. I’ve known this for a long time with the girls in my family, as I’ve lamented with them their early experiences of sexism and encouraged them to speak up about that experience. I’ve known this as I groaned with my husband and other parents about the aggressively gendered clothing available for my infant daughter at every store.
But only in the last year have I started to understand the importance of speaking about sexism and the patriarchy to the boys in my family, before they become men. Only in the last year have I started to understand how the patriarchy harms those who hold the power too. It forces those with born with male bodies in gender roles just as restrictive as the ones those of us born with female bodies decry. It changes all our understanding of who we are allowed to be, based on the genitalia we have, and makes us less free to be the people we were actually created to be.
Women speaking up will not change the whole system, unless the men to whom they are speaking have been taught to listen. Women will never be treated as full equals in our country or our churches unless men have been taught to yield the privilege they’ve been handed because they know it’s undeserved.
Yes, the girls in my life will grow up strong and outspoken, ready to take on the systems that treat them unjustly. I know this because I’m already seeing it in my step-daughters. But I know now that the greatest power I wield to bring about the fall of the patriarchy is through the words I speak to my son*.
Which is why my next question as he got out of the bath was this: “Buddy, do you know what patriarchy is?”
*I have a step-son also, but have not included reference to him here because he has autism and is not in a developmentally appropriate place yet to have conversations about the systematic oppression of women!