Friday, June 1, 2012

American Gender, Part II

As salaam alaikum,

It's interesting to think back to the plot of the story I planned to write for my friend and to think of what it reflected about my conceptions of gender at the time. In the story, as I note in the previous entry, Part I, two young women lead two very different lives and have different aspirations in a post-apocalyptic existence. The character A aspires to join a militia and triumph, bringing her nation into prominence, lording over other nations and ultimately surviving to reign over what will be the new world. My character, C, does not believe that war is the way and leads groups of primarily women and some of their children away from the battlefields, caring for the wounded and salvaging pieces of the old world, aspiring to make new civilization. In this post-apocalyptic world, neither A or C is regarded more or less woman than the other. They are both women who believe differently and have different strengths, and that manifests into their actions and aspirations.

For a moment when I was young, my parents upheld very traditional gender roles. My father was the breadwinner and the sole working adult in our household. He sustained the four of us on his salary as a chemical engineer. My mother was a stay-at-home mother and dropped off and picked up my brother and I from school, sometimes volunteering at our school by participating in the reading groups in our classroom. My mother did all of the cooking and cleaning, until I learned to help (which was pretty early on) and made sure my father's food was ready, hot when he wanted it after a long days' work...and his days were often really long, given his one-hour commute.

On the surface, my family setup would seem like a relic of earlier times, or someone else's culture. It helps that my father was a strong Nigerian man who very much believed in those roles--man as sustainer of the household, woman as upholder of the home. However, my family was not always structured that way, nor would it always be.

When I was born, my mother was the only one employed full-time. My father was still working out immigration work issues at the time. He wouldn't have his job until the month after I was born, and for a while my mother was the breadwinner, even while on paid maternity leave. My mother was a clinical social worker in neonatology at the local university hospital. She had worked for five years by the time I was born, and she loved her job. Prior to meeting my father, she didn't even imagine herself having children. That was not her aspiration. She aspired to be professional and though it was a challenging balance, she never imagined leaving her job for the sake of child rearing.

That is, until my brother came along.

My brother presented our young family with many challenges. He was diagnosed with autism a little bit after his second birthday, after months of suspicions. My mother distinctly remembers the devastation of that time. Coupled with troubling politics at her job, she made the decision to go from full-time to part-time social work, eventually leaving her job altogether when I was almost six years old. I had no idea all that was going on with my mother, of course, at that age. I was just happy when the babysitter no longer was the one dropping me off at kindergarten. It was my mommy now.

And that's how things were for a while. Having my mother at home during my school-age years I think was critically important to my development, even more than if she had been home with us when we were babies. We definitely bonded in this time. My mother returned to the working world when I was 13, working two jobs at once to help pay for the family's move to a new house in a new school district. She settled into a program funded in part by the intermediate school district and has been with that project to this day, which helps parents and educators of children with special needs. It's not the social work she once new, but she's gotten a chance to use some of her counseling skills.

She jokes that she's no longer the breadwinner, that she's the "appetizer winner," but she's very happy to make a small contribution to the family's budget. Other than that, not much has changed in terms of the roles in my parents' home. My father still comes home and expects to stretch out his feet and receive his hot food, but he cooks the rice and stew sometimes. He also washes and irons his own clothes lately, whereas that used to be all my mother...or me. I used to do the family laundry sometimes, when I lived at home.

There are some quirks about the gender roles I learned from my parents. For example, if my father is in the car with the four of us, he must be the one driving. He does not allow my mother or I to drive him anywhere unless he's under the influence of anesthesia and the doctor orders him not to operate heavy machinery.

So, as a three year old, when asked if I ever wanted to learn how to drive, I replied simply, "No, the daddy will drive." I assumed that this was just the way things were.

Then somehow, by 15, I had wised up and I clutched the keys of my driver's ed Ford Taurus in hand eagerly as it was my turn to drive on Huron River Drive. I scoffed at anyone who reminded me of my years old declaration and enthusiastically took the road.

So, what changed between my parents' house and my car? The main thing was that my parents weren't the only influence on my perception of gender. I will say that, because of my parents, I would insha'Allah be more comfortable with a marriage that demanded more traditional roles than maybe some of my peers would. For example, I would not be opposed to be the one primarily responsible for cleaning and cooking, cleaning and child rearing activities. However, I did learn from my parents' marriage that gender roles are not absolute or static. The roles of either member of the couple should change in accordance with life circumstance. My father's immigration status prevented him from working for a short time, so my mother sustained them. My mother needed to stay at home for the sake of my brother and I, and my father was the sole provider for the family. My mother returned to work and my father took on more household responsibilities. And the list could go on from there.

The other thing that influenced me was that my perception of gender were shaped by forces outside of my parents house. Influenced by everything from my grandparents' home to The Cosby Show, my American gender was not to be confined to the household sphere and transcended the examples set in my parents' house.

1 comment:

  1. interesting have you read letters of disappointment.