The other day I was having dinner with lots of people and I looked up and noticed that a friend of mine was sitting at a table with a plate full of food, completely untouched…because she was holding her baby. She was waiting for her partner to finish eating so they could do a hand over.
I’d just finished eating so went over and offered to help out.
My friends were so grateful.
The little one was grizzly and grumpy (which is why they were being held in the first place), but we knew each other reasonably well. So, I hung out within arm’s reach of Mum and Dad and did my best to keep things on the down low.
The room was too noisy for really getting settled, and I was a poor substitute for Mum or Dad…but we struggled along as the parents gratefully shovelled food, coaching me all the while on how to move the baby closer to sleeping or at least resting quietly.
I really needed to go out into the hall into the quiet, I knew that, but didn’t quite have the confidence, didn’t think it was the right move to leave the parent’s side…
Then, out of nowhere, a woman came over and offered to take the baby and settle her. I was very taken aback, and, after a quick check with the parents (that they were ok with the hand over) did as I was bade and handed the baby over and left.
I was very put out by this.
Very, very put out.
This woman, unlike me, hardly knew these parents or this baby.
I don’t know what it is like to be female and have a man ‘assume’ I don’t know anything about an engine or mathematics or politics or money or…like, whatever, but I am guessing the feelings I had fall into the same category.
It seemed to me that this woman saw me as a man who was incapable of settling a baby…because I was a man.
As far as I was concerned I was failing gloriously. I’ve had quite a bit of experience nursing babies, I had both parents at hand and there was no danger for the baby. nI was learning how to have a conversation with an infant, listening to their needs and trying to work out how to meet them.
It felt uncomfortable, beautiful, awkward and deeply selfless. It felt like an opportunity to learn about being a human…one that was lost to me because someone decided that I couldn’t possibly work this puzzle out.
Now, for the caveats.
I have no idea what motivated this woman to want to take over.
I suspect she had no thoughts whatsoever about my gender, perhaps she was missing her own children (if she had them) or maybe she wanted children (if she didn’t), or maybe she was a professional child carer, or maybe she thought I wanted to be ‘saved’ (which I didn’t) or maybe a million other things…but it doesn’t really matter, my experience was that of being undermined because of my gender – and I didn’t like it one bit!
And it is certainly a stereotype that ‘men’ aren’t the ones who ‘care for babies’. So, on some level this idea was likely to be influencing the situation in some way.
What’s really remarkable about this is just how rare it is for me to feel like this. I can count on one hand the number of times I feel that someone has assumed I am unable to do something because of my gender (like the time my year 10 sewing teacher accused me of getting my mum to make a pair of shorts and a t-shirt that I had made, because I couldn’t possibly be able to sew such a complex thing from scratch when everyone else was trying to sew a straight line and get their sewing machine licence!).
Which goes to show how much of an ‘easy ride’ we men are having every day. And most men aren’t doing things that challenge the gender norms they are bought up with, so they are even less likely to experience this feeling.
My female friends tell me this experience is far from rare for them. If anything, it is what happens to them every day.
Every. Single. Day.
Possibly many times a day.
This is completely unacceptable.
It makes me feel angry and frustrated and all messed up.
So, what do I do with all this…feeling?
I know that I want to avoid feeling like ‘I’m not good enough’ to do something.
Which means I’m likely to avoid putting myself in situations where I am publicly doing something that isn’t considered ‘normal’ for my gender.
Which means…I’m actually going to seek out opportunities to do exactly the opposite.
And then, if and when I have this feeling again, I’m going to do my best to kindly and generously hold my ground and do the thing anyhow.
And then, afterwards I’m going to sit with this feeling. This outrage and injustice. This sense of inequity. I’m going to hold it, be uncomfortable and know that people who identify as female are experiencing this feeling all the time which is simply not good enough.
And then I’m going to look for as many situations as I can to catch when I, or the men around me, say or do something that limits a person’s experience of the world based on their gender.
And then I will say something. I’ll apologise for my lack of self-awareness and insensitivity...or I’ll point out to someone else what they have just done, let them know that it’s an easy mistake to make and an even easier one to fix…
And I’ll assume that they, like me, want to fix it.
And I’ll expect them to fix it.
Because it is damaging to us all when we enforce these ridiculous gender stereotypes.
I’ll expect them to fix it because the baby I was holding was a little girl and I want her to be to grow up in a world that has sorted this stuff out.
I don’t want her to watch the news and not see any women playing sport, I don’t want her to buy her first car and have some guy talk to her like she is an idiot, I don’t want her to be paid less or have less opportunities or feel in any way less entitled purely because of her gender.
And I certainly don’t want her thinking that a man couldn’t possibly settle a crying baby.
I feel sad to know that I am probably reinforcing gender stereotypes without even knowing that I am.
Change is always a bit uncomfortable.
A bit of discomfort is much better than things staying the way they are.
The ‘way things are’ isn’t ‘uncomfortable’, it’s damaging.
Damaging each other is way worse than being uncomfortable.
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