Sunday, November 25, 2007

Rose is Rose is Harry

As any mother will tell you, there are days when strangers accidentally refer to the new baby girl as a boy (be it an unfortunate haircut or poor clothing choice). Some days, in fact, Junior may pick up a Barbie Doll and refuse to put it down. Blurring gender lines—that’s nothing new; what has changed, however, is the degree to which it’s deemed socially acceptable.

I sat down with 2 pre-Baby Boomers and 2 Gen Y-ers to determine the current thinking on gender identity. Tom, 65, is a witty shoe salesman, a bachelor whose freezer currently holds 40+ Rita’s tangerine Italian ice and 1 hard-as-a-rock frozen loaf of bread. Carrie, 64, is a former Hess’ model and homemaker who struggles with allowing profanity to seep into her everyday language (and I’ve been told that her homegrown red hot peppers are among “the best looking in the &#$% state!”). Anne, 28, is a single mom and graphic designer. Her current hobbies include dying her hair and updating her page. DJ, 29, is head-chef at a trendy Bucks County eatery. He smokes too much and is overly fond of wearing his chef’s hat while not at work. I spoke toCarrie first, and asked her to describe some of the ways boys and girls were treated differently when she was a child.

“My father taught my 4 brothers each to drive by age 16. I didn’t learn until my husband taught me, when I was in my mid-20s.” She thought for a minute, then continued. “It’s funny. I remember my brother George failed a history test in high school. Father grounded him, took away all privileges for 2 months, and wouldn’t even look at him for a good long while. I failed a math test my senior year. I cried when I showed my parents the big, red ‘F.’ Father patted me on the back. Mom hugged me, said she knew I would try harder next time. I remember being so annoyed that I stayed up all night studying.”

Of the 4 people I addressed this question to, DJ—the chef—had the other noteworthy response. “I dropped out of high school. My dad gave me a job at his produce business. Nothing special. He knew I needed time. He said he’d hit a similar rough patch when he was my age.” DJ laughed. “He didn’t encourage me to talk about it. Just said, you know, ‘Take some time. Clear your head.’ A couple years later, he gives me this restaurant.” In the gift department, some of us surely lucked out more than others. I thought: some parents throw money at a problem. Others throw time. Some are completely at a loss as to what to do. That’s a possibility that never seems to go away, no matter how enlightened we become.

And if Dad’s the good cop, then Mom’s the bad cop—or vice versa—so the discussion turned naturally to who did what inside the home and out? Tom, my favorite shoe salesman, said: “My mother was a homemaker, and my dad worked for the railroad. They had what I think was an unusual relationship for the time. He helped her quite a bit when he was home. They did washing together, knitted together. (I mean, he held her things and assisted as much as he could until his arthritis got too bad). I was lucky. I was very, very lucky.” Pausing for a moment, he shakes his head. “Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t perfect. Dad had a thing for cigars. Smoked all the time. My mother couldn’t stand it. It was the only thing they fought about. She said it would kill him one day, and it finally did. He tripped on a cigar and fell down the steps! No, I’m only kidding…”

All joking aside, I wondered, did the younger generation have anything more poignant to add? Anne, the graphic designer, pondered this at the end of a hectic workweek. I offered to get back to her another time, but she plowed ahead anyway, insisting I take notes. “Doesn’t it seem like men are becoming more like women nowadays, and women like men? Sometimes I wonder if we have our individual spiritual journeys, and then collective societal ones. Like, on a grand scale, men are realizing a need to embrace their feminine sides in order to find more satisfying emotional depth in their lives. And women,” Anne is talking very fast now, “women are seeing that, on some level, in order to gain respect, they must masculinize themselves—is that a word? Look at what Hillary Clinton put up with. I don’t think many women have that in them, let alone to forgive an affair so publicly. And now, she may very well ride her philandering husband’s coattails into the White House. Say what you want about her politics—but think of the doors she’s opening.”

I thank her for that, but add that it isn’t really pertinent to the question at hand. She shakes her head and looks annoyed. “It’s a gender issue. Hillary is opening the door for Pelosi or Condi to run. Or eventually, my personal preference: Oprah.”

Nodding, I respond, “What does your mother do for a living?”

“She started a non-profit that hooks people up who want better jobs. Helps find the money for education.” Anne goes on to say that her father passed away when she was 15, and mom never remarried. “Now, she helps me with little Aitch-ee, thank God.” Haley is Anne’s 8 year-old. She just won some statewide art contest. The women in this family are really something!

Despite leading rather extraordinary lives, it almost seems like most people would alter something in their past, if given the chance. By that, I think I mean people want the chance to complain a bit— (on Mother’s Day 1 year, TV talk show host Tom Snyder noted that he’d asked a staffer to poll 100 people on the street, and have them finish the following sentence: “I love my mother but-“ The finding was overwhelmingly toward the negative, but Snyder noted 1 response that gave parents everywhere a reason to hope: “I love my mother, but I never really told her how much I appreciated her.”) —not the opportunity to actually become a decidedly different human being. In that respect, I feel as though people are, more often than not, pretty content to stay the way they are. Nonetheless, I asked my quartet their thoughts on the matter.

Carrie said, “If I could change something, I wouldn’t have gotten married so young. I’ve never lived on my own. My parents were thrilled with Matt. They were planning our wedding a month after our first date. I love my husband, and I know I would have chosen him had I searched the world over. I just would have waited an extra year or 2 so I could travel a bit on my own, or try college on for size.” I tell her it’s not too late, and she laughs.

The chef had something of a different take. “‘What was expected of me,’” DJ chuckled. “I think I wish more was expected of me. I know that sounds funny after I told you I dropped out. I think I wish Dad had been more upset or pushed me to go back. I missed the cap and gown. Sounds like a cop-out. ‘If they’d only pushed me harder.’ Tell you what—I probably still wouldn’t have.” He pauses. “That’s wicked, isn’t it? Wanting to have the power to disappoint someone.”

Noting gender roles have indeed changed noticeably in the last 30 years, Tom said, “There’s still this idea that you have to get married. But now, you don’t have to stay married. You just have to do it to say that you did it. Then, you move on.”

I take issue with this. “You’re saying marriage is about status only?”

“I just get the sense that younger people now are developing and maintaining better friendships, in spite of a lousy marriage track record. The world is so connected today that we need never lose track of friends. Marriage was the be-all, end-all of intimate companionship—that’s the way it was always sold, you understand. That’s simply no longer the case.”

Anne had a slightly different take on the matter. “A woman raising a child on her own, without a husband today, is not whispered about behind her back. I think 50 years ago, everyone would’ve wondered what was wrong with her. Today, people recognize she was just a poor judge of character,” Anne smirks.

I ask her, “Is Aitch-ee better off, or worse?”

“Maybe kids are not better off, but Haley is.”

Without question, in this generation, changes continue to make themselves apparent—who has any idea what the future might hold? Carrie, Baby-Boomer/former model also mentioned parenting as an issue. “I’d like to see women hit the snooze buttons on their biological clocks. If it became safer to wait to have kids, women could lead ever more interesting lives and eventually become better parents for it. But that’s a long way off, so I’ll settle for greater equalization of pay."

DJ, my chef, made mention of the right-brain/left-brain gender argument. “My niece is really good at math. She’s 13, she has a boyfriend, and she’s an absolute whiz at math. I really think it’s because my brother gave her computer games when she was little. I really think girls might be getting better in math and science than was once the norm. Guys—and I’m even an example, I guess—are doing more things they once would not have. I’ve cooked for as long as I can remember. I only recently learned to really respect it, though.”

Continuing on the subject of marriage, Tom noted he thought the future would hold fewer formal unions. “I think more people will pair up—maybe even stay together for years—without making it official, so to speak, because they just don’t feel a need to anymore.”

Anne thought that perhaps things would swing to the other extreme. “I wonder if more people will decide to try to raise kids minus a spouse or committed partner. I don’t know if there’s enough trust anymore to say ‘Let’s raise a kid together.’ But certainly there’s enough bravado to say ‘I’d like to try my own hand at raising a kid.’ Parent and child, that’s the most important bond, don’t you think? And in the end, when it’s done right, something like that pays absolutely no deference to gender.”