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Raising A Feminist Son

My son and I.

The news cycle of this past year has been to difficult to navigate, as a woman but more importantly as a parent, especially one of a very aware pre-teen. I want my kids to be aware and informed of the world and to be active citizens as they grow into their teenage and adult years. But I also want to protect them. Not all the news of the day is meant for kids ears. The line of what to tell them or let them know can be blurry. We now live in a 24 hour a day news feed, on TV, the internet, our phones. We have a president that tweets inappropriate things constantly and that has been caught on tape saying even more inappropriate things! Our kids hear that, even if it isn't coming from us. They hear things at school or see headlines in the checkout line or the news on the radio before you can change the channel. They might not hear all the details but they do know that there are things going on around them. My job as their mother is first and foremost to protect them but also to teach them, to teach them to be good citizens, good human beings.

I've always felt the need to be honest with my kids. I could tell when I was growing up that I wouldn't get the whole truth and it would frustrate me. I don't want my kids to feel that way. But I also know that I can't give them the whole truth all the time. My daughter is only seven so I make sure to ask her what she knows, listen, and then answer her questions as honestly and gently as I can. (The American Psychological Association has great tips on how to talk to kids about difficult subjects here.) But my son is almost 12, he will be heading into sixth grade next year, and will be heading into the world of adolescence, girls, and puberty. Things will be changing pretty dramatically for him over the next couple of years. I want to be open and honest with him now in a way that he feels he that he can come to me and trust me later on when things become more difficult for him to talk to me about, whether it be bullying at school or pressures of social media or just a heartbreak.

Recently, I have had my very first tweet to go 'viral', or at least viral to me. I was not expecting it, I mean, most of my tweets get a few likes or retweets and maybe a response or two. But this one was different. It was liked over 300 hundred times, retweeted over 100, had many replies, and then even ended up in a New York Times article. What was this tweet? It was a response to the Women's March request asking women to share their stories of workplace sexual harassment with the hashtag of #DropOReilly. This was my tweet:

It's hard to tell the full story in a tweet. Here is the extended version: When I was in my early twenties, I was working in a restaurant/bar in Los Angeles as a part time job. I had planned a trip that summer to go backpacking in South America for three weeks but knew I also wanted to keep my job. I needed to talk to my boss to see if I could get the time off. At the beginning of my shift, before we opened to the public, I decided to ask him about my schedule. He told me to follow him while he walked around getting ready to open and I could plead my case, so to speak. I did and as I followed him into the pantry closet, he moved in between me and door, closed it and said that if I really wanted the time off I would kiss him in this room to show him. I did what I and so many other young women do in uncomfortable situations like this and laughed it off, making it a joke, while gently removing myself from the situation. I never got the time off and lost my job when I went ahead with my trip to South America.

After I tweeted it, I really didn't think anything of it. It wasn't until it started getting responses and likes that I thought maybe I shouldn't have written it. I started to get this panicked feeling inside. And then I woke up one morning to a message from a friend across the country telling me that my tweet was in the Times. That's when I felt the full panic. I felt guilty and ashamed and thought why did I do this, I shouldn't have done this, that maybe I was remembering it wrong or that I needed to explain the full story not just the tweeted version. My husband could see the worry in me and we talked about it with him reassuring me that it was okay and that I needed to speak out, to own my experience so that maybe other women wouldn't have to experience the same thing. That's part of the problem, right? That when these types of things happen to us we feel that it is somehow our fault?

My tweet and it's response sent me into a tailspin of emotion. It also got me thinking about what I hoped my daughter would do in that situation. She is a strong, smart, capable young girl but one day she will be a strong, smart, capable woman and I hope that she will be tougher than I was. She will say no, that this is unacceptable behavior, and not worry about being nice or liked and instead worry about what is right. That is my hope for her. But it also got me thinking about my son. How is it that men have been raised to think this type of behavior is alright? What is my role, then, as a mother to make sure that my son will not only never do this but also not accept it from other people?

Sexual harassment and assault has been a common theme in the news this past year, most noticeably with a president that was elected while being sued by over a dozen women for sexual assault. Add to that list other prominent male figures, from athletes, politicians, Oscar winners, to news anchors, and it is easy to see that it is something we can't ignore. I don't want to raise a son who thinks that this is okay, that it is men being men or locker room talk. And having this tweet get attention helped me realize that it was the perfect opening to talk to my son about sexual harassment or misconduct, to have a conversation about what it means to be a good man but more importantly to be a good human being.

My son knows who Bill O'Reilly is. My dad watches (watched) him regularly and is always telling my son that he should watch him too. He also knows that his name has been in the news lately. He heard that he was being sued and that things were going on. He was curious, wondering what was happening. So we talked about it. I explained that several women had come forward with claims of him being inappropriate in the workplace and that he had settled with them for millions of dollars but was now experiencing a backlash from the public and advertisers. I told him what some of the women were saying O'Reilly did and asked my son what he thought about that. I asked him what would he think if someone said those types of things to him or his sister at school, would that be ok? "No! Of course not, Mama, that is absolutely not ok." And then I told him that it was common for women to feel unequal or harassed at work and that, in fact, it had happened to me. Well, his jaw dropped. Kids forget that you once were just you and not their mother. He asked me what happened and I very honestly told him. And I told him that that wasn't the only time it had happened to me, that unfortunately I could list off many other times where men, usually much older than me, had done or said sexually inappropriate things to me. He asked me what would I do in those situations. I told him more of my truth, that I was afraid of not being 'nice' or of being a 'bitch' and that I would laugh it off, dismiss it, turn it into a joke and get myself out of there. And then I told him that I hoped his sister would never have to act like that, that she would know it was wrong to be treated that way and say no. But then I told him that it is also up to him, that he needs to grow up to be a person that will also say it is wrong. That he will stand up for his sister, his girl friends, anyone who is being mistreated. That not only is it important to be a man that wouldn't behave in such a way but it is also important to not tolerate it from anyone around him. I told him that it is up to all of us to stand up for each other, and that if we do, we will make a kinder, more fair, more equal world. We had a very lovely conversation about a pretty ugly topic. And it was one that I was really glad we were able to have. I don't know if he was thinking about it that night, or the next day, or ever again, but I think it is in there and that it reached him and that he won't be one of these types of men, he won't let this kind of behavior pass, that he will instead stand up and say no, that's not okay.

I took both of my kids to the Women's March this past January. I wanted my daughter there to see all of these women in solidarity and to know that there are many strong, smart, capable women out in the world and that she will grow up and be one too. But I also wanted my son to be a part of it. The sign he made to take to the March said "Feminist". I loved it and was so proud of him for making it. I think that by having this difficult conversation with him and being open, truthful and loving, that he will indeed be a feminist. That he will know being a feminist isn't about women having special or more rights but rather about being treated equal. That he will fight to make sure we have the same rights and same protections when we go to work or school, that we won't have to put up with this kind of aggressive, misogynistic behavior. He will be the kind of man to see a strong, smart, capable woman, like his mom and sister, and embrace all the beautiful things we have to offer this world.

xo, M

Otis at the Women's March

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