I’m a single gay dad to Sam, a boy who has no traditional mother figure in his life. Every Mother’s Day, then, is cause for a faint, nagging anxiety that I’m sure many gay and single-sex households have. There’s me, of course—a blend of mom and dad—but no matter how much I congratulate myself on making it this far without any major catastrophes, there’s still that feeling that maybe I should be adding something to Sam’s experience.
So, I’ve been wondering how I can go about making sure my kid connects with women, in a positive way.
Of course, Sam and I meet all kinds of people, in all kinds of settings, every day. It’s not like we live on Planet Gay, isolated from all straight people and all women. But looking for positive female role models at random places like my local grocery store, or the doctor’s office, may be asking too much of the setting. Not because such places do not have strong female role models. I’d just rather avoid earning a reputation as that weirdo who interrupts a woman’s shopping to ask her impromptu questionnaires about female role models for my two-year-old.
Maybe I should just drop Sammy in front of the TV and queue some Madonna music vids—there you go, kiddo, strong female role model! I’d honestly prefer to queue up lectures from Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but I’m not quite sure two-year-old Sam would get it.
But are famous people good role models merely because they’re famous? Are celebrities strong role models simply because they have been successful? While I admire all kinds of famous people, I’d prefer to find role models a bit closer to home. I am less likely to point to them as female exemplars for my son than I am, say, my friend who is a successful academic. Or a social worker. Or who styles hair for a living, reads books like they’re on the mass extinction list, and is one of the kindest, warmest, and most thoughtful people I know.
It’s qualities like these that I admire in role models, not material success.
There are women in our family, of course. Sam’s grandmother is mighty in her way. She did all sorts of fascinating and adventurous stuff in her twenties, that I wouldn’t have had the guts to do now. She traveled the world, dodged militias in Idi Amin’s Uganda, dabbled (it was the 60s), hiked volcanos, camped out in the African wilderness with lions snuffling around the tents. She’s more staid these days, but no less an example to me, and her grandson.
I also try to make sure that Sam has FaceTime with his Aunty T, and his Aunty Jenn. Sometimes that’s difficult, because they both live on the other side of the Atlantic, and time-zones suck. And Sammy isn’t quite at the point where he’ll sit and chat to faces on the iPad about his day. Nevertheless, it gives him twenty minutes each week to connect with people who are important in my life, who have qualities that I admire, and hope that he will have as he grows up.
And I guess that’s what’s important.
What matters most is not the gender of the role model, but the qualities they embody. I am a firm believer that masculine and feminine qualities are in fact human qualities. Yes, generalizations exist for a reason, but there are too many exceptions, too many overlaps, for those generalizations to be useful in anything but the most superficial sense. It is essential that boys and girls are surrounded by good examples of all sexes and genders from day one, but the old idea that a boy or a girl needs a person of a specific gender in their life—that a gender specific role model is developmentally crucial—is a discredited one.
So, if you’re a dad or a mom, LGBTQ+ or not, don’t sweat it worrying about the genders and sexes of your child’s role models. What’s important is the qualities that you are teaching. In that respect countering the symptoms of toxic prejudices embedded in our culture—the primacy of men, the vilification of feminine qualities, the reduction of women to either idols or monsters, the commodification and possession of women’s bodies, even all our little acts of reflexive misogyny—is far more important than playing Beyoncé on repeat, and saying, ‘look, there’s a strong woman!’ What I think is important, is teaching my son to respect women as equals, to respect masculine and feminine qualities as equally valid and valuable, to recognize that women are capable, contributing members of our society.
The best thing we as gay dads can do is ensure that our kids have contact with both men and women, who embody positive qualities. And that means switching on to issues that affect women. It means being aware of inequalities and prejudice, and not just the big-ticket items, but the everyday, reflexive prejudice we can all be guilty of. It means ensuring our kids have positive examples of how to identify and challenge those inequalities. If we do that, it’ll be good for our sons (and daughters), and good for society, too.