I’ve been thinking about why I felt compelled to declare #MeToo days before there was a #MeToo movement, even though my experiences were not any more noteworthy or egregious than those of nearly every other woman I know.
The little boy at the center of my world is undoubtedly that reason. His entrance into the world three years ago transformed my life, as all children do. But his existence also raised the stakes for me on this issue. I could no longer live, as I had for years, with open secrets.
From the moment I knew I was having a son, I was acutely aware of the responsibility I would have in teaching him about gender. We are a team, he and I. A little family of two. It is from me that he will learn how women are strong and capable; how we work, juggle, love and care. Despite the fact that there is no one in this world who will fight harder for him, do the best to protect him from harm, or advocate more fiercely on his behalf, it is from me that he will learn how I — and how all women — remain vulnerable.
I told my story — even at a moment when he’s too young to read or understand it — because as he’s growing up I want him to be forced to grapple with the dissonance in knowing that the woman who built his world and grounded his existence was also sexualized, objectified, demeaned and minimized. I want him to understand that those experiences silenced me for a time, made me feel ashamed and caused me to make choices I now regret. It is an ugly truth of womanhood, one that I want him to fully absorb and grieve.
I want him to know that saying #MeToo was a way for me to defend the dignity of our family. That to dismantle the hierarchy of motherhood — a hierarchy that deems me wanting because there is no father in our home — I must reject the shame that is placed on women for our sexual decision-making, as well as the ways we are sexualized against our will.
I broke my silence because I want him to have the opportunity to become a man different from those who dominate the headlines. He is a gentle soul, my son. He is sweet. He observes the world carefully, listens intently. He enters every room with a smile, but is cautious, uncomfortable with that which is new and unfamiliar. He is a bit of a wanderer, a homebody. “I just want to go home and play, Mommy,” he says. “Can we snuggle on the couch?”
He will change, of course. Who he is at this moment is merely the earliest version of himself. And yet, even as I prepare for his world to expand exponentially, and for me to factor less prominently in it, I feel the weight of delivering him a society that will value the qualities that have been intrinsic in him since birth. I must fight to provide him with an alternative version of masculinity — one that is not just less toxic, and more kind and caring, but also more real, nuanced and fulfilling. I must raise him to understand that he is vulnerable both to exploitation and to abusing the power and sexual entitlement that remain, sadly, his birthright. I am awed by the responsibility of teaching him how to connect, to find joy and love in this world while understanding and seeking consent. It will be — it is — the work of my life.
I know that I will face criticism along the way. The conventional wisdom that boys need fathers to teach them how to be men is persistent and pervasive, despite any credible research to support it. Although my son has important men in his life, I invest equal energy in ensuring that he has strong relationships with women and girls — with me, his preschool buddies, other family members, and his bevy of loving “aunties.” As Michael Kimmel, professor of sociology and gender studies at SUNY Stony Brook, says, “It’s difficult to dehumanize or objectify someone you know and like.” Breaking society’s endemic pattern of sexual harassment and assault requires men to see women as full human beings. It is an environment that I, as a single mother, feel particularly well-positioned to create for him.
To that end, I want him to know that I as much I said #MeToo for him, I said it for myself, too — because the best way that I can teach him to treat women as worthy of respect is by demanding it for myself. I want him to know that I probably would have stood with the silence breakers regardless of whether I was a mother. As central as motherhood is to me, I abhor the notion that I am incapable of having beliefs and opinions that don’t relate to my child. I want my son to care about these issues not because he may one day have a daughter and feel similarly transformed by the experience, but because he believes in the dignity of all people.
Above all, I want him to know that at the moment that our nation had a break in its collective consciousness, there was a written record showing that his mother was a voice in the chorus, standing up to declare publicly that she was a person of worth — even when too many, from Internet trolls to our president, continued to tell us otherwise. I want him to know that at a time when too many men did too little — when men in positions of power denied or obfuscated the truth; denigrated their accusers; or stood flat-footed and tried desperately to change the subject — I fought for his right to be better.
I want him to know that from his earliest days, I saw his character and strength, and believed that he would walk his path to manhood with virtue and integrity. I want him to know that it is not a path that he will walk alone, but one in which he will be accompanied by other good men who want the same.
This, and so much more, I want him to know.