Experiencing Gender Neutral Parenting since 1988
Being born as a woman in a patriarchal society is always challenging. A well-behaved daughter, an accommodating sister and a good wife are projects like expectations that pursue to create your culturally accepted image. However, my case was different. I am the only child of my parents and the eldest grandchild of the family. My mother was merely 21 years old when she gave birth to me. Like any other young and inexperienced mother, she had no idea how to raise a child, let alone a daughter. Her naïve nature was the result of her early marriage at the age of 19, and the incessant reminder by the consanguineal family of her duties as a woman.
Luckily, she was married to a man who became her best friend, and did not pressure her to bear a son. My paternal family is a unique bunch of people in India. They love daughters. Period. This phenomenon began with my grandmother’s constant prayer to have a granddaughter instead of a grandson because she was tired after raising two sons for almost 26 years. Her expectation from a granddaughter was someone who would become her best friend. And that is exactly what I was for her. Discussing infatuations, boyfriends, heartbreaks, vacation stories, translating Hollywood comedies (from English to Bengali) and most importantly playing Ludo with her were few of our favorite past times. She was my 4 am soulmate - the coolest grandmother in the melodramatic Indian habitat.
Anyhow, as I had said earlier, my mother was a young, inexperienced and simple woman who had no idea what to do with her child, other than raising her. Since the day I recognized her existence in my life, I have always looked at her as a disciplinarian. She nurtured me to become a pragmatic, dedicated and determined adult. Each time, someone questioned her decision of not procreating again (they just wanted her to have a son who can take care of her and baba), her reply was simple “daughter/ son doesn’t matter, my child will lead her life the way she wants to”. Having said that, my mother did have crucial conversations with me such as what’s it like to be a girl or a woman. Her encouragement (sometimes overwhelming) to dress up like a girl, take pride in my sex, and to ensure I was aware that nothing is impossible to achieve, just because I am a girl is still in continuity. But, sometimes I wonder, would it have been possible without the reinforcement of the same ideas by my paternal family, especially my father? “She is not our son; she is our daughter” was one of the strongest phrases that I hear even today when someone questions them about their decision of having a single girl child.
Reminiscing about these few moments, I feel how vital it is for parents to accept their child’s sex gracefully, and provide him/ her with a choice to have an opinion about oneself as an adult. We still live in a society where every human is consciously reminded of how to behave in a social setting. My parents are different. Their inadvertent practice of gender-neutral parenting made me an independent, intuitive and strong-willed individual. Yet, society did make them question their decisions as a parent of a girl. It encouraged them to remind me of my perfect age of marriage since the day I turned 25. The serious discussion on how I need a life partner who can support me, and assure me of a happy ending was a vital part of regular evening tea talks. In the last few years, I have been flabbergasted by my parents’ stressful conversations about how their daughter is refusing to ‘settle down’, and is being a deviant girl. However, simultaneously, they also ensured that I continue my aspiration to become one of the finest development professionals (single woman still). They did not question my decision to fly to New York for my third masters or continue living in a foreign land. Trust me, when I say this - experiencing the unpredictable nature of your parents is humorous and not shocking.
Yes, I wouldn’t have been able to take some uncommon decisions as a development professional if they did not support my ambitions. I wouldn’t have been able to become a car mechanic when required if they did not inform me the importance of self-reliance. I wouldn’t have been able to be a solo traveler if they did not tell me the art of having fun while being a vigilant wanderer. And, I wouldn’t have been able to fight my own parents on several occasions if they did not teach me the motto of life-fight for your happiness. They imparted knowledge and skills necessary for any human to survive and thrive on this planet. Yet, they did stagger when they were tired of fighting the common cultural norms. On the one hand from visiting astrologers to matchmakers in order to find me a perfect soul mate; to the other extreme of singing out loud my achievements as a woman on social networks and tea parties, their parenting style has always kept me confused. This dual nature of parenting makes me question - was I raised in an authentic gender-neutral home? Or was my upbringing the result of their conscious efforts to provide their child with a healthy and encouraging environment that they missed growing up in?