A few months ago I realized I rarely asked my middle child, my only boy (of three), to help with the youngest. Shocked and disgusted with myself, I realized I had internalized cultural narratives claiming girls are better equipped than boys to help with babies. I completely changed my approach. Here's what happened.

About a year ago, I realized in a disturbing flash across my brain that I only asked my daughter to help with my youngest child. This was a seriously disturbing revelation for a person like me. As you may have noticed, I spend a good deal of time writing about gender stereotypes and archaic expectations of gender identities, and I consider myself pretty progressive on such topics. And yet, there I was, routinely asking the girl to help with the baby. Right. That makes sense. Because clearly only girls are capable of such things, and since they're the nurturers, obviously they should help with younger siblings.

Boys should clearly not be expected to take care of children. That's women's work!

I mean, many (most?) of our boys will grow into fathers. Fathers. Dads. Why wouldn't they need to know how to bathe, clothe and diaper a baby?

It's so ridiculous I can hardly say it. I mean, many (most?) of our boys will grow into fathers. Fathers. Dads. Why wouldn't they need to know how to bathe, clothe and diaper a baby? And even if they don't become dads, what's wrong with learning to care for somebody else anyway? Nurturing, patience, attentiveness to another's needs? These are universally positive qualities.

Do I want my son to know how to take care of another? Of course I do.

Do I want my son to feel empowered as a dad? Of course I do.

Do I want my son to feel comfortable in a nurturing, gentle role? Of course I do.

And yet, I seemed to instinctively ask my daughter to help with childcare tasks. At first, I think I asked my oldest more often because she was 8 when my youngest was born and my boy was only 4. Her maturity made her vastly more capable to perform helpful tasks right out of the gate, but by the time the "baby" was 2, my son was almost 7, and that is plenty old enough to help with simple childcare tasks.

And yet, it was my only my daughter who helped with the baths.

It was only my daughter who helped get her dressed. It was only my daughter who got snacks for the baby, brushed her hair and helped put her shoes on.

I'm hanging my head in shame.

Furthermore, her personality is such that she's a much easier go-to person for such tasks. My son tends to forget his assignment by the time he turns around to do it. He's pretty energetic, occasionally bordering on spastic. So that, combined with the age difference, left me repeatedly asking my daughter for help instead of my boy. He had other chores, but she was kind of my right-hand gal when it came to childcare.

No really, I'm humiliated.

It was my son who snapped me out of it. One night, when Ava (my oldest) was 11, I asked her to give Georgia (who was 2 at the time) a bath. My boy, who we affectionately call Rocket (long-term nickname) piped up, "Why don't you ever ask me? I could do it!"

And that's when it hit me like a brick: Oh my goodness. I'm a terrible mother. I only expect my girl to help with the baby!

He was almost 8. He could do it.

I immediately said: "You know Rocket, I don't know why, but you're right. You can. I'll show you how to wash her hair."

I walked in and noticed water everywhere.
Everywhere.
But the toddler was washed, and Rocket was happy.

And we went straight to the bathroom. I showed him how to make sure the water isn't too hot (although that's always a task I'm responsible for, of course). I showed him how to use the cup to get her hair wet, and how to wash her hair and body. After she got in the bath, I walked away.

A few minutes later, I heard squealing and laughing and more squealing. I walked in and noticed water everywhere. Everywhere. But the toddler was washed, and Rocket was happy.

I came back a few minutes later and he was helping her out of the tub, wrapping her towel around her and telling her "Now go to your room so we can put on your pajamas."

I realized what a mistake I had made.

It's our job to watch for them, and be courageous enough to face our own mistakes and hypocrisy, and change. Of course, change.

Since then, I've increased his jobs with Georgia and he and Ava take turns helping with the bath (when my husband and I don't do it). I've watched their relationship change from one of wrestling and hysterics to nurturing, wrestling and hysterics. It's pretty awesome. He was always a loving brother, but over the past year his confidence has grown and I've watched him become more and more engaged with the "other" side of being a brother: reading to her, cuddling with her, helping her accomplish things.

These cultural narratives are powerful, and they affect us in ways we don't even recognize. It's our job to watch for them, and be courageous enough to face our own mistakes and hypocrisy, and change. Of course, change.

More on gender

Teach your children to be flexible about gender
100 Years ago, boys wore dresses and pink
What's wrong with being a girl?

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