Thursday, November 17, 2005

It's a Boy: My Stop on the Andi Buchanan Virtual Book Tour

Yes, it's a boy! That's the title of Andi's new book, and I have a copy right here, and it's wonderful. Reading the essays feels like hanging out with good friends, on one of those days where everyone is emotionally centered, the kids are in the other room, and the words flow beautifully from our mouths.

Many of us bloggers are participating in this virtual book tour. As a fellow author, I know that store book signings can be the most fun and fabulous thing we do--when people show up. I also know the particular pain of driving for three hours, showing up, meeting a semi-hostile manager, and then watch three people show up. This happened to me one gorgeous Saturday afternoon in DC. The manager made sexist comments about how if I'm a mom maybe I can help them clean up their bathroom (I'm not making this up, I couldn't make this up, and their bathroom grime was truly disgusting). Three women showed up, including an old friend. I took everyone out to a coffee shop next door. So I'm thrilled to be part of this new thing in the world, the virtual book tour.

Well we can't have Andi here, but these are the almost-next-best-things. an interview with her about the book and an excerpt from the end of her introduction (for the (click here the full intro, or most of it).

Andrea Buchanan,
It's a Boy
Seal Press/Avalon 2005
In January 2005, as I was working on compiling this book, the president of Harvard, Larry Summers, gave a speech he would find hard to live down in the coming months. Speaking at an academic conference to an audience of scientists and engineers, he posited that "innate differences" between men and women might explain why women are underrepresented in the sciences. Not sexism, nor bias toward people who bear children, nor even the cultural consensus that women are worse than men in math and science: The defining fact that is keeping women from reaching the upper levels of the scientific professions was, in his mind, "aptitude," which he directly tied to gender.

A month later, a study published in the journal Behavioral Neuroscience found that while there was a slight "gender gap" between male and female rhesus monkeys in performing certain tasks involving spatial memory, these gaps disappeared when female monkeys were given training appropriate for the tasks on which they were being tested. The researcher said, "It is important to note that in the rhesus monkey, we only find the sex difference in spatial memory, not other cognitive domains." She went on to conclude, "A lot of times researchers will just interpret any kind of sex difference as evidence for a rigid, biological difference. This study really does tend to argue that the difference is biologically set, perhaps, but that it's also really easy to change if you work on it."

In March, just a month later, researchers who sequenced the human X chromosome discovered that females are genetically more varied than males. "It turns out 15% of genes [in females' second X-chromosome] escape inactivation altogether, each of which now becomes a candidate for explaining differences between men and women," said Robin Lovell-Badge, of the National Institute for Medical Research, U.K. "Moreover, another 10% are sometimes inactivated and sometimes not, giving a mechanism to make women much more genetically variable than men." Reports of this discovery found it hard to resist gendered language, as evidenced in the purple prose of the Washington Post, which breathlessly announced, "She was slow to reveal her secrets, but the X chromosome has now bared it all."

It seems surprising to me that even now, in the twenty-first century, we are still divided between science and anecdote when it comes to our basic assumptions about gender. In his speech, Summers mentioned his own toddler daughters as an example of how, even as young girls, females seem to be instinctively nurturing, saying, "I guess my experience with my two and a half year old twin daughters who were not given dolls and who were given trucks, and found themselves saying to each other, look, daddy truck is carrying the baby truck, tells me something." On the surface, this story seems to confirm gender expectations—proof that even given "boy" toys like trucks, girls revert to the kind of nurturing play typical of females. But I could counter this with an anecdote that subverts gender expectations: A few weeks ago, over breakfast in a restaurant, my two-and-a-half-year-old son Nate took one of his toy cars, put it underneath his shirt, and cradled it on his belly, saying, "Oh, my baby!"

What can we conclude from this?

I think the safest thing we can conclude is that our expectations are flawed, and that extrapolating theories about gender from isolated facts or even anecdotes is risky, at best. All questions of whether men and women are from wildly disparate planets aside, the range of what is "boy behavior" and what is "girl behavior" seems to be fluid, flexible, and highly specific to personal experience. The stories of the mothers and sons in this book are reflective of that. They are personal and specific, dynamic and multifaceted, and grounded in the day-to-day experience of living with boys—some of whom play "car crash" with trucks and some of whom turn trucks into babies; all of whom deserve to experience the full range of human emotion, which knows no gender.


Read more on Andi's Mother Shock blog where she's been writing each day about the different essays.

Regular Playground Revolutionaries will know that I feel awfully lucky to live her in Philadelphia near Andi, and that she's become a pal. last night we were on the phone. She was talking about the book, and how three years ago she didn't know any of the contributors. Now, she counts many of them as friends. We talked about how it wasn't clubby or cliquish; it's not like she knew all these women writers from high school, or from her neighborhood. Rather, a testimony to the true support and friendship that flows around the community, if we can call it that, of moms (mostly) who write about motherhood. I wanted to pass that on.

So read a bit, and enjoy. I'll be seeing Andi tonight at MotherTalk (scroll down for details), where I'll also meet the fabulous Marion Winik, whose new book, Above Us Only Sky, is also quite wonderful, but more on that in the next few days.

Update: roofers still here. Imagine rhythmic hammer noises as you read. And dim radio playing Beatles songs. They brought a radio today.

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