The Roles We Play

Growing up in a rural area in the years following World War II, my friends and I quickly absorbed the behaviors deemed appropriate for boys and girls; behaviors we learned from picture books, movies, parents, peers and siblings.

Boys misbehaved, threw rocks and amused themselves by making odd noises. They roughhoused, excelled at math and hated to bathe. They worked outside: cutting the lawn, milking cows, delivering papers and shoveling snow. They weren’t supposed to cry, show fear or play dress-up. And all of them would become athletes or presidents.

Girls, on the other hand, quietly complied, won spelling bees, chatted and shared. They wore pink, wept over dead sparrows and hummed happily as they dressed and undressed dolls. They did housework: washing dishes, ironing, vacuuming, tending babies. They weren’t supposed to rebel, spit or wrestle in the dirt. And all of them would become wives.

For the most part, my siblings and I played our assigned roles. I remember putting my dolls to bed on a pillow in a cardboard box. As I carefully tucked a towel around the disreputable lot, Bob came along, kidnapped Shirley Temple, and attempted to strangle her with a slinky. I was indignantly appalled, but not surprised.

Years later, when my algebra teacher told me he was glad I wasn’t like my older brother, I thought, “What’s he talking about? Bob’s way better at math.” Then I realized he was comparing our behavior, which made all kinds of sense.

However, as I observed others, I sometimes questioned my assumptions about the roles men and women played. Dad made all the money, but Mom made most of the decisions. My brothers lived to play sports, but Carolyn was the best athlete. We girls helped Mom with the cooking, but JL was the one who learned to cook from her.

One of my grade school friends, a boy, showed more interest in reading, insects and bird watching than in scuffling and ball games. Another, a girl, chased boys then tackled them and kissed them — not because she liked them but because she knew they hated it. A friend’s dad knitted scarves, hats and mittens for his family; and a neighbor lady handled a tractor better than most men. Rumor had it she out-cursed them as well.

Today, the gender expectations of the 1940s and 50’s seem antiquated to me and unbelievable to my grandchildren: teenagers and young adults who debunk and challenge the gender roles I learned and imitated in my childhood.

The youngest two grandchildren — ninth-grade cousins, a boy and a girl — are best friends who move easily together from shooting hoops to video games to making music. Three granddaughters play sports aggressively, passionately and successfully. Another was recently deployed in Dubai. One grandson possesses exceptional verbal and networking skills once thought impossible for boys. Another is in the Air Force ROTC but also capable of giving  fashion advice: “Baggy, below-the-knee shorts aren’t the thing anymore, Grandpa.”

All are wonderful. All see possibilities I didn’t.

I pondered these thoughts yesterday morning and at the same time played my feminine role: watching Joel assemble a piece of furniture, admiring his efforts and shining the flashlight in all the wrong places.

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