I am one of those women who has always felt very much "like a girl." As is, I think, not the case for everyone, it's always been clear in my head that however you conceptualize gender (a binary or a continuum or an artificial construct completely), I fall, by nature or nurture or for some other reason, pretty well on the female end of it. This has been at odds, sometimes, with how I've been treated--I assume due to my size, but maybe for other reasons as well, I've not always been treated as "girly" in some of the same ways I've heard other women describe. I've not too often felt that I was being protected, or coddled, or that I was on the receiving end of acts of chivalry.
Pregnancy has changed that. Unlike some other women, pregnancy hasn't really made me feel "more female," but it's certainly changed others' treatment of me in ways that I identify as female-specific. People (men, in particular) rush to open doors. Nobody wants me to carry anything. I am asked how I am feeling at least ten times a day. As I get progressively bigger, people are more and more helpful, or at least are trying to be. And I'm not going to lie--it's nice. When I feel badly or am having trouble getting around, it's REALLY nice. But these kinds of gender-related niceties don't come without a cost, another side to the coin, and I've noticed a good bit of that side since I've been pregnant as well.
One example that has come up over the past few days is in Mark's and my interactions with two older men, both of whom are pediatricians we're interviewing. The first interview was terrible for all kinds of reasons, but the sexist undercurrent of it was definitely one of them. First, the doctor assumed that Mark and I were brother and sister. I didn't figure out until later that his confusion came from my selecting "unmarried" on his intake form. When we told him we were the baby's parents, we just weren't married, he was puzzled and seemed perturbed, then said something about how that must be normal in "hippy, granola land" (I had previously mentioned being from Oregon). Whatever. That kind of thing happens less and less, but it does still happen. Later, he asked if "Mom" (that would be me) would be returning to work after the baby was born. No questions about "Dad's" plans. And so on and so forth.
The second interview was much better, and we may actually use that particular pediatrician. However, as I reflect on it after the fact, there were even more sexist assumptions involved. The question about "Mom" returning to work was repeated. The doctor mentioned having evening hours available for appointments "so that Dad can come, too." An anecdote about not knowing whether to call the nurse advice line or go to the ER was illustrated with a frazzled, uptight stay-at-home-mom and a father who "just wanted some dinner when he got home from work!" Most tellingly, though, even though Mark and I were both right there, the doctor addressed only me when discussing all of the baby health decisions one makes in a child's first few months of life, then addressed only Mark when discussing insurance and payment.
I can practically hear somebody out there thinking that these things aren't a big deal, and have to be written off as part of the cost of dealing with past generations. And there is some truth to that--I don't believe that any of these assumptions would preclude this doctor from providing good medical care to my baby (which is why he's still in the running). I also think, to some degree, they are par for the course when one is having a prolonged personal discussion with someone two generations older. However, these things ARE a big deal. The assumptions on which these comments were precluded are invasive, and they are harmful. Though the sexism to which I refer in the title of this post may appear, and be intended to be, benign, it's really not. The same set of assumptions that led our pediatrician candidates to ask if I'd be going back to work, but not ask the same question of Mark, are the ones that help make it harder for a woman to get hired or be taken seriously in her job. The picture the doctor painted, of a frazzled, possibly hysterical stay-at-home-mom keeps scads of women second-guessing their own judgement, intelligence, and choices. Assuming that I'd make our kid's medical decisions and Mark would pay his/her bills does both of us a disservice (aside from being simply untrue).
I'm at a bit of a loss as to how to address this type of ingrained sexism. Yes, I could have argued with each assumption as the doctor made it, but how likely would it have been to have made any difference in the mind of a man who has been practicing medicine for 50 years? I could refuse to take my child to a sexist doctor, but I'm not at all sure that would leave me with a provider at all. The best thing I can think to do is continue, as a parent, to live my life the way I have tried to so far, rejecting archaic gender assumptions in my actions. Yes, I will be returning to work. Yes, I can pay that bill. No, I don't need to ask my husband (and no, we aren't married anyway). My hope is that these actions, taken by me and millions of other women, will slowly change assumptions. I have to admit, though, that the hope feels a little pie-in-the-sky. I am realizing, as I get progressively more pregnant and as I reflect on parenthood, that it may be even harder to wiggle out from under gender-based expectations as a mother than it is as a non-mom. Another new challenge.