Image: Kelly O'Sullivan
You know what you think when your son starts dating:
“If you want to date my son you’ll have to go through me first.”
I totally get the sentiment of that thought. There is nothing quite as powerful as the primal instincts and actions of a parent protecting their child. I know. I’ve been there.
Mothers do not have second thoughts when it comes to putting themselves between their children and danger, real or perceived. We’re unstoppable. We’re unyielding. We’re occasionally unreasonable. But mostly we’re unwilling to see our children get hurt unnecessarily. Keeping them safe and happy is our single most important goal. We always put the oxygen mask on our kids first, rules be damned.
But when our children begin to date things change.
You may recall I am the mother of three boys at three different stages of life (read about my child spacing here). My husband and I have raised them with strong values of equality and the older two have started referring to themselves as feminists even when they’re not trying to get something from of me.
I am, of course, giddy with pride.
But I knew one day I would no longer be the most influential woman in their lives. They have begun dating and my wisdom is no longer as valued as it once was. I won’t go into any specifics of their dating lives but watching them date has been a strain on my feminist faculties. When a new person enters their life I turn into judgmental mother bear from hell. Before I even know what I’m thinking I am evaluating my sons’ dates, and not always with a fair hand.
Image: Peter (xoder) via Flickr
Where is your equality now? (I may be paraphrasing)
I knew I needed to regroup. For perspective I read a few articles offering advice to young people about what they should and shouldn’t do when it comes to dating. Apart from a few good points, most of the advice came via tongue in cheek lists telling kids they’ll have better luck in their love life if they don’t offend the parents in the room: don’t reek of smoke, don’t wear slutty clothes, don’t stick your tongue in your boyfriend’s mouth while his mother is looking, don’t send constant texts, never sext, just say no to tattoos and excessive piercings, just say no in general, put school first, NO ultimatums or drama. You get the picture.
On the surface these seem like acceptable expectations. But are they really? I’m all for treating parents with respect but even when written in jest these rules make my inner feminist cringe and my outer feminist refuses to play along at all. What a bunch of judgmental, victim-blaming, and slut-shaming nonsense.
Image: Kelly O'Sullivan
It is my job to protect my children from harm but it is not my job to get in-between my children and their life experiences. It is, in fact, my responsibility to get out of the way when they start forging personal romantic relationships, even when I know they might get hurt. It is my responsibility to sit in the wings and only offer advice when they ask. It is my responsibility to spend the early years of their lives making sure they feel comfortable asking for advice when they are feeling stuck or find themselves in over their heads.
It is a parent’s job to let go.
My sons are dating now and I have no rules for any of the people who will move in and out of our family over the years. But I do want those potential dates to know this:
My children are independent thinkers and they deserve to be treated with the same respect they give you. When we meet I won’t judge you by what you wear or how you look because we are all more than our outsides. I won’t make assumptions about your opinions until we’ve had a chance to talk and even then I won’t hold your opinions against you, though I will expect you to defend your point of view. I won’t criticize you for embracing your sexuality and I will respect you for being empowered to make wise choices. I will expect your honesty and I won’t arbitrarily dismiss you when you display the human failing of making a mistake. And, if we’re being honest here, I will absolutely get between you and my son if he asks me to.
And to my sons, well, I will always put the oxygen mask on you first, no matter what the rules say. But now that you are older I will do so only after first seeing if you can put it on yourself.
I am in the wings. As it should be.
K.M. (Kelly) O’Sullivan, the Slightly Askew Woman, is a writer, blogger, and unapologetic feminist mother living in the Midwest with her husband, their three boys, and the cats. Kelly writes about parenting, politics, feminism, body image, equality, sexism, and more. Read more from Kelly at www.kmosullivan.com and connect with her on Facebook (www.fb.com/SlightlyAskewWoman) and on Twitter (https://twitter.com/KellyMOSullivan).