My eldest son turned twelve last week. Back in 2002, when we were spending languorous days in Vietnam waiting for his paperwork, I could not imagine how quickly the last twelve years would go. Or that the days of diapers and bottles and middle-of-the-night feedings are a distant, distant memory. Or that he would develop so swiftly into the funny, creative person he’s become.
Or that, one day, I would struggle to help him complete his math homework.
Several years ago, there were signs that math homework would soon be an issue. In fourth grade, when the boys started doing story problems, I flailed about for solutions to a few equations. On at least one occasion, the answers I helped Benjamin reach turned out to be flat wrong. So the teacher said.
My kids are both doing algebra now—simple algebra, presumably—and I am completely over my head. When they ask for help in the evenings, or to even to have me check their answers, I generally 1) look at their work, and 2) feel an immediate sense of dread and exhaustion, and 3) suggest trying their dad for guidance. If Ron is away, I tell them to wait until dad gets home, to go watch TV or something.
And then I flog myself, just a little, for the message I’m sending my boys for being exactly like the “I hate math” Barbie, but without the kickin’ body and bendy legs. I also feel like I might as well go out and buy the entire lot of “Girls are Bad at Math” t-shirts, one for each day of the week.
This is not the message I want to send to my boys, that girls are inherently bad at math. I’m bad at math because I’m bad at math, not because I’m a girl. Or, woman.
So what do you do when it turns out you fit gender stereotypes, the ones you try so hard to defy, just to prove that they are only stereotypes, after all? How do I help my boys learn that I like baking, not because I have a uterus, but because I like baking (and, really, just eating all kinds of dough)? How do my boys learn that their dad is analytical, into statistics, and good at math because God’s given him these gifts, and not because of the chromosomes with which he was born?
Is it possible to carry a feminist card and also teach your boys, even subconsciously by virtue of your own actions, that there are just some things that women can’t do?
Part of me thinks I should just suck it up, sit down with an algebra book, hire a tutor, whatever it takes to understand the math my boys have been assigned. Another, larger part of me thinks I have other things on which I want to spend my time, and figuring out the whatever of x+y=z would truly be soul-sucking for me; and that my creatively-focused mind won’t be able to keep up, especially not when there is high school mathematics yet to come.
I want so badly for my boys to recognize that even though we are all—male and female—created in God’s image, God creates us each uniquely. I also want them to know that God longs for each of us to be all God has created us to be.
The question on my mind right now is, can I teach them these things, truly, and also avoid helping them with their math homework?