“The first months after our arrival in Switzerland every morning I used to came across a mother with her kids. Our children attended the same school and although for many weeks we saw each other at several events our relationship never went further than a greeting.
At that time I was looking for new friends like a hunger wolf and I couldn’t explain myself why she was being so distant. But soon the moment of truth arrived. One day due to a teachers’ delay we were obliged to have a little talk and terrified she asked me:
– Tell me… your… wife, does she work?
When I told her that I didn’t have a wife but a husband she almost hugged me:
– Oh! Really? My God, I feel so relieved!
She explained that she couldn’t understand why the mother of my kids was never around:
– I thought she was seriously ill. Or even worse…
I couldn’t really understand why, but the fact that instead of an absent mother there was an absent father calmed her down.
In the evening I told my husband:
– Do you know that people at school think I am a widow? Your involvement in our children’s life is similar to that of a death mother.”
This text was originally published in the paper version magazine Internazionale 1033 in the section ‘dear daddy’ (p.10). When I read it I felt overwhelmed with the stereotypes and prejudices portrayed: it really seemed a spot on text to discuss on gender and equality.
In my view this dialogue demonstrates the way language can be a vehicle for gender stereotypes and prejudices and a strong tool to reinforce traditional gender roles.
In one hand the dialogue seems quite inoffensive and the ‘mum’ can almost be considered an open-minded person. While she assumed that a ‘man’ would necessarily have a ‘wife’ at least she didn’t demonstrate any negative attitude towards the fact that the guy in front of her was homosexual.
Perhaps because she was far more concerned about the engagement of the hypothetical wife in the kids’ life. That way in the dialogue that follows she reveals some very common ground prejudices, namely:
1) If a mother is absent it is not because she chose it, it is because she was forced to due to work, death or ‘even worse’ (we don’t know what can be in this last category of causes…).
2) The idea that mothers are always more involved in children’s life than their male counterparts underlies the fact that she was expecting the mother to show up to bring kids at school.
3) Her relief when she knew that the absent parent was a male is a very clear indicator of the acceptability of the lack of involvement of male parents in child rearing.
This sort of dialogue clearly shows how, often in an unconscious way, people oppress each other based on gender. I am convinced that the worse part of this all is the limits it puts to freedom of expression and choice, to say nothing of the guilty conscious felt by many women because they want and desire different things from what society expects from them.
On the other hand male who have an active role in child rearing may feel discouraged because their importance as a parent is diminished compared with a female counterpart. The importance given to the mother’s role is also discussed in an article released last week in Everyday Feminism.
To conclude I would like to highlight the importance of the language we use in our everyday lives and the need to pay more attention to these apparently little things. In the end, old rules and traditions are maintained and reinforced by the common ground stereotypes and prejudices.