Mitch Albom, best known for writing somewhat simple, somewhat trite memoirs about accepting the circle of life and death – but works that many people, nonetheless, and to their right, have found moving and helpful – is really pissed off. The author and columnist for the Detroit Free Press is angry that some strangers in Canada, some people he doesn’t even know, won’t tell him the sex of their baby.
Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? It is. A Canadian family has decided to raise their newborn baby Storm without the socialized gender prescriptions that are based on reproductive organs. Sounds fine to me. And the story should basically end there. Albom’s first flippant comment says that the response these parents have to people who inquire about their baby’s gender is: “Whatever.” Which actually isn’t true. Their responses have been pretty consistent, and they aren’t “whatever,” they’re actually thoughtful and articulate replies, that in short say, we aren’t disclosing the sex of the baby because we want him/her to come into their identity without the social pressures that dictate his/her behavior based on, as Albom eloquently puts it, “what is in their diaper.” They don’t want other people or society at large to tell their newborn how they should present themselves, how they should feel about themselves, how they should self-identify, based on genitalia. Seriously, it sounds about as far from child abuse as one can get, but Albom launches into a really bizarre sort of tirade about it:
“Calling a boy a boy is not making a choice for your child. But calling a boy genderless is. I wonder what other choices these folks will leave to the baby. For example, why not let it decide to change its own diaper? Why impose your view? Maybe the kid likes sitting in poo-poo — who are we to judge? Why decide when to do a feeding? Put the bottle on the counter and let the kid go after it. Schooling? The child can decide. Go. Don’t go. Whatever. What’s important, after all, is that parents aren’t “obnoxious” about it. What you have here is a classic case of people saying one thing and causing the opposite. By trying to ignore gender, they have made gender the most important thing. There are now online polls as to whether Storm is a boy or a girl (most say boy), and TV shows and talk shows nationwide have been buzzing with it. Meanwhile, Storm’s two older brothers — Jazz, 5, and Kio, 2 — are being raised without formal schooling and taught to choose whatever behavior they like. Jazz, according to the Star, dresses in pink, paints his nails and wears a stud in his ear. This, we are to believe, is his “choice.” Of course, Mom or Dad made the choice to buy the nail polish, the clothes and the stud. What happens if the child points to a chain saw? They get him that, too?”
The parents have not made gender the most important thing. The media, including Albom, have made it the most important thing. The parents said they weren’t going to define the gender for their kid, and left it at that – then the media maelstrom jumped in and decided to tell them what they thought was wrong with this plan, and to insist upon an answer. It’s not them making it a big deal, Albom, it’s you. He makes home-schooling sound like they’re burying their children alive. Home-schooling can be as equally effective as traditional schooling, particularly if parents are conscientious and involved, as these parents seem to be. He sees a five year-old boy wearing pink, nail polish, and an earring as not only not normal and not ok, but indicative of behavior that is so out of the realm of normalcy that it’s likely to result in chainsaw purchases. When did parents who let their little boys where nail polish and the color pink become equated with accomplices to a child’s destruction with a power tool? It seems to me that parents with this much of an open mind show a real love and affection for individuality and would do a pretty solid job raising children who had that same respect for others – and also probably would do a good job of explaining why a chainsaw would be an inappropriate toy for kids. (Maybe Albom should be going after the parents whose kids have armies of weaponry for toys and are far more likely to request a purchase like that.)
These parents are actually making difficult choices, difficult because they fly in the face of what others claim to be the right choices for all children and families. Not defining their children by gender is in fact making one of these very difficult choices, letting them come into their own identity shows an immense amount of trust, which many children don’t get enough of and then resent (I don’t know if Jazz and Storm will experience the same kine of teenage rebellion as those who behaviors are scripted for years and who one day realize that this is not at all how they see themselves). Then he goes back to what he sees as a personal assault on his understanding of gender identity:
“What I don’t get is the motivation. The parents, in their late 30s, seem to feel a terrible injustice is done by identifying something that goes back to Adam and Eve, namely, well, whether you’re an Adam or an Eve.”
Ok, Albom, I gotta tell you – you don’t need to understand the motivation behind what these parents are doing. This may come as a shock, but a couple in Canada were not thinking of you when they named their baby or when they decided to raise it without imposing limiting, gendered, prescribed behaviors and styles upon it. It’s just…not about you. But his frustration, and his weird off the rails likening of their decision to giving the baby a chainsaw or letting it live in its own filth is not only insulting, but indicative of how threatening this decision is to people. If a child is raised without any instruction of how they should behave based on their sex, the entire socialized world is turned upside down. The critics’ idea of woman/man, feminine/masculine, might get turned out – then they might start questioning it themselves! “Have I been acting too feminine?” “Do I really identify more with masculinity charged behaviors, but am a female and am used to being told that’s wrong?” In fact, the prospect of having to re-evaluate what they thinks makes a person a man or woman is terrifying in part becuase it may reveal some deficiencies in their previous appraisals of people or of themselves.
Also, now he’s making it a religious issue. Adam and Eve are Biblical characters (also, maybe I should add here that Eve is blamed for man’s downfall by seducing Adam – that’s just a whole different post) ostensibly designed in God’s image. So is Albom saying that God dictated this child’s gender and we must accept it and act accordingly? It’s an injustice to ignore what Albom thinks is God’s doctrine on this little baby’s gender identity? Now they’re also defying God?
In his seminal work, Tuesdays with Morrie, Albom writes: “Accept who you are, and revel in it.” (More of his…somewhat cheesy quotes can be found here.) Why won’t he let Storm figure out who he/she is on his/her own, and then revel in it? Storm looks happy in these pictures. Seems like Storm will be just fine figuring out who he/she is without Mitch Albom telling him/her. They aren’t sending their children to traditional school! They aren’t calling their baby a “he” or “she”! They let the little boy wear pink nail polish! Call the cops! Sheesh. Calm down, Mitch. These will likely turn out to be some pretty sensitive and thoughtful and inclusive kids.
Here’s the thing – I had no beef with Albom before this. None of his books ever really spoke to me, but as I said above, to many people they were comforting. But for someone who writes pieces that I think tend to play sentimentally towards people’s vulnerabilities and somewhat oversimplifies issues that for many, many families are extraordinarily complex (aging and dying parents, loyalty, understanding of one’s own mortality), I have to say I was surprised that he was so pissed off and had such mounting dislike towards a gender unspecified baby and five year-old boy in nail polish. He writes what amount to adult fairytales (true conflict is missing from his work, the resolve of which is the mark of great writing), which to me signifies his attempt to control the uncontrollable.
Morrie Schwartz, Albom’s mentor and idol, said this: “Well, for one thing, the culture we have does not make people feel good about themselves. We’re teaching the wrong things. And you have to be strong enough to say if the culture doesn’t work, don’t buy it. Create your own. Most people can’t do it.”
It seems that in this case, Albom is part of that culture making people feel bad. These parents are teaching the right thing – that the person is what matters, not the sex, and that the person should be valued, not how well they perform as a female or a male. These parents are creating their own culture, they aren’t buying Albom’s. I wish he’d take the sage advice of the man who made him famous in the first place.