I don’t deal with strangers on a daily basis at this point in my life. When I worked in retail and food service, that was a given, and when I attended a medium sized state university, that was also expected. But now that I’m a write-from-home mother without a car or many local friends, I can go weeks at a time without interacting with a stranger. I like this. I like that the staff at my local corner store know me and expect me to shop there often. I like that the neighbors I see recognize me and wave. It’s not that I don’t like to meet new people and make new friends; it’s that I don’t like dealing with unexpected behaviors from other humans.
This weekend I had to run errands. A friend was kind enough to drive me and keep me company. Within a matter of hours, I had two men give me unexpected interactions that I wasn’t anticipating and didn’t want. The first was a man waiting in the same lobby wearing a Spencer’s Gifts style t-shirt. It featured a rooster and a cat, calling each other “chicken” and “pussy” respectively. I was unaware of the shirt until my child suddenly said “You’re a pussy!” reading the man’s shirt. I told my son that while yes, those words were on that man’s shirt, I didn’t want him using them himself. “It’s just good, clean fun!” the man interjected to tell me.
A little while later, I stood in line to pay for my groceries including a jar of cat nip we picked up for our pet. My son was asking me if catnip was “kitty marijuana”. We live in Colorado where marijuana is legal for adults, and he also knows that I’m a medical marijuana user. I’ve made sure he understands that marijuana is a drug, that it’s mom’s medicine, and that it’s not for children unless multiple doctors say so. Despite our state legality, the man in front of me in line turned around to say “He knows too much!” and be offended by my parenting. I laughed it off and told the man “I like to be honest.” After a moment of apparently thinking up a response he turned to me to say “I’m honest with my kids – about how I’ll beat their ass if they ever try pot!” My son was upset, convinced the man had been threatening him for knowing what marijuana was.
These interactions were flavored by low-level toxic masculinity. The man assuring me his t-shirt was “fun” rather than “in poor taste” probably didn’t walk out of his door planning to teach children a second meaning for the word “pussy”, but he did walk out of his door wearing a shirt that casually puns about a sexist slur, comfortable in the knowledge that his right to do so would not be questioned. He felt safe and secure wearing a shirt that reminded half the waiting rooms that are bodies are considered specially disgusting, particularly our reproductive and sexual parts.
The man offended by my son’s cat nip comparison disclosed violence and violent fantasies to utter strangers – a woman and her child – to reassure himself of the rightness of his parenting methods and the wrongness of mine. He interrupted a conversation between two other parties to criticize us and let us know he physically hurts the people in his life who act like us. Whether he meant to imply a threat or not, my son picked up it and felt less safe in public than he should have to.
I wish men would try harder to be good role models to boys, to remember that children have the same rights as adults to exist in public spaces, to recognize that children learn from *everyone* they see, not just their parents and teachers. Having to undo the lessons of men who catcall me in front of my son, or casually use words like “bitch” in his presence, is the part of parenting I like least. In fact, I resent it. It’s not an inherent part of parenting. It’s an extra job I’m required to do to make up for the careless misogyny of others.