When I was little I wanted to be a lot of things: Johnny Carson's replacement; A Dallas Cowboy Cheerleader so good I was the only one on the team; an artist with my own wing at the Boston Museum of Fine Art - you know, normal stuff. I wanted to be a lot of things, but I never- I PROMISE you - ever wanted to grow up to be someone known a The Penis Mom.
But here I am.
It all started way back in early November, when my 13-year-old's teacher sent an email to parents saying they were doing a little Pumpkin Chunkin’ – this is a very cool physics project where the kids launch pumpkins with a trébuchet. Awesome. Except the email asked for help setting up the trébuchet. Help from dads. That's right, dads. Are there any strong dads who can help? So if you know me, you know I’m cautious. I sat down at my computer to check the facts, first looking at the calendar to see what year we were in - yep, still 2011. So with time-travel ruled out, we were only left with the possibility that we had somehow slipped into an alternate universe, one where teachers have giant balls. Balls clearly big enough to toss such gender-biased questions out into the wind without concern for where they might land. And thus began my verbal rant. I am uncertain how long it lasted, however when I finally came up for air my husband/editor had made dinner, cleaned up, and put the kids to bed.
At that point, I sat down to respond to the email.
Dear teachers and parents:
Are you guys seriously only asking for Dads?
Is lifting done with a penis?
Simple and to the point, right? But, before I hit send I remember that email goes to all parents and sometimes people reach this interesting conclusion that I am a little too edgy. So, I decide to get a second opinion from the voice of reason. I go into my editor/husband and read my response. Now, if you know my editor/husband you know how completely insane this is [Editor’s note: What?! Insane?]. It is like a Stegosaurus asking a T-Rex if she appears too aggressive. Wait, some of you may not have toddlers; let me try that again. It is like a gentle breeze asking a hurricane if he should ease up a bit on the blowing. If I am edgy, my editor husband is flying off the edge, not even realizing there was one. If I am a little over the top, he is bouncing off the top as high as he can reach. He is not the man to ask for help when you need to know how the norm will react.
And yet I do.
"Is the penis thing too much?" I ask.
"Too much? It’s insufficient. Why don't you ask if it needs to be dads because there’s going to be some cocking on the unit? Tell them I’ll bring my friends Dick Johnson, Peter Hard-on and Chubby E. Rekshun to help..." And so it went on this way. As he continued on and on, it got quiet in my head. My hands reached for the mouse, moved the cursor over my email, and I clicked Send, thinking "Well, at least I am not him."
This is not the first time this rationalization has gotten me into trouble.
Within hours my penis-lifting comment had apparently bunched more than a few panties.
Parents were horrified. Who knew this might happen? Not us. OK, we probably knew - but seriously? Asking exclusively for dads to help is offensive on so many levels to me. I am freakishly strong and could mount a trébuchet with the best of them [Editor’s note: Um, honey, you don’t actually mount a trébuchet]. As someone who was a single mom for a good long time, I take issue with the assumption that every home has a dad to contribute. But most of all, I resent the message we are giving to our daughters that because of their gender, they are unwelcome to participate in physical tasks - that they are not strong enough and that only a man qualifies. I resent the message to all our children that we judge the value of contribution based on sex and not competence. What the hell year is this? I better double-check that.
So, I received a slap-on-the-wrist email about how correspondence should be g-rated because some of the students are on the email list. I was slightly confused by this because, in my mind, “penis” is g-rated. Honestly, I would love to have been more colorful - but that would have been inappropriate. I was also slightly confused because it seemed perfectly OK with everyone to send socially regressive requests out that diminish our girl's sense of worth - but they are now circling the wagons because I used the word penis? To thirteen year-olds? Really?
To further complicate and add humor to this situation, I signed the note Karen. Now I did this mostly because my name is Karen. However, that also happens to be the name of the school principal. This caused quite stir because everyone thought the principal sent the penis note. Tee hee hee. I didn't plan it that way, but I love a good farcical mix up.
Karen the principal sent out a note of clarification, reminding us that emails must be "all Disney all the time." Tee hee hee. That part made me laugh – however the next part did not:
"For the record I'm not a fan of lifting things though, and I don't really like the mud "
This is what the principal said in response to the email protesting asking for only dads. Hmm,,,interesting. So, don't rock the boat about gender discrimination because we girls don't like getting all dirty and doing hard work.
This does not make me feel better.
Ladies, this is not a situation of the men holding us back - we are holding ourselves back because we don't want to step forward if it is icky and muddy. If you want equal pay - guess what? It comes with equal obligation to show up for Pumpkin Chunkin.
Asking for strong parents is smart. Asking for only the ones with a penis is inefficient and a little too Mad Men for 2011.
When I showed the email thread to my thirteen year old boy, I was a little worried he would be embarrassed and ask me why I can't be more like normal moms. But he didn't. Instead he offered "Screw them - that is cool."
Now, I could focus on the fact that my boy just said "Screw them" and how wildly inappropriate that is - or I could just be happy knowing I am doing something right with that boy and embrace the fact that I am now known at school functions and throughout the land as "The Penis Mom."More from Karen: