By Khara Williams
In the past few years, confronting, challenging and beautiful things have happened in our gender culture across the world, and these happen to be the years in which I’ve been privileged to become Mum to two gorgeous boys. Boys who, the recent viral Gillette ad says, “will be the men of tomorrow.”
Just as the world is acknowledging that masculinity is diverse, and the #metoo movement is shining the spotlight on high-profile men taking advantage of a historical power imbalance, I’ve been learning how to be the best mother I can be to my four-year-old Jed and 19-month-old Tom, two different personalities, both of them equally as loving and social as each other.
And while the news exposes an insidious culture of bullying and harassment, it is hard to look into the big blue eyes of my little ones and imagine they would ever do anything to hurt anyone.
Yet I know that these are the formative years in which, as a mother, there is no greater responsibility than for me to raise my boys to be responsible, sensitive, assertive and authentic in a world that Gillette — on the heels of activists and pioneering women’s brands shifting the meaning of statements “like a girl” — is trying to change.
Every day, I face and contemplate the exciting time it is to raise my boys, as well as the challenges.
So, how do I do it?
As a mother of two sensitive boys, I know that empathy is everything, as professionals are suggesting the world over. I use a calm voice when they are ‘naughty’. Both my husband and I want the boys to associate discipline and boundaries with love and understanding – rather than with anger and angry tones — so that they learn to form relationships peacefully.
I’m also more aware of the importance of my own assertiveness.
If my sons see me being disrespected and me not doing anything about it, they’re going to learn that it’s acceptable behaviour. One of the most exciting recent shifts is the celebration of strong women and girls. While I’ve managed to thrive in a competitive, highly masculine corporate world, I still question myself and can be guilty of letting ‘boys will be boys’ behaviour slide. That’s the world I grew up in.
So, it’s up to me – alongside husbands, partners, fathers, brothers, uncles — to call toxic behaviour out.
Otherwise, we’re only fighting half the battle.
As I become aware of my own enabling behaviour, I’m fascinated with the shifting dynamic between girls and boys. While young girls are being encouraged to own their audaciousness, adventurousness and confidence, boys are taught to be aware of their space, their emotions, and to make space for girls.
Most important to me is that my boys become aware of everyone in the room, and understand without question that everyone is equal. I want my boys to respect both the quiet and the extroverted girls, and part of that is owning their own diverse identities, as boys who can be both vulnerable and boisterous.
New marketing messages are telling us that women today are empowered, we’re doing what we want with strength and purpose. Thing is, we always were, we just needed to be quieter about it.
And the backlash against ads like Gillette’s and feminist advocates such as Clementine Ford, shows that we are still so far from equality — many men feel threatened by the term ‘toxic masculinity’, and unfairly blamed for the terrible actions of some men.
In all of this, I do worry about my sensitive boys in a world that first and foremost rewards and values resilience and strength.
Is there too much emphasis on men versus women in messages such as Gillette’s?
Are we at risk of celebrating power in women over empathy and diverse personality traits in all of us?
Diversity is the trick, I’m realising, and this is the central message I take from ads by brands such as Dove, Always, Gillette and Nike. Some days, my boy Jed is quiet and shy; other days, he’s a politician in training. And little Tom’s favourite thing is a good book read to him by his family. They’ll grow up with girls for who pink will never go out of style and can also beat them in any playful wrestling match.
I would love my boys’ world to be one where none of this is a surprise, and all of it is a cause for celebration.
As a mother, lucky to be married to a supportive man who is just as thankful for these changes, I am thrilled for my main job of helping my boys of today become the good men of a much more inclusive and authentic tomorrow.
By day, Khara Williams is a Relationships Director in corporate banking. By day and night, Khara runs the Real Program, a purposeful community and platform for women to make positive leadership and lifestyle changes and identify purpose in their career and family paths.