Lynn Beisner shares what an unexpected request from her son is teaching her about feminism.
For my 21st birthday I was given a cast iron skillet by a family matriarch. It is one of the most treasured gifts I have ever received, and it is the only thing other than photographs that I have held onto from my youth.
The reason that the cast iron skillet was a big deal is that it was a symbolic passing of the torch from one generation to the next. There is a recipe for English Toffee that has been handed down from one family member to another for generations. For some reason, it can only be made in a cast iron skillet. In addition, it is not something that you can make from written instructions. You learn it experientially from standing next to the stove and watching your grandmother or mother make it year after year for the holidays.
Making your first batch of toffee by yourself is a rite of passage for women in our family and being given your own cast iron skillet is being welcomed into womanhood. The challenge for me has been how to hand down this family secret. I tried to teach my daughter, Kassie, how to make it. But while she loved eating toffee, she never had patience or interest in standing beside me to watch for the micro-signals that tell you if the heat is right and when to move to the next step.
Then again, she has never had a gift for or interest in cooking. Over the years, I tried to teach her how to make simple family favorites, like banana pancakes. But all she learned is that I am not a patient teacher. So I backed off a few years ago when I started learning a bit about feminism and discovered that learning to cook was not a requirement for becoming a mother, let alone a woman.
Making toffee during the holidays is the only true family tradition we have. Given how fractured our family has been by decades of abuse and abandonment, we have almost nothing in the way of tradition. In fact, my daughter recently wrote a paper about how our family’s main tradition is that it doesn’t have any traditions, except toffee. Given its significance and how much my family looks forward to it each year, I worried about what would happen if I got hit by a bus. So two years ago I took over 100 pictures as I made toffee batches, trying to document every phase. I wrote pages worth of hints and instructions, and I even made a video. My imagined audience was my daughter’s daughter.
Then this past year, the recipe passed from my generation to the next flawlessly and without the use of any recording equipment. It started when my son said, “Hey, Mom, I was wondering if this year, rather than hassling Kassie about learning to make the toffee, you would teach me?”
I literally smacked my head. It had simply never occurred to me to ask my son if he wanted in on this family secret. What blew me away even more was that it didn’t take years for him to learn how to do it. He was a natural. While we stirred the toffee, we talked. And that was when I realized what a huge mistake I had made in my parenting.
He was born when I still thought of men and women as fundamentally different and nearly incapable of understanding each other. My ideology has changed, but it has not fully trickled down into my relationships. I had treated my son as if he were fundamentally different from his sister and me. I had encouraged him to bond with my husband. But I assumed that he would be utterly uninterested in my world.
I was fortunate that Matt was home for a few weeks over the holidays, and I had a little time to make up for my mistakes. We started slowly. I taught him how to make his favorite meals. He showed me the science videos that rocked his world. We went through my CD collection and copied all of the music he remembered from when he was a kid. I watched a comedy show that he loved.
By the time Matt’s break was coming to an end, we were staying up nights talking. There was so much to learn about each other. I had never considered the possibility that I would have a relationship with my son as emotionally connected and mutually supportive as I had with my daughter.
I am still adjusting to our relationship. When he calls, my automatic thought is still that something must be wrong. I am still surprised that he wants to talk to me, that he wants to share his life with me and that as he puts it, “The older I get, the more entertaining you are.”
I love how my son is challenging all of the gender assumptions I didn’t even know I still had. I love that somehow, against all odds, I managed to raise a guy who cannot have his masculinity threatened because it does not reside in what other people think of him. I love that he does not see me as an alien species and that he is willing to forgive me for all the years I treated him as if he was.
On the homepage of this website, there is a quote from Gloria Steinem, “We’ve begun to raise daughters more like sons…but few have the courage to raise our sons more like our daughters.” I must have seen it a thousand times, but I am only now beginning to understand what a truly revolutionary idea it is. The good news is that even for those us who failed to display that courage, it is never too late to respond to our sons as we would our daughters, to include them in our confidences and to pass our traditions through them.
My son’s birthday is coming up in a few weeks. I am giving him a cast iron skillet. It is time to pass the torch.