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I am the same height and weight as Bud Dupree, a linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers. I won’t compare our fat percentages, as I don’t want to hurt my own feelings. My wife, Sondra, is 8 inches shorter, less than half my weight, and most likely has never heard of Bud Dupree. When we had a baby boy in January of 2012, it was pretty clear which one of us would be tossing the football in the backyard one day.
And yet, it didn’t work out that way.
There is a picture in our house of me tossing my son, Ziggy, into the air. He was 17 months old at the time. It is the last time I ever made that toss. In July of 2013, when my son was a year and a half old, I started experiencing major neck pain, which was eventually diagnosed as 2 bulging discs. Don’t feel too sorry for me, I made the choice to have children in my mid-forties — a wiser man would have instead contemplated early retirement.
We have fought gender roles in our household from the beginning. Our 2 sons (we had a second in 2014) have my wife’s last name. We both change diapers, bathe our boys, wake up in the night and in the morning. We both cook and clean.
It felt like roughhousing was always going to be my domain. It just seemed like it would be natural that way, based on personality and body type alone, not on societally accepted gender roles.
When it became clear that my neck wasn’t healing quickly, Sondra, reluctantly at first, took on the role of the rowdy rollicker. It started with horsey rides, and tumbling and has developed a life of its own. They now have a repertoire of invented games: “Garbage Truck,” “Avalanche,” and “Catch Me, Catch Me.”
There is a picture in our house of me tossing my son, Ziggy, into the air. He was 17 months old at the time. It is the last time I ever made that toss.
Some games seem to even have a practical application, there is “Earthquake,” where she shakes and rumbles him while he lies on top of her. As residents of Southern California, we benefit from this in-house form of an emergency drill. They even have a game that resembles a 2-person version of the “Stop, Drop, and Roll” move we were taught for fire safety as kids in the 70s.
Outdoors, they toss all forms of balls, play chase games, and engage in tickle torture.
I watch all this from the comfort of a chair, feeling similar to how I did when I had a fever as a child, and had to look longingly through the window as the neighborhood kids played games in the street. I am, quite literally, on the injured reserve list, with no knowledge of when I will be in game shape. Our 8-month-old, Marsden, is usually with me, he of an age not quite ready for such physical tomfoolery.
Of course, some of the gender role standardization that happens in life seems to go beyond societal imprinting and is simply inborn. With zero encouragement from us, Ziggy has been fascinated by construction, firefighters, and trucks for as long as he has been aware of his surroundings.
Last weekend, at a friend’s birthday party, when faced with many choices offered by a professional face painter, Ziggy chose the blue and white fancy icicle like tendrils meant to represent Elsa, the princess-turned-queen from the movie Frozen. His closest girl friend from preschool tried to dissuade him, suggesting Spider-Man or the skeleton as better options for a boy. He would not be deterred, and a few minutes later he proudly wore the face of the ruler of Arendelle.
There is no telling why he made this choice, and what leads him to feel comfortable in his identity. My wife and I have always supported the idea that anyone can be anything that they want to be. I hope these are deeply ingrained beliefs. But if, because of the situation we find ourselves in due to circumstance, 2 little boys grow up believing that moms are not only just as good, but maybe better even, at roughhousing, it might make the world just a teeny tiny speck of a better place.
By the time my boys are of adult age, maybe some of the Steelers linebackers will be named Betty, not Bud.
Ben Fussiner is a school administrator in Los Angeles. He is the father of 2 boys, Ziggy and Marsden.