I posted here on Wednesday about the girls-only time that Ursula and I spent together this past weekend, while Jim and Virgil were on a boys-only fishing trip. As we headed into the weekend, Jim and I weren’t thinking about it in terms of a gender split. But on Friday night, Ursula made us think again.
“Why didn’t you invite me?” she asked Jim, her eyes brimming with tears, as we cleared the plates from dinner. Something had clearly been bothering her since Jim had picked up the kids at school, but her question took both of us by surprise. Jim explained that the six-hour drive to the fishing camp made it impossible to do the trip in less than three days, and that as a 7th grader, she couldn’t take a day off school as easily as Virgil could in 3rd grade. She turned to me with a bitter expression. “Why didn’t he take me fishing when I was in 3rd grade, then?”
Why didn’t he, indeed? And why hadn’t I thought to encourage Jim to take her fishing?
Busted, I thought.
I have my own memories of feeling excluded from things my father and brothers did together, just because I was the girl. My father took my brothers on several long canoe trips when they were in high school; I never went. But the truth is more complicated than my memories. My father did ask me, once, if I wanted to come on one of their Boundary Waters trips. It didn’t even occur to me to say yes: Those canoeing trips were something the boys did, not me.
By my mid-twenties I wished I’d joined that trip, but it wasn’t until I became a parent that I understood more clearly what had happened. To my father, those canoe trips were opportunities to pass along the skills and traditions of manhood to my brothers. The same purpose underlay his efforts to teach them wood-chopping and knot-tying and drinking songs — strong, capable, confident men knew these things. But defining the canoe trips and the other skills by gender — for men, not for women — made it harder for my father to pass along the same knowledge to me, and harder for me to learn those skills from him. We both missed out on sharing the experience of something he loved.
Jim and I have worked hard to erase gender lines in what we teach our children. Both children know how to chop wood and tie knots; both know how to thread a needle and sew on a button. But we’d put his trip to the fishing camp in a guys-only category. Jim has taken this trip for years with the same group of friends, all men. It seemed natural to him, and to me, to invite Virgil when he was old enough to join them. And to leave Ursula out.
Over the weekend, Ursula continued to press her case. When Jim returned, I told him about our conversations, and my sense of her hurt feelings. He reminded me that Virgil seemed more excited about fishing than Ursula. I thought back to my own diffident adolescent self. Recent research identifies this diffidence as a form of performance anxiety in adolescent girls. Teenage girls need to know it’s safe to try something new. Maybe Ursula has appeared less interested in learning to fish because she’s afraid of not doing it well, I told him.
Ursula’s sense of injustice and exclusion reminds me of what we risk losing if we maintain gender lines simply because they’ve always been there. We can explain the tradition of men’s fishing camps and men- or women-only trips; we can make room for girls-only and boys-only weekends in our family. I thought back to the weekend, seeing Ursula reading in the hammock and sliding along the slack line. We want to support her in what she is already drawn to, I realized, but also in learning new skills — fly fishing, learning a language, playing an instrument — that she’ll be glad for later in life. Most of all, we don’t want to miss the chance to share with each other what makes us happy.
I thought of what I most regret about never going on a canoe trip with my father. “Ursula will feel that she’s missed out if she doesn’t go fishing with you,” I told Jim, “because it’s something you love.” It’s a way of saying I love you, on both sides.
“How about next weekend?” he asked.
“Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.