Recently, I received a robotic vacuum called Deebot. This thing is amazing. I feel like I used to spend hours every day vacuuming or sweeping the floor. Now, I just set the vacuum on its journey around the house. After a couple of hours, all the bits of glitter and candy wrappers are all picked up. Now, Deebot isn’t perfect. It always sucks up Legos and my phone charger cord, but it really can’t be blamed for that. If we humans were just a little better, Deebot would be able to complete tasks unimpeded. My love for Deebot runs deep.
When we first got Deebot, we immediately began to anthropomorphize it. Deebot might have been just a brand name, but we also made it its Christan surname. We discussed how well Deebot was doing and even contemplated how specific tasks made it feel. Through all our discussions, I realized that we’d need to figure out its gender pronoun ASAP. At first, we all called it “she.”
The more I thought about it, though, the more I didn’t like it. Were we calling it a “she” because women are supposed to be the ones to clean the house? Did I want that to be the message my kids received? I grew up in a house where the boys never cleaned. All that did was deeply ingrain the message that women took care of all the housekeeping and even now, as an aware, feminist, I still find myself tripping over this idea. I wasn’t going to do the same with my kids, so I asked that everyone in the family call it “he,” explaining that men are competent cleaners, too.
But then I thought about how much I love what Deebot has done for my life. I wondered whether I wanted to give a man credit for such bounty. I then decided Deebot was a she since I could send the message to my kids that women are extraordinary, just like Deebot.
I’m a pretty cautious person when it comes to what I say. I’m ever-paranoid of upsetting someone or committing a verbal misstep that will forever shatter my sense of self-worth. I agonize over what to say and, when I don’t, I feel I’m left having to clean up the mess of my hastily spoken words. This is just how I am in social situations.
Many people get angry with such careful and thoughtful selection of words and call people who take such pains the “PC police” to say that we’re all wet blankets intent on sucking the humor out of life. I would argue, however, that an unwillingness to re-examine one’s language even when it’s at the expense of other people is just laziness. If your humor or lexicon is unable to be expanded upon and evolves in this world to take care of other people, then maybe you’re not that funny to begin with.
When it comes to my kids, there is an additional layer of stress. I may not be careful when it comes to cuss words, which I continuously let slip out during moments of anxiety, but with words that could have some bearing on how my kids interact with the world. I understand the subtlety of language that will influence my kids’ broader worldview. I’m cognizant that establishing a benevolent, inclusive lexicon for my kids’ is crucial to their ability to be open and loving humans.
Take, for instance, a conversation I had with Darla last year. She asked me whether only girls had babies. I started saying “yes,” but stopped myself because this wasn’t the right answer. I told her that both men and women could have babies, which is the truth. To say otherwise, to not include trans men in the discussion, invalidates them as real men. It was important to me that she understood that there was no black and white answer when it comes to reproduction.
My kids often pull down a book off the shelf that gives me, a woman who spent 16 years in Catholic school, so much agita. The book is called “Amazing You.” It’s a children’s book filled with simple language and diagrams to explain anatomy to young kids. Every time this book is brought out as our bedtime reading, I cringe my way through the book, knowing that normalizing every part of their bodies will build esteem in them. If I can make my way through the book, maybe they won’t feel the same level of shame around sex I had to contend with when I was young.
I don’t love the book, but I read it straight through. Until I get to the part about making babies. That’s when I heavily edit the words because, to me, they fail to account for the beautiful rainbow that is human reproduction. The book says that babies are born when a man and woman love each other. For a scientific, objective book, such moralizing and heteronormativity is confounding.
When I get to that part, I pause and mentally rewrite it. I take out all the parts that are subjective about creating life. People are not in love. People are not making a decision. He or she is not participating in sex. Without all that, I edit it down to: “when sperm meets an egg, a fetus is formed” because, at this point, I don’t know what’s in my kids’ futures. I don’t know if one is going to be straight, gay, trans, or asexual. Darla may choose to have a child alone. Either may adopt a kid. Or, maybe they both will be straight, get married, and have babies. Regardless, the world doesn’t follow that pattern broken down in the book, and I don’t want them to assume that that’s the path for everyone.
I knew how to handle this situation, but when it came to Deebot, I was stuck. I explained to Greg how I have been agonizing over the gender pronoun for the vacuum and explained my rationale for either decision. I told him that I was at a loss.
“Well,” Greg said, “how about ‘it.”
I was floored. That was the answer I was looking for. Why was I trying to assign a pronoun to an inanimate object? It was a robot. It was neutral. It didn’t need to have a male or female pronoun because it was neither, so why the hell was I wasting my time with such a consideration? It was pretty insulting that I was even contemplating the issue, which is something I'm going to have to deal with on my own time. Once I settled on “it,” I felt like I could finally relax and enjoy my new cleaning gadget. And let me tell you, it's doing a fantastic job. I may even promote it to my htird child soon.