I always assumed I would have daughters. I envisioned raising empowered, feminist women that grew up in a world of equal pay for equal work. Young women that never doubted they could be anything, do anything, achieve anything. When my first child was born, my husband, exhausted and tearful, announced “It’s a boy!”
Really, I should have known.
As the mother of two boys, and only boys, I am under no illusion as to the way boys are viewed. Expectant mothers have told me they are terrified of having boys. Mothers of newborn sons lament they don’t know ‘what to do with’ a boy. Even my own mother, after a particularly loud and exuberant play session with her grandsons, has looked at me and said “you girls were never like this”. I get it. Boys have a pretty lousy reputation. Boys are bashed, maligned, oft-misunderstood, dismissed, pigeon-holed and reviled. Boys are, more often than not, defined by negatives.
Boys are active, bullies, playground tyrants. Rude, crude, competitive, can’t sit still, can’t concentrate, disruptive. Boys are physical, aggressive, loud, immature, have the attention span of a gold-fish. I have heard people swear they won’t let their daughters have a sleep-over at a female friend’s house if there is an older brother. Just in case. As if every single boy is a would-be-molester lurking in the shadows. Parents that adamantly refuse to have a teenage boy babysit, because if a young male shows an interest in young children, something must be wrong with him. They have statistics on their side. Most violent crimes are committed by males. Boys are more than twice as likely to be diagnosed with behavioral issues like ADD and ADHD . Suicides, fatal car accidents, death by misadventure–males are at a disadvantage. Even the old adage “boys will be boys” has become a thinly veiled insult directed at parents who dismiss overly aggressive behavior in their sons.
But let me say, as the mother of boys, it breaks my heart to think that people assume my children are up to no good, that it’s only a matter of time before they do something heinous, before they pillage their way through high school, just because they are boys.
“Are you ever sorry you never had a daughter?, I have been asked. How can I even answer that? I have been given the challenge, the opportunity, the privilege to raise two individuals, who happen to be male. Raising boys to me is a life long anthropological experiment. I fancy myself a bit Margaret Mead with a little Jane Goodall thrown in. I have no expectations, no history, no personal experience to rely upon when it comes to raising boys. I have to approach it the same way I would if I were raising, say…..gorillas. Their learning curve is my learning curve. I don’t know what they are feeling because not being a male, I have never felt it. As a new mother, holding my infant son, I expressed to my pediatrician that I thought gender difference were 90% social. She looked at me indulgently and said nothing. And from age 6 months onward, my eldest son was obsessed with wheels. He used to crawl over to strollers in the playground and stroke their dirty, muddy wheels with longing. Trucks, balls, sports, Star Wars, Lego. My sons are ‘typical’ boys in a lot of respects. They have ants in their pants, they are fidgeters, they can’t sit still, they are loud, they have a driving desire to be first and to make everything into a competition. Often I get all girly on them:
“You don’t have to be first!” “Not everything is a competition!”
But I am selling my sons short by assuming that my way, a female way, is the right way. Of course I need to teach them that it is never okay to step on anyone else in order to be first. That above all you have to respect the world you live in and the people you live in that world with, (before attempting to best your own time getting up the subway steps). But should I discourage them from trying to be better, faster, stronger? I am starting to think not. Being competitive in and of itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The desire to win and better yourself is not a personality flaw. I don’t want to strangle their natural exuberance, their energy, their competitive spirit. The very essence of what makes them boys, what makes them who they are.
And so I often feel like I am standing on the sidelines observing, taking notes. These strange creatures with their strange equipment. Right now they are smooth and still smell of sleep and dreams, but soon enough they will sprout hair and be smelly and my whole house will smell of socks and testosterone. But I don’t have any expectations, no recollections of what it feels like to be a teenage boy. And because I don’t have any expectations of how they ‘should’ act or ‘should’ feel, drawing from my own experiences and history, I think I may have it easier. My husband? Well, he drew the short end of the straw there (but since it was his chromosome that decided the sex of our children, it’s his fault anyway). Sure, right now my head spins with the energy and volume of their little lives. The fascination with weaponry and building, the need for more, always more, always faster. I don’t understand it, not at all. I’m a woman, a mother. My natural instinct is to make everyone sit in a circle and share their feelings. But I can’t force my kids to go against their nature–I can only teach them how to harness what makes them boys, what makes them tick, into positivity, at the same time teaching things like empathy and sympathy and inclusion, things which may not come naturally or easily to them. And I have to learn from them as well.
We are in this together, my boys and me.