For nearly ten years, I have been re-enacting my own version of Gorillas in the Mist. I observe, sometimes making mental notes. Sometimes I have a flash of understanding that breaks through like a ray of sunshine on a gray, winter day. Often I scratch my head in wonder.
I speak of course, of my boys.
I am not insinuating for one moment that my sons or your sons or anyone’s sons should be compared to or referred to as primates. What I mean is that at times my sons are as foreign and different to me as those big, hairy apes must have been to Dian Fossey. I can hypothesize and theorize all I like. I can, and have, done my homework–books, articles, journal submissions, anecdotal evidence, peer comparison. The fact remains that I understand what it is like to be a boy about as much as I understand what it is like to be a gorilla.
I know my boys. I know them the way I know my own body, the way I know my own dreams. I can trace the constellation of freckles on their young bodies behind the lids of my eyes. I can name every cold, flu, ear infection and bout with bronchitis they’ve had. I can tell you how many times they’ve taken antibiotics and which ones, which foods they like and don’t like, the way they prefer to sleep. I can tell you who their friends are, what their favorite television shows, the stuff that makes them wake up screaming in their sleep. I can tell you how they cope with stress, how they manifest their young anxieties, how many times a day they use the toilet. I know my boys.
Yet I don’t.
I will never know what it feels like to be a boy. The physicality, the aggression, the risk taking, the curiosity with machinery and weaponry and destruction, all those things that have become synonymous with male children, with my children. I will never understand why those things are important, why they matter, why they drive them to do the things they do.
I watch my sons wrestle and I cringe because it makes no sense to me why such a thing is ‘fun’ to them. To me the idea of being physically hurt or even partaking in the risk of being hurt, turns me off. Not so my sons. They thrive on it. Time after time they tackle each other, contort their bodies with a flexibility that astounds me, simply to hurt the other, or to win. Or both. I watch them get sucked into video games feet first, sometimes having to have the computer physically taken from them when a limit has been reached or passed and I don’t get it. I can’t understand why it isn’t as simple as just turning off. I listen to my son and his friends talk about playing Man Hunt, a game which from the sounds of it is like a no holds barred hide and seek with a wide vicious streak running through it. It is Lord of the Flies being reenacted on an asphalt playground instead of a deserted beach.
My instinct as a woman, as a mother, is to make it stop, to tell them to find something gentle to do, something inclusive. I don’t, nor have I ever, felt the same compulsions, the same obsessions, the same desires and likes and needs to do the things they do. I don’t understand it. Because I am not a boy.
Yet boys are supposed to do this. They are supposed to wrestle and play act physical and even aggressive games. Psychologists maintain that pretend gun play and violence is a normal part of boyhood, a normal part of the psychological development for many boys. They are meant to beat the crap out of one another, apparently, if not physically, then psychologically. They are supposed to find the pecking order, their place in the hierarchy. Yet we try to stop it. As mothers, as teachers, as women, we discourage it. We try to find ways around it. We praise boys who go against type, those ‘gentle’ boys who prefer more organized activities and not the chaos and 612 rules and stick guns and smack down that have come to define ‘boy’ boys. I myself do it. I am afraid they will get hurt, I am afraid they will become psychopaths, I’m afraid they will kill themselves skateboarding off a roof.
I do not understand the way their brains are hardwired, because mine is hardwired differently. Because I’m not a boy.
I am raising my boys the best way I can. I teach them to be respectful, to be helpful, to be courteous. I teach them to think of others, that all people are entitled to the same respect that they themselves expect. I teach them limits. Hell, I even ram down their throats the often overlooked accomplishments of women and girls around the world. I make sure they know that they are not special because they are male. But I cannot change who they are. They are boys. I cannot make them into something else, something they are not.
Every night before I go to bed, I check on them. I make sure they are tucked in, that a stealth fever hasn’t appeared out of nowhere. I kiss their foreheads, trace their freckles. At six and nearly ten, they take up so much room now, even in their sleep. How could those soft, chunky babies I gave birth to be turning into these long, lean bodies who like to point Nerf guns at one another’s faces? How can those sweet, smiling cherubs of yore throw one another around on the floor, wrestling for domination? How can my little boys, who used to wear Oshkosh overalls and play with their Hot Wheels in the sandbox shove another child to the ground and declare himself the winner of a playground game or express a desire to play some sort of video game that involves the words assassin and commando? I don’t understand, not at all, not one little bit.
Because I’m not a boy.