Having A Boy? Better Luck Next Time: Mothers, Sons and Stereotypes
There it was on the ultrasound: a tiny but unmistakable penis. We were having a son. My husband glowed. The radiology technician oohed and aahed. Me? I was panic-stricken.
I hadn’t given more than a passing thought to the fact that I could be pregnant with a boy. My family has mostly girls; I knew I’d have a girl. I’d dreamt of my daughter. I’d named her. She was all but real. Besides, how could I possibly raise a son? In college, I’d once announced that if I had sons, I’d raise them as girls. It was an acceptable thing to say then and there, in the late 80’s, among other budding feminists. Later relationships challenged any clear or simple notions I had of the righteousness of women or the shortcomings of men. But notwithstanding a few sweet little boys I knew, I had only one vision of a son: a baby who wouldn’t cuddle; a hyper 6-year-old obsessed with war toys; a 12-year-old wanting to play only baseball and video games; a 17-year-old trying to get girls to go all the way.
My husband’s family–of mostly men–never seemed concerned about such things; they were perfectly happy that we were having a son. Members of my family–of mostly women–made what my husband fairly described as condolence calls. And I couldn’t help noticing that when I told acquaintances, friends, or even strangers in supermarket checkout lines that I was having a boy, I’d often get–especially from women–a sort of distant, “Ah,” as in, “Ah, I see. Better luck next time.”
Then there are the perfect strangers who see fit to tell me things like “He’ll eat you out of house and home.” “You’ll need a harness on him till he’s ten.” “Sometimes he’ll just ram his head into the wall for no apparent reason, but he’ll be fine. That’s just how they are.” Occasionally they’ll acknowledge, “This may not be true for all boys, but I’ve found…” They’ll go on to recite the assertions that boys are physically strong and active (if not necessarily football-playing), not particularly emotional or expressive (but “so much less complicated than girls”), and, of course, relentlessly heterosexual (“at least you won’t have to pay for his wedding”). Usually, they’ll conclude that it’s all in the genes, or hormones, or God’s plan.
I’ve turned to books for ideas about raising caring and communicative boys, but many of them rest on the same old notions about men and women: women seek connection while men seek mastery; women are cooperative and nurturing while men are competitive and individualistic. The message seems to be that to deny the fundamental differences between men and women does worse harm to kids than sexism or stereotypes. Clearly, we still have pretty limited and limiting ideas about masculinity.
More to the point, I have limiting ideas about masculinity. I’ve come to realize that I can’t encourage my son to be more “feminine” (sensitive, emotionally aware, connected) and ignore the fact that he’s a boy. If I want him to recognize and go beyond the limits of traditional masculinity and still feel good about becoming a man, I have to feel good about him becoming a man. That means looking to my husband, and other men I love, to teach our son how to be loving, caring, and expressive and to resist much of what he will learn from our culture. It means being confident in my own parenting and what our kids will learn from the friends, families and communities we call ours. It means remembering that real people are far more complex, and lovable, than stereotypes. And that’s the biggest challenge of all.
Now three years old, my son is not quite the rambunctious toddler I worried about. He’s active, but cautious. He prefers one-on-one interaction to noisy groups. He’s highly verbal (“especially for a boy”). He’s observant and sensitive to others’ emotions. I trust him already; I love who he’s turning out to be. No doubt I’d love him even if he were all that I most fear, and maybe I’ll have the chance to find out someday, the day he stops wanting to cuddle, or has his first fistfight, when he loves video games and hates girls, when I find a Playboy under his mattress… These are the things everyone insists will happen, so on some level I’m preparing for them, even as I want to believe that they are only clichés. Because in spite of my son and myself, the stereotypes persist. As much as I like to think I’ve changed, I still have the same ideas about boys I always did; it’s just that I think of my son as an exception to the rule.
If I’ve learned anything from having a son, it’s the power of stories, the ones we tell each other and ourselves over and over until we take them as truth. The images and the sayings, the examples we cite and the advice we provide ad nauseam, exaggerate and even create the very differences between men and women, the very separations between mothers and sons, that we insist are inevitable. And they are inevitable, if we never expect or envision anything else.
With that in mind, I try to always remember the exceptions, the complications, the alternatives. I no longer begin sentences with “Boys are…” even if I sometimes catch myself thinking it. When I hear someone else say it, I question them. Though I worked for years on educational equity for girls, I now wonder about how schools meet the needs of boys, particularly boys who are “different.” And as my son engages with the world, I try to keep his options open. He has plenty of trucks, cars, and Legos (mostly gifts from other people), and he also has baby dolls, musical instruments, crayons, and books (mostly what my husband and I provide for him). I don’t insist that he love his dolls or that he play house. But I do love it that he cooks, cleans, and gardens with me (and, even better, with my husband). I’m learning a lot more about trains than I ever thought I would, and I even like it. But yes, I like it best when my son uses his trains to sleep with and keep him company, rather than using them as action toys. And I’ll always point out flowers on the street as often as I point out fire engines.
My son now has a baby brother. Another ultrasound, another penis. I wish I could say I was happier the second time, since by then I was well in love with my older son, but I was even more stunned. Two boys? Luckily, I’m still changing, still learning, still revising the stories?with the help of my sons, who are the sweetest, funniest, most effective teachers I could have. My intense love for them is also a teacher, insisting on their humanity and intricacy, and the humanity and intricacy of other mothers’ sons. So my hopes, fears, beliefs and expectations nestle together, shifting as I try stay open to who and what and how we will all be. Whether the boys are firefighters or flight attendants later in life, I hope it’s because they’ve been able to imagine and explore different possibilities, so they can choose what feels right for them amidst what’s expected of and assumed about them — by everyone, especially me.