I am thirty-eight weeks pregnant. It is 98 degrees out, claustrophobically hot, and I am sweating as I cajole my three-year-old daughter up the steps to the building where my OB’s office is.
“I don’t wanna go in there!” she yells, cranky and fresh off a truncated playdate with her best friend. “I wanna go to Zach’s house and play wif Zach!”
“Sorry, Sweetie,” I tell her as matter-of-factly as possible while I hoist her and the stroller up the stairs. “I have to go to the doctor right now. We can play with Zach tomorrow. Hey, maybe the doctor will let you measure my belly!”
“I don’t want to!” Scowl face.
“Maybe they’ll have lollipops this time!”
“I don’t want to!” Even scowlier face.
But I wrestle open the doors and thrust her through anyway. She wails and thrashes in her stroller as though I have pushed her into oncoming traffic. Her cries seem to fill up all available space in the hallway. This is by now a weekly occurrence.
By the time we get to the elevators, her hysterical sobs have given way to words. “Idon’twantto! Idon’twantto! Idon’twantto!” is her mantra as we wait for the doors to open. People around us are starting to stare. I stand calmly, as if it’s perfectly routine to be subjecting my child to the unspeakable torture of having to be with me.
Some nurses who work on another floor in the building stand next to us, waiting for the elevator. They survey the scene, take in my enormous belly, my hyperventilating daughter.
“What are you having?” one of them asks me, speaking loudly over my daughter’s cries and gesturing toward my belly.
“A boy,” I tell her. She smiles. I know what’s coming next.
“Oh, boys are wonderful,” she says. “Boys are so much better than girls. You won’t get tantrums like this with a boy, that’s for sure.”
At nine months pregnant, I’ve had nearly four months of engaging in very similar versions of this scene to prepare me for today’s exchange. But I am never fully prepared. Even knowing that’s it’s coming, I still marvel at the illogical nature of that kind of statement, the completely unfounded but seemingly universal belief among nosy strangers trying to make conversation that boys as a gender are inherently and uniformly less complicated, more loving, better children than are girls. And I am never prepared for the fact that people feel compelled to tell me these things right in front of my daughter.
“Everyone’s allowed to have meltdowns, girls and boys,” I tell the nurse after a shocked pause, knowing my daughter is listening. It’s weak, but in the moment I am unable to come up with anything better.
The nurse looks confused, and then it dawns on her: I just don’t know yet. “Boys love their mothers differently than girls,” she says as the elevator doors open. “You’ll see!”
I wish her a good day and push the stroller into the waiting room of my OB’s office, where my daughter immediately spies a jar of lollipops and forgets to be cranky.
Confession: I did not want to have a boy.
I am the oldest of three girls. When we were growing up, my parents often joked about how they really wanted boys and just kept trying until it was obvious it wasn’t going to happen. My mother talked about how they had been so sure I was going to be a boy, they hadn’t even considered a girl’s name. She told me many times how, when I was first born, the doctors said, “It’s a boy! No, wait, it’s a girl! No, a boy! No, it’s definitely a girl!” (the kind of story any girl definitely wants to hear again and again as she hits puberty). The name they ended up giving me is suspiciously masculine. After I left for college, my mother started taking in foreign exchange students — boys. The annual family holiday newsletter (written, of course, in rhyme) invariably included glowing paragraphs of updates on the wondrous accomplishments of “our sons.”
All of this cumulatively sealed the deal for me: If I was going to have a baby, it would be a girl. I did not want to be the mother of a boy. I would want a girl and have a girl, and I would not be telling her stories about how she looked just like the boy in her favorite movie, The Black Stallion, or that if she cut her hair really short, no one would be able to tell she wasn’t a boy. My baby would be a girl, and I would be happy about that.
When I was pregnant with my daughter, I knew right from the beginning she was Emily, the girl I’d planned on having. It was no surprise to me when the ultrasound confirmed that belief. I’d had girl feelings, girl dreams, girl convictions from the start. Of course she was a girl: that was what I wanted.
When I discovered I was pregnant the second time around, I hoped for another girl. I had visions of having two daughters, of seeing that special sister bond recreated in the next generation of my family. But I wasn’t as sure as I had been the first time. I had one baby dream early on in the pregnancy, and it was of giving birth to a boy. In the dream, he came out blond and big and more coordinated than a newborn really is; and within minutes of giving birth, my room was populated with all the mothers I know in real life who have sons, all of them holding their boy babies and smirking at me because they knew I’d really wanted a girl. One of them asked me, “What’s his name?” and I realized I didn’t have a name for him. “Can you believe it?” the dream mothers said to one another. “She doesn’t even have a name picked out!” I started to panic. Before I woke up, I looked at my nameless boy baby and thought, “At least he looks like Emi.” The dream logic being, evidently, that if he at least looked like his sister, it might make it easier to deal with the fact that he wasn’t a girl himself.
Even after this dream, I stuck to my conviction that I was having another girl. I contemplated girl names. I painted the baby’s room lavender. But inwardly I began to doubt my firm girl-only stance. The dream nagged at me. I didn’t have the same fierce girl feelings I had had when I was pregnant with my daughter. I began to grudgingly acknowledge the possibility that this baby could be a boy.
At my nineteen-week ultrasound, the tech took her time, checking the kidneys, the heart, the legs, the head. She asked us if we wanted to know whether the baby was a girl or a boy, and I joked, “Yes, but only if it’s a girl.” She said she couldn’t really get a great view, so she had the doctor come in and take a look.
“Well, look at that!” he said, right away. “Get a load of that scrotum!”
“What?” I choked back my surprise as I craned my neck trying to look at the grainy image on the screen. My husband gripped my hand tightly, warning me with his eyes that a freak-out would not be the most appropriate response.
“Yep, that’s a penis! We’re looking at a boy, here!” The doctor’s smile turned to an expression of concern as he tilted his head over to look at me. “Mom? Are we okay with this?”
My husband squeezed my hand tighter and looked at the doctor. He said, through gritted teeth, “She’s crying because she’s so happy.”
It took me a few weeks to wrap my brain around the idea that I was carrying a boy baby inside me, that in a few months he would come out into the world and I would be a mother of a son. I had to practice smiling as I said, “It’s a boy,” when people would ask me whether I was having a boy or a girl. I had to find a way to hide my unbidden tears of disappointment when strangers would begin the litany of how much more I would love my son, how much more devoted sons are than daughters.
“A boy! Now you’ve got a rich man’s family!” more than one person told me.
“Now you can stop,” said someone else. (“Stop what?” I asked, confused. “Stop having kids!” was the reply.)
“Boys are so much easier than girls! You’ll just love having a boy!” said just about everyone.
But I wasn’t sure.
What if I loved him less? I worried. But then I realized that my real fear was that — just like all the strangers seemed to imply, just like my parents’ unrealized wish for a son had seemed to imply — I might love him more: I might love him more deeply, more intensely, more wholeheartedly than I loved my daughter, and I’d leave her behind — loved, like I feared I was, a little less, simply because she is a girl.
I remember being about eight or nine when someone, for the hundredth time, asked me and my sisters what we wanted to be when we grew up. We looked at each other, not really knowing what to say, since we knew that fanciful answers would get us teased and serious answers would be greeted with skepticism. Finally, I said, “Just a mom, I guess.” My sisters agreed. I remember the look on my mom’s face, a mix of surprise and disappointment, and how she took a beat before she said, brightly, “That’s right, I always told my girls they could be anything they wanted to be, even mommies,” and moved us on to another topic.
I could tell she was surprised that we didn’t ask for more, even disappointed that at such an early age, we saw right through her: She might have been a teacher, a small-town theater actress, an indefatigable supporter of and chauffer for all our extracurricular activities, but despite all that, she was still just a mom.
Perhaps that’s one reason our relationships with our daughters are more complicated than our relationships with our sons: We are conflicted. We want our daughters to do everything our sons do, yet as mothers ourselves, we know the difficulties and the hard choices they will have to make when they grow up and choose to mother — the career options that dwindle; the daily balancing act that exhausts; the kind of things our sons will never face, even as they become parents themselves. Perhaps it’s easier to love our sons because there is no big secret, no truth we’re withholding about the divided life of women. Perhaps we feel less conflicted about boys — love them more, believe they love us differently than our daughters — because they will have such unconflicted, uncomplicated autonomy as men.
But whenever someone insists to me that girls are more “complicated” than boys, I can’t help but wonder whether or not that insistence of complication in fact creates a complicated relationship. “Complicated” seems to be a code word for “harder to love.” And yet what love is always easy, and who can say which kind means more?
“It’s a love affair,” a mother of a son tells me, gesturing to the boy baby babbling on her lap, leaning into her shoulder, indeed, like a lover. But it feels wrong to me, this boy love. It feels as though I am being told to love a boy because he is my link to power, to empowerment, to unencumbered motion through the world. It feels as though I am being told that girls remind us how we are constricted by our gender; that boys set us free.
These are the questions I have, the things I wonder about after I have these boy versus girl conversations with strangers. Do we force this dichotomy, thinking of boys as “easy” and girls as “hard,” romanticizing our sons and seeing our daughters as rivals? Or are boys really easier, is it pure biochemistry? Are boys simply engineered from a more manageable hormone than estrogen?
“Boys love their mothers differently,” the nurse assured me that day as she watched me wrestle with my complicated daughter. But I think she had it wrong: Maybe mothers love their boys differently, not the other way around.
A few weeks after having my gender-predicting dream confirmed by the ultrasound, I lay in bed one night, on my left side like a good pregnant woman, and thought about the baby inside me, whom I could already feel as a hard knot pushing this way and that in my rounded belly. I tried to relax my mind and, as my yoga instructor might say, just be there, feeling the baby move, thinking about him as a boy. Who will he look like? I wondered. What kind of temperament will he have? What kind of person will he be?
In the dark there, I felt a rush of emotion followed by a feeling of complete stillness, and then, suddenly, the sense that everything was going to be okay. I imagined that, just for a moment, I had been able to sense the essence of the little being inside me. For that fleeting minute, I knew more than his sex: I felt as though I knew who he was. I knew he would be curious, I knew he would be funny, I knew he would be mellow, I knew he would be loving; I knew he would love me the way all babies, boys or girls, love their mothers. And I knew that I would be able to love him fully right back.
He is here, now, two years old. I have my “rich man’s family,” as advertised. And I’m finding that I do love my son differently than I loved my daughter — some days, even more easily, as I can’t deny that his particular temperament (something not tied to gender, I believe) sure does make him easy to love. But I do not love him differently because he is a boy. I love him differently because I am different this time. With this second child, I am more sure of myself. I am less tentative, more expansive. I am more ready to surrender to motherhood, more willing to embrace this time in my life and the work I must do in it. And maybe that’s what makes the kind of love I have for my son different from the hesitant, fearful, intense love I had for my daughter: Not his boyness, but the fact that I’ve had practice. Not his boyness, but my readiness now to give myself over to difficult, messy, complicated, heart-breaking, heart-bursting love for both of my children, girl and boy alike.