Boy Trouble

My five-year-old son, Peter, is standing in the middle of the practice rink at Parade Ice Garden in Minneapolis. The other children, coached for this moment by their parents, can push off their skate edges in a wobbly glide. Peter hasn’t made the connection that skating is an entirely different motion from walking. He marches across the ice, arms akimbo, his blades tick, tick, ticking where they should carve and slide.

My stomach turns queasy. I feel as though my husband, Walter, and I have sent Peter off to kindergarten without teaching him how to spell his name. A tiny boy flails into Peter and knocks him down.

“He checked him,” I yell, grabbing Walter’s arm.

Walter winces, too, but because his role in our marriage is to play calm to my storm, he takes a more benign point of view. “I think the kid just didn’t know how to stop,” he says.

“But Peter can’t skate,” I say. “This is torture.”

“It’s torture for you,” Walter answers. “But he’s hanging in there. At least he’s not crying.”

A hockey player from a family of hockey players, Walter is confident that, given time, Peter will catch on. I share neither his confidence nor his enthusiasm. As I watch Peter struggle to keep his balance, I think back on a dinner party we went to when I was pregnant. I was in a crisis because the baby growing inside me wasn’t the girl I’d always envisioned. I think that the shock—or was it denial?—that I was having a boy was what made me announce that no son of mine would ever play hockey.

The hosts, parents of two girls and two boys, rolled their eyes. “Why not?” the wife asked. “It’s a meathead sport,” I answered. “And I don’t want to raise that kind of boy.” That my husband is anything but a meathead was beside the point, I explained. Then I launched into a diatribe about how the macho locker-room culture was what made Walter decide to quit after tenth grade. Hockey, as I saw it, was aggressive and overly competitive. It developed the kind of brutish instincts that I didn’t think should be encouraged in boys.

The wife had known me since junior high and reminded me that we used to play soft-puck hockey in our figure skates. “Don’t you remember how much fun that was?” she asked. “Well,” I answered, “if I have a daughter and she wants to play, I think I’d be okay with that.” As I saw it, harnessing aggression could be empowering for girls. But for boys it was the beginning of a trajectory that inevitably ended in violence. My friend retreated to the kitchen to get the dessert and her husband reached for the wine.

Pregnant with her first baby in 1955, Adrienne Rich, as she would later write, “set my heart on a son.” Her reasons ironically stemmed from a desire for self-identification. “I wanted to give birth, at twenty-five, to my unborn self,” she explained in Of Woman Born, “the self that our father-centered family had suppressed in me, someone independent, actively willing, original—those possibilities I had felt in myself in flashes as a young student and writer, and from which, during pregnancy, I was to close myself off. If I wanted to give birth to myself as a male, it was because males seemed to inherit those qualities by right of gender.”

Thirty years after those words were published, few Americans need to have boys to harvest the crops or take over the family law firm. Those women who have benefited most from feminism’s advances into the mainstream––namely the educated, career-oriented American women who populate my slice of the world––don’t need sons to live out our unrealized dreams. Why would we? Daughters, who are a closer approximation to us, can do it instead.

I understood when I got pregnant that it was possible Walter and I could conceive a boy. But I didn’t believe it. Part of my blind spot, I’m sure, stemmed from experience. I was the oldest of four sisters and went to an all-girls school until I was in fifth grade. None of my childhood friends were boys. Girlhood was the only world I knew.

My education encouraged this viewpoint. In 1986, while attending Barnard College, I was handpicked by my favorite English professor to join a campus feminist literary magazine called Eve’s Rib. When a Columbia student, whom I’ll call Josh, asked to join our cozy, all-woman collective, we debated the consequences of opening up the membership. Josh told us that he had been deeply influenced by the feminist theory he had learned in his courses and that he wanted men to also benefit from the movement’s insistence that both sexes are wronged by the patriarchy. We wondered aloud if his earnestness was really a ploy to sleep with one of us, but agreed that we shouldn’t discriminate against him because he happened to be a guy.

Josh’s first job was to design a cover using an inkblot illustration that we felt was both abstract and sophisticated enough for our endeavor. His finished product, however, was not what we had hoped for. Josh had, we decided, phallocentrically set all the type thrusting into the inkblot’s blank spaces. “This is what happens when you let the patriarchy in,” one of my colleagues announced. Josh had to go.

If I tell this story with the same bemusement I use to recount my children’s learning experiences, I want to make it clear that I’m not recanting my feminist education. Feminism, as it was taught in the 1980s, wasn’t a share-your-feelings detour away from rigorous thinking. Rather, it was a disciplined, intellectually engaging philosophy that showed young women like me how to critique the world around us. It taught me not only how to challenge male privilege—no inconsequential realization when you consider that twenty years later men still earn more than women and hold the overwhelming majority of government positions—but to question my own lofty position as a rich white kid.

What feminism didn’t teach me was that mother love messes with ideology. Today when I think about Josh, I wonder not only about what all of us in the collective missed by not trying to work out a solution with him, but also whether Josh talked to his mother about his expulsion from our garden. Did she see it as a kind of historical corrective and valuable learning experience? Or did she imagine her almost-grown son as a vulnerable boy standing in the middle of a skating rink?

When I got pregnant, most of my friends had daughters. I had watched them raise their girls, my mental notebook filling with ideas for when my time came. I was enchanted by the attention they paid to encouraging their girls’ uniqueness. One wrote books about body image and classroom self-esteem for junior high school girls, and she and her husband put her research into practice at home with their two daughters. Their living room was stacked with library books portraying spunky female characters like Pippi Longstocking and Reckless Ruby, an aspiring firefighter who cringes when her mother calls her “precious.” My friend bought (or sewed) only clothes the girls could stain or rip when jumping off the highest rung of the monkey bars or calibrating the liquid to dirt ratio of a mud hole. When the older daughter got her period, the entire family celebrated with an all-red dinner: spaghetti with tomato sauce and heart-shaped meatballs, sliced bell peppers, and cran-raspberry juice.

This was how I imagined I’d raise my daughters, too. I assumed mothering a girl would come naturally to me because she would possess more of the qualities that I valued: She would be less physical, more creative, more connected to her parents when she became an adult.

At our week nineteen ultrasound, the doctor pointed a pen at a skinny triangle sticking out from between the baby’s legs. “So you tell me,” he said. “What do you think we have here?”

I stared at the screen. At first I couldn’t make out anything, but I forced my eyes to focus on what looked to me like a crescent moon with a blob in the middle. The doctor explained it was the baby’s butt and the bottom sides of the thighs. The moon wiggled. I squinted to get a closer focus. And then I saw it. That triangle, that blob. It was the baby’s labia.

I couldn’t believe it was so obvious.

“A girl?” I whispered.

Walter raised his eyebrows at the doctor. Then he put his hand on my shoulder. “Honey,” he said. “That’s a penis.”

That I was disappointed by the news was deeply troubling. Our baby was, after all, healthy. But what was equally disturbing—and perhaps more surprising—was the tepid response I got from a lot of other women. “Well, at least you’ll raise him to be a good man,” they said. “We need more women like you to have boys.”

Before I got pregnant, I would have agreed with them. Before I got pregnant, I also said this to friends who were expecting boys. The promise of feminism as I learned it (but obviously wasn’t ready to put into play when it came to Josh) lay in the liberation of both sexes from rigid gender roles. Women gain access to the upper reaches of institutional power and change them to not be so hierarchical, and men are finally allowed to enjoy an emotional world our culture previously denied them. A feminist education tells boys they can be vulnerable, that they are worth more than the thickness of their wallets. A feminist education instructs boys and men that the search for an authentic self is a birthright. It challenges the callous assumption that men’s lives can be disposed of for national defense.

All of these convictions didn’t matter in the face of my ignorance and fear of boys. I wondered how it could be that I—a woman with massive ambivalence about her child’s gender—could be the right kind of woman to have a son. To me, boys were not individuals, but rather a gang of sports-crazy thugs. If they were not part of a pack, they were anti-social future engineers who shunned sunlight in favor of an afternoon fiddling with an erector set or working a computer keyboard. I made exceptions, of course: My husband, my brother-in-law, all the men I was lucky enough to call friends. But these were men. With the exception of my adored nephew, who was less than one year old, I didn’t know any boys intimately well.
If a man with a similarly negative view of girlhood was to have a daughter, I know what my friends and I would have called it: A tragedy. Why then, was it good that I might (might) influence my son to be less “like a man”? Was it because I had noble opinions about what could, in an ideal world, make a man? Or because I wanted to raise a man who would have enlightened ideas about women? If the job of a parent is to encourage a child to grow into their own unique self, it was clear that I was in trouble.

Worried that I would be a complete failure as a mother, I called my only close friend who had a son and tearfully admitted that I was terrified of having a boy. “Loving a child has nothing to do with gender,” she assured me. “This little boy will steal your heart.”

My friend was right, of course. Now that I am the mother of two boys—our younger, Henrik, is two years old—I’m so steeped in the marvelous complexities of boyhood that it’s almost impossible for me to relate to that pregnant woman sobbing into the phone. Like all parents, I believe that my boys—as well as the daughter my husband and I are adopting—are the children I was meant to have. But more than that, I believe that my sons were the children I needed to have.

In Sexual Personae, Camille Paglia writes, “When I cross the George Washington Bridge or any of America’s great bridges, I think—men have done this. Construction is a sublime male poetry.” Ten years ago, I would have tried to dismantle her praise by pointing out that at the time the George Washington Bridge was built, people didn’t believe women could physically handle the rigors of manual labor—not to mention engineering. Now, I am moved by the fact of the accomplishment and Paglia’s determination to claim it as such. I still hope that today’s bridge builders and designers are both men and women and that my sons can grow up to choose to be stay-at-home dads, if that’s what they want (or, more important in today’s realities, can afford).

Because of my sons, I look at people as individuals rather than representations. Boys are not monsters. Nor are girls naturally kinder and gentler. That’s not to say that even this more nuanced idealism goes untested. In my short parenting career, I have steered Peter away from a Southern belle Halloween costume and talked him out of a pair of pink-feathered mules. Sure, I bought him a purse and the Barbie he begged for, but if I’m honest with myself I’ll admit that it was because I knew he wouldn’t take them out of the house. Or at least not beyond the backyard, which is where I last spotted the doll, naked and face down in a clump of damp leaves. The fact that I will gladly let my daughter parade around as Spiderman or cart a convoy of trucks to the playground strikes me as one of the greater inconsistencies in my philosophy. Partly, this censoring comes from an understanding that the world we live in is still suspicious of and frightened by boys who walk outside prescribed guy boundaries, and I don’t want my sons to be emotionally taunted or physically harmed. But I worry that by going along with these rules, I’m reinforcing the notion that they can’t express everything they are in public. By indulging my protective instinct, I’m foregoing efforts to make America, or at least my corner of it, a better place for boys of any stripe.

At the same time, I’ve told Peter that he isn’t allowed to wear camouflage and that Santa doesn’t make plastic rifles. When Peter got to check out his first books from the school library, his choices were The Navy: At War and The Air Force: At War. While I wished that he had chosen the sled dog picture book that the girl in our car pool clasped in her hands, I knew this was more about his newfound ability to figure out what he thinks without his parents’ stage management. So we went home and read both books cover to cover. Two weeks later he told me: “I don’t like killing and I am for peace. But I still think looking at guns and weapons is interesting.” The next book he checked out was about skeletons and skin.

Today my home life is a blur of crayons, clay, and blocks, not to mention a fleet of construction vehicles and toilet paper rolls turned into weapons—often pointed in my direction. I’ve given up trying to stop the shooting, mostly because I’m too overwhelmed to spend my entire day playing peace cop—and I figure that if they are happily engaged I’ll get a chance to read the paper—but also because I trust that they won’t grow into men who believe that killing people is a sport. I hope to have accomplished at least this much as a mother. If I didn’t have sons, all the paper cannon-building would horrify me. But because I understand the tender hearts of both these boys in particular, I feel that it’s healthier for them to work out their aggression than to suppress it. (Who knows, maybe the mothers of playground bullies think the same way.)

That doesn’t mean that I’ve reconciled myself to the militaristic expectations our culture has for its boys. In 1976, in the shadow of the Vietnam War, Adrienne Rich wrote that under patriarchy, all mothers of sons worked for the army. Today, even with American forces stretched to their limits in Iraq, there is no draft. But the deeper truth of Rich’s statement still stings. Whenever I go to Target, I’m struck by how somber and boring the boys’ cargo pants and striped T-shirts are compared to the glittery oranges and pinks and purples across the aisle. And don’t get me started on the rows and rows of fighter jets (which my sons adore) and Legos that turn into endless variations on the grim reaper. Even though I find these norms dispiriting, I dress my sons in the standard American boy uniform and cut their hair short. And when the top item on Peter’s Christmas list was an aircraft carrier, I decided not to be too hard-core about my conscientious objections.

The other day I overheard Peter humming a tune from Mary Poppins. “We’re clearly soldiers in petticoats/And dauntless crusaders for women’s votes/Though we adore men individually/We agree that as a group they’re rather stupid.” I could tell by the way he was mumbling the words that it was the tune that mattered to him and that he hadn’t processed the song’s meaning. But listening to him did make me wonder how I’ll talk to him about the personal revolution his birth set in motion for me. While I hope that what my boys feel most powerfully is my unyielding love for them, I suspect that one day we will all have to reckon with the complicated emotions I brought into our family-making.

When Walter and I decided to have a third child, we agreed to adopt. Part of the reason was because we wanted to choose our baby’s gender, to parent a girl. Though I deeply love my boys, I still wish to put all those girl power philosophies into play. The desire is like a phantom limb. I wonder, though, about the crown of expectations I’ve made for my daughter. I’ll have to remember that she’s not a mini me. I’ll have to be supportive and bite my tongue, even if she wants to wear pink dresses and bake pies for the rest of her life.

Two weeks after that wretched first hockey practice, Peter learned that by pushing off the edge of his blade, he could travel farther than if he just walked across the ice. To glide and keep his balance was a thrill for him. Not to mention a revelation for me. A hockey player, I suddenly realized, must not only master the difficulties of skating, but combine that skill with quick reflexes and hand-eye coordination. In the glow of Peter’s newfound enthusiasm, nothing about hockey—except perhaps those infamous 5:30 a.m. ice times—repulsed me. When Peter scored a goal during a scrimmage, I was so excited that I called my mother from the rink.

Last week during practice, I wandered over to the vending machines near the main rink where members of a junior high team were being put through their drills. It wasn’t until I got closer that I was able to make out the ponytails falling down their padded backs. Before Peter was born, this would have been the only game at Parade Ice Garden that I cared about. Today it’s the icing on the cake. For as much as I would love to stay and cheer these girls on, I leave. My son is learning how to stickhandle. And I want to be there to see it.