The first two times I was pregnant, I didn’t want to know the baby’s sex before he or she arrived. Each time, when a boy emerged, I was thrilled. As a child, I had had my doubts about whether or not I would be good mother. Looking back, I think I exhibited toward babies the same sort of perplexed uncertainty that our Mutt shows toward toddlers. She always looks as if she can’t figure out whether to play with them or eat them. I understand her confusion. Before I had one, I really had no idea what one was supposed to do with a baby.
But two boys came along and I figured out pretty quickly that boys were easy. Falling off a chair easy. Growing sea monkeys easy. Even I could be a good mother to boys.
If you want to know my secret formula for mothering young boys, here it is, gratis:
Treat them like puppies.
Give them plenty of food, fresh water and exercise. And don’t forget to take them outside at regular intervals. The business of boys is done outside. It generally involves dirt, rocks, sticks, water, implements of destruction and trucks. Lots and lots of trucks.
I was fine with all that. In our house, we all agreed that a good day was a day at the end of which their clothes were so dirty that it was a toss-up between throwing them in the hamper or the garbage. We all agreed that the car would skid to a screeching halt at every construction site because there is nothing, nothing, so absorbing as diggers, backhoes and dumptrucks working their magic. And we all agreed that it was fine to go barefoot year-round until you had to go to real school for Kindergarten.
Today I asked Youngest and his friend G what they thought the difference was between boys and girls. G promptly dropped his head in his hands and exclaimed, “Boys are so much more straightforward!” Youngest nodded his head sagely, agreeing with his buddy. It is true that, at least from a distance, girls seem infinitely more psychologically complex than boys. Boys fight and forget. They don’t hold grudges. They don’t do drama.
By the time Oldest was almost six, I thought I had the boy thing pretty much sewn up and I really, really wanted a shot at bringing up a girl.
It hadn’t escaped me that life was pretty much set up for the boys. For starters, we can examine the default pronoun in the English language. From there, we can move onto toys. The other day, we discussed Polly Pocket and her race to the mall, so today let’s take on Barbie, shall we? All 5’ 9” of her. She has measurements of approximately 36-18-33, but lacks enough body fat to successfully menstruate. She has, by any measure, an impossible body. And while it is is true that boys play with action figures that also have impossible bodies, those toys encourage boys to get bigger and stronger. Barbie, on the other hand, is one in a long litany of messengers telling girls that their impossible body requires, above all, diminishment and deprivation. And the princess stuff, do not get me started on the princess stuff.
The point is that I wanted the challenge of bringing up a girl precisely because I felt the culture was not set up for girls. Where it builds up boys, I thought, it undermines girls. The other day on this site a few of us were discussing this issue and, Imperatrix, a mother of two girls, wrote that to her “it always seemed easier to raise a child who was part of the ‘underclass’ to fight the system than to raise a child who was part of the ‘overlords’ to concede power.” I didn’t think of it at the time, but now I’ve figured out why that didn’t ring true for me. It is because boys don’t come out as overlords. When they are small, they have no power to concede. And you can raise them have a different conception of power than the one the culture offers as their birthright. They can have a notion of power that is wide and deep, one that includes emotionality, vulnerability and sensitivity.
I am confident that, whether we have boys or girls, we need to work to help them resist the culture. But here is my question: is it harder to raise a girl than a boy? Many mothers of girls tell me it is. I always thought it was. But I wonder, isn’t it also possible that the very fact that we perceive girls as more vulnerable to the culture is itself a legacy of the patriarchy? I know so many strong, willful, fantastic little girls. None of them seem like pushovers to me or saps to the powers-that-be. If we see them as weaker than boys, less capable of resisting the culture, won’t they inevitably see themselves as weaker too?
What if we relentlessly reinforced the message, not that they have to be more protected from the culture, but that they are perfectly capable of dissecting the culture, taking what nourishes them and discarding the offal? Would that do the trick? Or is the cultural deck simply too stacked against them?