I woulda if I coulda

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?


13 thoughts on “I woulda if I coulda

  1. Hah! We’ve been raising sea monkeys (literally), and all but one has died!
    I think a lot of this discussion hinges on whether you believe that gender traits are fixed from birth or malleable. It’s the old nature-nurture debate. I have to say that after many years in grad. school for psychology, I am convinced that there are at least some ways in which gender expresses itself that are immutable. I believe that girls are socially and emotionally mature at a much younger age than are boys, and that this maturity is hardwired, and that it is precisely thid maturity that is responsible for girls’ ways of being mean. It’s not that girls are meaner than boys but that their meanness cuts so deep, rings so true, wounds so completely.
    That said, your description of raising boys doesn’t match my own. My second, in particular, would much rather bury his nose in a book than play outside. I have found myself maniacally touting the pleasures of the outdoors in an effort to get him into some fresh air. So who knows?
    Because gender traits, like every other psychological phenomenon, are determined by a mixture of genetics and the environment, it is a real bear to discuss, dissect, and disentangle them. You are brave for trying!
    (BTW, if you haven’t read Carol Gilligan’s In A Different Voice, about the different ways girls and boys view and act on ethical dilemmas, it’s a fascinating read.)

  2. I always thought girls would be easier, at least for me, because I was one: I figured I’d “get” her in ways that I never did really “get” boys. But both my kids are complex and strange individuals, and I’m not sure I’ve yet found one “easier” than the other–part of that is that they are always at very different stages (she is 7-1/2 years older than he is) but the other part is that my #2, like Slouching Mom’s, is a pretty bookwormy boy. So, yes, he’s got a lot of puppy qualities, but also some cat ones. And my two nephews seem to be turning out more like him than like puppies, too, though at the moment they’re still little enough that it can be hard to tell.

  3. I always wanted daughters, and very obligingly I’ve had two of them so far. I have one son and he has been a blissful revelation to me about the beauty of maleness. I’ve never particularily worried about girl-culture – my daughters are both super-girly and are also smart, competent (well, one of them isn’t two yet. But she seems smart and competent so far.) and happy, without me having to make them faux boys.
    And do we still feel like this culture undermines GIRLS? A guick glance at the highschool drop-out rates and university attendance rates would seem to suggest that we’ve now fairly successfully undermined boys.

  4. I’m not a mother but I do know my father always wanted a boy so when I came along he basically treated me like one. There were only subtle differences in his attitude towards me and my sister but it created havoc for the both of us. I grew up always resenting the fact that I always had to be the boyish one when in fact I’m as girly as she is. The problem, I think, was caused by the differentiation – we could both have been brought up in the manner of a boy if there is such a thing and it would have been fine. I loved playing in the dirt and catching bugs and burning things as much as I loved making clothes and painting and dancing. So did my sister.
    As for barbie, although I disagree with all that she stands for I think recent attempts to fatten her up have been counter-productive. As a child she never represented a woman for me, she was just a doll whose hips were really annoying when you were trying to dress her. It’s the “real” airbrushed, dieted and plastic-surgeried women that provide more worrying role models.

  5. You have posed some very important questions here! I am not a mom to any human kids (just furry ones!) at this time, but I definitely think of my nephews as tougher than my nieces. And I definitely think that society helps shape how we raise our children. I guess I do think it’s tougher to raise girls, though, just seeing the influences they have in the media. Boys seem less susceptible to those kinds of things.

  6. Well, thanks to my purple prose, I seem to have to explain myself. What I was trying to get at was all tangled up in subtle messages, like the pronoun one you mention. If a boy is raised without much thought given to the influence of culture, then he has a pretty good chance of developing to his full potential. If a girl is raised the same way, I’m not sure she would get to the same fullness of potential, all by herself (or, within a vacuum).
    “Brush. Brush. Comb. Comb. All girls who like to brush and comb should have a pet like this at home”. Sounds familiar? Not at my house, because we consciously changed it to “…all kids who like…” I’m not saying we were the only ones to do this, but pile up a childhood’s total of subtle messages like that, and it wouldn’t have affected a young man the same way as it would have affected a young woman.
    Another example: Remember those Fisher-Price farms? The ones with the a rooster, a hen, a cow, a donkey, a barn, a man in a yellow hat and a woman in a kerchief? When a friend of mine played with her daughters, she’d always say, “Look at that! you’ve put the farmer in the tractor. Oh, and is the farmer’s husband feeding the chickens?” Again, subtle messages that imply a secondary status to the female.
    We’ve gotten much better as a culture, of course. When I was a Physics undergrad, there was a supposedly raunchy mnemonic to help remember the color representations on resistors. They wouldn’t tell *me* what it was, but the grad students were still “sharing” this info with the boys. Most of the stories I read growing up had boys as the protagonists, and I’d have to create alternate scenarios in my own fantasy life. Nowadays, there are many very good books with girls as protagonists (when she first read Fellowship of the Ring, Impera said, “There aren’t many important women in this story, are there?”)
    I don’t think we should be protecting our girls. I think we need to help them learn to discern when women are subtly being put in their place, drowned in politeness, stifled with consideration. We need to stop praising them for their penmanship, while Johnny in the seat beside them is praised for figuring out the tough answer. We need them to understand that they are the lawn mowers, snow shovelers, chains-on-the-tire-attachers, not just the boys.
    I think I’m rambling now, so I’ll end this comment co-option.

  7. Slouching mom, I said it was easy to grow sea monkeys – I didn’t say anything about keeping them alive! Re: boys, I should have made it clearer that I meant young boys when I compared them to puppies. By the time they can read, the canine comparison fades into the background. That said, now that I have one in college and two teenagers at home, I think the value of getting outside and moving your body as a hormone regulator cannot be overstated. And I have read A Different Voice. Fascinating.
    Libby, it’s interesting you thought you would “get” your daughter more and that would make it easier. I’ve always felt being the opposite sex from my boys makes parenting “easier” because I don’t see myself in them. I always thought if I had a girl, I would be more likely to see myself in her, and thus, possibly cloud my view of her and her needs with my memory of myself and my childhood needs.
    Beck, I agree that school has become an environment that is generally more suited to girls than boys – as evidenced, as you say, by both attendance and drop-out rates. But once girls graduate and enter the workplace, I think the balance reverses itself again.
    flutterbrush, I love the image of you as an annoyed child trying to get clothes over Barbie’s ridiculous hips! Also, I agree that the endless stream of real women, young and old, trying to become more or less than what they are is the most dangerous thing.
    doggymama, I agree that how we see children is a hugely important factor in how they ultimately see themselves.
    Imperatrix, now I get it! Thanks for the explanation.

  8. All that needs to be reinforced in a girl’s world is “Your brain is more important than your looks”. Girls don’t get that, which I think, boys totally do.
    You sound like a great mom, if anyone has a shot with a girl, it’s you.

  9. ah.. i dont know.. i just have one boy and he’s only 21 months ..but friends with a daughter and a son admit that the daughters are brought up with a lot more effort… not because of culture… but because they say, girls are inherently more complicated… they reason more, they are harder to convince and a hundred other little things. i dont know how true that is… i hope to find out some day!

  10. Anna, I know what you mean about “seeing yourself” in your kids and the problems that creates. It’s true, most of the mistakes I’ve made w/my daughter have to do w/assuming she’ll respond to things as I would. But my son actually resembles me (physically) much more than she does, so I project myself right into him just as much! (This probably all says more about me than about parenting boy and girls.)

  11. I have one of each, but it’s too early to tell which one will be “easier.” I can tell you this, though – I worry more about protecting my son from our culture’s definitions of maleness than I do about protecting my daughter. Both sets of stereotypes are destructive, to be sure, but it worries me more than my son’s emotions will be stunted.
    That “Brush brush comb comb” example is a classic one – I can forgive it, at least, because in those days Dr. Seuss didn’t know any better. I get more irate when the Starfall alphabet website introduces two characters, Zig-Zag boy and Zig-Zag girl, with the girl being defined by the fact that she doesn’t know where to put her hairbrush!

  12. mad momma, Yes, it seems to me that, if nothing else, girls seem more willing to engage in complicated conversations about things.
    Libby, I have a category for parenting mistakes and a post about the disastrous parenting outcomes that result when I see too much of myself in my kids is definitely warranted. It is a classic mistake.
    bubandpie, before I had three boys, I would have worried too. But now, with three boys who even as teenagers are sensitive, thoughtful, fair, capable of easily expressing their affection and really appreciate how cute babies are, I realize there was nothing at all to worry about. I do think it helps if boys have, as mine did, a really great male role model – one with a highly developed feminine side!

  13. I grew up in a family of 5 girls, no boys. I have one daughter and my sisters each have one daughter each. I was very happy to hear “healthy girl” as the results of the prenatal jabbing. I didn’t think I’d know what to do with a boy. (whatever I meant by that.)
    My best friend has two boys, a bit older than my girl. When we compare parenting travails, they are pretty similar. We each have a child with sensitive wiring–and I am not talking about smiling at babies–and there the stories match up particularly well.
    Gender differences are complex. (duh!) We often fail to capture the essence of it. Nature v nurture is not the right cut. We are all clearly a bundle of both. I worry more as X moves toward adolescence, where your boys already are, Anna. And, as I have noted on my blog, my questions center around what it means to be a good man, a good woman–as differentiated from a good person. I think that differentiation is subtle and important.
    But I gotta say: princesses are COOL. They wield power and they get really pretty clothes too. It’s not a bad gig, depends on how its constructed.

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