I watched the woman at the airport security checkpoint as she silently counted my three sons with her eyes. I knew the question was coming.
"No girls?" she asked in that mocking tone I've already grown to despise.
By this time, however, I had a repertoire of quick comebacks.
"Why yes, but my three girls are at home!" I said with great conviction.
My third son was only three months old when we were returning from this vacation, but I had already discovered that a mother of three boys is a magnet for frequent and not always appealing comments, ranging from "God Bless you," to the pitying, "No girls?" one.
I know many people with either three boys or three girls, but it is only the mothers with the three (or more) boys who are inevitably the recipients of insensitive musings from strangers as well as friends. A mother to three girls hears "Oh, how cute," while a mother to three boys gets "Oh, how do you do it?" There is something about having that third boy that makes us stand out and garner reactions that usually border on sympathy. Sometimes, I find them downright amusing, but other times, I feel slugged in that vulnerable spot, knowing that I'll never have a daughter. Women who have had two boys and then gave birth to a girl make the most stinging comments. These moms have bragged to me, "I got my girl!" Or some women would say with palpable relief, "My husband finally got it right!"
Lamenting to one of my allies who also had three boys that I didn't really care about not having a little girl to dress up in pretty pink outfits, she quickly agreed and said, "I don't want a girl; I want a daughter."
That was it, exactly. When I think about the close relationship I have with my own mother, it wasn't until my late teens when our mother-daughter bond truly evolved. Whether it was going on shopping sprees, having long phone calls to discuss friendship woes, planning my wedding or obsessing about my pregnancies, my mother was and still is a constant source of stability, strength and inspiration. once dreamed of passing on that kind of love and support to my own daughter.
I think I was misunderstood when, days after I gave birth to our third boy, I told my husband that I thought I wanted one more child. Everyone, including him, immediately assumed it was because I wanted to "try" for a girl. But that really wasn't it; at least I didn't think so. I realized that my two older sons were two years apart while my third little guy was four years younger than his middle brother. My 4 and 6-year old seemed to be eons ahead of him in their interests and abilities. My newest, littlest guy needed a "buddy" to grow up with, trick-or-treat with, sleigh-ride with and ride the day camp bus with -- activities that my two older ones were now doing together. By the time my third son would be ready to join them and really revel in these doings, his older brothers would be done or almost done with that phase of their childhood.
But, maybe it was me who really wanted the "buddy." As my boys get older, there are certain times when I feel estranged in my all-male household. If any of my boys happens to catch a glimpse of me getting out of the shower, the sight will immediately elicit giggles or stares or even screams. The boys have each gravitated to participating in sports that I never played, such as basketball, soccer and golf. I am definitely an eager spectator and a frequent partner for a game of catch, but I am never the team coach or hitting drives with them out on the golf range. And, don't even get me started on the toilet seats. With my boys' hopeless aiming skills, it's almost like visiting a public bathroom, and there are times I want to squat rather than sit in my own bathroom.
And what about my need for a partner to do 'girly' things with, like manicures and shopping? Sure, I've taken my boys with me to get my nails done but to them, the whole experience is a science experiment. As for shopping, I have one son who enjoys the process as long as he's benefiting with new clothes as well, but for the other two, there had better be a reward of ice cream or an Xbox game at the end or else I'm going solo.
However, it was during that first vacation as a family of five that I had a chance conversation poolside with a woman who helped me come to terms with being a mother to three sons. She told me that she, too, had three boys and then her fourth child was a girl. I told her that I was thinking of having a fourth because I didn't feel "done" yet. I also told her how I loved having three boys, but that I had a close relationship with my mother and before I even finished my thought about wanting a daughter, she finished it for me: "I wanted someone to brush my hair for me when I can't do it anymore." Yes, that was it, again. Not the girl, but the daughter. The woman by the pool must have seen my face get this faraway, bereft look and that was when she said all the right things.
"Don't worry", she consoled. "If you never have a daughter, I can promise you that one of your sons will assume that role for you. In fact, one of my sons is more of a daughter to me than my own daughter."
I laughed, but I believed her too. Her children were all teenagers or older now, so she seemed to have the wisdom of hindsight.
Ever since that exchange, I am both comforted and enlightened. And now, with two of my boys at that teenage mark, I understand what she was talking about. I now truly feel that a daughter does not necessarily sprout from giving birth to a little girl. The daughter I crave may be one of my sons or a future daughter-in-law or one of my nieces.
When I try to imagine if my daughter will in fact be one of my sons, I peer into their personalities -- still burgeoning -- for hints. My oldest son used to enjoy caring for his youngest brother when he was a baby by demanding the involvement in dressing, bathing and feeding him. My middle son is incredibly attuned to other people's emotions, including his own. And my youngest, now 9, is still cuddly and frequently seeks hugs and kisses, capturing my nurturing heart each time. My three sons are all so different; they are constantly evolving as they find and fill distinct roles within our family. I may not do too much brushing of my boys' hair anymore -- except for the occasional fix of bed head -- but when the time comes for someone to take care of me and brush my hair, I know my daughter will find me.