I was the last of my friends and family to have a child. I didn’t always want kids. But I always had a very firm conviction that if I did have a child, she would be a girl. I suppose I wanted a girl for some of the same reasons that other mothers want girls – to see some of themselves reproduced in young and faultless package. But I also wanted a girl because I thought that I would be good at it. I thought that I would be able to teach her everything that I had to learn – whether through gender studies or hard experiences. I could warn her about faulty stereotypes before they got to her and prop up her self-esteem and encourage her to dream beyond the limited expectations that the media fed her.
When my first child turned out to be a boy, I didn’t flinch. I told myself that things will be easier this way. I still wasn’t sure that I was cut out for motherhood and I was too overwhelmed by first baby anxieties to get hung up on sex. There was still time.
It wasn’t until two years later that reality set in. I was stuck in traffic when the doctor called with the results of the genetic testing for my second pregnancy. My stomach dropped. I was admittedly more concerned about the sex than I was about markers for Down Syndrome, and somehow I knew before she told me. The baby is healthy. And he’s a boy.
I sobbed all the way to work, and for what felt like a few days afterwards. Because this time I knew it was forever. I’ll be 38 years old when this child is born. If I give myself another 2 years I’ll be close to 40. I know that women have children in their 40s and I mean no disrespect or judgment toward them. It’s just simply not for me.
So I spent some time grieving the loss of this little thing I’d been calling Elinor for 3 months and slowly adjusted to the fact that I was the mother of 2 boys.
As I write this I’m nearing the end of my second and last pregnancy. I have about 35 days to go. I’m uncomfortable and barely able to keep my food down. But I still make sure to take my 2 year old to the park when the weather is nice, regardless of how hard it is to keep up with him.
A few days ago I was rattled by a local news story, about a 5 year old girl who’d been assaulted while waiting for her school bus. Someone just reached out and took her, pushed her in the gravel, bloodied her face and tore off her pants. The authorities still don’t know for sure how far this man went in abusing her. They’re asking questions, but after all, she’s only 5 years old. Already people are blaming the mother for leaving the girl alone at the bus stop. As if we should be forced to hover over our daughters every hour of the day – never allowing them any sense of independence or security.
A few days later it happened again. This time it was a 7 year old girl in the same neighborhood. Her father turned away for a moment and she was gone. The police found her in the apartment of a 47 year old man.
I thought about both of these girls as I watched my son run ahead of me, zigzagging his way towards the playground. It occurred to me that when I imagined raising my hypothetical girl I always thought about things like body image and safe contraception and the wage gap. I never really considered violence. It hit home as I struggle to keep my son in my line of sight – that one of the benefits of having a boy is that he’s less of a target.
My challenge in raising two boys isn’t as much about teaching them that they can grow up to be anything that they want in this life – they’ll already get that message (both of my boys are of mixed race, but the first is certainly light-skinned enough to lay claim to the benefits of white privilege). But I still need to teach them to be the kind of men who recognize sexism and violence when they see it, and to do their part to fight against it.
My son only plays on the slides and the swings for a short while. He’s already prone to exploring, like his mother. He romps through the grass, examining everything with his eyes and his hands. He loves to pick dandelions. Together we roam around the field looking for little pockets of the yellow flowers. We put the search on hold when he discovers a discarded baseball. He plays with it for a little while but then tells me that it’s too heavy and tosses it back in the grass. We go back to picking flowers.
Already it’s easy to see how gender roles can hurt him in the same way they would have hurt Elinor. I don’t want anyone to accuse him of being weak because he’s drawn to things that are beautiful or poetic. I don’t want him to be ashamed of his emotions. I don’t want his life experiences to be limited by anyone’s arbitrary perception of what masculinity means.
Just like raising Elinor, keeping him grounded might mean sheltering him from well-meaning relatives who discourage him from playing with dolls or wearing pink. It will certainly mean drawing attention to some of the clever women and girls who’ve shaped history, but don’t have a prominent place in his school textbooks. It means pointing out the potential of the female sidekicks in so many popular books and movies. It means plucking women and girls out of obscurity and showing him how powerful and valuable they can be. It means showing him the flaws and unfairness in advertisements and certain conceptions of “family values.” It means breaking down difficult subjects like “rape culture.” It means doing all this with the understanding that will, in all likelihood, eventually come to associate women with sex. That he will listen to music with toxic lyrics and face pressures from friends that normalize disrespectful attitudes towards women and encourage him speak and behave more like an animal than a man.
Suddenly nothing about this seems any “easier.”
My innocent little boy rounds a corner with his dandelions in his hand as I waddle after him. I hear him shriek and run back towards me as a large dog wanders across our path (as much progress as we’ve made, he’s still afraid of the bigger ones).
“Mommy hold you.” He reaches up towards me with his squished dandelions in his fist. I hoist him up on my hip and together we walk calmly past the animal that frightened him. I assure him that the dog won’t hurt him and that he’s safe.
“You’re safe now.” He repeats.
At least for now, he’s safe.