Yesterday I saw my son’s penis. It was a routine ultrasound. Here’s his head, here are his ears. There’s his heart, there his liver. And there, unmistakable between the legs, his penis.
Having a girl is easy. I knew from the start how I was going to raise her, where I wanted her gender compass to be and how I would help her get there – limit the lace and sparkles, keep her away entirely from all the foo foo princess crap, change male pronouns to female in all her animal bedtime stories (because seriously, why does every rambunctious tiger, bear, llama and raccoon need to be a boy?). I knew which social mores I wanted to upend and how to provide her with a world of freedom to choose her own identity path.
But a boy. What am I supposed to do with a boy? If it’s okay for my daughter to wear hand me down boy clothes from her cousins, does that mean it will be okay for my son to wear hand me down girl clothes from his sister? If I point my daughter toward the rocket ship lunchbox during back to school shopping, does that mean it will be okay to point my son toward the butterfly hearts? And why is it that the neutral white crib and changing table seem suddenly too feminine in their slightly rounded edges?
Obviously it’s just not that simple. Our culture often compels young girls to gravitate toward aesthetics and ideas that ultimately – if taken to the girly extreme and carried over into young adulthood – will make things like equal pay and equal opportunity harder to come by in a world that is still dominated by male leaders, and that still too often treats women as tokens. But, I understand that this issue is far more complex than the girly stereotypes peddled through clothing, toys, and media; my daughter will struggle against a male power structure whether or not I manage to ward off every last scrap of pink ribbon that comes her way. All these attempts to curate her cultural surroundings are just one component of fostering an internal world for her in which she may be less likely to see herself as less than simply by virtue of her sex.
For boys, though, it’s different. I’ve yet to meet a straight, white, middle-class man who’s been tormented by the discriminatory and disrespectful treatment he’s received at the hands of the ruling class. Despite all the gains we’ve made as a society, our economic and political systems are still stacked in favor of these guys, which I suppose means I could be congratulating the little white, middle-class male growing inside of me, it means I should be breathing a sigh of relief that I won’t need to worry too much about what roads will be open to him.
But here, again, it’s more complex. I may not have met many straight white men complaining of discrimination, but I’ve met more than I can count who describe isolation, insecurity around choosing a nontraditional path, and hypersensitivity to simply being a little sensitive, because even at the top of the food chain, there’s still a pecking order. Maybe my perspective is skewed by my MFA and by my art school business card, or maybe it’s just my knee jerk feminism, but it seems the world favors not just men over women, but macho men over not so macho men. My solution to the man/woman divide has been in many ways to raise a slightly (okay, maybe a little more than slightly) macho girl. When I apply this logic to raising a boy, though, the whole construct falls apart.
To raise a responsible male in today’s society means making him understand his privilege, not so he can take advantage of it, but so he can treat everyone with equal dignity and respect. Respect and dignity are not qualities I associate with male machnoness. Quite the opposite – these are qualities more specifically suited toward the female side of the spectrum. The sacred feminine, when viewed through a Buddhist prism, refers to qualities like acceptance, oneness, love, and openness to love. Feminine though they might be, these sound like qualities I want to engender in my son. And for all the macho mommy business, these sound like qualities I want to work on in myself too, so that I can hopefully, at some point, be enlightened enough to teach to my daughter.
My daughter likes to wear boy pajamas. She also likes racecars and playing with worms. Lately she’s really taken to wearing tie-dye dresses and sparkly tennis shoes, right about the same time she became obsessed with dinosaurs.
Maybe my boy will like sparkly shoes too, and maybe he’ll like playing with her dolls. Or maybe he’ll be super into superheroes and villains, bulldozers and monster trucks. I may draw the line at monster trucks (unless we all agree that they’re solar powered electric monster trucks), but I understand that I need to let him be whatever it is that he wants to be. It’s taken me a while to figure this out for my daughter (I’ve been working on it all the way since this post), so maybe this understanding – this letting go – will be my girl’s very first gift to her brother, and her ongoing gift to me.