Boy Power (12 weeks)

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.

Moose Power

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5 thoughts on “Boy Power (12 weeks)

  1. How much do I love that picture?! You sound like you know exactly how to raise an aware, sensitive, strong boy (or as exactly as any of us can muster.) And for the record, I have girls who are badasses and bosses, but they love everything that is sparkly, flouffy and girlie. The boys? One is very conscious that he’s being boyish (although I’d say he’s extremely sensitive to the emotions and social positions of those around him) and another who had me buy a pink BFF necklace of a flip flop with a flower on it to give to his best friend (a boy, of course) and to wear himself. He has only ever talked about marrying a boy, by the way. And sometimes he’s very sensitive, but mostly not so much. Culture definitely teaches them about gender, and I’m amazed at how much wonderful, classic old books squelch a woman’s independence and strength (Bobbsey Twins, Secret Garden, Boxcar Children), but I think their inherent nature is pretty much preprogrammed, for better or worse.
    Congrats on the boy! (Happy dance!!) They’re a wonder. Truly.

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    1. What’s really amazed me about children’s books is that even the new, modern ones, written and illustrated by modern, liberated women, are totally boy focused, and almost always continue to portray the mama in stereotypically mama ways – washing the dishes, caring for the children, baking cookies, etc, etc… It just baffles me! All I can figure is that children’s book publishers maybe have the same philosophy that I’ve heard spouted about grown up books – that women will read books about men, but men will not generally read books about women. Sad, but kind of true. Except for my husband, I guess. Which I think is part of the reason he’s my husband.
      Congratulations on your non-gender conforming child, and congratulations to you for not squelching it. I’m so excited to see how this next, next generation evolves. Keep up the good work!

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  2. I have boys, pregnant currently with my third. The thing I oppose most against is the military, aggressive culture we push on our boys.., guns, fighting, superheroes (the black and white definitions of good v. evil). Boys shouldn’t be encouraged to be aggressive and I hate to think of them as being groomed for military service. Although I wouldn’t push the sparkly and inane with girls or boys, I do try to guide my boys towards household skills (toy kitchens, baby dolls, books and quiet activities: I hate it that it’s suggested that boys are incapable of sitting still or reading a book) and beauty: flowers, butterflies: of course! Why shouldn’t they glean the same aesthetic pleasures that a girl does? I do wonder a lot about “inherent nature”. Do we have room to be inherent in a world where gender is so programmed, even before birth?

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  3. Oh my goodness, three boys! And here I am worried about the one 🙂

    I’ve heard so many people say that boys are just naturally aggressive, naturally drawn toward guns and dirt and noise, and naturally indifferent about their emotions. Having had not much experience outside of my older brothers and my still young nephews, I really have no clue what to expect. I want to believe that we are teaching these aggressive traits, often without realizing it, simply by virtue of the culture our boys are born in to (much the same way that I will never be able to shield my daughter from princess culture no matter how hard I try – unless, maybe, we go entirely off the grid?). But there are natural differences, right? Would it be crazy to deny this?

    I don’t know the answer, but I guess I’m going to try to find out. I do know that for all the stories of testosterone, I’ve been meeting more and more gentle, sensitive little boys lately – maybe they’ve also got moms like you, who allow them the joy of beautiful things, regardless of the color or cultural gender association?

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  4. I do think my sons seem more naturally inclined to be aggressive, but as often as I have the energy to, I discourage this. (My oldest son likes to play-fight bad guys so if I am around when he is playing I ask him to talk to whoever is being naughty instead of calling him a ‘bad guy’ or fighting with him. Maybe he’s grumpy because he’s hungry! Offer him a snack!). This kind of vocab (“bad guys”) is not innate; it’s a part of our culture and the part of it specifically geared towards boys, encouraging them to pick a side and fight for it. It may be that a boy is more naturally hardwired to be aggressive but they are also encouraged to be this way, whereas girls are encouraged to be passive and pretty. I want my boys to be active and strong, but also gentle and thoughtful. You can’t control what they see, but I think you can give them an inner voice to help counteract some of it. I’ve tried banning superheroes and Spiderman, but it’s pretty much impossible to avoid so I at least try to discuss what I think is good and not good about what they read and see.

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