Let me start by saying again that never in my life picturing raising a boy doesn’t make it a regrettable reality. It’s simply the truth. I never imagined being a journalist in Palestine, either, or marrying a Turk after I spent so many years learning Arabic. 😉 Life unfolds in its own way, and I’ve learned to roll with it.
In fact, it’s precisely when things don’t pan out like you imagined that some of the most intense learning and growing can happen. I have no doubt this will be similar.
Here are some of the things I’ve been thinking, for better or worse, since learning the news:
I was all set and ready to raise a strong, confident girl. She could wear “girl” clothes or “boy” clothes, do “boy” things or “girl” things, whatever she wanted. I’d teach her to stand up for herself and go after her dreams, never doubting she could do anything she set her mind to.
When I found out it was a boy? I kind of felt at a loss. Society already teaches boys to be strong and confident. Almost too much sometimes. So what is there for me to do?
It’s a silly question, of course, and the fact that it even occurred to me attests to the degree of brainwashing I still have to deal with. Because it’s actually harder in a way to raise a good man than to raise a good woman.
Society craps on women less and less as time goes by for doing “boy” things, after all. I mean, there’s still sexual harassment and assault everywhere, and an entire male-centric history of the world that tells women they are marginal players at best. Virtually all the “great” explorers, scientists, philosophers, leaders, and authors? If you look at almost any educational curriculum, it’s men, men, men, men, and men.
A few “also rans” are mentioned occasionally, like Marie Curie — exceptions to prove the rule. I remember as a kid thinking of myself as an “honorary man” because I wanted to do something “great” with my life. It took me many, many years to stop hating my femininity for the weakness and smallness it supposedly represented.
But there are still many important things withheld from men, and withheld almost absolutely. I could have done “boy things” with a girl pretty easily. It’s not so “acceptable” to do “girl things” with a boy. Many people cringe visibly if you talk about a boy wearing a pretty dress or dancing silly and graceful and free or accessing his deepest emotions. Even me sometimes, ever so slightly, before I catch myself. Name almost any stereotypically “girl” thing, and it’s hard not to think, “What use does a boy have for that?” Not to mention, I’m not stereotypically ‘girly’ in a lot of ways. I’m still dealing with my own internalized misogyny, and I’m supposed to be teaching a boy how to value the feminine?
And does all this mean I don’t want to be stuck in the role of teaching “girl” stuff to a boy because I still believe “girl” things are inherently less valuable than “boy” things? (A more charitable interpretation would be that I’ve generally been drawn more to “boy” things, and teaching my interests to a boy will be less subversive than teaching them to a girl.)
And I know what society does to sensitive boys and men, and it’s not like society does particularly nice things to boys and men in general. Demanding “confidence” without teaching or expecting access to deeper emotions, the results can actually be quite brittle—and extremely dangerous. “Strength” without intelligent sensitivity is a rather blunt instrument.
Some men take all these “lessons” and end up clueless and entitled, a toxic mix of false bravado and brute force, just taking what they want, what they feel they deserve, and letting the emotional shrapnel fall where it may. Or the blows or the bullets.
But I can’t imagine that’s a very satisfying life. Is Harvey Weinstein a happy person? Donald Trump? Anyone so closed off from empathy, he classifies the entire world as either conquests or enemies?
As a friend of mine who is not raising any boys recently said: “I imagine the hard part is raising him to reject the privileges he’s offered.”
(EDIT: With all the chatter I’ve been seeing / participating in on Facebook these days about teaching boys — and girls — about consent, that aspect of raising a child just seemed to go without saying, but it’s definitely worth mentioning, and incredibly important.)
I’m speaking in very broad strokes here. But as hard as it is to demonstrate to girls that they have just as much value, talent, and potential as boys, it may be even harder in this society to teach boys that they don’t have to be hypermasculine to be worthwhile. They can be a good, solid, happy, sensitive person without being in any way less than the jock down the street. They don’t have to objectify women—or anyone—to feel secure and like they belong in the world.
A friend who’s a high school teacher posted about how she overhears teenage boys talking about sex (and girls) in crude ways. But then she gets comments in her anonymous questions box in which boys seem desperate for real connections. This is so sad to me, but also hopeful. Aggressive and arrogant is not the “natural” state for boys, necessarily. Even raised in this society they end up hungry for more.
Other people wrote on the same thread:
Talking about emotions and desire for connection requires vulnerability, which requires confidence and trust in your milieu, both of which are in short supply in high schools. Othering to establish an ingroup by talking about sex without regard to emotional connection (thus objectifying the female involved) is a way of feeling less vulnerable.
Toxic masculinity means you’re only allowed to talk about [sex crudely], and that’s not something you’re going to put into an anonymous questions box because it’s already a constant topic of discussion.
The hormones are intense and will make you want to f**k anything. But it’s also when a lot of things in your life become unmoored, and you’re desperate for validation and to figure out love outside of family. It’s only manly to talk about the first one in public, though.
It seems like a sad way to live, and it’s incredibly pervasive. Incredibly hard to escape, especially in Lord of the Flies scenarios like high school. (Or worse, middle school — years I barely think about other than remembering lying in bed fantasizing about killing myself.) What on earth can I do for a tender, playful little boy in the face of all that? It’s one of the many frightening aspects of raising a boy I just never thought about.
(A part of me genuinely wants to get the kids walking and talking and then move to some jungle village in Costa Rica.)
Of course, if I’d had a daughter, those pre-conceived notions of mine might have been way off. It might actually be better to come into this with a blanker slate. I also feel like it’ll fundamentally change the way I think about and relate to men. To see how they get their start, how they grow, from their very first precious, helpless, desperately cute moments. I know what it’s like to grow up a girl. I have no idea what it’s like to grow up a boy.
My same friend mentioned above (who’s not raising any boys) says people at her daughter’s fairly progressive school are more and more relaxed about boys doing “girl” stuff. Boys come to school with painted nails and stuff, and no one cares, though it’s pretty hard to escape gender-norming anywhere. She said, “There’s a lot of ‘Yes, I know so and so said that’s just for boys/girls but they’re wrong.'”
In the end it’s up to him what he’s into. So I’ll give him options and see what lights up his eyes. And if anyone doesn’t like any of it, they can take it up with me.
I’ll model respectful communication and female strength and worth as well as I can, and my husband will model his own genuine dignity, strength, and worth.
We obviously won’t be his only influences, though, so there will be a significant degree of struggling against harmful social indoctrination.
It will be an adventure, that’s for sure.