From the time I was sixteen, I pictured having a daughter. Somehow it had never occurred to me that I might have a boy–it just didn’t seem like an option. Boys were for people who had brothers growing up. I have a sister.
When I used to ask my mom whether she’d wanted girls or boys, she’d always say, “We just wanted a healthy baby. But I always secretly wanted girls.” And she’d smile conspiratorially at me, like I’d been made a girl just for her.
We just wanted a healthy baby too. It wasn’t that we didn’t want a boy. We just had never pictured it.
My mom’s life felt like a template for mine. When I pictured having kids, I imagined having a daughter who I would have a similar relationship with. But beyond that, I knew how to raise a strong girl. I’d had to go through it all myself, after all.
And Jordan felt similarly. He imagined taking a daughter on hunting trips and teaching her how to clean a deer, the way our family friend does with his daughter. He felt well equipped to support her in a world ruled by the patriarchy–because feminism has laid the tracks for how to do that.
So when we found out we were having a boy, we were both shocked. Incredibly excited, but so very, very shocked. We hadn’t imagined raising a boy in the same vivid way that we’d imagined a girl.
In ways, the surprise of it made us even more excited. Because we’d assumed that the baby was a girl, having to reshape our thoughts gave him a more distinct identity. Suddenly, I loved the little baby in my stomach even more intensely than I had before–because I could name him, picture what a little male version of me and Jordan might look like, (and about the same time we found out his sex) feel the first flutters as he stretched his growing limbs.
But I also struggled to fit a boy into my daydreams of having a kid.
“Why does everyone call it being a ‘boy-mom’ when you have a boy?” I asked Jordan as we drove home from the ultrasound. “No one ever called my mom a ‘girl-mom.’”
He frowned. “I don’t know… Maybe it’s this idea that you’re outnumbered by boys, so you just have to roll with the punches more? Kind of an extension of the boys-will-be-boys mentality.” (I could write an entire post about everything that’s wrong with the whole boys-will-be-boys thing, but I’ll leave it for another time).
Most of the stereotypes of being a “boy mom” fit in with my expectations of having kids in general. I mean, I was the sort of girl who literally climbed the walls. And every tree I could find. I also spent my days playing invented sports called things like “bear-dog” or competing with my best friend to see who could jump over the highest obstacles. My dad used to spend hours wrestling with us, flinging us onto couches and beds, and chasing us around the house. I played soccer and painted my walls blue and green and caught lizards and bugs and frogs with my bare hands. I still think fart jokes are hilarious.
So if our kid was going to be anything like me–whether a boy or girl–they’d be active and physical and have trouble sitting down. But still, our future of parenting felt different, somehow.
It took me a few days to put a finger on why having the identity “boy” slapped on our baby suddenly changed my expectations. I finally figured it out when I was putting together a registry for baby L.
As I added items to our Amazon list, I noticed that while gender neutral clothing falls squarely in the “boy” category (e.g. the same exact items are listed in the “boy” portion of the website), girl’s clothing remains firmly in the girl sections. There are no ruffles, skirts or pink in the gender neutral portion of the website, even though there are pants, blue, and suspenders.
So essentially, stores ranging from Target to Burt’s Bees are sending parents the message that while infant girls can now wear trousers or suspenders, I should not dress my infant son in a tutu or headband. It’s acceptable for women to take on traditionally male identities today. But it’s far less acceptable for men to cross over into a female realm.
And it extends far, far beyond clothing. As doors that traditionally were closed to girls open, it becomes more apparent just how boxed in our boys are by gender norms. You can sign a girl up for karate without comment, but it’d be making a statement if you were to sign a boy up for ballet.
Lise Eliot puts it well: “We must challenge gender stereotypes for both sexes. In mainstream U.S. culture, girls are rewarded for behaving like boys more than the other way around—which is great for girls’ math and athletic skills, but not for boys’ verbal and relational abilities. Boys hear that “girls can do anything” whereas the boys get boxed into smaller corners by their presumed limitations (“Boys are less verbal”); teachers’ prohibitions (“No running”); and peers’ narrow views of masculinity (“Art is gay”). Might this be why girls excel in many areas, while boys’ success is shrinking to sports and a few select curricular zones?” (Eliot 2011).
Women have fought tooth and nail to expand society’s expectations of them. But men have never needed to fight, because they’ve always held the power (and this is not to say that no one is fighting–the LGBTQ movement has fought hard to expand the definition of a male identity, and many cis-men stand up in small ways by bucking gender norms. But if there is going to be a widespread movement, we are only at the beginning of it). And so suddenly we have a culture where girls have more flexibility and options than boys do, simply because generations past have fought for them.
My shock at the revelation that we were having a boy had less to do with his genitalia than with the feeling that he suddenly had fewer options open to him. When we told people we were having a boy, they’d say things like boys are “less emotional, and easier to raise,” and I’d feel like society was already failing my little guy.
I don’t want my kid to feel like he can’t express himself. I want him to cry when he’s sad, or wear tutus if he feels like it, or snuggle dolls if that’s what he’s into. I want him to be able to be able to sign up for ballet and to be able to go to school in a dress without having to fight a battle.
And I’m not saying he has to like these things–I’ll love him the same if he prefers cargo shorts and baseball, hunting and firetrucks. But I want him to have the option. I want him to have the same options that I had as a little girl with liberal parents in a liberal town–wearing a dress one day and shorts the next, without feeling like I was making a statement about myself. Playing soccer, painting my nails, catching frogs, climbing the walls, coloring, and doing gymnastics.
Being unselfconsciously me.
And while part of me hesitates to make the argument that we need to fight harder for our boys (the part that has watched male star athletes get free passes in rape cases, the part that knows all too vividly the skin-crawling feeling of having a guy follow you down an empty side road, the part that has been passed over for positions because of the assumption that a woman would be afraid alone in the woods), the little boy I’m carrying knows nothing of all of that.
Right now, he’s innocent of the oppressive regime of the patriarchy. He’s innocent of the crimes white men have perpetrated against the planet and people. And even though he will inherit the privilege that comes with being white and male in this country, I can’t help but want him to also have the freedom to escape the grim strictures the patriarchy places on its own sex.
Feminism is defined as striving for equality between the sexes–and I’ve never better understood how it benefited men than this moment, when I’m looking out at a world that I wish was better for my son.
(Note: In this post, I don’t get into the issue of assigning children a gender before they are born. Sex refers to your biology, gender refers to your identity. I’d argue that most babies haven’t developed an identity or concept of their gender before they’re born.
There is so much that we place on our children: we give them a name, determine their economic status, decide what they’ll believe and where they’ll learn. It’s hard to strike a balance between deciding things for them and allowing them to choose who they want to be. We’ve decided to use male pronouns to refer to Baby L, mostly for convenience’s sake. But if he ever felt differently about himself, we’d be fully supportive).
Elliot, Lise (2011). The Myth of Pink and Blue Brains. Best of Educational Leadership, v. 28, 32-36.