This is one of those books that I wish I’d known about when I was pregnant, either time, right after I found out what I was having. In my life as it exists now, I wouldn’t change a thing about the gender of my boys. In my life as it was then, though, I always imagined having a little girl with her father’s dark eyes and a touch of strawberry blond in her hair, despite never having overwhelming interest in classic girly-girl stuff. I might not remember Barbie’s little sister’s name, but she’s certainly more familiar to me than the games of I’m Going to Step on Your Head and How Much Can I Get Away With Hitting My Brother? that my boys seem hell-bent on playing.
The first section of It’s a Boy (Seal Press, 16.00 USD), titled (redundantly) “It’s a Boy,” might have helped me through my feelings of confusion upon hearing those very words. After reading these essays, I would have realized that I was not alone in being utterly flabbergasted about how to raise a boy instead of feeling guilty for being disappointed. In fact, the theme of these essays is so similar that I began to grow weary of it by the time I approached the second section of the book. Is my reaction to the masculine prognosis that common? Apparently it is, at least among writers. The stand-out, for me, among these essays, or at least the most relatable, was Ona Gritz’s piece, titled “Son of a Guy,” in which she relates her frustration with the way her son’s violent tendencies fly in the face of her attempts to raise him to be a peaceful, thoughtful member of society – until she describes her (ex) husband’s childhood, as related to her by his family:
“You should have seen him as a kid,” his family was fond of telling me. It seems every boy on his block was, at one time or another, not allowed to play with him [. . .] Property wasn’t safe either. His aunt’s favorite anecdote involved coming over to the house and finding him breaking up the front steps with a hammer. (42-43)
I’m not sure if the boys on my husband’s childhood block were ever banned from playing with him, but, based on the other stories I have heard of his childhood, it (now) would not surprise me to hear one about my husband destroying the front steps with a hammer as a kid.
The second collection of essays is titled “Will Boys Be Boys?” and it explores the phenomenon of boys acting (or not) like stereotypical boys. The first essay, “The Bully’s Mother” by Karen E. Bender, starts out with one of the most efficient (and telling) sentences in the book: “Now he is six years old and a model citizen.” Now. The boys in this section (and/or their mothers) have all been through rough patches and come out on the other side, all the more well-rounded for it: spates of bulliness; of being bullied (and dealing with the aftermath of finally fighting back); of exploring a desire to shoot arrows as one’s mother explores peaceful parenting; of moving beyond the quiet, creative activities with one’s mother and toward rowdy, physical activities – while one’s mother learns to keep up; of falling in with the “wrong” crowd – the crowd that wields knives – in a new neighborhood; of exploring children’s literature beyond what one’s mother would prefer; and, finally, a pregnancy tragically ended by pre-eclampsia – which serves to put all of these rough patches into stark perspective as the grieving mother speculates what kind of boy her Samuelito would have been.
The third grouping of essays is titled “The Velvet Underground” and explores the ways in which our sons experience the world so much differently than we do (despite our best efforts to the contrary). The first, “Entering the Den of Math” by Gwendolyn Gross, details raising a five-year-old math prodigy. Although it’s difficult to consider the words “five-year-old math prodigy” (though the author never uses the word “prodigy”) and not equate them with a brag, humble or otherwise, that does not seem to be the author’s intent. Rather, much of the wonder of watching her son learn new things that she does not share his fascination in is universal: “When he finds something hilarious, when he learns something new, it’s like whole cities being born” (148).
My favorite essay from this section (perhaps the whole collection) is titled “Things You Can’t Teach” and written by Katie Kaput, a transsexual woman. Kaput describes her fear that her son Rio will end up being drawn to “girly” things – the straight parents of a boy who likes “girly” things will endure far less scrutiny than the transsexual mother of a boy who likes “girly” things, because it will be assumed that the transsexual mother “is a giant visual aid placed in Rio’s constant view by the Campaign to Create More Transsexual Girls, or At Least Sissy Boys” (161). When Rio does demonstrate a pronounced preference for the color pink, this creates fertile ground for further fearful, yet tongue-in-cheek speculation:
If Rio happens to be at the park wearing a barrette, I can just imagine someone assuming that was my choice and not his. I can imagine someone assuming I’m pushing this queer thing a bit too hard. As if I even wore barrettes. Because isn’t it a slippery slope? Aren’t barrettes a gateway accessory, leading ever onward to queerer and queerer fashion decisions? One, day, little boys who wear barrettes could end up passed out on the floor of their messy teenage bedrooms in a sea of hair clippers and nail polish, endlessly pondering the question, “Buzz my head, or paint my nails…” (162)
The crisis abates, however, once Rio develops the ability to verbally express his preferences. He appreciates pink, but he also appreciates trucks, in all the colors of the rainbow. He is his own person, “a toddler heartthrob, no doubt about it, no matter which way you like your cute tiny kids. I’ve realized through my own parenting that my favorite kind of cute tiny kid is the kind who’s given lots of freedom to decide how to look and how to spend time” (164). Wise words, for sure, and so in line with my own parenting philosophy of letting my little men be their own little men. At an extended family gathering, my youngest son found great joy in pushing around his cousin’s pink shopping cart with a doll strapped in the front basket where he usually rides on adult-sized carts. An older relative asked, snarkily, if I was going to get my son his very own pink shopping cart. “Yeah, if he likes it. Why not?” was my reply. She thought she was asking a rhetorical question, but she didn’t have a response when I treated it otherwise. How strange that letting our children pursue their own interests seems so revolutionary to so many people.
The other essays examine such topics as a Japanese-American son’s duties to his family, as perceived by the writer’s Japanese husband and the American writer herself; the (seemingly) irrational fears of a child, which his mother comes to realize are simply different fears than hers; the difficult space between allowing boys to experiment with “fancy” accessories or interests and protecting them from ridicule from others; and boys reaching the age where seeing their mother nude becomes complicated. We want to protect our children from the world, but the world’s expectations for them, based wholly on their sex, makes it difficult for us, their mothers, to always anticipate what’s coming next for them.
The final section, called “Shapeshifter,” deals mostly with boys becoming men, but the first essay, “Making the Cut” by Jamie Pearson, deals with the decision we make when boys are merely days old that affects the rest of their lives (and, most notably, their sex lives): circumcision. The very last essay, “Surrounded by Children,” is a breath of fresh air after all this talk of raising boys (although that’s exactly what I signed up for when I picked up the book). The author, Kathryn Black, describes a psychic telling her, when she was pregnant for the first time at 41, that her future involved being surrounded by children. Indeed, having two boys did lead to having more children in her life than she ever could have imagined, and so grateful was she for her two healthy children, even at her advanced maternal age, that she never even thought to wish for a girl.
Several lines from the other essays stuck out at me as most relevant to my life – those that reveal the test of patience that certainly goes with raising any child, but perhaps especially boys:
There are days when the only reason I love my children is because they’re so unbelievably good-looking. (Marion Winik, “Our Bodies, Their Selves,” 189)
I was supposed to have a girl. A little me. Even Matt seemed surprised.
“Oh, boy,” he sighed. “Batten down the hatches.”
And when we told Matt’s family, they responded with a jostling “Payback time!” (Ona Gritz, “Son of a Guy,” 43)
We spoke not the word “football, but he learned it just the same. [. . .] It became an object of mystery, this “Brad ball.” Baldo threw lima beans across the length of our kitchen in a nice, tight spiral. “Brad ball!” he’d yell. (Marrit Ingman, “Exile in Boyville,” 36)
So many of my conversations with friends who have boys, like so many of these essays, focus on the exasperation that always seems to be near the surface, ready to burst forth with the next demonstration of boy-ness in our sons. As former girls, their behavior can seem downright alien at times to us moms. Yes, gender is a social construct, but my parents have indicated to me on many occasions that my two boys are nothing like I was at their age (or any age). It is impossible to think like them (though my husband finds it effortless). I feel out of my league, attempting to discipline my older son for hitting his best friend when I can’t recall ever hitting anyone. Yet I should learn to take a page from Kathryn Black, who became a first-time mom at 41 and a second time-time mom at 43 and never regretted only having boys. She was simply grateful to have kids at all. And the girls came through her door anyway.