I always imagined I would have a daughter. She would have curly hair like me, and she would be a little bit bookish and a little bit wild. I would read to her, all my old favourites, and we would go on long walks together at the beach. We would do crafty activities and bake and climb to the top of hills to take in the view. I imagined more or less a new iteration of my childhood relationship with my mother.
I wanted a boy too though. My husband and I always thought we’d have three kids, and hoped for two boys and a girl.
We’ve got the two boys, but I don’t think we’ll have any more kids. The thought of never being pregnant again is so wonderful, so appealing. Maybe I’ll change my mind. But I don’t think so.
When I was pregnant with my first baby I had a strong and surprising sense it was going to be a boy. When I was pregnant with my second, just a few weeks along, I dreamt it was another boy – he even had a name, and it was the Hebrew word for son. It’s nice for a boy to have a brother, I thought.
I grew up around boys. Family camping holidays were my five male cousins, my brother, and me. We mostly liked the same games, mud fights in the estuary, jumping off the wharf and floating down in the tide, collecting shells to turn into wind chimes. Endless card games. Tramping with our dads, making damper filled to oozing with jam, marching along with competitive camaraderie.
One year we found a baby sparrow and all other activities stopped. We took shifts guarding the ice cream tub we made into a nest, feeding it by hand. It died and we dug a grave, had a little burial ceremony, laid down some pebbles. Its name was Chirpy.
Insulated by the equal footing with my cousins and by the sisterliness of my all-girls school, it wasn’t until university that I realised sexism was still an issue among men of my generation. But the young guy I met in the first week of lectures was pretty cool. It’s strange thinking of him as he was then, almost still a boy himself, the tender goofy lad who didn’t know yet how to respond to a world that saw him as a man, with all those assumptions about emotional detachment and so on. For all the many privileges of being a man, there is this enormous price.
Now, since becoming a father, though he’s worn with exhaustion, it also seems like he’s more and more comfortable in his own skin, with these two little cuddle buddles to pour love into. And despite the inevitable relationship strains of the early years, I have complete faith in him as a role model for gentle care for our sons.
Ah, my boys, I feel so protective of their big hearts in a world where strangers sometimes say “boys will be boys” when the older one is rough; or “you don’t need to cry, you’re a big boy” when he falls down. It’s still seems like some people think men should be half-formed humans, all rough edges, with nothing mellow or smooth to round them out.
But the boys themselves! When you see how much a two year old boy loves and needs cuddles, it’s immediately heartbreaking that most adult men aren’t big on displays of affection with their dude friends. I’m really conscious with the little dude of making time to pause and give him a hug when he wants one, even when I’m trying to do other things, that physical connection is so important to him.
Of course, I’d hug my daughter a lot too – of course! But there’s no worry about shielding a girl from a message that hugs are not for her.
With any child, there would be that duality of sameness and difference – this child is of me, but other. The balance might skew differently depending on the child, and gender is only one of myriad factors in that mix. I see much of myself in the little dude, with his will of iron and cheeky wit, a renegade adventurer sometimes, thoughtful and focused other times. The more I see his personality unfold, the more I feel like this is the child I was always meant to be entrusted with. This is the child I can help flourish.
At nine months, bub is still in that lovely genderless space. We all start like that, blissfully unaware of anything limiting who we might be. At almost three, the little dude is really alert to gender. In the car, we were listening to one of his CDs, and there’s a song with a male and female singer taking different parts – the man doing the animals with the low sounds and the woman doing the animals with the high sounds. The little dude was singing along and then he said “it’s the daddy’s turn when it’s the bear noise and the mummy’s turn when it’s the birdie noise”. Huh. Yeah, suppose so.
A few weeks ago I told him that it’s my job to decide when we have treats; then to placate him when this didn’t go down well I said it’s his job to decide when we have crackers. The following day he told me that girls decide when it’s treats and boys decide when it’s crackers. Hilarious! The adult/child distinction didn’t seem more obvious to you kid? No?
It gives me pause for thought. If I had a little girl, I would be confident that she’d absorb my example, that I’d be her model for adulthood. But a little boy… is it slightly different? It must be, because if good role-modelling from female caregivers was enough by itself to create emotionally mature men, the world would surely look fairly different.
In particular, I wonder about the potential for unintended messages from female-dominated caregiving. Like how a lot of guys never seem to get the message that people who love you back still have personal space boundaries you need to uphold. Or men who think it’s ok to wheedle for things they want from women. Or men who expect someone to clean up after them. This list could really go on and on and on, eeesh. I wonder whether some of that starts with mothers and our little boys, who don’t see men taking on caring roles.
Kids are so eager to figure out social codes. We make it hard for them when we send mixed messages. How is a two year old meant to figure out whether there are different rules and expectations based on gender when the adults have no consensus? What are kids meant to think when they see their mothers do significantly more household labour, while also complaining about it, and their fathers sort of acknowledging it but not really changing?
I try and get the little dude involved with chores, figuring it’s harder now but will pay dividends later. It’s the opposite to those fridge magnets that say “let the chores wait, if they need you now give them that time”. Fuck those magnets. All mothers I know spend a lot of effort figuring out how to do the chores without detracting from parenting, and it’s a genuinely very difficult, and someone has to cook the bloody dinner, huh?!
Anyway, he loves being involved, having his own little tasks, when I can be bothered including him. He looks so proud at the supermarket when he trots off to get the bag of porridge oats and flings them in the trolley by himself. Surveys of mothers suggest that the assistant household manager dynamic is more common for daughters; but I think it’s more important that we do this for sons. If I had a girl and I didn’t teach her how to run a house, I’d be fairly confident that the combination of peer-pressure and general socialisation would fill the gap. I’m not sure that’s true for a son. I feel more responsible for ensuring he gets those skills.
I would probably have wanted to keep up a career regardless, but this too I think is more pronounced as a mother of boys. I don’t want to give myself over to them completely, because I don’t trust that they will respect me any more for it than if I maintain a life of my own. And I want to be able to earn money so my husband can cut back his hours and take more of a role with the kids – for his sake as well as theirs.
I’ve just finished rereading Little Women. I’ve been chatting to my husband about it, trying to convince him to read it, and feeling like it’s really bizarre how much men miss out on because it’s presumed they won’t enjoy it, or don’t need it. There is a whole canon of books that are beautifully crafted and full of life and wisdom, seldom offered to boys because the central characters are girls and the subject matter is daily domestic life. My third-form English teacher told us she used to teach Little Women at a co-ed school but stopped because too many boys complained and their parents backed them up. I can’t see that going down the same if girls complained about Huckleberry Finn.
The worst of it is, not only are boys missing out on getting to know the girls in these books, they’re missing out on the boys! Bad enough they never meet Jo, but to miss out on Laurie too?! Such a shame.
If I had a little girl as well, I would be a mother of sons, but not exclusively. There are things I might have done predominantly with my daughter, which now, having no daughter, I will want to do with my boys. They might not want to join in. Which is fine, because all we can do as parents is offer to introduce them to our favourite things and then leave them to it; and that would be equally true if I had girls. But a daughter who was markedly different to me might feel more challenging to parent. I expect more of that difference with a boy, so similarities are more delightful.
Our family is still in the transition years, the relationship my husband and I had as a couple is moving and resettling. Like a peaceful cat newly disturbed by someone rearranging the couch cushions, it will shift about and then sink back down, equally comfortable but in a new position. We are not shaped as parents until we have our children. And we don’t know how much of our need and capacity to nurture will be fulfilled by our own children until they’re here, and how much will find an outlet in different relationships – the children of our friends, a niece, perhaps one day a grandchild.
If I had a girl, I would foremost want to buttress her against a world that might tear her down. With a boy, the same is true (because the desire to protect is innate to parenting?) but the threat is different. Patriarchal society limits everyone’s capacity for self-realisation, boxing boys in with toxic masculinity just as girls are boxed in with suffocating femininity. Hegelians might even argue that boys come out worse, as their very souls are damaged but they can’t see it, can’t visualise the better world for fear of losing power – the consolation prize to the debasement of which they are part.
And I will try to insulate my boys, their dear hearts, their fullness of joy, from this. (We’re lucky that it will be relatively easy in our community, with plenty of great male role-models among our family and friends, and living in an area where progressive views are fairly mainstream).
Ultimately, especially in light of my recent reading material, I’m thinking feminist parenting is one and the same as parenting for the development of character. Helping them develop self-awareness so they can work on becoming who they want to be, and find their own way to make the world a better place.