A scant two weeks ago, my partner brought our little boy into the world. I was shocked—not only was the baby not the dragon we’d seen on the ultrasound, but I really anticipated we’d be having a girl. I don’t have a good reason why, save to say that confirmation bias may have had something to do with it. I was more than willing to disregard any old wives’ tale that indicated boyhood, and focused instead on the ones predicting for a girl. And I promise, I didn’t and don’t have a personal preference; I’m astounded and thrilled to be a parent, at long last. I have already parented a collection of cats, hundreds of stuffed animals, my own parents at times, previous partners (never Susanne), and assorted coworkers (not the majority of you, certainly).
It could have something to do with my own frame of reference for childhood, but I think the more likely culprit is that I know the narratives I want to relay to my girl child. They’re all about empowerment, finding her voice, locating her strengths and meting those out wisely. I’d even borrow a little from the Girl Power folks, at least, I was ready to. I had braced myself for conversations about Bratz Dolls, Disney princesses, and the omnipresent pipeline of Pink Things.
As a freely bleeding heart liberal who’s been described by some as “left of Mao,” I am all ready to raise a girl in the entropy of 21st Century Earth, in the still-richest country on said planet.
But a boy presents different challenges:
- He’ll walk through the world of his childhood differently than I did because childhood is a gendered experience. He won’t be told, for example, that by design, he should not be good at science or math, but he will be told to stop crying by people who aren’t Susanne or myself.
- He’ll receive male privilege in all of its forms and not yet have the skills to unpack the ways it privileges him over others, especially as a white boy.
- He’ll be asked to compete, on a daily basis, with other boys in ways I am personally unfamiliar. And we’ll need to find responses to these moments as they happen. (Read: peeing contests.)
There are more difficulties, but those are the main ones that have crossed my horizon. To be sure, there are many things I’m not willing to do just in order to combat these tensions, like slapping on a layer of self-hatred for his position in the world, or reminding him at every turn of his burgeoning power.
But I want to be wary of the other side of the pendulum here—namely, turning my child into a public service announcement for sperm bank-conceived children of hopelessly liberal or radical parents. He is not a gender revolutionary just because he’s my kid. Even if he wears a tutu or a pearl necklace, or plays with Barbie and G.I. Joe dolls at the same time. He is simply a kid with an enormous glut of love, resources, and entitlement streaming at him that he will use as his foundation toward maturity.
I can’t change the late capitalist systems at play singlehandedly, but I also don’t need to proclaim any messiah tendencies on my son if or when he displays an enlightened sense of self. Kids do that all of the time, and thank goodness they do because the rest of us need to catch these glimpses of hope that the future can be better than what we’re leaving for them.
That said, I love to see boys in tutus and parents not wailing about culture wars because of it. I’ve even procured a tutu for a toddler friend who repeatedly expressed an interest in one. Several friends of mine who are raising young ones right now have exactly the style of parenting regarding letting their kids experiment with identity and I hope to follow their lead. I think it’s a good thing for boys to explore themselves in all directions, just as I’ve thought for most of my life that girls have to push these boundaries. Chances are there will be considerable regression to the mean anyway, so the more varied experiences kids encounter growing up, the better. Who couldn’t do from a broadening of perspective?
I want to dial down on the joy as a parent, however, because I also don’t want to foreclose on the possibility that my boy will be a team sports playing, rough and tumble, masculine boy. I’ve long held that the joy and strain of parenting is allowing one’s child to become themselves and not the image of the parent’s desire. To that end I aim to take a critical stance on aforementioned stream of crap that will flow Emile’s way, but I don’t want to place my critiques onto him. And I also won’t read his actions as indicative of some speed dial number to the End of Gender. Of course there will come a point when he’s old enough to talk about these preferences and experiences, and I’ll gladly encourage discussion. But while he’s an infant, a toddler, and a pre-teen, I think I’m going to let him swallow marbles, make mud pies with girls, learn to throw a baseball, paint with glitter, and anything else we code as gendered childhood activities.
Okay, I’ll discourage the marble swallowing, don’t worry.
I think we’ve got a very interesting generation of boys coming up, ones who have played with makeup and tutus, and who see their fathers taking a much more active role in parenting and household chores than they did in my generation. I actively wonder what this means for masculinity down the road. Because truth be told, working only to loosen the ties around femininity is working on just part of the problem of gender as we know it.
I’ll do my best to raise a son who is aware of his own privilege, but I am not going to proclaim him the Che Guevara of masculinity. I’d rather he come to his ideas without any additional mythology.