Almost from the moment I knew I was pregnant, I had a sense that the baby was going to be a boy. And with that presentiment came anxiety, fear, even dread. I had grown up hearing from my mother (one of three sisters) and grandmother (who had prayed ardently with each pregnancy to have a girl) that daughters are different for their mothers and families; they stay near the family unit and are closer to it, while boys leave. I had been brought up to believe that girls talk and connect emotionally, while boys slowly retreat and disconnect from their families, especially their mothers. And I didn’t find much comfort as I looked around for evidence to the contrary. For the most part, the boys and men I encountered in both my husband’s family and mine were aloof and unemotional—detached from their families and unconcerned with the feelings of their family members. I have never seen my father cry, not even when his father died. Nor has he ever felt the need to travel to see his mother and sister when they have been gravely ill or in need of emotional or practical support, which is in direct contrast to my mother’s behavior with her family. Growing up, I was expected to be home to make weekly calls to aunts and grandparents, and to share information about my friends and activities—none of which was demanded of my younger brother. It wasn’t just the possibility of disconnection that worried me. It seemed to me that as they got older, boys were angry, aggressive, and got in trouble in school and with the law. Male cousins, sons of my parents’ close friends, and my two brothers-in-law had been expelled from school for fighting; later, some of them were arrested for drugs, bar fights, and violence against women.
As my pregnancy progressed, so did my apprehension—I was alarmed at the thought that this son that I was sure I was having was going to be like the other men I knew. I bought into the “hegemonic narrative of mother and son attachment—as scripted in parenting books, psychoanalytic theory, and popular wisdom—[it] assumes that sons must separate from their mothers” (Mothers & Sons 14). But in my moments of true panic, I also wondered if a detached, unemotional son was a best-case scenario, given that a boy might turn out violent or criminal. Significantly, Cate Dooley, Nikki Fedele, and William Pollack explain that the two possibilities I entertained are actually related. Separation from family is part of the masculine identity society expects from and imposes on boys, as is the idea that boys need to be tough and emotionless (Dooley and Fedele 185). This early separation, along with the expectation that boys will be indifferent to and unaffected by this separation, helps foster the anger and aggression associated with boys (Pollack xxiv; Dooley and Fedele 189). As Andrea O’Reilly explains, “Having been socialized to repress and deny emotions associated with the feminine—empathy, vulnerability, compassion, gentleness—and taught to tough it out on their own through our culture’s valorization of independent, individualistic (and fully individuated) masculinity, men grow into manhood deeply wounded and isolated” (Mothers & Sons 9).
O’Reilly sympathizes with my early anxiety, noting that it is common among mothers of sons; she blames this anxiety on the silence surrounding the mother-son relationship, a silence which leaves mothers and boys at the mercy of rigid gender constructs. Fortunately, she also offers hope when in calling for a discussion of the mother-son relationship she writes, “it is my belief that the hope we need and the changes we seek may be found in the mother-son relationship, as mothers and sons alike strive to redefine manhood, motherhood, and the relationship they have with one another” (Mothers & Sons 18). And indeed, now that I am actually the mother of a boy, it is my goal to mother him in a way that helps him avoid those elements of a traditional masculine identity—such as toughness, aggressiveness, and rejecting connection—that William Pollack explains harms and hardens boys. I hope to help my son be someone who is compassionate, someone who shows, values, and responds to emotions while feeling confident about himself even if he is different from what is currently the norm among boys. And in doing so, I hope to guide him to be someone that respects everyone regardless of their gender. These, according to O’Reilly, are the “explicit goals of feminist mothering of sons” (Mothers & Sons 4). Like other feminist mothers I hope to dismantle “traditional gender socialization practices that privilege boys as preferable and superior to girls and in which boys are socialized to be masculine and girls feminine” (Feminist Mothering 9).
And yet, despite my commitment to these goals, I’m at a loss as to how to accomplish them; at times, I wonder if I should even try. The problem I face is that there is little discourse or literature to guide me in mothering this way. In her essay “A Mom and Her Son,” which can be found in her 2004 collection of essays Mother Outlaws: Theories and Practices of Empowered Mothering, O’Reilly says she perceives “a larger feminist discomfort or disinterest in the topic of mothers and sons (390). She goes on to say that, “feminists have been far more interested in daughters than in sons, though as of late there has been an emergent feminist interest in sons, due in part to the recent preoccupation with men and masculinity in the popular media” (391). Even more recently, in the introduction to Mothers and Sons: Centering Mother Knowledge (2016), editors Besi Brillian Muhonja and Wanda Thomas Bernard say that there is still “a dearth of scholarship on motherhood in relation to sonhood” (2). Thus, unlike with girls, it is only recently that there has been an increased and sustained interest in, and discussion of, the mothering of sons in a way that challenges stereotypical gender norms. In addition to those already named above, other recent publications include: It’s a Boy: Women Writers on Raising Sons (2005), a collection of essays edited by Andrea J. Buchanan, and the Fall 2011 issue of the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, which includes six articles on this topic. But the mothering of sons is still an under-explored topic—one that needs immediate attention, because, as Pollack explains, boys are in crisis and so, by extension, is our society.
For this reason, in the last year the topic of mothering boys has moved from scholarly works to the mainstream arena with articles, such as “How to Raise a Feminist Son” by Claire Cain Miller, “Raising Boys to be Happy Men” by Susannah Wellford, “How to Raise a Sweet Son in an Era of Angry Men” by Faith Salie, and “How I’m Teaching My Sons Consent in the Wake of #MeToo” by Elizabeth Broadbent. These articles respond to movements like #MeToo, which has made it impossible to ignore the wide-spread male violence against women. With this movement, we’ve heard of powerful men such as Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, and Charlie Rose committing acts of sexual harassment and assault, and of far less famous young boys and men engaging in the same unacceptable behavior. As Broadbent explains, with #MeToo these stories are everywhere, especially in our social media feeds. Such pervasiveness has made it clear that it is particularly urgent to think about the ways we raise our sons and to expand the definition of what it means to be a man. Because, as Broadbent points out, without intervention our sons will grow up to be these men. She goes on to explain that this is not a result of their “deviancy” but because society tells males, especially “cis white males,” that “women are less than, women are toys, women are to be used for their pleasure.” Like Broadbent, I want to raise a son who does not hold such beliefs about women. It’s not just sexual harassment and violence I worry about. As I worked on an early version of this essay, the nation was dealing with the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that left 17 people dead. A USA Today article titled, “Are Boys ‘Broken’?: Another Mass Shooting Renews Debate on Toxic Masculinity,” makes the case that gun violence is one of the harmful repercussions of the masculine identity or “toxic masculinity.” This is not a new idea. William Pollack’s book and the documentary, “The Mask You Live In” make the same connection, as does a great deal of research cited in the USA Today article. Even more recently, Sarah Rich’s article, “Today’s Masculinity is Stifling,” published in The Atlantic, quotes psychiatrist James Gilligan: “Whether it’s homicidal violence or suicidal violence, people resort to such desperate behavior only when they are feeling shamed and humiliated, or feel they would be, if they didn’t prove that they were real men” (Gilligan qtd. in Rich). I see the news and read the research and I return to the anxiety of my pregnancy but with renewed force as I try to find a way to make sure my son does not fall victim to the dangerous “boy code” set for him.
In what follows I share moments from my own mothering, to show what it can look like to attempt to raise a boy to have a non-traditional, positive relationship to his gender. The trajectory of this essay moves from private moments at home with my son to more public times with family and my son’s peers. According to H.L. Goodall, the personal narrative is “about communication as it is experienced in everyday life, which is always the first person, deeply felt, rooted in our past, not always rational, and often messy” (188); my personal narrative is not meant to offer answers or a precise methodology for raising a son free of traditional masculinity, but rather to raise questions and share the problems I encounter in trying to do so. The dominant image of mothers requires them to be “mostly brave, serene, and all-knowing,” what Susan Maushart calls the “mask of motherhood” (460); she explains that this mask “keeps women silent about what they feel and suspicious of what they know” (Maushart 461). In taking off my own mask and admitting that I’m not “brave” or “serene” or “all-knowing,” but unsure and confused about how to parent in a way that challenges traditional notions of gender, my narrative confronts these traditional images of motherhood, which O’Reilly explains controls and limits women (Mothers and Sons 3). This essay joins the growing body of work that discusses women’s experiences as mothers with the goal of “ascribing agency to mothers and value to mother work, [therefore] defin[ing] motherhood as a political site wherein mothers can affect social change through socialization of children” (7). I also see my narrative as responding to Maushart’s call, encouraging women to discuss their experiences to show the realities of motherhood “to [pool] what we really know about life on the other side of that great divide of parenthood” (480), so that perhaps if mothers of boys know we are not alone in our goals, mistakes, and insecurities then it will feel less burdensome and become more common to parent boys in a non-traditional way.
When my son, Andrew, was about four, he and I were watching Sophia The First, an animated television show that many would say is for girls, but which Andrew had not yet identified as such. A commercial came on showing a handful of girls playing with an arts-and-crafts toy that prettily spun sparkly paint onto paper. After watching for a few seconds, my son said, “Look, Mama. That’s beautiful. I want to get it for you.” This was unusual, since generally if my son sees an appealing toy, he requests it for himself. I responded, “I don’t play with toys, but if you want it we can get it for you.” After a long pause, he suggested we buy it for his favorite female cousin. Now feeling certain that gender associations were keeping him from requesting the toy for himself, I pushed him: “Irene is too old for that toy, but if you want it, we can get it for you.” My son paused for a long moment, then balled his small hand into a fist, and punched the open palm of his other hand. “But it’s a girl toy,” he said angrily.
I wish I had known the right thing to say or do at that moment. It would have been nice to have had something powerful to say—something that I knew had worked for other mothers. It would have been nice to have been able to open a parenting book and find advice as I would for tantrums or a rash. But such advice wasn’t available. Karen E. Wohlwend observed kindergarten boys playing with princess dolls and identities and argues that toys and play can be used to blur, negotiate, and interrogate gender identity (“Boys Who Would be Princesses” 607), but I had no guidance as to how to do that. I had only received (unsolicited) advice that affirmed traditional ideas of masculinity: I was told to make sure my son played sports and had all sorts of balls, toy vehicles, and action figures; I was also lectured on the importance of letting him take risks and play rough on the playground. Now, at a loss as to how to handle the situation, I simply said to my son, “It’s not a toy for girls; it’s just a toy. If you want it you can have it.” That ended our conversation.
This was the first time Andrew overtly rejected something he perceived as being for girls. I had tried hard to avoid such distinctions and to provide balance. My son takes soccer and ballet classes. He has cars, balls, and action figures, but also tea sets, dolls, and strollers. But this first rejection from Andrew, where he punched the palm of his hand—an action so distinctly out of the “tough” playbook assigned to boys—left me feeling sad and worried. That moment helped me realize that I have no idea as to how to discuss these things with my son. What does one practically say to a four-year-old that will help him think critically so that he can question and see past gender constructs (whenever that becomes developmentally possible)? As I sat and thought about what I should do in the future, all I could come up with were clichés, such as: There are no such things as boy and girl things; everyone is different, and you should like what you like. These are still really the best that I can offer and I am not sure they work. Indeed, they seem like very little, but I use them, and they have become a constant refrain in our home, particularly around toys he sees on commercials.
About a year after my son’s reaction to the commercial for the arts-and-crafts toy, another commercial came on which prompted a very similar conversation. This time the commercial was for a spa toy for manicures and pedicures. Once again, my son sat mesmerized by the commercial for a little while and then said that we should buy the toy for me. I pointed out that I don’t paint my nails, and then offered to buy it for him. He quickly responded, “But boys don’t paint their nails.” I proceeded to tell him that some boys do, and mentioned a male acquaintance who wears nail polish. My son fell quiet. “Does he?” he finally asked. But when I said yes, my son simply repeated that boys don’t paint their nails. At this point, all I could think to say was that anyone can paint their nails and then I went on to repeat one of my clichés—probably something along the lines of, “different people like different things.” Even as I was finishing my sentence, my son threw himself back onto the couch, put his hand to his forehead, and said, “Oh, no. Not again.”
On the one hand, his response was kind of funny to me; a typical child’s reaction to a parent’s oft-repeated pearls of wisdom; but it also makes me realize that he sees my responses as a kind of nagging, something to block out (the way we all block out parental nagging). Yet it’s not just that that concerns me. Even as I was telling my son that it is okay for everyone to paint their nails, I was simultaneously wondering if I was doing the right thing. I knew this was not what most mothers would tell their boys—in fact, I know that friends and family would disapprove, and I know self-professed feminist mothers to young boys who draw a line at make-up and nail polish. Was I doing something wrong? Was I setting him up to be so different that he’d be isolated from his peers, setting him up to be discriminated against? And it’s not just nail polish that leaves me conflicted. My son takes ballet classes, which I know is not the norm for boys—he’s always the only boy in a class of twenty or more kids. He has a sparkly wand, a little mermaid bubble machine, and purple stroller that I quietly remove when other kids come over to play. I don’t want my son to be limited by gender stereotypes, but I also don’t want him to suffer the consequences of being different. Though I worry about the messages I’m sending my son—the possibility that I am inadvertently teaching him to be embarrassed about liking things considered to be “for girls,”—I also know that “challenging gender stereotypes can have costs. [That a]cting in nonstereotypic ways is associated with peer victimization including physical, verbal, and relational aggression” (Mulvey and Killen, 681). Therefore, like other mothers in my situation, it is impossible for me to push forward “without reservation, in the absence of confusion, devoid of contradictions.” (Amber E. Kinser 137). This struggle is “the paradox identified by a number of feminist thinkers who note that, despite their persistent and passionate efforts to subvert patriarchy and its norms, feminist mothers often fear alienating their sons from the very culture that they themselves reject” (Sarah Trimble 183).
It would be easier to follow the idea that some toys are for girls and not offer or buy my son these toys. And yet why limit my boy? After all, if we teach girls they can be anything they want and can do anything boys do, then shouldn’t we do the same for boys? If girls can be “tomboys” why isn’t there an equivalent for boys that does not have negative implications? Moreover, I don’t want him to see a clear dividing line between the feminine and the masculine, which could conceivably lead to him seeing one as better than the other. What if my son is drawn to a gender expression other than the one expected of him? Like Audre Lorde, I want my son to be able to “be who he wishes to be for himself…. to move to that voice from within himself, rather than to those raucous, persuasive, or threatening voices from outside, pressuring him to be what the world wants him to be” (77). Finally, it is my hope, that if he feels free to embrace these so-called girl things now then later he might feel more comfortable embracing other things considered feminine, like being vulnerable, sensitive, connected, and emotional.
It may seem like I’m making an awful lot out of nothing. Indeed, as many might say, these are just toys. And, certainly, I am not suggesting that toys are the answer to raising a son that rejects traditional masculinities, but it is a start. After all, as Dooley and Fedele explain, in “The Early Years, 3-7 years of age” boy culture is transmitted through “the invincibility of the superhero. Little boys are besieged by superhero figures that imply that becoming a man depends on independence, strength, stoicism, total invulnerability, and the defeat of all others.” (200). Wohlwend explains toys have “gendered messages designed into” them (“Boys Who Would be Princesses” 594). She also makes the point that “Play is never an innocent site; its elasticity can be used to challenge gender stereotypes but also to reproduce them” (“Are You Guys Girls? 23). For me, resisting the gender identity assigned to toys has been a way to introduce the idea of resisting pre-set masculine identity within the safe space of our home. In my mind, these moments are also a way of strengthening us— though nothing can really prepare us —to deal with the more challenging moments of contesting traditional gender roles when out in the real world.
The more challenging moments have come unexpectedly and sooner than I had anticipated. I wish I could say I was well prepared, but at least these ideas were already part of our dynamics. For example, on a Sunday last month, I was sitting around my parent’s house waiting to have dinner when my now nearly six-year-old son whispered something to my father. Curious, I asked Andrew what he had said. He reported that he had asked my father for a flower from his garden to give a boy at school who was his friend. My father quickly added, “And I told him that boys don’t give flowers to boys.” Apparently, this conversation had taken place a few days earlier when Andrew had been with his grandfather, and he was now just reminding my father he wanted the flower for the next day. Feeling angry at my father’s response I told Andrew, “Of course they do. Your father likes flowers. And you can give them to anyone you want.” My son responded, “I know. Anyone can like flowers.” But he then also added, that the flower was for his friend to give to another girl in the kindergarten class because she was “his girlfriend.” In response, my father yet again repeated, “boys don’t give flowers to boys.” To which, I repeated, “Yes they do, and you can give one to your friend tomorrow if you want.” At this point, my mother interceded and the topic was temporarily dropped.
I was proud of my son’s insistence on taking the flower—it meant he had not been discouraged by my father’s initial refusal—but how many times will this happen before he believes that boys can’t give flowers to boys; that they can’t be kind or show their friendship in these overt gestures of affection? I was pleased that he said “anyone can like flowers”—evidence, perhaps, that he had been listening to my clichés after all. Yet there was so much that left me feeling disturbed that evening, so much about this that is problematic. For one, even after Andrew’s explanation of why he wanted the flower—so his friend could give it to a girl—my Cuban father still could not conceive of a male giving another male a flower. But since I have no hope of changing my father’s beliefs, my bigger concern was that he was passing these ideas on to my son and doing so without my knowing. Indeed, if Andrew had not asked my father this second time for the flower, I would never have known the initial conversation had happened at all. I was also concerned that my son had felt the need to justify his wish to give a flower to a friend with a heteronormative explanation. I can never know whether he claimed the flower was for his friend’s girlfriend just so appease his grandfather, to whom he is particularly attached. I sat silently stewing the rest of the night trying to figure out what to do. My father plays a central role in my son’s life and will continue to do so. So how do I mother in a way that prevents my son from absorbing such ideas from my father and others around him? Once again, I didn’t know whether my response had any effect. But here I was faced with a new level of difficulty because the traditional notions of masculinity were being enforced by someone Andrew trusts and loves. It is important to me that he values family connections and emotional bonds, but it is equally important to me that he not learn my family’s way of thinking about gender. I’m left unclear on how to proceed and find balance.
That same evening, before heading home, my father pulled me aside and said, “I’m not giving him the flower. Boys don’t give flowers to boys.” I insisted that he give him the flower and my mother, overhearing the conversation, also insisted my father cut and give the flower to my son. Andrew prevailed and took the flower to school the next day. That evening, I asked what had happened with it, and he responded that he had given it to a girl; he said his friend, the little boy, didn’t want the flower—he muttered something about the boy not wanting to give it to his “girlfriend.” Then he changed his story, saying the boy didn’t like flowers. I asked him how he felt about all this and barely received an answer—he simply repeated that he gave it to his friend Skylar. Not knowing what else to say, I let the conversation drop. I was left wondering, of course, if he had elected not to give the flower to his friend because of my father’s comments, or if in fact, his friend had rejected the flower—perhaps because he too has been taught that flowers are for girls and that boys don’t give flowers to boys.
Regardless of the reason, I found myself at a loss as to how to respond; I could not even draw on one of my clichés since it was not clear to me what had occurred or what exactly I was responding to. I was also left worrying about whether my son’s feelings had been hurt and partially regretted that I had sent him into school with the flower. Had he been discouraged or teased? Moments like this make me worry that I’m a bad mother. I worry that I am selfishly putting my own socio-political beliefs ahead of the well-being of my child. At these times I pause and question my parenting and whether I need to reconsider how I proceed; but ultimately, I know that I can’t allow him to simply and unquestioningly take on a traditional masculine identity that will likely leave him “deeply wounded and isolated.” Therefore, for now, I move forward and continue to encourage my son to pursue his own interests regardless of how society views them so that hopefully he will learn “that there are different models and ways of being male and female in the world” (Green 39). But I do so without really knowing how or what the outcome will be. As Blakely reminds me, “It takes twenty or so years before a mother can know with any certainty how effective her theories have been—and even then there are surprises” (37). All I know is that as he grows up, I will continue to worry and have anxieties about what I’m doing and what will come. But I also know that I will continue to try and find ways to teach him that objects, feelings, and behaviors do not belong to a particular gender.
Feeling uncertain and struggling is an inevitable part of encouraging a son to reject the boy culture that will ultimately constrain and thwart his emotional life. As Sarah Rich explains, “While society is chipping away at giving girls broader access to life’s possibilities, it isn’t presenting boys with a full continuum of how they can be in the world. To carve out a masculine identity requires whittling away everything that falls outside the norms of boyhood.” And Claire Cain Miller agrees: “We’re now more likely to tell our daughters they can be anything they want to be—an astronaut and a mother, a tomboy and a girlie girl. But we don’t do the same for our sons” (2). This is because “while females have more barriers than males for upward movement in status, males have more restrictions when choosing nonstereotypic activities than do females” (Mulvey and Killen 682). It is precisely because mothering boys in this manner is not the norm, and because it is discussed so infrequently, that I share my experiences—to add to those emerging voices on this topic.
Ultimately, as I see it, I’m creating choices and leaving things open. I recognize that this will become more challenging as the social influences push my son toward a traditional masculine identity—indeed these influences have already started to seep in with family, and increasingly when I am not present, as in school where I’m fully unaware of what happens on a day-to-day basis. However, by making it clear that he can make his own choices about what interests and appeals to him, I hope that I am creating balance and beginning the process of “lead[ing] [him] to a place of wholeness” so that he can “fight the binaries that society is feeding” him (Willey 270). Right now, it’s just about the material objects, but my hope is that as he grows I will be able to have similar, and obviously more mature discussions, about other choices and situations in his life with the goal of helping him to become his own person, free of constraining and damaging notions of masculine identity.
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