When I asked the ultrasound technician to tell me the sex of my first baby in utero, and she told me chirpily “It’s a boy!,” confirming my nightmares/suspicions, I shuffled outside to cry in my car.
The truth was that I did not want a son. I could not even picture one.
My childhood was very female-dominated. Father at work all day, mother preparing delicious meals, their three daughters setting and clearing the table, wearing leotards to gymnastics, riding or pretending to ride horses, and twisting our Barbie dolls into sexual positions.
We mostly hung out with matching families: a mom, a dad, and three girls. When the families got together, the girls fished around in the dress-up box for ragged veils and ugly vests and put on shows. These impromptu plays revolved around marriage, betrayal and death. They were riveting, I am sure.
Crying in my car in the women’s health clinic parking lot, I doubted my peanut-sized son-to-be and his friends would put on these dramatic productions, which so defined a cozy corner of my childhood. This made me inordinately sad.
What in the world was I to do with a boy child in my home? Mothers of boys got sliced by helicopter rotor blades and stepped on wayward Legos. Mothers of boys were always buying milk and laundering athletic socks. I could not make convincing truck or gun sounds, though I tried.
My mom was not subtle about her disappointment that she could not pass on the handmade smocked dresses of ours she had been saving in our mothball-y basement. My most feminist sister was excited for me to raise a son who respected women, but that felt like too tall an order.
I Googled images of uncircumcised penises and was appalled: horrible little manatees.
They say boys love their mamas. This is true. They also “accidentally” punch their mamas in the face.
When Milo was three, I got a voicemail message from his preschool classmate’s parent, a mother of two girls. No small talk, no “I hope this message finds you well.” Straight to: “I just wanted to let you know that Milo and a few other boys have been talking about guns and bombs at school, and now my daughter doesn’t want to go to school because she feels unsafe. I just wanted to let you know.”
I wondered if she had called the other boys’ mothers. I wondered how her expectations could be so radically different from mine when it came to the banter of three year olds. That very day I had already heard myself say to Milo, “Don’t put your finger in your butt!” Also, “Boogers do taste salty, but you still aren’t supposed to eat them.”
Still, I had never given up on the idea that children respond to reason. They may try to eat cupcakes for breakfast and run naked down the block, but logic prevails, right?
That evening I approached Milo with resolve. I had learned that I needed to clear the room of distractions and make eye contact if I wanted to hold his attention.
“Milo, some people don’t like hearing about guns and bombs because they do not like violence. Mama doesn’t like violence, either, remember? If you want to play guns and bombs, you have to look around and make sure that everyone is comfortable with that. You might have to go outside to play that game. OK?”
Milo looked deeper into my eyes, into my soul really, and leaned in closer, inches from my face.
“I can’t hear you,” he said decisively. So much for that moment of reckoning.
Mothers of girls: Stop looking askew. Stop sighing. We are all doing our best.
Teachers of boys: Be ready. Many of your male (and some female) students will be “action learners.” This means they will listen to your exhortations and then do the opposite of what you’ve asked. They want, no, need to see for themselves what happens when you carry hot liquids or stick a bean really far up your nose or run with scissors. Let them.
Within reason, let them discover the boundaries by crossing over them into very uncomfortable terrain. I keep warning my son Milo that spitting on someone is a declaration of war, but I have never personally retaliated. One day, he may finally learn the lesson the hard way since the easy way hasn’t worked. And that will be natural, that will be his path to understanding.
Milo, now six years old, loves to chop his younger sister with foam swords but he also brings home slices of birthday cake for her from parties to which she wasn’t invited. He sits on top of her face and then holds her hand while she cries about it.
Milo is skeptical about babies but gentle with all animals, even taxidermied ones. He spends hours writing letters to his friends who have moved away, adding intricate drawings of them adventuring together, complete with captions like “Milo and Stella ride again! Watch out! Best friends forever!”
Milo pats my back like a friendly uncle when he bear-hugs me. He makes me breakfast and tells me I am the best. Milo is a weapon-wielding, noisy, temperamental athlete who leaves plastic things strewn everywhere, but he is all heart.
In contrast, my daughter growls at me and throws things against the wall. She only says please and thank you when I remind her, and she is surly with strangers. Sh
e can sit still for hours and is easy to lull to sleep, but she tells me she hates me if I don’t let her wear a certain dress. I think back on myself crying after my first ultrasound and want to whisper in my own ear: You know nothing. Just wait and see.
This essay was originally published in Hip Mama.