Having never spent time in a men's locker room, or been a cub scout or played on a boy's sports team, I have little insight into the male psyche. Because I am the only woman in my house, however, I am slowly being exposed to the secret world of men and boys. In my role as a mother turned amateur anthropologist, I've been shocked at what I did not know, horrified at what I can't begin to understand and terrified that I'm not up the task of raising creatures who leave laundry strewn about the house.
I am in way over my head.
I did not know, for example, that penis comparisons start very, very early. The other night my husband was getting our four-year old ready for bed when he called me into the bathroom. I walked in to find my son proudly sticking out his hips and regarding his erect penis with a look that fell somewhere between gloating and exultation. "Mommy, look. My penis is bigger than Daddy's!" he proclaimed. (I feel compelled to defend my husband and say that it is not, but for everyone's sake, will leave it at that.) I didn't anticipate that a preschooler would care about penis size or that boys start competing with their fathers before they can read.
I could fill a book (or at least a column) with the things I didn't expect about boys. Getting peed on while changing my son's diapers, for one. I'm shocked that a game of H.O.R.S.E. will inevitably result in a broken garage door window. Ditto for the number of jokes about poop, farts, and snot that my son knew by the time he was three. The knowledge that roughhousing equals affection, as do the size of your opponent's rug-burns, came slowly to me.
My house sometimes reminds me more of the Wild West than a northeastern suburb, which may be why I feel like a cook on a cattle ranch. Quantities of food sufficient to feed small villages disappear in a week, and there is not enough pepperoni pizza in the world to satisfy either my little guy or his big brother.
Yet, it's more than just the activities, food or physical things that make me aware of my limitations when it comes to raising boys -- the psychological and emotional terrain is unfamiliar too.
Some time ago, after hearing about some possible bullying at his school, my husband and I were talking with my teenage stepson about how he could handle those kinds of situations. We discussed a number of scenarios and then I added that I thought the girls at school might appreciate a guy who would handle himself with words instead of fists. Both my husband and stepson looked at me with a mixture of pity and incredulity. They were kind, but made it clear that what the girls think is utterly irrelevant -- this discussion was about how my stepson would be perceived among his friends. It was about a boy's reputation, his sense of himself, his emerging manhood. I was out of my depth.
My husband, however, understood completely.
My better half has the uncanny knack to know when to lighten a tense situation with humor and when a game of one-on-one will help him talk through a problem. He's the instigator of nightly ticklefests and wrestling matches that leave the boys out of breath and red-faced, but more importantly, happy. He revels in that physical connection to his sons and they love him for it. He knows when to pull out the Stern Voice when my more low-key approach just isn't cutting it. He understands when a little bit of pressure is necessary to get a desired result and isn't afraid to apply it. He laughs at crude jokes and would go to the mattresses for our kids. He helps me understand the hidden undercurrents of teenage boys and why teasing at any age is a necessary part of life.
I'm slowly learning to stop myself before interfering with my husband's parenting, because, even though the way he does things are different, sometimes they're better. As much as I'd like to think I know it all, and as much as parenting magazines, websites and bloggers (this one included) focus on mommies, when it comes to boys, daddies might be the experts.
This isn't to say that moms can't understand their sons or that we don't provide them with guidance, love and support. Of course we do. We can teach them traditionally "feminine" things like cooking, laundry and gardening, but we can also show them how to ride a bike or fix a toilet. We can coach soccer teams, help mend broken hearts, make mud pies and curse them out when they need it. Being a woman doesn't mean you can't raise a son, as single mothers have been proving since time began. If our sex or gender was all that defined us, I wouldn't be addicted to baseball movies and my husband wouldn't like Downton Abbey (Sorry to out you honey, I'm just making a point.)
But I lack a Y chromosome. I've never been in a fistfight or had to ask a girl out. No one ridiculed me for being weak. I didn't wrestle with my friends or give people wedgies. I could not care less about cars, building things, or the finer points of football. I never had to wonder what someone would think if I liked poetry or dance. I didn't struggle with what it means to become a man in a culture that values strength, stoicism, power and virility and undervalues gentleness, compassion and kindness. My husband has though, and came out the other side a loyal, loving, generous, steady, confident and successful adult. He is the first role model our boys will have as they begin to define themselves as men-- and the most important. He is the yardstick against which they will measure themselves for the rest of their lives.
So despite my fears that I don't know enough, or that I'm drowning in testosterone, there is one thing I've figured out. I don't need to know it all, and being befuddled is ok. I've got a partner in this parenting thing. If I don't understand my son's need to show off his penis, his dad does.
And that's a pretty big thing.