Tuesday, January 1, 2008

the difference between raising girls and boys, from their mama's perspective

I just had a little boy three months and change ago. He's a cute fella, and a total monster (he weighs fifteen pounds and is into the six-nine months range in clothes.) When I pick him up, he's longer than the entirety of my torso. I look like one of his sisters.

It's my fault for liking the big guys, though since so many of the women I know had come up pregnant by surprise recently that we've been joking about being given Pez instead of birth control pills, because we were pretty uniformly on hormonal birth control. One of us had even been told that the frequent inflammation of her ovaries meant she could not have children... surprise. Some of us were just using rubber colanders. Most of us decided to keep the babies, and I'm glad we had the choice. I decided to keep mine, joking with the bf that anything that got past all the precautions apparently really wanted to be here and that I was curious to see why.

Since he has two older sisters, I find myself frequently comparing the things I've said to either one of them as they've grown (they are now 12 and 10). I suppose this is the understatement of the century, but the way we raise them is utterly different. For instance, when I've had the talk (you know which one; the uncomfortable one) with my girls, we've discussed being careful out in public, touched on date rape and discussed pregnancy and STDs. Since I was, myself, an unwed teenage mother and apparent scourge of the nation in the 1990s, I reminded them that it complicates things considerably, but that I would support them no matter what.

The bf and I were talking after the last round of conversations that make little girls squirm (and I hate to broach the subject, but as I think I mentioned earlier, we're having problems with my oldest and men following her.) He asked, I think more out of curiosity than anything else, how I was planning on broaching the sex conversation with our son. I should probably state now that I am a cynic of first water and that a lot of my advice to my daughters boiled down to the perfidy of teenage boys (even when they don't mean to) and a culture that glorifies and advocates violence against women. I told him that I was going to lay out the risk of pregnancy and STDs, why birth control is absolutely mandatory no matter if it 'feels better' without birth control and that if he knocks a girl up in high school, I'm going to make him intensely sorry he'd ever been born. Because he will not be bearing the majority of the cost, socially, ethically or financially, without my interference. Society, to my mind, encourages the deadbeat dad, especially when the dad is young.

The bf reared back at this. I have no doubt it sounded... well, let's call me passionate on the subject, shall we? The bf's dad took off when he and his sister were kids, leaving them to be raised by his mother, so there are many times where the fact that he's always been around women are helpful, but this was not a subject I think he discussed with his mother (who just about killed herself raising him and his sister without any child support, in the eighties.) He expressed worry that I would shame the little guy. I'm with him, in terms of not making my son feel unnecessarily shamed, but the discussion boiled down to this.

Here are a list of topics that I will likely never have to discuss, but am going to try to, because my son needs to know these things are out there:

1. I will never have to discuss the fact that he is constantly a potential victim. Better paranoid than raped or assaulted.

2. I will never have to hold his hand and hear him cry about the fact that in movies and TV, he is represented as a fool, a perpetual victim or as requiring someone else to insure his bodily integrity or right to an opinion.

3. I will never have to comfort him because he had an opinion in class and his classmates called him a bitch or whatever creative other came to mind (which has already happened to both my daughters.)

4. I will never have to put up with the school requiring counseling which is really a front for how to make him act more normal (ditto on it happening with the daughters; they talk out too much and are too opinionated.)

5. He will never have his success attributed to sex or favoritism (I have walked into classrooms and had men call me 'the teacher's pet; and tell me/say loudly that the only reason I'm in my program is that someone felt sorry for me. That happened my first semester in grad school before class started. The female professor was not in the room.)

6. He will never be told, as I have been, that if he takes a job and goes to school at the same time, it's because he doesn't love his children.

7. He'll never be told that the only reason he's in school is because he can't make relationships work (implying that if he could, he wouldn't need to have an education. My mother told me this when I got into the Master's program here.)

8. He'll never be told to just put up with it when/if he works in an opposite sex environment and the rest of the crew goes on break, all at the same time (a restaurant I worked in. When it angered me, I was told to quit bitching and asked why I thought I was 'tough' if I couldn't handle everyone leaving on break at once.)

9. He'll never be told to just put up with sexual harassment (having your boss lock you in the freezer because you've got a snooty attitude, the kitchen; having to threaten to de-man a coworker who frequently pins you to the counter with his groin and hump you, the kitchen again.) If he chooses to write about it, he is less likely to be accused him of making it up or asked why he wants to ruin everyone's day by bringing it up.

10. He'll never be told that what he has chosen to do for a living doesn't count as real analysis or work. (My father, talking to me about the MFA I'm in, said this about a year ago.)

11. He'll very likely never, if he turns out to be heterosexual, be told to conform to gender stereotypes or face retribution. (In bed with a man from my program, after I turned in a series of works about my experiences in that kitchen, he asked me why I thought I was macho and what was wrong with me. I kicked him out of the house pretty promptly afterwards. I do not wish to be in bed with anyone who thinks I ought to be more ladylike.)

12. He'll never be told that if he complains about something, that no one will want to be around him, and that his job in a relationship is to pacify or make the other person comfortable, such that it is his job above all others. (I was told, growing up, to ensure that I hid what brains I had because men like to feel needed and because no man wants to 'compete' at home.)

13. He'll never be told that having on opinion is somehow gender betrayal.

14. He'll never be told (outside the military) that he does not own his body.

15. He will not see himself in movies being raped, rescued or used because he was promiscuous. He will be encouraged to be promiscuous if he wishes to be considered manly. If he choses to be promiscuous, he will be encouraged to chose good partners and to be proud of his choice. (Examine any rape story you like; forty plus years after the women's lib movement started in the US, it's still her fault because she was 'asking for it,' no matter what the circumstances.)

16. He will not be encouraged to associate his sexuality with being raped. Enough said.

17. He will not be mourned, the way my daughters were when they were born/he will never be subjected to people speculating on his future and decided he will never be whole (able to marry) because his mother was unmarried when she had him. The girls, however, have already had it, both barrels, from my family and my ex's, about their future because I am not married/have been divorced. In fact, when he was born, my family were much happier for him and had much more positive things to say about his future.

18. Thus far, he has gotten more gifts than my daughters from the relatives, and more of my relatives have opted to babysit. With the girls, no one wanted to feel as if they were condoning my 'sin.' He will likely never be referred to as 'my sin.'

19. I have been told, repeatedly, by my favorite relatives, that 'this one you can spoil. Boys you can spoil.' He will not be asked to 'suck it up' as often as my daughters by my relatives.

As I'm sure you've noticed, a lot of these are due to my own experiences. I don't know how one parents without paying attention to their own upbringing. It will creep in, all over. Some of the things I cited above could be written off to the times they were in, if they had not been continual assertions, to this day, by my family. I'd write my family off, but I see these things in popular media, as well. I have opted, for the most part, not to use the TVs I have, except for to game. I love war games and always have. (Dear Vox, bite me.) So do my daughters. Even though those, too, are laden with stereotypes, we can mock them together. And war games provide an excellent outlet for the anger we experience, all of us, because I have no doubt that my son will also have his own things to get angry about.

How do I tell him about these things without making him feel weird? Well, I suppose some of them won't be brought up for quite a while. I'm going to leave the family out of it for awhile, unless I see him being 'spoiled' (ie is beginning to believe that because he is male, he should be better than his sisters or mother. That will not fly.) I will bring my outside experiences up, as I think he is old enough to understand the context. But mostly, I think bringing him up in a family that is mostly female will help him to see, on a daily basis, the price of being female in this culture. I'm certainly not going to shy away from discussing it with him. I think the difference in raising boys and girls in the US is as much a matter of being aware of (and making them aware of) the rhetoric aimed at them based on gender, to the extent that I recognize it.

As far as the unique cost of being male, I'm working on it. I would take reasonable suggestions, as I have no experience with being a man in the US.

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