Once, while my senior English students were discussing whether or not Ophelia and Hamlet “did the deed” our discussion turned toward questions of rape. I was shocked to hear a number of my male students express their belief that a girl who dresses provocatively or gets drunk “has it coming”. I was equally shocked to hear my female students express horror at the idea of considering themselves feminists—for them it conjured up images of braless, hairy-armpitted protesters who hate men. I went home that night despondent that a generation of students who are enlightened in so many ways could still harbor such antiquated ideas about gender.
Later that same month, I joined my husband and two young sons at my prenatal ultrasound to see what I was sure was going to be the first picture of our daughter. Though I loved my two sons unconditionally, my vision of motherhood also included raising a daughter. I imagined dressing her in black velvet Mary Janes, taking her to her first Nutcracker ballet, hosting her preschool friends for tea parties and, as she grew, shopping for prom dresses, sharing books and films and someday . . . planning a wedding. My vision assumed that I would be my daughter’s best friend as my own mom was for me. When the ultrasound showed a clear picture of my third child, spread eagle in the womb, I smiled dutifully as I introduced my boys to their new baby brother. Then, after they left the room, I cried uncontrollably for an hour.
Of course I was glad to have a baby who was healthy, a pregnancy that was progressing well. And when I first held Wade in the delivery room and beheld his pumpkin cheeks I again wept—with genuine elation over our new family member. But in that ultrasound room, I mourned the lost motherhood experience I would never have. This was our last child and I was going to be forever the mother-in-law. Instead of shopping for first high heels, I’d be learning the difference between football and baseball cleats. Instead of comforting her after that first “best friend fight”, I’d spend my days refereeing tussles in every room of the house.
Why this need to raise a girl? Perhaps the desire to shape the life of a girl sprung from my past—a chance at a vicarious “redo”—an opportunity to redress my feelings of inadequacy and self loathing that are so common in adolescence. Perhaps it arose as I observed my high school students. Each day I encounter girls who are brilliant, talented and beautiful . . . but do not realize it. Just as easy to spot are girls who recognize their own intelligence and capacity . . . but deliberately hide it. Even in the 21st century, young women continue to adopt identities that are self-deprecating. I did not cry because my third child was a boy. I loved him fervently the instant I learned I was pregnant. I cried because in that moment my dream of raising a daughter—who was confident, proud, and resilient—vanished .
Despite my gender-ridden visions of motherhood, I tried to avoid feminine and masculine influence with my three boys at every turn. Our nursery was yellow with neutral plaid accents. Our playroom contained dolls and a kitchen side by side with cars and trucks. I made sure the books on their shelves had lead characters with names of Junie B. Jones and Harriet the Spy alongside Henry n Mudge and Captain Underpants. Their playdates included girls and boys; the early sports teams they participated in were co-ed.
Upon hearing the news of my third boy a colleague with two brothers of his own warned me that I’d soon be packing up china and giving away my cherished antiques. He was partially right—I’ve come to accept that even as toddlers, my boys could flip an imaginary pancake at their pastel play stove and, in the next instant, turn that play frying pan into an indoor Frisbee . . . aimed at a sibling. And I did temporarily take my great grandmother’s antique plates off the wall. But I won’t pack up the china or pretend we live in a frat house. Yes, my boys spend hours wrestling on the basement floor and, truth be told, I’ve learned a few take down moves of my own. I calmly say things that I never imagined—like “no you cannot make a parachute with a bath towel and jump off the shed.” Yet I have learned to laugh at the behaviors and conversations in Boy World that perplex me, and I embrace my role as a mom of boys.
Why the change of heart? For years I assumed that making the world a better place for women meant helping young women to be strong-willed and confident. I’ve finally realized that perhaps my role, as a strong woman and mother, is not to influence a generation by raising a tough daughter of my own, but by raising sons who won’t discourage the spirited girls in their lives.
My three boys are still young. Our conversations at dinner are dominated by debates over favorite Star Wars characters and football plays. The girls in their lives are still friends without distinction. I was thrilled when my second grade son Reid didn’t think twice about including his two best “friends who are girls” on his football party guest list. When my son Collin chose a pink t-ball bat and glove for his friend Zoe’s birthday instead of a Barbie—I was delighted. Sometimes I worry they might knock over the elderly woman with the walker before they open the door for her, but I am gratified to see them learning how to be both mannerly gentleman and young men who see their female peers as equals. I hope that as my rowdy crew gets older, they won’t cringe when they hear the word feminist. I hope they will seek out young women who are their intellectual rivals—women who are inspired and inspiring. I hope someday, my future daughters-in-law will be strong, confident women who will like hanging out with me—to talk about news, books, films—maybe even while we are clothes shopping?
I will continue to challenge the archaic ideas of gender roles that a handful of my students bring to the classroom, and in my own home I will never again mourn the lost parenting experience of raising a daughter. As it turns out, hanging with the boys is actually pretty fun. But more importantly, I’ve learned that my influence on a generation of girls doesn’t stop at my classroom door—it begins at my front door. I believe that my role, as the mother of boys, is to raise young men who will respect and love the strong women I hope are a part of their lives.