Here is the immediate context in a long-term process: right before Christmas, a school shooting, killing children who were the age of my twin boys, sitting diligently in their classrooms like mine do every day. My quiet tears at the simplest moments in the following weeks, self-censored, because they do not know, don’t need to know, and feel responsible for their mother’s emotional health. Next, a letter to Santa, written in 7-year-old, erratic hand, “nerf gun and bullets” at the top of the list. Then, a New York Times piece, hypothesizing, with some flaws, that as we usher in “The End of Men,” we will see an increase in white, young, male-inflicted violence as those creatures, previously at the top of the chain, bluster around without a way to be.
Finally, the Eureka! moment at the ice-skating rink: skating slowly and steadily with my toddler girl, around the outside of the rink as she balances on the tiniest skates I’ve ever laced. In the center, elementary girls practice spinning and leaping on the ice. Between us, mother after mother (I counted three) losing her temper as her young boy barrels full speed and slams into her, all smiles with new grown-up teeth too big for his mouth.
“Seriously?!?!” one mom says, holding onto the boy’s younger sibling.
“You’ve got to be kidding me!” another exclaims.
“What’s wrong with you? What are you thinking?” says the latest.
The boys, their grins wiped clean, look down, shrug. “Sorry,” they mumble, if they say anything at all.
About the time my own boys’ love affair with Thomas Trains was waning, a friend came over with her toddler. I was hoping to entertain him: “We have lots of great toys for boys!” I said.
My friend corrected me: “You mean you have lots of great toys for kids.”
My cheeks burned and I stuttered, as her son crashed the trains into one another with delight. Right. Obviously. Of course I meant “kids.” I have a graduate degree in humanities from a liberal university. I am a feminist. I am progressive.
But, no. I meant “boys.” The only train my daughter has shown interest in is “Rosie,” who’s purple, and even then was abandoned because she just has so many…wheels.
In our push to see women as equals, do we sometimes mistake “equal” for meaning “the same,” to the advantage of our daughters and with contempt for our sons? Some girls are more masculine. Some boys are more feminine. I get this. I love this.
I may love it too much. Because when my daughter wants to break out of “girl” and play stormtroopers or construction workers with her brothers, I cheer. When her brothers want to break out of “boy” and tap dance or paint their nails, I cheer. But when my boys just—heaven forbid—want be boys and slam, tackle, bang, boom….I don’t often cheer. I’m quiet. Sometimes, like the mothers at the ice-rink, I admonish.
And they are left feeling misunderstood and confused and left without a way to be.
I remember reading about the high rate of domestic abuse cases among college and professional athletes. It’s despicable, disgusting, unacceptable, we all say. But I had uncles, brothers, boyfriends, who were athletes. Don’t we encourage them to be aggressive, tough, intimidating, on the court or the field? Don’t we cheer for them and pay millions of dollars to see them let loose with their testosterone-fueled, masculine tendencies? And then we shame them for indulging those traits when the arena is dark and the stadium is empty?
Do they need an outlet? Or a lesson in repression? Don’t we need to choose?
I’m speaking to a certain demographic, I know. Not everyone will identify. Some will judge. But others will relate and, I hope, share their own confusion and inconsistencies and we will find a way to let our boys be the many, sometimes predictable and stereotypical, ways to be.