Boys. They were some of my favorite friends when I was a little girl. Then, as I got older, I thought they were mean and smelly. Later, I changed my mind, had crushes on them and, ultimately, married the grown man version. Now, I’m a mother of a boy. Having never actually been a boy myself, I am at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to understanding the care and feeding of a little boy. I’ve relied on books, friends, observation, guesswork, and my son to teach me that being elbowed in the nose is actually a sign of affection, or that my romantic idea of baking gingerbread cookies together is really just a freeway to frustration, and maybe even some hollering. (If you didn’t know, flour is a very fun substance in its many forms and has endless enticing applications beyond baking). I’ve been a daughter, girlfriend, competitor, co-worker, boss, friend and wife, but it took mothering a son to really see the differences between males and females. As a tomboy with an even more tomboyish mom, I used to think boys and girls had different personality traits only because parents and society raised them in line with traditional gender roles. I promised myself not to fall into that trap when I became a mother. But now, with testosterone peeling paint off the walls of my house, I have to reconsider. Although I used to frown upon gross generalizations regarding gender roles, I now realize they can actually be helpful in understanding our children, especially when we are of the opposite gender. Here are a few things my son (and other people’s sons) taught me about boys. 1. I yam what I yam. Whether your son is into princesses or dragons, you really have no say in the matter. I was determined to raise our son in a gender-neutral way. Although he was drawn to vehicles and predators, I pushed cute bunnies, pink and purple flowers, hand-made androgynous dolls and anything else that might counterbalance his testosterone-fueled energy. I now realize that this was an uphill battle going nowhere. The real pursuit isn’t creating a sweet little boy, but seeing through the chaos, noise, boogers and motion of the boy to find and cherish the sweet spots. 2. Meet the toy line up. After countless hours of observation in playgrounds and play dates, I’ve decided that there must be an official handbook of obsessions to which most boys subscribe. It starts innocently enough with a ball: feel it, bite it, roll it, throw it, dunk it, but by no means let go of it. Then, boyish obsessions move on to other items in a very specific order according to developmental age: trucks, heavy machinery, airplanes, cars, dinosaurs, dragons, and then the fill-in-the-blank-item of said boy’s favorite sport. The doll I gave my son never made the cut. 3. Stay. Go. Stay. Go. Somewhere around 6 years old, boys figure out that they are different from the females in their life. Suddenly, mom is so yesterday, and daddy is a hero. Thus begins the push/pull of mommy, which can be very emotional and confusing for everyone. Push mom away because I want to be just like daddy and she’s nothing like him. Pull mom back because, she’s mom and I need her. Push mom away because I have needed her too much and I want to be independent. Pull mom back because independence is scary. And on and on it goes. My guess is that it never ends. (And then, somewhere in the teen years, both mom and dad become equally so yesterday, and friends are all that matters. At least we all get a turn.) 4. Active learning. Boys don’t learn by sitting still in a chair. Learning is best done while running between rooms, dancing, farting and singing. I’m amazed at the correct math answers that come hurling at me from around a corner, just when I thought our son had skipped out on homework to build a pillow fort. No wonder boys are the ones getting in trouble at school. Who can think with all that stillness? 5. Girls create. Boys destroy. While boy energy can seem destructive on the surface, deep down it’s just active learning. Boys tend to display their curiosity physically. When exploring a new object, the go-to methods are eating it, throwing it, pinching it, pouring it, smashing it or flinging one’s body off it. Quiet observation and compliance is generally not a top choice for most boys. For example, my son recently learned about gravity and housekeeping all from one simple experiment. I asked him to take a drinking glass to the kitchen. He chose to deliver the glass to the kitchen by rolling it down 20 carpeted stairs to the hard tile floor below. At least now he knows how far glass can travel with a little bit of force behind it. 6. Movement and space. Understanding where one’s body is in space by means of dare devil moves is often a favorite male pastime. Don’t get me wrong, I like to fling myself through space too, but it seems that boys skip a few beats of hesitation because fear and potential injury rank a little lower on their list of worries. One could also say that what constitutes a good idea is different for boys and girls. For example, I would never have thought to climb high up onto a narrow windowsill just so I could free fall face first onto the couch, narrowly avoiding sharp tables, lamps and hardwood floors, but this happens hundreds of times a week at our house. My motto is don’t ask too many questions. Just move aside and protect your eyes. 7. Girls talk. Boys make noise. Girls have a lot to say and are generous with details. Boys have a lot of noise to make, but might not actually say anything at all, other than that they are here in your presence. How could you possibly forget with all that racket? Listen. They are saying something. You just need to translate from the physical to the verbal. (When you figure it out, give me a call because I am still trying to understand why my son thinks that if he is quiet he might be dead.) 8. Praise alone won’t work. I once read that girls tend to do better in school than boys because they are more eager to please others (teachers, parents, etc.), and boys do well in school when they have something internal motivating them. No amount of praise, coercion or peer pressure can motivate my son to do anything. Motivation has to come from his own internal desire and interest, or forget it. Yes, this is irritating, but it’s also admirably genuine. 9. What happens if I don’t? Boys want to know who’s in charge, what are the rules, and what are the consequences for breaking said rules. To them, life is a giant experiment. Every lever needs to be flipped, every button pushed and every flap opened. Of course all kids want to test boundaries, but girls seem to work in relationship with others and enjoy praise, while boys are more drawn to the experiment of finding hard and fast boundaries. When I was trying to get my son to lift the toilet seat before peeing, I tried everything before stooping to bribery with jelly beans. Put the seat up, pee, get a jelly bean. Simple, right? Nope. Purposely leave really big puddles of pee on the seat and then sweetly say you lifted the seat and ask for your reward. When you get busted and receive no jelly bean, try again tomorrow. This time, leave bigger puddles of pee on the seat (heck, the floor too, while you’re at it) before trying to claim your reward. Note failure and lack of jelly beans and start lifting the lid every time without fail and without jelly beans. Months later, note stale jelly beans in the cupboard but don’t ask for one. 10. Boys do cry. The whole idea that boys don’t cry is hogwash. Boys are just as emotional as girls, even if their style of emotional expression is different. Boys often express themselves physically, which can be misunderstood as tough or unemotional. Don’t believe it. Instead, use your super mother powers of translating the physical to the emotional. And then give them a big hug that lasts a really long time.
Yesterday held some odd convergence of time for me. While I was enjoying every spectacular moment of the present day, the past sidled up next to me. I became the middle of the Oreo cookie, with today on one side and years of history on the other. Seventeen years ago, at this time of year, I was dizzied by the tectonic shifts I was making in my life. I left people I loved, a job I loved and a city I called home to move to the far end of a dead-end dirt road in the rural mountains of Colorado. What I hadn’t realized then was that I was moving into a rare, tight-knit community of amazing people all enjoying a small corner of paradise together. In the time I have been here, people have gotten married and divorced. Babies (lots of them) have been born and grown taller than their parents. People have moved in, moved away, been moved to change, or departed the planet entirely. Businesses have shuttered and new ones built. Jobs have changed. Fences have been built up by neighbors and torn down by herds of elk and blustery winters. Houses have burnt down, been built anew and aged with grace. And through it all we have played, worked, loved, and mourned together. Every day I am keenly aware of what an uncommon and exceptional community I am lucky enough to be part of, but yesterday each movement exclaimed to me really and truly what a strong “neighborhood” of people we are. And, in a way, how irrelevant past and present are in contrast to the convergence of it all. I did absolutely nothing out of the ordinary yesterday — just the same things I have been doing since I moved here, but each of them with a twist unique to the day and its place in time. I skied the same powdery, shimmery snow I have for years, but this time I got to do it with my son, me following the tree lines he plotted from the lift. The same bright, friendly smile of the woman who sold me a slice of her homemade pie my first night here 17 years ago shone on my son when she set him up with a hot chocolate after a cold morning on the ski hill. The same end-of-day shadows moved across our house in the same slow February light, even though the house and the number of creatures in it are different than 17 years ago. The same friends who came over for dinner last night were the same friends who came over 17 years ago, except this time they have kids old enough to drive and babysit and give us their perspective on things with which adults grapple. In the scheme of things these are all minute details that are easily missed, but to me they are strong reminders of how, even amidst seemingly tectonic shifts, so much of life stays the same. Some changes we want to hold on to and savor forever. Others feel like they will crash on our heads and drown us. But in the end, all change swirls around together in the sea of life, leaving us just as we were save for the new experience we get to put in our pockets as a reminder of the moment.
When I was six I befriended a homeless man. I met him on a park bench next to my house and thought he was the greatest person ever. I visited him often and tried to convince my father to let me take things to the man on the bench. Food, money, house plants, it didn’t matter; I just wanted to give. Now, you may be thinking Who lets their daughter be friends with a bum? I trust my father had good reasons, namely that it was a different day and kids had a lot more freedom to explore their world. Plus, as he tells me now, I always showed a keen interest in the homeless and the ultra-wealthy. Bums and limos were kinda my thing, I guess. As long as I was safe, who was he to corral me into a hermetic environment? My friend the homeless man was kind and patient. He let me prattle on about whatever spilled out of my mouth. In response to the many questions I asked him, he provided simple answers. Unfortunately for both of us, each answer only fed my curiosity more. In my little mind, I couldn’t figure out what it meant to not have a home, or how you could fit all your belongings in one small bag, or where you went to the bathroom, or where you slept, or how you ate, or who tucked you in at night, or when your home would come back to you. I even remember wondering if he ever left the bench. After sitting there all day, did he just lie down at night and then sit up in the morning? Where were all the people who loved him, I wondered? One day I finally asked him why he didn’t have a home and he rocked my world by telling me that at one point he had a house and a job and a family, but his house burned down and his family died. I really couldn’t wrap my head around that at all. When I told my father, he said “Yah, likely story.” But to this day I still believe the man and think about him often. I wish he were around today so I could ask him all the questions I never asked. I want to know what became of him. While there is one part of me that wonders why I was allowed to be friends with a bum, there is another, bigger part of me that is so thankful for all the freedom I had as a kid. Maybe I had an angel looking over me, or maybe the world was different then, but I came out unscathed after soaking up all the experiences and adventures that come along with independence. Well, not entirely. There were plenty of skinned knees from falling off my bike. But there were more treasures than skids, like when I pedaled three two-for-one coupons to three different Dairy Queens around town so I could eat a total of six ice creams in one afternoon. Or when I walked my friend home from school every day and fell down in puddles of laughter at each step. My own son is not interested in the kind of independence I had, nor am I interested in him having it. However, I do find myself encouraging him to do things he doesn’t want to do, like walk to his friend’s house alone or use the men’s bathroom at the grocery store. Maybe he is just smarter than me. Mountain lions live around here and he knows they could snag him. Creeps hang out in public bathrooms and he knows he could be prey. We aren’t overly cautious parents, but we talk to our son about things that weren’t discussed when I was a kid. In my day, people didn’t talk to kids about safe grownups or being the boss of one’s own body. I was taught to be strong, intuitive and independent, but I was pretty clueless to the fact that grownups could be bad to kids. I knew what a kidnapper was, but I envisioned such a person looking like a kidnapper. Perhaps I thought kidnappers would wear a sign identifying them as such. Now that I am a parent, I find myself struggling to find the balance between encouraging independence and self-sufficiency, and protecting and teaching. I want to be protective and extra safe, but what does my son lose in the process? He certainly won’t be friends with a homeless man anytime soon. At the same time, I would have missed out on a great gift had I not known the man on the bench. Linked to the parental drive to protect is prejudice. My father was leery about the man on the bench being anything more than a crazy person, but he never told me that. He kept an eye on things, but he never laid down a judgment or spoke badly of the man. If he had, what would it have done to my view of the world – to my acceptance of people who are different from me? I’m pretty sure my son will grow up being prejudice of people who smoke cigarettes or don’t wear helmets, but in my effort to protect him what other unintentional judgments do I impart on him?
Perhaps it’s just me and the books and articles I’ve been reading or my current role in our family, but it seems that questions of feminism are everywhere. The gist of what I keep hearing is this. First, women were oppressed by the trapping mentality that their roles as dutiful wives and perfect homemakers were equivalent to being righteous and acceptable women. If they worked or rocked the boat in some way, they were judged. Then, women found liberation and subsequently careers, activism, divorce, sexual freedom and self-actualization. Because of this, the notion and shape of families changed. Today, we are questioning what feminism means because women are in a double bind. Some say the idea that mothers can do it all (career, family, self- actualization) is in and of itself just a new type of trap for women. Working mothers everywhere are feeling worn thin by the demands of their hectic lives and feelings of guilt or inadequacy. After all, who the hell can simultaneously charge ahead in their rewarding career, be a perfectly involved mother, run a Martha-Stewart-like home, appear beautiful and fit, and still have time to please everyone else in their lives? No one can, but the construct – the unrealistic ideal held above women’s heads – still remains. The alternative, of course, is to go back to the 1950s and become a housewife. Well, not exactly, because a modern housewife is called a “stay-at-home mother” and she does things very differently than June Cleaver. Maybe this mother held on to a modicum of her former career through freelance work, or her activities through yoga and running. Unlike Betty Crocker, she is not looking for short cuts like cake in a box or TV dinners, but feeling ridiculous pressure to make her children everything fresh and by hand. All the while, an oh-you-don’t-work attitude slides down people’s noses onto her Lilliputian self-esteem. I once was a woman determined to never marry or have children because that would be like falling for a trap society set for me. I was going to be dependent on no one, fulfilled only by my career, friends, favorite pastimes and boyfriends, if I happened to be in the mood. I never labeled myself feminist; I just followed my strong, independent female role models. As it turned out, I chose a totally different path. I chose to marry, because I met a man who I wanted to spend my life with, not because that was what I was supposed to do. I chose to become a mother because I felt it would make me a whole person, and it was an experience I did not want to miss. I chose to be a stay at-home mother because I was raised by a hard-working single mother who had no time for frivolities, and I wanted to be the homemaking mother I dreamed of as a child: the mom in the 1970s Kool-Aid commercials. If you stir together the ideals of society, images of perfect mothers seen in the media, the judgment mothers heap upon other mothers, expectations we have of ourselves and then mix in a load of boiling reality, you get a coagulated mess. It can’t work. The only thing that can work to open this trap of judgment we set for ourselves is to believe in loving mothers — mothers who are doing the hard job, whether they straddle the worlds of career and family, or root themselves in the home. Isn’t women choosing their own life path the thing for which feminists fought so hard?
Before I became a mother, there were lots of things mothers were supposed to do and not do. Being a non-parent, of course I knew everything about how parenting was done. I had a long idealistic list of I-will-always-do-this and an even longer, more self-righteous list of I-will-never-do-that. Case closed. I can go home now knowing that I have set the world straight. But then I became a mom and the lists were either dissolved with spit up or digested by my baby because I was never able to find them again. You know, just for reference. Now I slink back into the reaches of my memory, like a dog who’s been caught eating the trash, and try to recreate the items on these terrible lists. My child will never watch TV or videos. Instead, we will read or do crafts. Ha! That was before I was with my child 24/7 and a 10-minute break became a life saver. Better a video viewing than a mommy who loses her shit, right? I will never stoop to all that kid food crap, like boxed mac and cheese and hot dogs. What was I thinking? That I should just starve my child? For a story about me trying to feed by 9-month old liver, click here. My child will be kind and respectful because that is how he will be treated. Obviously, I had not factored in my short patience or our family’s bodily functions. Or that kids are just kids and part of figuring out how to be good is being rotten some of the time, or even a lot of the time. I will allow my child to learn from exploration. I won’t be so uptight as to cut them off from the delights of the world. While I have done this in large part, a girl can only take so much. I have had to draw the line and say things I never imagined humans could say to one another, like “Please take your finger out of your butt and go wash your hands,” or “It is not okay to rub your body against mommy’s leg like that.” If I have a boy, I will send a good man out into the world. Although I still wish for this with all my might (and think we will succeed), I realize now that I really don’t have control over the situation. I can do my best to teach him, but in the end I do not make this person who I call my child. He came into the world the person he is, and I am just here to feed him hot dogs and tell him not to hump my leg. The lists were so much longer, but in the process of basking in the sunshine of being mommy and digging out through the volcanic ash of motherhood, I seem to have forgotten all the points. Thank God. Now I can just get on with the task at hand; loving the being I am here to love.
If you were to look at me, you would notice that nothing about me says mother. You may notice that I am sitting in the neonatal ICU with a four-and-a-half pound baby in my arms, but my stomach is flat, I am not leaking milk and my nether regions are just fine, thank you. I have a dazed look of confusion on my face, complemented by a worried brow. I look more like a lost deer peering into oncoming headlights than a surefooted mother, led by instinct and bonding. The day before, my husband and I had gotten the call. “Your baby’s been born, come to the hospital to meet him!” Welcome to motherhood. No pregnancy hormones. No ten months to slowly easy into the idea of what it means to be a mommy to the being growing inside of me. Just one phone call and, BOOM, suddenly a mother. Walking into the hospital to meet our son, I felt like an imposter – a poser. During the time we had been in the process of adoption, I had images in my mind of what it would be like to lovingly hold our new baby for the first time and who I would be as a mother. But the clinical setting and ill smell of the hospital swirled these images away like leaves in the wind and left just the clear skies of fear and cluelessness. Does the world really think I am fit to do this? I don’t even know how to take care of a baby! I never even babysat as a kid. All the beeping machines and flashing contraptions in the neonatal ICU yelled their answer to my question and secured confirmation of my fears. No, I am not fit to do this. The family to one side of us was stumbling through the challenges of nursing. The family to the other side of us was about to go home with their twins, who had been hospital residents for the three months prior. I hardly knew how to hold a baby. How could I compete with this level of medical care? I was soon to find out. With our discharge papers in hand, we traded the chaos and noise of the hospital for that of the freeway and the long drive home – a drive we had done several times a day in order to make it to the hospital in time for feedings; the only time we could hold our baby. Nothing in my life had prepared me for the very wrong idea of putting a very tiny, helpless being into a flimsy car seat and careening down roads littered with terrible drivers. It did not seem right. Nothing seemed right. But then we got home, and everything changed. The three of us sat in the window seat of our living room, a beautiful vantage point from which all important things in our lives happen, and together we let out a collective sigh of relief. With this breath, we became a family. Gone was the alien atmosphere of the hospital. Gone were the beeping lights of life-support machines. Gone was the lack of an intimate setting for the most intimate actions. Gone were the fears, stress, insecurity and worry I had felt at the hospital. Gone were the questions I had about myself as a mother. All that was left was an innate knowing that I was finally a mother to the soft and precious being I held to my chest. Sitting in the comfortable peace of our home, looking out a picture window at the swaying trees of a waning summer, I felt an immediate infusion of maternal instinct and the blossoming of a love beyond my wildest dreams. And, it wasn’t just me. This change was palpable for all of us. We saw the expression on our newborn’s face change to one of relaxation and ease. It was as if upon entering the threshold of our home, we entered a magical world that formed us into the soft creature of a family we are today. Once we entered this magical world, we never looked back. Now, when my son and I pick berries or dig for dinosaur eggs in the backyard, that hospital stay is ancient history – one of the many things that went into making me the mother I am and our son the person he is. In fact, I often forget that our son did not come from my own flesh. I have to think through a few extra steps at the doctor’s office when answering family history questions. But I am also the first one to pipe up with the suggestion of adoption when any willing ear is nearby talking about starting a family. So today, if you were to look at me, everything about me would say mother, especially if you were looking at my heart.