Hoping for Boys

Before my son was born, I never really wanted to have a boy.

It is only now that he is nearly a teenager, only now that I have been utterly in love with him for over a decade, that can I admit, with both embarrassment and astonishment, that before Garth was born, when I imagined raising a boy, it was with more resignation than pleasure. Even after two daughters, I was still secretly hoping that my third pregnancy would yield another girl.

If the truth were known, I wasn’t much interested in maleness. My last intense involvement with men had revolved around the rituals of mating, but over the years since I’d chosen a spouse, most of my primary relationships had been with women. I loved my daughters and my stepdaughter and my mother and all my female friends, and although I also loved my husband and my brothers and those male friends I had managed to keep—or make—since my marriage, still, my life was predominated by women. I would have been thrilled to welcome another daughter into my life.

Besides, with a few notable exceptions, I didn’t much like the boys I knew. I didn’t like the way they blustered through the world with their grubby faces and brash bodies, ignoring everything that did not fascinate them, pushing themselves through space until it sometimes seemed the very air was bruised by their presence. And balls and bugs and trucks—boys seemed limited by their own limited interests. Boys were messier, louder, more destructive than girls. Girls even toilet-trained earlier.

Boys seemed more risky, more of a threat. True, a son was still probably more likely than a daughter to grow up to become a member of Congress or the winner of a Nobel Prize. But the prisons were filled with grown boys. Boys were more likely to suffer from birth defects, learning problems, car accidents, or heart attacks. Boys caused more problems.

In fact, the only reason I could think of for wanting a son was so that my husband could know the same intense sense of continuity that I felt with our daughters. Having girls reconfirmed my link with the generations of women who had proceeded me and with those I hoped would succeed me. Our daughters made me feel connected to my own girlhood and confident about my old age, made me feel integral to both biology and history in a way I doubted would have been nearly so profound if they had been boys. I speculated that having a son would give my husband the same deep satisfaction that our daughters gave me, and yet, back then, I thought it unlikely that a son would affect my life in an equally significant way. Basically, raising a boy seemed like a lot of work.

Before Garth was born, I kept quiet about my feelings, but I know a great many people who have been more vocal about their preference for girls. Parents in much of northern Europe already prefer girls to boys, and although recent polls show that American fathers still express a slight partiality for sons, that preference seems to be decreasing. Certainly American parents who are interested in adoption want girls; according to one article, between seventy and ninety percent of adoptive parents indicate a preference for a female child.

In a much less scientific—but still very suggestive—sample, two of my friends experienced slumps of depression after it was revealed that the healthy fetuses they were carrying were male. And countless other friends, relatives, and acquaintances—women and men alike—have expressed to me their desire for girls. In fact, in the last five years I’ve known of only one person who was hoping for a son. And he was an ex-Marine with two daughters.

It’s a intriguing sign of our times. Elsewhere—in parts of China, India, and Africa, for example—people still want only their livestock to be born female. Elsewhere, sons are valued and the number of daughters is still limited through abortion, infanticide, and neglect. But now we’re seeing a shift in that old pattern; now—at least among some circles—we tend to hope for girls.

Obviously the pendulum has swung too far, as such pendulums almost always do, though when I consider the world’s destroyed daughters, the human babies resented or slaughtered because of their gender, the girls taught by their mothers to loathe themselves because of their sex and to pass that loathing on to their own daughters, I can’t help but feeling something akin to relief that, unreasonable as the result may be in the short term, at least the pendulum has moved at all. Here, finally, girls are being cherished as they should have been everywhere, all along.

There are reasons for the current shift in prejudice. I know of several men who have hoped for daughters because their relationships with their own fathers had been so toxic. With a girl, they felt they stood a better chance of breaking out of the authoritarian chains of a certain kind of masculinity. But most of the parents I know seem to feel that a daughter offers more possibilities and fewer challenges than a son. In a culture in which women are now able to enjoy opportunities beyond their roles as family members, I suspect that having a girl means having a child who might come close to having it all.

These days we’d like to think that a daughter can grow up to enjoy status and accomplishments equal to any man’s. But at the same time we imagine raising the first female President of the United States, we still consider women to be the glue that bonds families together. A son is a son till he takes a wife, but a daughter’s a daughter all her life, still appears to have its reverberations in our unconscious understanding of sons and daughters.

We know that it is still women who, typically, write the thank-you notes, organize the reunions, and shoulder the responsibilities for the elder generation. And so it seems possible for our daughters to have families and rooms of their own, to have children and a life. We can imagine our daughters walking on the moon, and still calling home more often than our sons.

Besides, thanks to the courage and effort of the last few generations of feminists, we have a pretty good idea how we want to raise our girls. We are know of strategies we can use to try to help them achieve a rich and powerful femininity, ways to encourage them to realize that their gender can enhance more than it limits how they live their lives.

But we’re still in the process of rethinking maleness. As a society, we have not yet come to a new understanding of what it means to be male, and how masculinity can be best expressed. And unfortunately, while a number of us have rejected many of masculinity’s old modes, such as its excessive arrogance and aggression, we have yet to have fully articulate our new aspirations for our sons. We’re still trying to define how masculinity can be most successfully expressed, and that makes it a confusing and demanding time in which to try to raise a son.

But it’s also an exciting time. As Don and Jeanne Elium write in their book Raising a Son, “There is not yet a clear vision [of mature masculinity], but the right questions are emerging; a central one is “What is a healthy man?” In addition to consulting their own experiences and emotions, men are also looking to such divergent sources as ancient archetypes and the latest physiological research to aid in understanding and redefining masculinity. It is also both promising and invigorating to think that my son can participate in—and perhaps even help to shape—a more expressive and multi-faceted version of masculinity.

When my daughters were six and four, I became unexpectedly pregnant for the third time. I was pleased to be having another baby, although the thought that it might be a boy was a little oppressive to me. Secretly I fantasized about how much fun Hannah and Tessa would have with another sister, how much I would enjoy raising three girls, how rich I would feel as the mother of three grown daughters.

By the time my labor began, we had a girl’s name chosen, although we had yet to narrow the field of possible boy’s names beyond the top half-dozen contenders. In retrospect I think I’d been assuming my baby was a girl because I already loved it so much. Long before my third child was born, I felt I knew and trusted it, just as I’d known and trusted my daughters in utero. I recognized its sweet nature. I understood it was no threat, but a marvel. I knew it was a treasure I wanted with all my heart.

After I pushed it into the world, its sisters peeked between its wrinkled thighs, and, still stunned by all they’d just witnessed, they exclaimed, “It’s a boy!” And suddenly, of course it was a boy, of course it had been a boy all along, and of course a boy was a wonderful thing to have. Suddenly I could hardly bear to contemplate having to spend my life without the blessing of a son.

Such is the power of birth, that profound blend of physiological and spiritual forces that attends the arrival of a new human being. When birth goes as we always hope it will, the bonds it forges transcend any preconception, any chauvinism. Birth changes lives. One of the many ways that my son has changed my life is by giving me a long and intimate opportunity to reconsider masculinity, to revalue and reconnect with maleness, rejecting those aspects I think have been warped beyond repair by the circumstances of my culture, and recognizing, nurturing, and celebrating the rest.

Of course it is impossible for me to separate what I adore about the unique person that Garth is from what I’ve come to appreciate so much about his gender. Then, too, it’s difficult to make any comments about boys in general without courting the very stereotypes we need to be wary of. But over the past decade, I’ve discovered what a great deal there is to value about boys. I’ve learned to love their wide-open spirits, their sense of adventure and their sense of fun. I’ve learned to appreciate their innate lack of interest in such mundane things as new clothes, fine furniture, and soap. I’ve come to love their fascination with the way things are made and the way they work, an interest that extends from levers and motors to Garth’s current passion, which is knitting.

I love the inventiveness of boys, and their intentness, and the way that intentness can morph into dreaminess and then burst out again in a glorious swirl of action. I love the blatantness of boys, their un-subtle humor and their insistent questions and their unexpected, rib-squeezing hugs. I love their tenderness, the heart-breakingly solicitous way they bend over babies and pick up kittens and listen to the people they love. Beneath their fart jokes, beneath their compulsion to turn every physical surface into a drum, beneath their mistrust of water for anything but splashing and squirting, beneath their often grimy faces and their perennially tousled hair, they have a shine that never fails to warm me, a steady sweetness and a generous good-will that I believe bodes well for us all.

For those of us who are lucky enough to have sons, the challenge is clear: We must continue to devote ourselves to a rethinking of masculinity so that we can deepen our understanding both of what it is, and what it can become. And then we must try to implement that understanding in the raising of our sons, so that others, watching us, will hope for boys as often as they hope for girls.

Copyright © 2024 Jean Hegland. All Rights Reserved.