April 23, 2013 § 12 Comments

Gus and his good friend.

Gus and his good friend.

When you’re saying to your boys, ‘OK, there’s a certain kind of privilege that comes along with being a white man and you should not take that’ — that’s a kind of craziness. – Anna Quindlen

About a week ago, I wrote a post that I never should have written. I knew it about an hour after I hit “Publish,” even before the comments began to come in. Write what you know is the golden rule. And I wrote about what I didn’t know, which is what it’s like to be a girl today.

So now I am attempting to write what I should have written then, which is what it’s like to be the mother of boys in a society that still gives women the short end of the stick. Not that I know what I’m doing of course in raising these boys, but I am  familiar with the struggle, with the getting it wrong.

The other day at the park, Oliver and Gus were on the swings and we were having an abstract conversation about helping people. “Especially if they are girls,” Oliver said, pumping his legs, and soaring higher.

“What?” I asked, taken aback. “Why if they are girls?”

“Well, remember Mommy?” Oliver said on a downswing, “You told us we should hold doors open for girls?”

Shit, I thought, because I remembered completely our conversation on chivalry. I remembered telling them that they should hold doors open for everyone but always for girls and women. And now? Did I need to retract  or amend that in some way?  “It’s a good idea,” I said, “To help anyone who needs it.”

“Right,” said Oliver, leaning back as if his feet were going to touch the sky, “But especially girls.”

I loved Anna Quindlen’s book “Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake,” because she was so honest about how hard it was to raise boys to be feminists. In an interview with Terry Gross, Quindlen said: When you’re saying to your boys, ‘OK, there’s a certain kind of privilege that comes along with being a white man and you should not take that’ — that’s a kind of craziness. That’s asking them to be different from people — certainly different from the macho men who they might see on TV or hear around them. I just felt like the payoff ultimately was going to be so great.

What I wish she wrote more about was how she managed to accomplish this.

Lately, Gus has been obsessed with the fact that girls don’t have penises. “Mommy?” he asked while eating his breakfast the other day, “Do you really not have a penis?”

“That’s right,” I said.

“Does Naomi have a penis?” he asked referring to our 4-year old neighbor.


“Does Leah?” he asked about the little girl down the street.

“No,” I said, “Only boys.”

He was silent as he pondered this, and I told Gus what the amazing Carol Castanon said to the children at Oak Grove School, when Oliver went there: “You’re thinking about what it’s like to be a girl and what it’s like to be a boy.”

“No,” said Gus, “I’m just wondering how the pee gets out.”

Later, we took 4-year old Naomi to story hour with us, and in the car, Gus was telling her about how he could get across the monkey bars with his hands, which I know for a fact he can only do if I hold him up the entire way. It was hard not to laugh but I love how much confidence Gus has, how he still believes he has magical powers.

“Four-year olds can do a lot,” I told them, but they were intent on coloring in the back seat and ignored me.

“I accidentally made it across the monkey bars once,” Naomi told Gus, and I gripped the steering wheel as the word “accidentally” twisted in my gut. “I’m not allowed to use markers when I have my dress on,” she continued, and in the rear view mirror I watched as she smoothed her purple tulle skirt.

“They’re washable markers,” I told her, but still, she gave the marker back to Gus in his camouflage pants, and I thought back to a few weeks earlier when an old friend informed me that I was the first Cornell female to win a race at Penn Relays. “Oh, that,” I told him, rolling my eyes. “Well that was a fluke anyway.”

There is something in the way girls are treated today that makes me feel culpable, probably because I am. There is something in the way that I defer, or deflect, or – despite my denying it –  place my worth in the way I look or how clean the house is that is likely rubbing off on the current generation. Because how can it not?

Today I thought of Gus and Naomi while listening to NPR, to an interview with Sylvia Ann Hewlett, author of Winning the War for Talent in Emerging Markets: Why Women Are the Solution. She was talking about listening to former Avon CEO, Andrea Jung, speak at a conference about all that she had given up in order to become CEO. “No male leader does that,” said Hewlett. “I feel that many of us are still mired in the expectations of the 1950s.”

Something shifted in me when I became a mother, and I am still trying to right myself. For decades I was stalwartly feminist. I was never going to be the one to stay home, wash the dishes, or change the diapers. And then my son was born and I couldn’t imagine leaving him with anyone else. To be honest, this has more to do with my controlling nature than my maternal instincts, but still, in saying Yes to this, I said No to what I thought I had wanted for years. I said No to an income and a business card and  to being a female in an executive role.

Many military wives wear their role with pride. They wear sweatshirts emblazoned with “Marine Wife” or bumper stickers or window decals that say “I Heart My Soldier,” and I’m not really in that camp either. “I don’t really mind being a name or a number,” my friend and fellow Navy wife, Mae, said to me a few years ago, “But I do mind being my husband’s name and number.”

In some ways I have one foot in two different worlds and below me, watching my every move, are my two boys. “Hold the door,” I tell Oliver and Gus, and then in the next breath, I am telling them that women are just as strong as men. It’s no wonder they are confused, because most of the time, i am too.

Once, when we were living in Coronado, I went for a run with Oliver, who sat in the jogger with his books and his blanket, his eleven Matchbox cars and a bagel. We lived very close to the SEAL base where my husband worked and sometimes, I saw Scott and his battalion doing their PT run while we were out. Scott is a Seabee – an engineer – and he and his group were always friendly if we met on the road. On that morning, it was foggy, and I saw a group of soldiers ahead of us in their standard PT gear, so I picked up my pace to catch up. “Let’s see if that’s Daddy,” I told Oliver, and in a few minutes I was gaining on them.

As I got closer though, I saw the letters EOD on their backs, which stands for “Explosive Ordinance Disposal.” These are the people who diffuse bombs and they tend to be rather hard core. I wasn’t quite sure what to do at that point. I was by the golf course, on a wide road with few cross streets, and my only choice was to slow down or pass them. There were only about ten of them, running in a line behind a heavily muscled young man, and I moved way over to the center of the road to pass. “Good morning,” I said and waved and the guy in front did a double-take when he saw us. Then he jumped off the road and onto the golf course. “Drop down,” he yelled at the guys behind him. “Drop down and give me fifty, you pussies.”

I ran the rest of the way home feeling terrified that I had done something wrong, that I had gotten someone into trouble, and also a bit relieved that I  was still, in some manner, capable in the ways I used to be. If I’m honest, this is also how I feel much of the time: mostly terrified and sometimes capable.

And this is what I would like most to change because it’s the terrified bit that gets passed on like a secret, that becomes the karma of the next generation of girls and boys. It’s the fear of not being enough that becomes inherited, and it’s the trait that I most want to be recessive, to become extinct. My good friend Sarah keeps reminding me lately that I don’t have to be so black and white, that we live in the grey area most of the time, and I am trying to remember this, that  it’s not about being a CEO or a housewife, strong or weak, terrified or capable. Perhaps it’s just about being a human being doing the best that we can. Maybe what I need to impart to my own sons is that women and men aren’t really that different after all.

Except for the penises of course.


Tagged: , ,

§ 12 Responses to Boys

  • Katrina Kenison says:

    I love you for being brilliant and hilarious, terrified and capable (aren’t we all?) — and for reminding me in every single post you write that this life is always about doing the best we can with what we have. SO glad you write, so grateful for what you share.

  • Elaine says:

    Great post, Pamela. You’re a brilliant thinker – more brilliant than I know you’ll ever give yourself credit for. But this is just such a thoughtful piece. Although I’m glad you wrote the first piece.

    One time, I heard the door opening for women thing explained like this. The world works better when there’s some order to it. When I’m standing in a crowded elevator, it just works better if we have all silently agreed that the women will exit and then the men. Otherwise, we either all get stuck in the door, or everyone is paralyzed. We could’ve come up with any set of rules for the situation, but we came up with women first. Same holds with walking through doors. It just works better if we all understand Oliver will hold the door, Naomi will walk through. I’m not always comfortable with the message, but I do agree with the practicalities of it all.

  • I am laughing out loud at wondering how the pee gets out. So good.
    I feel like I have one foot in each of two worlds, too, and often feel like I have a home in neither as well as completely off balance. xoxo

  • Leanne says:

    Oh my goodness. I loved this one. Thanks. And to be honest, I was struggling to digest your blog on girls. I didn’t outright object to anything you wrote but it didn’t sit right with me either.

    But this blog sits oh so right. I struggle with this all so much as well: raising my boys to both respect woman as equals and hold the door; realizing that after 8 years out of the work force my confidence as business woman is in a tailspin; wanting to Lean In and relinquish control but completely unable to let go of my babies’ hands.

    Love your writing. Thank you for helping me feel less alone in this.

  • Love this, Pamela! I have been working on figuring out the boy thing for so long (looking forward to reading Quindlen’s book) only to end up pretty much where you did. You got there a lot sooner. Good for you! I’m going to go to Colorado for Mother’s Day to visit my now middle-aged boy and I think I’ll show him this, get his thoughts. For what it is worth, he told me he learned a lot more by watching me than by listening to me. It was a complete shock to me to find out a few years ago that he had a picture of me that did not mesh with mine at all but apparently he believe(d/s) I was and am a lot more competent, independent, assertive and stronger than I feel most days. Lately, too, we’ve been sharing notes on what it is like to be middle aged together. I am working on some writings along those lines now — it’s a shocker but no less full of joy, painful realizations and wonder than those early days. Thanks for writing this. Betsy

  • Stephanie says:

    Ooooh, I would have been so PISSED if that had had happened to me on a run! It is so insulting that he the leader called his runners pussies because they were about to be passed by you! I’m mentally wheeling you and Oliver over to that guy and giving him a piece of your mind.

    It goes something like this: “Are you calling them pussies because they are about to be passed by a mother with a jogging stroller? That is incredibly insulting to me! I happen to be a (“x”-time All-American….insert lengthy running credentials here) and would take you on, with or without the jogging stroller, any day!” Oooh!!!! Grrrr!!!! I want to go for a run now but my baby is down for his nap.

  • You’re right to embrace that gray line, because I don’t see it ever again being black/white, which is a good thing, but also a little difficult to navigate sometimes.

    I loved your “open the door” conversation with your boys. I just tell my girls that there’s a certain distance when you’re opening the door–if a person is three steps behind you, you hold it.

    And then my little one said, “What if they have really big or really little legs? How do I know when three will be then? *sigh* She had a point.

  • Jo McAndrews says:

    Hi Pamela

    I have just started reading your blog recently and love the way you write. I don’t usually comment on blogs I am afraid – still dipping my toe into the water and staying a bit hidden.

    When I read your post on girls I was about to write a comment to thank you for your thoughts and words and wonderings. I have a daughter and spend a lot of time with other parents and families and I think that this can be a really tough one to talk about. We are all so conditioned by our upbringings and sometimes blind to or exhausted by the constant gender differences and discrepancies.

    From my daughter’s birth I deliberately dressed her in anything but pink – all sorts of colours, blue, red, yellow, green and I was so dismayed when at 2 or 3 years of ages she pointed at a picture of children playing and declared so definitely ‘those are boys’ clothes, those are girls’ clothes’ I wasn’t exactly surprised but it was a reminder of the power of culture around us.

    Anyway – I was sad to see that you regret posting that post – I found it really thought provoking and brave. Please don’t feel that there is some ‘right’ thing that you are supposed to be saying – that will stilt your creativity and your daring. I see from the comments that others agree with me that it is really good that you posted your thoughts about pink lego and bringing up girls. Thank you so much for your great writing.

  • Lisa Ahn says:

    Oh, how I love this line: “If I’m honest, this is also how I feel much of the time: mostly terrified and sometimes capable.” Let me say, it’s true for this mother of girls as well. I tell them to be “smart and strong” and then highlight (in my head) all the ways I’m neither.

    Such a moving, eloquent post. Thank you.

  • Loved this post, Pamela, especially the realization that you feel “mostly terrified and sometimes capable.” Me, too! In nearly all spheres of my life. This is a phrase I’m going to carry with me, because it describes that feeling so well. Life really is about the shades of grey, isn’t it?

  • I am late to this party because I’ve been writing a book. And not blogging. “mostly terrified and sometimes capable,” I don’t seem to be able to do 2 things at once 🙂

    Love you so dearly.

    Doing push ups right now in honor of you.

  • Hello I am so excited I found your blog, I really found you by error,
    while I was looking on Bing for something else, Anyhow I am here now and would just like to say kudos for a marvelous post and a all round enjoyable blog (I also love the theme/design), I don’t have time to
    look over it all at the minute but I have bookmarked it and also included your RSS
    feeds, so when I have time I will be back to read a
    lot more, Please do keep up the fantastic work.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

What’s this?

You are currently reading Boys at Walking on My Hands.


%d bloggers like this: