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.

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