Published in the Gazette June 25, 2000


            I'm feeling very anti-boy today.  It might have something to do with the coffee table.  My two boys attacked it with metal spatulas the other day, covering it with splintery dents.  "What are you doing?"  I gasped in horror when I came in to investigate the noise.  "That table is a bad guy," Robbie explained, and then he and Eli tore off into the basement.

            It also might have something to do with the laundry.  I have reluctantly become an expert at getting mud and grass stains out of the knees of jeans.  But this week, like every other week, I was again thwarted by ground-in stains on someone's Sunday school shirt.  No amount of prewash, detergent or bleach would get those stains out.  How did a shirt get such a stain, anyway?  (Moms of girls assure me that yes, their daughters get dirty, but, well, no, they donít wear holes in the knees of every single pair of pants.)

            Sometimes I think I wasnít cut out to be a mother of sons.  When I was about five months pregnant with my first child, my parents came to visit.  Mom got out of the car, hugged me, and then held me back at arm's length. 

            "Oh, I donít know, Jane," she said.  "I think it looks like a boy--low and all in front.  Thatís the way I carried Bill."

            "You think so?" I asked.  I didnít quite believe her, but I was somewhat shaken.  Of course Iím not going to have a boy, I thought.  That's my daughter!

            "Oh yes.  A boy.  I'll have to think about this," Mom laughed.  "I was sure you'd have a girl.  I canít really imagine you with a boy."

            At that point, I couldnít imagine myself with a boy either.  It's not that I didnít want a boy.  It's just that I was going to have girls.  All my life, whenever I'd imagined being a mom (which wasnít often, I have to admit), I imagined myself with daughters.  If I had children, they would be girls, of course, and I'd relive my own girlhood with them:  Laura Ingalls Wilder, dollhouses, art, and music lessons.  Or maybe it would be fun watching my daughters excel at volleyball or softball, sports being something I'd never been able to manage.  Either way, I could expose them to both the satisfactions of the domestic arts and the power of feminism.

            But the baby was Robbie, a boy, and the minute the nurse held him up for me to see him, everything changed.

            First, I realized I didn't have a daughter.  Second, or maybe simultaneously, I was completely and utterly smitten with love for my son.  And it happened again when Eli was born.

            I realize now that overturned expectations for a baby's gender are good practice for the lifelong experience of child rearing.  You can't choose whether you have a boy or a girl.  You can't choose when your child gets ill or how severely.  You also can't choose whether you have an outgoing child or a shy one, an easy-going baby or a colicky one.

            As parents we try as best we can to shape our children, to give them opportunities to grow into the best people they can be, but we are also shaped as parents by the personalities and genders of our children.

            Of course, when you're pregnant, the correct response when someone asks you if you are hoping for a boy or a girl is "Oh, it doesnít matter, as long as it's healthy."  And of course, we are deeply satisfied when our children are healthy and thriving.

            But it does matter if the baby is a boy or a girl.  In many ways girls and boys live different lives, and so do moms of girls and moms of boys.  Spirited, "difficult" children require different parenting skills than "easy going" ones. 

            We can imagine ourselves as parents before we have children, but we become parents only in the cauldron, the day-to-day challenge of raising children.

            Sometimes when I see a friend with a young daughter, sharing "girls only" time, I momentarily yearn for a daughter.  But mostly, I'm too busy being a mom of boys:  sanding the coffee table and doing lots of muddy laundry, yes, but also discovering how many of the activities of my own girlish childhood I can share with Robbie and Eli:  hiking, reading, music, science . . . It's a pleasure I had never expected.


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