It's a Boy

Women Writers on Raising Sons


Edited by Andrea J. Buchanan

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The most popular question any pregnant woman is asked, aside from "When are you due?", has got to be "Are you having a girl or a boy?" 

When author Andrea Buchanan, already a mom to a little girl, was pregnant with her second child, she marveled at the response of friends and total strangers alike: "Boys are wonderful," "Boys are so much better than girls," "Boys love their mothers differently than girls." 

This constant refrain led her to explore the issue herself, with help from her fellow writers and moms, many of whom had had the same experience. The result is It's A Boy, a wide-ranging, often-humorous, and honest collection of essays about the experience of mothering boys. Taking on topics like aggression, parenting a teenage boy, and wishing for a daughter but getting a son, It's A Boy explores what it's like to mother sons and how that experience may be different, but no less satisfying, than mothering girls.


To Nate,
my sweet boy.

The most popular question any pregnant woman is asked—aside from "When are you due?"—has got to be, "Are you having a girl or a boy?" When I was pregnant with my daughter over six years ago, I was new to maternity, so it took me a while to recognize that all of my conversations with strangers would inevitably follow a similar script:
"When are you due?"
"Do you know what you're having?"
"A boy or a girl?"
"A girl."
And then the strangers would either rhapsodize about cute little girl babies in pink or tell me I had no idea what I was in for. On my way to being a mother for the first time, I had to agree with that sentiment in its most general interpretation.
The second time I was pregnant, I barely had room in my brain to remember I was pregnant. I was busy raising a preschooler, writing a book, working as an editor, running a household. When strangers asked me when I was due, it would take a moment to register with me what, in fact, they were talking about. Then I would look down and see my enormous stomach and remember: Oh, yes, the baby. This time I knew where that first question would be leading, so I would spill all without coercion. "October. A boy—second baby," I'd blurt, anticipating the arc of the conversation and hoping to have effectively ended it.
But I was wrong. The news that I was having a boy was tantalizing to these strangers, these street philosophers primed to offer advice on parenting to a pregnant woman. "A boy!" they'd say. "You must be so happy!" As though I wouldn't be if I were carrying a girl. Or, "A boy! Your husband must be proud!" As if he'd be disappointed to have a daughter. Countless people told me how easy boys are, how loving, how sweet, how special, how different from girls.
It surprised me.
Becoming a mother to a daughter had felt natural to me—after all, I am a daughter, I have a mother, I feel I have a small amount of insight into the relationship. And I grew up with sisters. Girls and women, I thought, were things I could understand. Becoming a mother to a son felt strange, even a little unnatural, and I was unnerved by the happiness of strangers who celebrated my boy-to-be in a way I couldn't comprehend.
Talking about my boy apprehension proved to be a sensitive topic: Before I became pregnant with my son, Nate, I had confessed to a friend that I didn't ever want to have a boy, that I was afraid of having a son. I told her that if I was ever going to have another baby, I'd want to be certain it was a girl, and I joked that now that I'd said that out loud, I'd be doomed to have a son for sure. My friend, the mother of a son, took this personally: We did not speak for three months. Once I was pregnant with Nate and eager to hash out the differences between boys and girls, other mothers of sons seemed to miss the point of my questions: "But boys are easier!" one friend told me. "I don't understand," said another. "Girls are more work. Why would you not want to have a son?" It was hard to get past these kinds of preconceived notions, plus the ones I was battling myself, and get the honest truth about boyness, if there even was one.
After Nate was born and I had fully and happily surrendered to the world of boy, my ambivalence reconciled, I began working on an essay about boyness. Usually I write at lightning speed, but this piece dragged on and on, taking not the usual hour to spill onto my computer screen, but days, weeks, months. Each time I returned to it, I felt resistant, blocked. There was so much to say—too much to say. What was I trying to confront in the piece? What was I really trying to get at? What was the point?
As I investigated this, I spoke and exchanged emails with other mothers and writers about mothering boys and girls, and I asked the following questions: Are there differences between mothering a son and mothering a daughter? Are the ideas we have about boys and girls based on real differences between them, or do our ideas about their differences inform their behavior? Do boys truly love their mothers differently? Are girls really "difficult"? Are boys really "easy"? Do these stereotypes about boy and girl babies change in toddlerhood? Adolescence?
The conversation this sparked inspired me not only to finish my piece on being the reluctant mother of a boy, but also to embark on two essay collections about mothering boys and mothering girls—not instructional tomes or guidebooks, but literary explorations of what it means to mother sons and daughters, and the differences between girls and boys. This book, It's a Boy, and its companion piece, It's a Girl, due out in 2006, are the result.
The essays in It's a Boy are grouped in four sections: "It's a Boy," which features tales of ambivalence, love, and newborn babies; "Will Boys Be Boys?," which explores bullying, violence, and redemption, the otherness and the potential of boys; "The Velvet Underground," which examines gender roles and what we expect from our sons; and "Shapeshifter," which tackles the ever-changing nature of boyness and a mother's role as her son grows.
By far the topic on which I received the most submissions was what I ended up calling "prenatal boy apprehension": stories of mothers who either were conflicted about having sons or had never considered the possibility of having anything other than a daughter. Eight of these essays exploring the mystery of baby boys comprise the first section, "It's a Boy." My own essay, "It's a Boy!" focuses on my experience of wanting a second girl—and my fears that what those happy strangers told me might come true: that I might love a son more. Jody Mace ("You've Got Male!") and Stephany Aulenback ("Expectations") ponder similar concerns as Mace wonders if she can even relate to a Power Ranger-loving boy and Aulenback attempts to trace her boy reluctance back to her parents. Novelist Caroline Leavitt ("A Son's Love") is surprised by the unexpected sweetness and intensity of the love she feels for her son, and Ona Gritz ("Son of a Guy") explains what it's like to love a boy with a temperament so different from her own—and so much like her ex-husband's. Marrit Ingman feels out of her element in "Exile in Boyville," and Jennifer Margulis ("My Three Sons") and Marjorie Osterhout ("Breaking the Curse") both come to terms with different kinds of family legacies around having boys.
In the second section, "Will Boys Be Boys?" writers further explore the notion of the "otherness" of boys, including violence, preschool bullies, "boy" literature, the freedom and power of boyhood, and dreams of a boy that never was. Karen E. Bender reveals what it's like to be blacklisted as the mother of a pint-sized biter in "The Bully's Mother," and Jennifer Lauck shares a story about her son, a group of boys, and knives in "It Takes a Village." Rochelle Shapiro ("Will Boys Be Boys?") contrasts her experience of having a son with the theoretical ideal she had in mind as a consciousness-raising feminist of the 1970s. Gayle Brandeis learns to reconcile her pacifism with her son's desire to learn archery and play paintball in "Zen and the Art of Extracurricular Activities," and Kate Staples ("Reading to My Son") wonders if she can ever impart the kind of girlish love she had for literature to a little boy who prefers chewing books to reading them. Robin Bradford watches her eight-year-old son with friends and reflects on how mothering a son has opened her up to the world of boys in "Becoming a Boy"; Faulkner Fox ("Full House") contemplates the girls she never had while she learns to throw a baseball with her two sons; and, in one of the book's most poignant essays, Susan Ito ("Samuel") wonders what life would have been like with the son she never had.
In "The Velvet Underground," we find writers exploring gender expectations, both cultural and personal, as they navigate the distance between mother and son. Gwendolen Gross ("Entering the Den of Math") writes of feeling a pang of separation from her son as he takes a stereotypical boy's delight in numbers over words. Suzanne Kamata ("Chonan") and Katie Kaput ("Things You Can't Teach") face intimidating cultural expectations about their sons, as Kamata raises a prized "oldest son" in Japan and Kaput, a transsexual girl, struggles to parent a boy. Susan O'Doherty ("The Velvet Underground") grapples with her family history around what boys are made of and tries to find a way to nurture her son's softer side even as she recognizes his need for protection. Jodi Picoult ("Scaredy-Cat") and Catherine Newman ("Pretty Baby") write about their sons' divergence from the cultural norm that dictates a boy should be brave and not interested in watching, let alone acting out, performances of The Nutcracker. And Marion Winik ("Our Bodies, Their Selves") realizes her boys are no longer young enough to be innocent of her body now that they are coming into their own.
Finally, "Shapeshifter" considers the changing role of mothers as boys grow. These tales of adapting mothers and evolving sons mostly concern teenage boys, but Jamie Pearson tackles the topic of a mother's first decision about her son's body—to circumcise or not—in "Making the Cut." Maura Rhodes ("[Almost] All Grown Up") and Katie Allison Granju ("The Teenage Boy") write about how their mothering changes as their sons morph into men, and Jacquelyn Mitchard muses on her son's quiet rite of passage into manhood in "The Day He Was Taller." Melanie Lynne Hauser's "Shapeshifter" chronicles the teenage boy's toddlerlike, lightning-quick shift between demanding grown-up independence and wanting maternal comfort—from the viewpoint of the mother who must watch it all and remain constant, unchanging. Lisa Peet contrasts her unpleasant memories of high school boys with the teenage boy she lives with now ("Space Invader"), and Kathryn Black ("Surrounded by Children") writes about how her two sons have transformed her from a mother of two to a mother of many children.
In January 2005, as I was working on compiling this book, the president of Harvard, Larry Summers, gave a speech he would find hard to live down in the coming months. Speaking at an academic conference to an audience of scientists and engineers, he posited that "innate differences" between men and women might explain why women are underrepresented in the sciences. Not sexism, nor bias toward people who bear children, nor even the cultural consensus that women are worse than men in math and science: The defining fact that is keeping women from reaching the upper levels of the scientific professions was, in his mind, "aptitude," which he directly tied to gender.
A month later, a study published in the journal Behavioral Neuroscience found that while there was a slight "gender gap" between male and female rhesus monkeys in performing certain tasks involving spatial memory, these gaps disappeared when female monkeys were given training appropriate for the tasks on which they were being tested. The researcher said, "It is important to note that in the rhesus monkey, we only find the sex difference in spatial memory, not other cognitive domains." She went on to conclude, "A lot of times researchers will just interpret any kind of sex difference as evidence for a rigid, biological difference. This study really does tend to argue that the difference is biologically set, perhaps, but that it's also really easy to change if you work on it."
In March, just a month later, researchers who sequenced the human X chromosome discovered that females are genetically more varied than males. "It turns out 15% of genes [in females' second X-chromosome] escape inactivation altogether, each of which now becomes a candidate for explaining differences between men and women," said Robin Lovell-Badge, of the National Institute for Medical Research, U.K. "Moreover, another 10% are sometimes inactivated and sometimes not, giving a mechanism to make women much more genetically variable than men." Reports of this discovery found it hard to resist gendered language, as evidenced in the purple prose of the Washington Post, which breathlessly announced, "She was slow to reveal her secrets, but the X chromosome has now bared it all."
It seems surprising to me that even now, in the twenty-first century, we are still divided between science and anecdote when it comes to our basic assumptions about gender. In his speech, Summers mentioned his own toddler daughters as an example of how, even as young girls, females seem to be instinctively nurturing, saying, "I guess my experience with my two and a half year old twin daughters who were not given dolls and who were given trucks, and found themselves saying to each other, look, daddy truck is carrying the baby truck, tells me something." On the surface, this story seems to confirm gender expectations—proof that even given "boy" toys like trucks, girls revert to the kind of nurturing play typical of females. But I could counter this with an anecdote that subverts gender expectations: A few weeks ago, over breakfast in a restaurant, my two-and-a-half-year-old son Nate took one of his toy cars, put it underneath his shirt, and cradled it on his belly, saying, "Oh, my baby!"
What can we conclude from this?
I think the safest thing we can conclude is that our expectations are flawed, and that extrapolating theories about gender from isolated facts or even anecdotes is risky, at best. All questions of whether men and women are from wildly disparate planets aside, the range of what is "boy behavior" and what is "girl behavior" seems to be fluid, flexible, and highly specific to personal experience. The stories of the mothers and sons in this book are reflective of that. They are personal and specific, dynamic and multifaceted, and grounded in the day-to-day experience of living with boys—some of whom play "car crash" with trucks and some of whom turn trucks into babies; all of whom deserve to experience the full range of human emotion, which knows no gender.
May 2005
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania


Long before I got pregnant, I began to fantasize about my imaginary daughter. I rarely imagined having a son. So a few weeks ago, when the ultrasound technician's pointer indicated my unborn son's own rather obvious pointer, I was as shocked as I have ever been in my life.
Although the rational part of me knew that statistically there was pretty much a 50 percent chance of having a baby of either sex, the superstitious part of me believed that, while baby girls were of course born naturally of their mothers, baby boys required work. In the tradition of old wives' tales, you had to do something difficult and deliberate to conceive them—it involved an esoteric kind of meditation, maybe, or an unusual physical technique, perhaps, or both. Obviously, female had to be the "default" sex. Look at Henry VIII. Look at all those millions of Chinese people, casting aside all those unwanted baby girls in the streets. Some part of me must have had the smug, secret notion that I would be cosmically rewarded for valuing what so many others on the planet had historically devalued. It seemed clear. Because I wanted a girl, I would get her.
My fixation on the sex of the baby was ridiculous, I knew. I'd had four miscarriages prior to this pregnancy; I should have been overjoyed and grateful to have finally achieved a healthy, viable pregnancy at all. And I was. Oh, I always was. At least, the logical, rational part of me always was. I have to admit, though, that for a few days after that ultrasound, I reeled.
In the car, on the way home from the fetal assessment clinic, I tried to explain—ostensibly to my husband—why I was so disappointed. "I feel like I'd know what to do with a girl," I told him. "I know how it feels to be a girl. I'd be able to help her through the tricky stuff. I don't know anything about boys and their tricky stuff."
"Oh, boys don't have any tricky stuff," said David, trying to be reassuring. He laughed. "They're really easy. Once they hit puberty, all they think about is sex. They don't care about anything else. And that's pretty much it, until they die."
I was not reassured.
Over the next few days, guiltily flailing around for another explanation for my distress over having a boy, I turned—in the time-honored way—to blaming my mother. On a number of occasions, my mother had told me that, while I'd never given her more than a moment's trouble, my little brother had been so demanding that if he'd been born first, he'd have been an only child. My mother was also fond of telling me about playground studies on sex differences in toddlers. "Little girls spend their time talking to each other about relationships," she'd told me on the phone. "Little boys run around making weird noises."
According to my mother, all men were difficult—but the men in my immediate family were notoriously difficult. Having had firsthand experience with those difficult men, I wholeheartedly agreed with her. Perversely, though, I figured this was somehow my mother's fault. I had the vague notion that it had something to do with the way she'd handled them.
Although my mother was very open with me about how difficult my little brother had been to raise, I'd secretly continued to nurse a childhood grudge against her based on my belief that, in spite of how difficult he was—or maybe because of it—she'd always preferred him to me. Even today my childhood friends marvel over how he'd had her wrapped around his little finger—though, to be fair, he'd had almost everyone wrapped around his little finger. Where I was dough faced, obedient, and sullen, he was cherubic, mischievous, and charming—and that difference between us may explain the way my mom seemed to light up around him. Because when I tried to think of examples of times she had favored him over me specifically because he was a boy, I couldn't think of many. Sure, now and then she'd make me do the dishes while he was sent outside to play; she'd insisted that was because I was older, not because I was a girl. Sure, there was a time when she spent the two hours before bed reading and playing alone with him every evening. When I asked why we couldn't have a similar private time together, she explained he was a little behind in school and that I did so well because I'd already gotten four years alone with her before he'd been born. So, while there were signs like these, open to interpretation, I couldn't come to any definite conclusions.
Still, I remembered my little brother eternally getting into some kind of trouble and my mother fretting over it. When he was five or six, he disappeared repeatedly on his way home from kindergarten—distracted by other children, he'd stop to play with them and forget to come home. My mother and I would drive around our small town looking for him for hours. Mom would shout his name frantically out the open windows of the family car the entire time. Now and then, I'd join in and call out dutifully. When he was a young teen, he and a couple of friends went camping and accidentally started a raging forest fire. When he was sixteen or seventeen, he got kicked out of private school for having sex with his girlfriend on the stage in the auditorium. In his early twenties, he dropped out of college and refused to get a job. All of this made my mother sick with worry. I suppose I equated "sick with worry" with "love."
But while I could remember the permanent anxious expression on my mother's face, her migraine headaches and her constantly wringing hands, I couldn't remember my brother's being made to suffer any consequences for his actions. I also remembered his asking for things—asking to do things, asking to have things—and getting them. They were things I would never have asked for, because I had assumed the answer would be "no." Because I had felt the answer should be "no."
Was my little brother difficult, as my mother had always maintained, because he was a boy? Was he difficult, as I'd always secretly believed, because of the way my mother had handled him, because of the way I felt she'd spoiled and coddled him? Or was he difficult simply because . . . he was difficult? It was easy to assume that my little brother's behavior and preferential treatment were due to his maleness. The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized it was possible that it had as much to do with his own particular temperament as it did with his sex—or his environment.
With my own baby boy still curled safely inside my belly, all I could conclude was that if I happened to have a willful, headstrong son, I would certainly try to handle it differently than my mother had. I'd be firmer. I'd say "no." Just because he had a Y chromosome, it didn't necessarily follow that my son was destined to be difficult, too.
As tempting as it was to blame my mother for my boy-child dread, it seemed hardly fair for her to shoulder it all by herself. So I moved on—to blaming my father.
In his midthirties, my father had become born again in our dim living room, on his knees in front of a flickering television evangelist. Soon afterward, instead of finding an established church to join, he took up with a cultlike fundamentalist Christian group that met in another living room—the living room of a local farming family who seemed to have modeled themselves on the Amish. Although even I, at the age of ten or twelve, could see that the central, most powerful figure in the group was the farmer's wife, the sect subscribed to extremely sexist views, even more sexist than those already inculcated in my dad through his years of Catholic school in the 1950s. As a result, we were often treated to litanies, at the dining room table or during the interminable Bible studies my father made us sit through, on the subservient role of women.
According to my father, a woman had one role in life and one role only—to create a safe and comfortable home for her family, one in which she could look after her husband and raise her children. A man, on the other hand, was free to do whatever he wished in the world, as long as it in some way provided financially for his family. And so, in combination with his extreme religious zealotry, my father was also a bit of a Willy Loman figure. Constantly trying to figure out a way to get rich quick and support us in the style to which his God had made him accustomed, he moved haphazardly from Amway to ill-fated real estate deals to various questionable multilevel marketing schemes.
My dad was—and still is—tall and good-looking, fond of hearing himself talk. He could be outrageously charming, gregarious, and enthusiastic. Sometimes he was self-confident to the point of complete self-centeredness, even self-indulgence. At other times he was deeply insecure—to the point of complete self-centeredness and self-indulgence. He was also prone to sudden inexplicable spells of rage or depression, which were terrifying to us, as children, in their unpredictability. In short, my father was what some people would call "an interesting character"—while others might say he was "clinically insane." I love him dearly, but I belong to the latter group (and maybe in more ways than one, it occurs to me now). However, as I tried to trace my reluctance to give birth to a boy to my relationship with my father, I began to understand (and this may seem counterintuitive) that because I'd thought of my father as an aberration for quite some time—in no way is he your "normal," "average" guy—I couldn't honestly say that I'd come to many conclusions about the male sex in general based on his example.Yes, he'd made me aware of the sexist views many men hold about women. And yes, at times I'd privately countered those views by coming up with unflattering generalizations about the male sex in turn—men were inherently violent, men were inherently more selfish and less sensitive, men were fixated on sex—but my heart had never been in it.
With both my mom and my dad off the hook, at least to a certain extent, and my beliefs and fears about the "innately difficult" nature of males exposed to myself as unfair and sexist in their own right, it was time for a little self-examination. Just why had I been so invested in the idea of having a daughter in the first place? My very best friend, my husband, was a man. A really terrific, really smart, really talented, really loving, really good man. In fact, the one or two times I'd ever considered having a son, I'd fantasized about raising not a combination of our genetic material but David's exact clone, a child completely untainted by my own DNA. After all, David himself had turned out well. And I thought we knew enough about his strengths and weaknesses, about his successes and disappointments, that we could turn out a new, improved version—like a better laundry detergent, only human.
If that seems slightly insane and more than slightly controlling, well, that's because it is.
Once that realization hit, I realized this: My fantasies about my imaginary daughter were similarly, if not more, insane and controlling. I began to see that they were linked to an earlier fantasy of mine: the "doing it all over again" fantasy, which had started back when I was in high school. This fantasy involved being reborn as an infant, but with all the knowledge and experience I'd acquired up to that point. I was sure that, given such an opportunity, I could get my life "right" a second time through. Over the years, though, the more I entertained this fantasy, the more it began to take a slightly nightmarish turn. Trying—and failing bleakly—to imagine, for instance, how the new, improved me would handle a notorious fifth-grade bully any differently than the way I had already (i.e., by making myself the fifth-grade equivalent of invisible), I'd think, Who am I kidding? I'll still be the same person, constructed out of exactly the same genetic material. What if I can't do any better than I've already done? Worse—what if I screw up even more?


On Sale
Mar 13, 2009
Page Count
272 pages
Seal Press