The neighbor boys were threatening to kill each other again. They stood face-to-face in their swim trunks, swords raised, torsos arched toward the sun. The brown-haired one lunged first, whacking his red-headed friend across the hip. The redhead stumbled and then recovered, swinging his plastic blade at his friend’s neck. Smack, smack. Stumble. Smack. Our whole vacation this battle had been raging outside our little rented beach house.
Paul walked into the kitchen as I watched from the window. “I can’t believe there are parents who actually give their sons swords to play with,” I said.
We were newlyweds, years away from having children of our own, but already I had enlightened ideas about how we would raise them. The two of them — always I imagined a girl and a boy — would be good, kind kids with unapologetic smiles and quirky interests. Our daughter would grow to be brave and self-possessed. Our son would be unafraid of the color pink. As a child of the 1970s I’d grown up listening to Marlo Thomas’s Free to Be . . . You and Me album on my tape deck, learning early that girls could win races, that boys could like dolls. In college I’d taken enough women’s studies courses to qualify for a minor. I knew a few things about gender and patriarchy — things that our neighbors, who sunned themselves in lawn chairs while their sons pretended to slay each other, clearly did not.
Paul glanced out the window as he opened the fridge. “I don’t know,” he said. “They’re just kids. They’re just playing.”
“Playing at hurting other people’s bodies?” I replied. “Playing at aggression?” The stakes of this disagreement felt strangely high to me, as if the boys we were discussing were our own.
Paul shrugged. “I think you’re taking this a little too seriously.”
I was not, I was certain, taking this too seriously — though I do tend to take things seriously in general, and my seriousness is like a leaden cloak I often yearn to be free of. All my husband had wanted was to check out his lunch options, and here I was nudging him toward an argument over the rearing of our nonexistent son. I took a breath, willing myself to relax. It was vacation, and I would keep the mood light. Light as sea spray, light as cloud wisps, light as the kite that darted in the distant sky, determinedly flapping.
The first time I saw a boy make another boy bleed, I was in high school. My brother and I had snuck off to a Manhattan bar known for its lax carding policy — the same bar where, five years earlier, the infamous “Preppy Killer” caroused with Jennifer Levin before strangling her in Central Park. But we weren’t thinking about that as we huddled around a table with friends, downing shots while the Red Hot Chili Peppers banged in our ears. Mike, my brother’s oldest friend, held court, telling stories that had us doubled over. Mike was a hulking guy with a deep, warm laugh and perpetual bedhead, and though my brother had told me he had a dark side, I’d never seen it. I’d always adored him: the way he called me “Nic”; the heft of his arm as he pulled me in for a noogie.
After last call everyone trickled onto the humid sidewalk, loitering and mingling. Then suddenly, to my left, there was a commotion. A shout. The crowd contracted into a circle. I stepped closer and peered through a wall of shoulders.
In movies and TV shows — the only places I’d witnessed fistfights — opponents moved deliberately, athletically, their choreographed punches delivered with precision. What I saw before me now was terrible in its sloppiness: Mike, heaving and wild-eyed, his big arm crooked, his fist driving like a piston into some other kid’s face. The kid jerked and stumbled backward, and Mike followed, sweaty and bloody-knuckled. More spastic jabs at the ribs, the gut. The vacuum-like hush of the crowd as the boy went down. And then it was over. Someone pulled Mike away. The boy lay heaped on the pavement.
I didn’t want to look as the boy wormed himself to the curb and sat hunched, catching his breath. Scrambled hair, dazed eyes, skinned cheek. Fuck, he moaned, and spat into the street. Red teeth, bloody drool. But also: freckled forehead, jug ears, smooth skin, round knees. I noticed his shorts, his sneakers. I thought: He liked those sneakers, and someone bought them for him. He’s worn these shorts before, and someone washed them for him. It was these thoughts, not the blood, that made me suddenly feel ill.
I could never look Mike in the eye again — not when I bumped into him in our kitchen, not when he tried his kid-sister ribbing routine on me. He’d betrayed me in a way that couldn’t be reversed, had aroused in me an anger whose source I could not yet pinpoint.
Paul and I did eventually have a son. We hadn’t known Jacob would be a boy, just as we hadn’t known his older sister, Leah, would be a girl. I didn’t want us to learn this information (and Paul obliged me) partly because I love mystery and partly as a protest against our culture’s infatuation with the sex of unborn children. Gender-reveal parties had recently become popular, and every time I saw another social-media image of balloons exploding with pink confetti or a cake sliced open to expose blue filling, I’d thought, Good God, that will not be us.
I gave birth to our son in the same hospital where I’d given birth to Leah (and where I would later give birth to our youngest, a girl). Same starched bedsheets, same beeping machines, same hoisting of knees, same enormous arrival. But when Paul cried, “It’s a boy!” — when I saw, suspended in my obstetrician’s hands, the tiny, curled body with its pink and swollen and perfect boy parts — here was something different, something new. How impossible it seemed that in the recesses of my woman’s body, between my curved hips, under my fleshy belly, I had grown a creature so fully and distinctly male. Giving birth to my daughter had been a miracle, yes, but a logical miracle, a miracle of replication. This felt more like a lead-to-gold miracle. My pride in having performed this alchemy was of a different sort.
Maybe I, though a purported feminist, felt something of what women have felt for millennia, across oceans and continents, after producing a boy. Tiller of the soil. Heir to the throne. But here in twenty-first-century America, in the liberal stronghold of Boston, what soil? What throne?
Eight days later, in keeping with Jewish tradition, Jacob was circumcised. How many brises, I wonder now, have been arranged as our son’s was, by a stunned postpartum mother who hardly knows the steps she’s taking, only that she must take them? I waded into the living room in my nicest maternity dress, my belly still large but now deflated, like a forgotten melon. As our guests made small talk, I drank one mimosa and then another, baby boy asleep in the crook of my elbow. Best to keep my heart from thumping in his ear. Best not to let on what was about to happen.
The mohel arrived — a woman, atypically, which is why I’d hired her, as if a female touch might soften the pain of this ritual. But there was nothing soft about our mohel, who pulled me aside for my instructions: When summoned, I was to bring Jacob into the dining room. After, I was to take him away.
At the mohel’s signal I carried my boy forth, past my mother and mother-in-law, through a parting sea of suited men. I carried him past the towel laid out by the knife, unsheathed and glinting, on the table, and placed him into the arms of Paul’s uncle Robert, our sandek, who had the honor of holding our son down while the mohel sliced off his foreskin. Robert had performed this same hallowed duty when my husband himself was eight days old. We’d liked this poetic echo, so perfect for a tradition passed down to us through Abraham, his sons, their sons.
I did not watch what happened next, only heard it: The soft rip of the diaper loosened, the murmurs of our son awakened. A quick, choked wail. Then more wails, raw-lunged and furious, growing louder, shriller, until they seemed to burst outward from under my ribs. Were there songs? Blessings? I don’t remember. What I remember is the way my breasts ached and leaked as I gathered up my son and scurried away with him, yanking down the front of my dress before I’d cleared the door.
No one had forced this ceremony on me. I’d crafted the email invitation, picked out our son’s clothes, styled my hair. But as I nursed Jacob in the bedroom, his shudders subsiding, I did not feel connected to past generations or humbled by the significance of the moment. I felt the futile desire to rewind time to when I first held his perfect body in my arms and resolved to fight for him.
Mine, I thought as the glider rocked beneath us. Mine, mine, mine. Inside this room: warm skin, a glistening mouth, a tiny ear, a trickle of milk. Outside it: the flow of four thousand years, sloshing against the door.
Paul and I didn’t dress our son in prints of trucks, dinosaurs, diggers, or superheroes, just as we hadn’t dressed his older sister in lollipops, rainbows, unicorns, or fairies. We gave both children cars and dolls to play with. I sang our daughter lullabies and also play-tackled her. Paul smoothed back our son’s hair and also pretend-wrestled him.
But you cannot stop the world from telling your daughter how pretty her tights are or exclaiming over the muscles of your big, strong boy. You can curate the books your children read and the TV they watch, but gender rules still slip into your children’s porous and acquisitive brains.
On Jacob’s second Hanukkah our neighbor gave him a toy Batmobile. Pull the lever on top, and missile launchers spring from the headlights. Push the buttons on the sides, and missile launchers spring from the taillights. Pull, push, pull, push. Horrified, I watched my son’s little fingers do their work, but I did not take the car away, for under my horror was another feeling entirely: the delicious release of having my toddler occupied. It wasn’t as if this one toy, this one time, was going to ruin him, I reasoned as I slunk off to the kitchen to make dinner.
On Jacob’s third birthday a preschool classmate gave him a three-hundred-piece bin of plastic soldiers and military accessories. “Whoa!” he said as he sifted through tiny cannons and fighter jets and barbed-wire fences. In the pile I found a Revolutionary War soldier in vest and breeches, brandishing a musket; a Civil War soldier in a kepi, pointing a bayonet; a World War I soldier belly down in invisible mud; a helmeted Vietnam War soldier, launching a grenade. A history of state-sanctioned violence lay strewn in miniature across our kitchen floor.
After Jacob was asleep, I had to figure out what to do with these warring men. Throw them in the trash, adding to the piles of plastic in our landfills? Give them away to the Goodwill for less fortunate boys to play with — replicating, on a much smaller scale, the way real-life military service gets passed off to the less advantaged? In the end I buried the bin behind a stack of board games in our basement, never, I hoped, to be rediscovered.
A few weeks later I came home from errands to find soldiers arrayed in rows across our coffee table, soldiers stationed on the windowsills, soldiers ducking for cover under our chairs. “Army guys!” our son shouted at me, grinning.
I looked at my husband. He looked at me. “I used to love playing with these when I was a kid,” he said, his voice wistful, nostalgic, and also a little apologetic. Surveying this scene — the cocreated battleground, Paul’s legs stretched out before him, our son in his pajamas by his side — I felt as if I’d stumbled into a holy space where I did not belong. They were so absorbed in their project, so content and connected. Wasn’t that more important, at this moment, than proving a point?
I headed upstairs to fold some clothes, conquest and decimation resuming in my peripheral vision. They’re just toys, I told myself. And our son is just a kid. Just playing.
There’s a conversation some mothers of boys have. I first heard it after my son began attending day care, at a class get-together. “I always said there’d be no guns in our house, but my son can turn anything into a gun,” our host said.
“I knew it was a losing battle when I found my son shooting at things with my hair dryer,” said another mother.
“You think that’s bad?” said a third mother, who described how her son had recently bitten his toast into the shape of a gun.
Over the years this conversation has come up more times than I can recall. It came up when Jacob was seven and a twenty-one-year-old man shot down ten people in a Boulder, Colorado, supermarket. It came up when Jacob was five and a nineteen-year-old boy murdered seventeen students and school staff members in Parkland, Florida. It came up when Jacob was two, not long after Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old Black boy playing with a toy gun, was shot and killed by a white police officer wielding a real gun, highlighting in the most terrible way possible that violent play isn’t a universal right of boyhood but a privilege that lives within a hierarchy of power. Not all males, in our culture, can wield pretend weapons with impunity.
Obviously not all boys play with guns, and those who do don’t all grow up to commit murder. But it’s also true that nearly all the people who commit mass murder with guns were raised as boys. This knowledge tugs at me. And yet I can’t deny that part of me welcomes these toast and hair-dryer stories, the anesthetic permissiveness of them. It’s an immense and exhausting responsibility we mothers have, as the tidal wave of acceptable masculine form crashes into our sons, to swim with them in our arms against the current. How tempting it can be, as the waters wash over us, to release ourselves to the deluge and declare the task impossible.
Sometimes I tell the mothers about Jacob’s beloved Batmobile and how he insists on being the bad guy when he plays with his sisters. “I know exactly what you mean,” I say to them, because I do.
I can tell you some other things about boys. Whispered early-morning things, choked-out middle-of-the-night things. I know the rub of a boy’s toes against his sheets, the wetness of his tears on my neck, his slack-jawed silence as he looks up at the August stars. I know how a boy can stoop to pick up a feather and brush it across his wrist, his cheek. And then brush it across his sister’s wrist, his sister’s cheek.
I’ve seen how a boy’s face can crumple when he realizes that “crate training” a dog means locking him in a cage, or that the thing in the mouth of our neighbor’s cat is a bird. I know how he can fashion a fence from twigs to protect an anthill.
Do I know how a boy can shout and slam doors and storm through the house telling the people he loves that he hates them? I do, because the boy I know best arrived in the world exquisitely attuned to its chafes and injustices, and he does all these things. But I also know that the tender nucleus from which my son’s explosions burst is the same place that causes us to hold up traffic at school drop-off because one goodbye hug isn’t enough, so back he comes, tumbling into my arms. I know that what we call hate is sometimes love that was pushed under a rock, love deprived of light and water. “Tell me to what you pay attention,” writes the philosopher José Ortega y Gasset in his book Man and Crisis, “and I will tell you who you are.” How much love is putrefying inside boys this very moment, starved for nourishment?
I know how my son’s face lights up when he sees his best friend, Salvador, outside school in the morning. They link arms, backpacks bobbing, noses nearly touching as they speak. This is the unabashed love of a boy for a boy, a love made all the more luminous by the specter of its impending ruin. Only girls link arms, the world will teach them. Real men embrace only with a hearty slap, slap on the back to confirm their maleness. On what day, at what hour, will the codes of manhood sever these two from each other — and so from themselves — like an electric fence?
When I complain to Paul about laser-tag birthday parties and the monster-truck video game Jacob played at his friend’s house, I feel a little like someone trying to alert the neighbors of a hurricane by pointing frantically to a couple of stray clouds. But in their concreteness these playthings can feel like the best evidence I have of the forces conspiring against our son, a handy synecdoche for a whole too huge to convey.
Paul often reminds me that he was raised on a steady diet of G.I. Joe and He-Man and the Nintendo game Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!, and he wasn’t damaged forever. “Look at me!” he says. “I don’t go around hitting people. I don’t run through the streets waving a gun.” He means to be reassuring, but he doesn’t get it, or doesn’t want to. I understand that our son is unlikely to end up with an arsenal or to stumble out of bars looking for someone to pummel. The fallout I worry about is far quieter, too slow and subtle to make headlines. I worry Jacob will take up the work the world started on him, slicing away his softest parts in order to belong. And I worry that, by belonging, he will find himself, in the ways that matter most, alone.
“Look at me,” my husband says. And I do. I look at his easy smile, his way of making strangers comfortable, his knack for thinking up names for our kids’ stuffed animals. I watch the way he slips hair elastics into his pockets in case our daughters need one, drapes my towel over the shower door so I can reach it, rubs lotion into our son’s knees when they crack with eczema.
But I notice other things as well: the way he folds his arms and stands legs apart when talking with other men; the way he strains for height when posing for photos; the way he guns in and out of the highway passing lane. I listen when he jokes (because to say it earnestly would be to admit that he cares) that he has no friends. Me? I have Mira, whose sentences I finish; Sara, with whom I somehow feel more myself than when I’m by myself. Paul has the work acquaintance with an extra Red Sox ticket, the dad with whom he occasionally grabs a beer.
There are things Paul doesn’t say even to me, silences that pool around him like a moat. After seventeen years of marriage I still don’t feel that I know, not really, what it was like for him to lose his father when he was seven or to watch his mother founder in the years that followed. I have stood for years in the shallows of these waters, rarely permitted to venture in much farther.
In his self-reliance and stoicism my husband is very much what society expects a man to be. At times I wish this were not so. If only he could be a little more like Michelle’s husband, Joel, who writes confessional notes to her in their shared diary. Or like Mira’s husband, Sam, who teared up at our children’s kindergarten graduation. But Paul is not Joel or Sam — and the truth is, if he were, I would not have chosen him.
It was Paul I noticed that Manhattan summer night when I was twenty-five, with his crossed arms and rolled-up sleeves, standing legs apart at a crowded party. It was Paul I talked with for an hour, the room behind him fading to irrelevance.
At a Hudson Street bar three nights later, he ordered my vodka tonic for me, slipped a dollar into the jukebox to play the song I chose. We discovered that we both took evening runs along the West Side Highway near Battery Park. “We must have passed each other a hundred times!” I marveled.
He cocked his head, dubious. “I’m very fast,” he said. “You probably missed me.”
He was kidding, but he was also revealing himself to me, showing me the contours of his prowess. And I thought, How fucking arrogant! Who is this guy? But what I did was lean my shoulder closer to his. I wanted to feel just how strong and fast this man was.
At some point I made a comment Paul found funny. I don’t remember what I said but can recall perfectly, as if my nerve endings were still reverberating, the smack of his palm on my thigh as he threw his head back in laughter. In this moment, with the buzz of his handprint on my leg, the sureness of his laugh in my ear, and the drink he’d bought me in my hand, I understood with utter clarity that this cocky, manly man was the one for me.
In my shadowed one-room apartment I watched my future husband peel off his shirt, tasted the bourbon sting of his mouth on my mine. And there, for the first time, I surrendered myself to his weight, dissolved under his force as he pinned my arms to the couch, and I said, “Yes, yes, yes.”
This, too, is the woman I am.
A memory: My son is eighteen months old, and my mother has come for a visit. The two of us drink coffee as Jacob occupies himself at our feet, darting over here to bang on the table, stumbling over there to grab a toy. “You know,” my mother says, her voice rising with pleasure, “there’s something very masculine about him.”
I look at my son: His fat cheeks. His chin, wet with teething drool.
“Mom,” I say, “he’s one. He’s wearing a diaper!”
She shrugs. “I’m telling you,” she says. “He’s very macho. He has a swagger.”
I roll my eyes. She’s being ridiculous, and who even uses the word macho anymore? But as I finish my coffee, I watch Jacob, and I think maybe I can see what she’s talking about.
As my son trots past, I reach out and scoop him up onto the couch, flipping him sideways and pretending to gobble his neck. “Who’s my macho baby?” I say as he screams with laughter. “Who’s my little man?”
I don’t know where these words have come from or what to do with them. I realize that they, too, are part of the mother I am.
I resolve to watch for flickers of my son’s most tender feelings so that I might draw them out and teach him to love them. When I’m sick with the flu and he covers my feet with his sweatshirt, I tell him his caring heart has miraculously cured me. When he tries to hide his tears after his stuffed dog goes missing, I tell him how proud I am that he knows how to grieve. Maybe, I think, if I keep cupping his feelings in my hands, stoking them with my words, he’ll never learn to be ashamed of them.
One afternoon last year I surprised my kids with gifts from CVS: three small, lined journals, one for each of them. The girls flipped through theirs and then abandoned them. Jacob, then seven, sat on the couch and examined his slowly, poring over the pages as if they contained stories only he could glean, and then asked if he could have a special pen to go with it. Oh yes, you may, I thought as I hustled to my desk. You may have a thousand!
Over the following weeks he began to refer to this little black notebook as his love journal, which he filled with meditations on love in all its forms. I could not make this up if I tried, nor could I reverse engineer whatever inspiration led him to this project. Here, corrected for spelling and shared with his permission, is one of his reflections:
Your soul is made of love. You are like a beat. Every time you do something good, you beat faster and grow bigger. If you are hating, let the love take over you. Be peaceful. You must not be used for badness. It could start a battle, the battle could start a war, the war could start something bigger, and so on.
Parenting has often felt to me like a succession of failures punctuated by just enough small triumphs to keep me from despair. Reading Jacob’s journal stirred in me a potent feeling of victory, because it provided what I most longed for: evidence that my son’s heart was still intact. And while it’s not my habit to take credit for what blossoms in my children, I took credit for this book, for it was I more than anyone — yes, even more than my husband, for as long as the work of nurturing defaults to women, this will be the case — who had cradled this part of him. The subtext running through every sentence of that journal was my love.
“To my mom,” my son wrote on the inside cover. “For always believing in me.”
My son is now eight. He wears his baseball cap backward and grinds his Rubik’s Cube in his hands in the back of the car. At school drop-off he quickly pulls away when I hug him between the seats. Sometimes he ducks when I lean down to kiss him on the head.
The other night he walked into the den as I was writing in my notebook. I patted the couch cushion and scooched aside a little. “Want to write in your love journal with me?” I asked, hopeful.
“Nah,” he said. “I never write in journals anymore.”
Many cultures have rites for initiation into manhood, some carried out when boys are as young as eight. These rituals often begin with the separation of a boy from his mother by male elders, followed by trials meant to purge him of his juvenile reliance. Becoming a man, they suggest, requires a symbolic death and rebirth: death of the boy born of woman, birth of the man born of men.
I wonder about the untold stories of these boys’ mothers. How many, like me, have suppressed a longing to protest the expectations placed on their sons or recoiled at their own complicity in them? The mother who relinquishes her son to a higher purpose is a recurring figure in Western culture, her sacrifice entwined with the ideal of “maternal duty.” There is the Mary of Michelangelo’s pietà, cradling Jesus’s body with serene resignation; Hannah, dutifully ceding her son Samuel to the service of God; and every “Gold Star Mother” extolled for her patriotism after losing a child in combat. Historically a woman’s clearest path to heroism, particularly if she is the mother of a son, has been to surrender her primacy and give him over to the world.
I would like to think, as my son shoots upward past two clothing sizes — banging a basketball against his bedroom wall, testing the feel of curse words in his mouth — that the story isn’t over for him and me. I’d like to think there’s a role for me yet as he journeys toward manhood. “We must define maleness,” writes bell hooks, “as a state of being rather than as performance. Male being, maleness, masculinity must stand for the essential core goodness of the self, of the human body that has a penis.” For me — admirer of the penis, lover of manly men, mother of a boyish boy — this feels like the right call to action. I don’t want to teach my son to mistrust his maleness but to cleave to its goodness, driving away what threatens to rot its edges.
It takes great courage, I’m discovering, to help one’s children become who they really are. This is the mother journey that calls to me, the heroism I long to summon.
It’s late fall in New England, a season of gray, but after days of rain, yesterday was blue and bright. I brought my kids to the playground after school, parking myself on a bench as they ran off.
When I looked up, I saw that Jacob had begun tagging along with a pack of middle-school boys. They thumped past me in a ragtag clump, tossing a football, kicking up wood chips. They had floppy hair, these boys, and wore high-top sneakers with lolling tongues. I could see what my son saw in them: they were, if not exactly macho, then splendidly cool. And, though three years older and far bigger than him, they seemed to like him. They called out his name and whipped him their football, bringing him into the fold like a mascot. This didn’t surprise me. My son is the sort of person who glides frictionlessly into any room, merges instantly with any group. This ease is part of his nature, but it’s also been nourished by privilege: not everyone, in every sort of body, has the freedom to barrel so effortlessly through the world’s boundaries.
Who, I thought, as I watched my son sprinting with his new friends, wouldn’t want to feel so at home on this earth? How I would love to transfuse just a few drops of my son’s confidence into his older sister, so that her shoulders might uncurl, her chin lift, her voice ring out bold and unashamed. How I — a grown woman, my son’s maker — would love to know what it’s like to move through the world in his body, feeling, everywhere I go, that I belong.
My son and his crew had begun scaling the fence between the basketball court and the athletic field. I considered stopping them — there are rules — but I didn’t, for the day was sunny, and it was after school hours, and, really, what was the big deal? They dropped down on the other side and stampeded away.
When I next looked up, they were clustered at the far end of the field. There was a flurry of motion, a buckling of bodies. A boy was on the ground, another boy kneeling on him, pinning him there. I scanned for my son. There he was, the smallest, watching. A third boy flung himself down. I saw a hand fly, a knee jerk. Was this a real fight? Play? I couldn’t tell, and I didn’t care. Something inside me flared like a struck match, lifting me to my feet.
I would not succumb to the pressure of this cheerful day, bullying me into lightness. I would not bear my lot with downcast eyes. I would be — I could feel it as I sprang from the bench, as I strode on furious legs across the squelching field — another sort of heroine altogether: Grendel’s mother, hag of the deep, heartsick with fury over her son’s death and ravenous for justice. I hollered my son’s name as I flew over the ground. The boys froze. They blinked at me, startled.
“Come,” I said to my son. He had dirt on his pant knees, pink in his cheeks. He did not come. “Come,” I said again, reaching for his hand, but he shoved it into his jacket pocket, glowering at me as he tromped away. I hurried after him, not knowing exactly for what purpose. I followed him over the schoolyard grass, under a sunny sky, an embarrassing ogre-mother in clunking boots, the only sort of hero I may ever get to be.