My feminism is about women, always has been. Not for me the notion of men as feminists. Not for me the third wave love affair with the phallus. And yet. Ten years ago, at the age of 42, I gave birth to that most alien, unknowable, dangerous of creatures – a human male. Despite being determined to have a girl, a son is what I got. And how I love him. Despite him not being a girl.
Don’t misunderstand. I was never an advocate of exposing male newborns on hillsides like some radical feminists of the ’70s and ’80s but I felt quite certain I didn’t want one of my own. Biology had other plans.
Mothering a son presents a range of challenges to a feminist. First off, there is the realisation that the tiny, little feet, the weeny, balled up fists, the angelic curls that bring a lump to my throat, will one day grow into a big, adult male. A man. Secondly, how can I be critical and disparaging of men if I am raising one? It isn’t really acceptable to add ‘except for my boy’ to the end of any criticism of male behaviour. But it has made me critique my own position on males. Am are learning to love men? Well, no, but I feel I have a huge responsibility to raise a man who does not rape, disrespect, beat, control or otherwise abuse women. Or regard women as inferior or, worse, here for his needs. And yet I want him to feel good about himself as a man. After all, I don’t want to raise a serial killer.
Regularly, since my son started school, I have had to challenge the insidious, casual sexism that seeks to disrupt my plans. My son brings me all kinds of foolish nonsense about girls that is picked up from the world around him; women are not doctors; girls like princess toys; boys are best at sport; boys are best. It is more constant than I would ever have imagined.
I have watched with horror as his views have been reinforced by the behaviour of the girls around him….pink, glittery, princess acolytes whose parents perhaps are not as opposed to such stereotyping as I am. I have been aghast at his enthusiastic rejection of anything he considers to be remotely female. Consider a conversation when he was eight:
Boy: I don’t understand why people are frightened of pink. I mean, it’s just a colour isn’t it? It doesn’t mean anything. It’s not like it can hurt you or anything, is it?
Me: So, would you wear pink?
Boy: Ugh no! Everyone would think I’m a girl!
Funny, yes but also not. In rejecting pink, what he is really saying is that there is pretty much nothing so bad as being considered to be a girl. Being a girl is the biggest insult. Crying like a girl; screaming like a girl; being girly.
And yet he has arrested all my expectations. He is kind and sweet and caring and not at all aggressive. My boy. But maybe all boys are like this really. Maybe all men start out like this; the rapists, the murderers, the abusers, the bullies, the sexist pigs who make the lives of women impossible. He is ten years old. Does something happen in the intervening years to turn our sweet-natured boys into swaggering, entitled, abusive men? Is that something I can influence?
At the end of the summer he will enter high school. The last vestiges of being a little boy will be cast off along, presumably, with his willingness to submit to my kisses and cuddles. Already at primary school he has learned that it is not cool to play with girls. Girls don’t play with ‘proper’ Lego. But he has astonished me with his insight. His class recently had lessons on sex education and saw, on film, a baby being born. Later I asked him if he has learned anything that worried him. ‘I am just so glad I am not a girl. It seems so hard for girls’. Hold onto that thought, little man.
Once at high school, and accompanied by the tumultuous spasms of puberty, my boy will probably absorb the type of patriarchal propaganda I have struggled to hold off. He will absorb it because to do otherwise will court derision, bullying, rejection by his peers, conjecture about his sexuality, self-doubt, alienation. Violence. He (hopefully) will know that calling a girl a ‘slag’ is wrong. He will (I am determined) know that pornography debases men as well as women and is an ugly representation of a beautiful reality. He will know (I am sure) that being a kind, compassionate and gentle man is a positive thing. But will he be able to resist the onslaught of images that counter what I am telling him? Will he be able to stand up to friends who verbally abuse girls and women? Will he be able to laugh off the taunts of being ‘queer’ because he refuses to do violence to another child?
Gender is not kind to boys. It all but destroys girls but it is not kind to boys either. I will try my best to guide you, little man, and I hope the foundations I have laid will help you. But ultimately, devastatingly, you will be on your own. Be bold in asserting your individuality, be fearless in the face of oppressive dogma that would entrap you and mould you and make you its own. Be human.