My boys are 18 and 15—their silky baby cheeks have long since vanished in whiffs of aftershave and occasional razor stubble and when they hug me, I can feel the muscles bunching across their shoulders. I think to myself, “they’re good boys,” but then like a malevolent ghost the thought floats in: what if I’m wrong?
A few weeks ago, after we’d had a visit with my nieces, the boys asked me if I wished I had a daughter instead of a son. I said, “Well, I’d never trade either of you for a daughter but girls are just…familiar. I know girls.”
The boys frowned. It wasn’t quite the firm “of course not” they’d been expecting.
“Aren’t we familiar?” one of them asked, and I laughed. Unless they are someday fathers of daughters, they will never understand how deeply strange it is to be the mother of sons.
A daughter would be familiar—her body would be a version of my body, as my body is a version of my mother’s. My skinny ankles and squishy stomach, the thin lines carving in around my mouth and the knuckles gnarling on my hands: all my mother. Her body has given me a map for my own.
My sons’ bodies don’t have anything to do with mine. Their bodies gleam with muscle, their skin slides lean and close against the bone. When they put their bare feet on the coffee table, I see men’s feet, not the little dumpling toes I used to kiss during their bath-time. The boys have become something utterly not me and sometimes when I look at them I feel like Victor Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. When the creature that Victor has created opens its yellow eyes and stares at him, Victor is stunned: he’d made the creature, dreamed over it, hoped for it—but had never expected it to have a mind of its own.
Bereft and unloved, the creature turns to violence; he tells his creator that if he were loved, he would be virtuous—but Victor refuses to love him, and refuses to give him a female companion to love, for fear that this second creature might also escape his control. It is in Victor’s refusal of all things female that we see the subtle feminism of Shelley’s novel: without women, no society can flourish.
I look at the creatures I’ve spawned—large, autonomous, full of their own desires—and I hope that I’ve avoided Frankenstein’s mistake. I’ve filled my creatures with love, with affection, helped them understand that they have a place in the world, tried to ensure that they see women as equal participants in the world.
And yet in the insomniac hours of the night, I worry that it’s not enough. I worry that, like Frankenstein’s creature, my children might decide to react to life’s inevitable disappointments with violence. My boys—all our children—are coming of age in a world where toxic masculinity swirls like a fog: what if that poison has already seeped into their lungs? What if they’ve absorbed through their skin the belief that they are the most important people in the room, just because they’re men?
How do we inoculate our children—our boys—against this disease? I wonder about all those perky #boymoms I see in social media: do they worry about this toxicity as they post cheerfully exasperated photos of their adorably dirty lads playing with dinosaurs? Or is mine a late-stage worry, one that doesn’t surface until the toddler becomes “man”?
I think I did all the “right things” when my boys were growing up. They had a toy stove that they loved; there were spangled dresses in the costume box, and their room was littered with light-sabers and Legos, Polly Pocket dolls and race cars. I even splurged for the clear plastic Cinderella slippers that one of them wanted for his fifth birthday. One of my proudest moments was when one son announced—while wearing a purple sparkly dress, a Jedi cape, a lightsaber, and the Cinderella slippers—that he was Princess Leia, Queen of all the Jedi.
Surely that boy is inoculated against the disease of misogyny. Surely that little boy could never get raving drunk at some college frat party and paw at some disinterested college girl?
Think about all the monstrous children who romp through our cultural imagination, from the demonic son in Doris Lessing’s The Fifth Child, to Rosemary’s Satanic baby, to the twisted sisters in Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and that whole mid-twentieth-century run of movies like “The Omen” and “The Exorcist?”
Monsters are often thought to mark the boundaries of a society, the limits of acceptability: we are here and over there is monster. And actually, come to think of it, so too with children: they are us/not-us; their bodies are ours when they’re small and then become emphatically their own. They elude us as they slide into personhood, leaving us holding memories and a few fragile hopes. Just as the monster marks the very edge of a community, so too children mark the edge of the unknown: the future, with the potential to be both benevolent and cataclysmic.
I tell myself that we must have done enough to help our boys build a moral compass that will point them away from monstrosity but then I look around at the monsters of misogyny preening themselves in the public eye: Kavanaugh, Weinstein, Lauer, the Pussy-Grabber-in-Chief. And those are only the most public offenders. What about all the ordinary terribles, the fumblers and grabbers, the pawers and leerers, the “lighten up it was just a joke” bros—what about them? How did they become those people? And how can our kids avoid seeing these men as success stories?
Have I done enough?
That’s the question that lingers. What if I’ve somehow missed something and toxic seeds have settled into the beautiful bodies of my sons, only to emerge one day—who knows why—and wreak havoc.
I know that the parents of daughters struggle with some of these same questions and have the same hope (which flips into fear) that they’ve done enough to prepare their girls for their lives as women. And I know that some of that preparation involves teaching these girls how to keep themselves safe from men who might hurt them. This is not to say that I think girls are inherently virtuous or kind just because they’re girls—I am still too scarred by some of the mean-girl I shit suffered from in high school to say that. It’s more that I think the parents of girls don’t have to worry (as much) that girls are going to commit some kind of violence.
Let’s go deeper: my sons are growing into men and, like many (most?) women I know, I have always been slightly afraid of men. Only slightly—not debilitating, not terrible—a few moments of panic here and there over the course of my five decades on earth. Particular men—my husband, my brother, a few friends—are loving and gentle. But men in general make me just a little bit anxious. My boys will grow up to become like the particular men I love, right?
What I know is that I can’t know. I want to believe that my husband and I have made boys who will be good men. I want to believe that it’s all going to be okay, that it will never be my boys who do something monstrous. But the world shows us that the shift between possible and impossible can happen in a eye-blink.
I know my boys won’t be monsters. Not my boys.
That couldn’t happen.
But I am still afraid.