I was at a women’s leadership summit in October when a woman rose to ask a panel of female leaders and activists a question. It was the same day the U.S. Senate was voting to confirm Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, and the room carried a mixed sense of relief and dread — at least we were together when so much was still raw. The mother’s question silenced a buzzing room.
“What if,” she wanted to know, “your sons are becoming the thing you hate?” Her teenage sons, whom she loved fiercely, and who she made sure traveled to see the world’s beautiful diversity, had rejected her progressive vocabulary and morality. In a room that had been celebrating women’s progress in a tough time, no one could really tell her what to do about her boys.
There’s a bubbling concern recently about boys, with pieces such as Amy Joyce’s series about growing up as a boy in America; Sarah Rich’s Atlantic story about stifling masculinity; and Roxanne Roberts’s piece about mothering sons in the #MeToo era. Earlier this month, when Esquire revealed a series updating Susan Orlean’s classic “The American Man, at Age Ten” with a March cover story featuring a middle-class white Midwestern teen boy, Twitter exploded with righteous indignation.
Since 2016, when so many of us were promising our daughters they could be president — “See Hillary Run!” — a movement grew to mother our daughters differently, to make them stronger. That movement dates at least to Peggy Orenstein’s “Cinderella Ate My Daughter.” Mothering strong girls has underscored the potential of today’s feminist movement.
These mothers drove a needed market flip from clothing almost exclusively adorned with kittens and flowers and terms such as “cute” and “sweet” to tops emblazoned with battle cries: The Future Is Female; The Patriarchy Isn’t Going to Smash Itself; and for the pre-reader, Ruth Bader Ginsburg-inspired dissent bibs. This comes after a decades-long push to elevate girls’ sports and ensure girls are offered the same opportunities in STEM. Now, women far outnumber men in college. Although their childhoods are not free of gender-typing, our daughters live in a more open and supportive environment than the one in which their mothers and grandmothers were raised.
Meanwhile, boys remain largely siloed. In a boys’ clothing section, it is nearly all blue, black or neon green splashed with athletics, Minecraft and Fortnite graphics. We are busy fighting to create a message of “You can be whatever you want” for our daughters, but we are not pushing for the same as vocally for our sons. I wonder sometimes how “The Future Is Female” translates to a 7-year-old boy who had no part in building the patriarchy. While adult men freak out about #MeToo in therapy and incels preach male supremacy built on sexual entitlement, I also wonder if we are inadvertently creating a generation of men who will resent all the promises of future power thrust upon their sisters.
I never intended to raise my children differently. Part of it was a matter of birth order, and the political times into which they were first coming of age. My son is the oldest, born after Obama was inaugurated, when the word “HOPE” was still potent. I was a first-time mom with more time to influence him with my personal philosophies. I worried about him becoming a domineering man — he was big for his age from birth. “Gentle” was a term I used often in his babyhood, and once he was a toddler, I frequently confused and bored him by talking about Gandhi and passive resistance.
I remember one day when he was 2 and playing with a much smaller but aggressive neighbor kid who kept ripping a range of primary-colored toys from his hands. I could see his frustration, but he was already mastering self-control, and he just quietly moved on to another toy. Finally, the other kid went to grab yet another toy, and my son simply tightened his grip. He did not push the other kid, did not flinch when the other kid swatted at him. He just held on in a stubborn display of strength until the other kid gave up. I thought to myself, “See, I’m raising a strong boy who can stick up for himself but doesn’t hurt others.” I did not think much about how many things needed to be taken away from him before he did assert himself or how unusual it was that I had a toddler who would not just clobber the other kid.
My daughter, though, was born a force of nature. While I had raised my son to be gentle and sensitive, with my daughter I emphasized strength. I modeled feminist defiance for her. My son would be fine — the world was built to favor boys, after all. I needed to show him how to become a fair-minded ally.
I had not consciously noticed the difference in my parenting until last spring, when I had a chance to help out at a girls’ leadership summit. My son, then 8, asked if he could come, too. I had to tell him, no, the focus was on training female leaders. I asked if he understood why. He explained, yeah, he knows that for centuries men have been terrible to women and never let them be in charge, and now girls are getting a chance. He did not create misogyny, and because he has been raised in a feminist home, he understands the imbalance, but he also was not invited to be a leader. For all the times I have insisted since Clinton’s loss that my fast-tempered daughter will be president, I had not ever suggested the same for my patient, contemplative son. Maybe I figured he would just get that idea by default somewhere.
Ours is a complicated time to raise boys and girls. A generation of mothers (and of course, many fathers) have been emboldened to rally around our daughters. Many adults have been forced to relive the trauma of their #MeToo stories, and it can be hard to maintain that battle out in the world — and deep in quiet, scarred places — with the fierceness it deserves, but remain soft and open in parenting girls and boys at home. Nevertheless, that is the job at hand.
Parenting as many of us have been doing can neglect our sons’ full potential, and that makes it a failed endeavor, both for feminism and for our boys. In this moment, boys can hear the echoes of our rage against the patriarchy, but for a kid, it can be hard to differentiate damning “male power” from their boyhood.
I do not want my children to grow into a world where either gender has default power, where one side feels compelled to organize against the other. This either-or gender power binary is harmful, especially when we apply adult battles against misogyny to little kids (and when we underscore gender itself as binary). Toxic masculinity is as much a problem for our daughters as our sons, but our response to it can also cause harm if it is aimed in a blanket way at all males — particularly those too young to hold any power.
This moment should be about teaching equality, judging people by their merits and fostering potential in all its forms. Surely, contact sports and sci-fi can be for girls, and ballet class for boys, without one being lauded while the other probably would spark ridicule. The options for girls have been too limiting for centuries, but the definition of manhood has been broken, too — in ways that hurt women and men.
I see potential for a movement, led by mothers, to celebrate what’s good and sensitive and thoughtful in our sons as well. I am starting to believe recreating what it means to be a man must start with the boy.