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Some years ago, (more than I like to admit) when I was a fairly new mom of four tiny humans coming in rapid succession, two little girls, and then two little boys, I met an older woman, another mother who had several grown children of her own, someone who wanted to chat about our babies, as mothers do, wanted to marvel over tiny fingernails and tiny toes, and the unique and irresistible smell of the top of a newborn’s head when you nuzzle your nose into the soft fuzz of their baby fine hair, the smell of mild soap and curdled milk and sunshine, who wanted to remember the sepia feel of long hours when time seems to slow and even to stop as the demands of keeping another human alive are met over and over again at all hours of the day. And we talked, and showed off pictures of our children and she cooed over the new baby, our second boy, and she made an offhand comment that I have never forgotten. She said, “You are going to love being a boy mom.” 

Until that moment I had not really thought about it, and would not have known that being a girl mom was different from being a boy mom—I assumed that being a mom meant largely the same thing no matter the gender of your children, that love and affection and exasperation was not defined by such an unexpected word. But I have never forgotten that comment, offhand though it might have been.  Boy mom. What exactly was a boy mom? I mean, obviously words have meanings, as my husband is fond of reminding our children when they ask an especially obvious question, and a boy mom must then obviously be a mom of boys, but the way she said it felt much deeper than that, like I had been admitted into a secret club that required no handshakes or clubhouses, but instead, as the old rhyme goes, snips, and snails, and puppy dog tails (although I have never been sure what a snip was, and as for our puppy dog, the boys claim it wasn’t a ‘real’ dog, since it was small and white and fluffy, but there you go), and also a lot of dirt and mud and scrapes and tumbles, and broken vases and shattered plates and jars full of bugs. 

And I loved it. I loved the hours of soccer, when it was too cold, and t-ball, when it was too hot. I loved browsing through comic book stores and making costumes for comic cons and staying up late watching movies that were far too loud. I am not a frilly, fussy woman, and in many ways being a boy mom has given me an excuse to do the things I like to do anyway. I have five sisters, and sometimes I am sure my father felt overwhelmed by the feminine, by the sheer staggering mass of womanhood that permeated our home when I was growing up. In my own home, with my husband and children, I have enjoyed a more balanced life experience.

There are other times when I feel like nothing could have completely prepared me for being a boy mom. For the times when I would need to patch up split heads (from jumping up on a cabinet), split chins (from falling down on a counter), broken arms (from falling off of a skateboard. Twice.) and scraped legs (from throwing himself down a thin mountain trail on a bike). How could I really be prepared for the sunburns and bee stings and wrestling matches and fist fights and lunchtime lego trading and sandwich swapping and nights camping in the backyard until it got too cold or too scary or too damp and they piled into the house in a tangle of long limbs and blankets and pillows and sticky hands sprawled from one end of the family room to another? 

And how could I have been prepared for the way that the world would look at my boys, young and ungainly and unsure of themselves and not see their adolescent insecurity or gentle gawkiness, their awkward attempts to make friends and be social, but would instead see them as potential predators? I am not sure when I became aware of the way that the world would look at my boys, but it was far before they reached the age of being interested in girls, or dating. It may have been when they watched television shows with their sisters where the girls were always the clever main characters and the boys were portrayed as punchlines and gags. It may have been even earlier than that, when my older son ended up in the principal’s office almost every day for an entire school year in the fifth grade for fighting, although he was the victim of the bullying, not the bully. It may have been even earlier than that. 

So how do we handle being the moms of boys who are not seen for the potential gentleness and strength they have, but are feared and vilified for what they might become? Sometimes in the moment, when I make the decisions that I make, it is hard to understand where my impulses come from. For instance, why did I let my sons watch that one television show that I know is sometimes inappropriate? Thinking about it, I can objectively say that it was because it was one of the only shows on television that portrayed smart men who were respectful to women. 

Sometimes it is only later, in reflection, that I understand what I instinctively knew when my boys were younger—that there are some spaces that are no longer safe for men. That we need to be moving toward unity and equality, not toward another type of unbalanced world view that puts our boys at risk. That increasing levels of injustice don’t solve problems, but instead compound them.

 I teach college English, and my students are painfully aware of this issue. In their opinion editorials my male students tell me how they would love to be more involved in women’s issues, but are afraid of being told it isn’t their place. Or of being accused of trying to “play the victim.” They are unhappy with the portrayal of men in the media, of the bias that sees them as ‘bros,’ only out for self-gratification. They want to be able to be kind without being seen as being weak, and concerned without being seen as unmanly. They want to combat the idea that feminism is about man hating—and they don’t know how to do it without coming across as a hateful man. They want to be sensitive, intelligent, emotionally mature men in a world that doesn’t show them what that kind of man looks like, but only shows them what they fear they might become. But how do we address these issues? How do we make our spaces safer not only for the women in our lives, but for the men who are their fathers, brothers, boyfriends, and sons? 

I am a boy mom. I have a sixteen-year-old boy and a nineteen-year-old boy. And I love the loud messiness of them. The unplanned excursions, the driving around ‘just because,’ the trails of dirt and clutter they leave in their wake. But I also love the way they stand up for their older sisters (because they can give them a hard time, but no one else can). The way they still try to snuggle up close on the couch (although admittedly now that they are six feet tall it is a tight squeeze). I love the flowers left with a funny note for Mother’s Day (even though I know they gave the same flower to their friend’s moms as well). I love their intelligence and their gentleness and the sensitivity that I am afraid the world will wring out of them a little bit at a time. And I think we need more women who can teach boys that holding space for women doesn’t make them weak. Who show them that they can be accepted as an ally in the fight against bias and sexism and the toxic masculinity of our very loud, very opinionated world. Women who lead by example and who vocally value the role of men. Who work together with men for happiness and success. Who nurture their relationships with fathers and brothers.  And who hold the hands of little boys trailing dirt and bugs in their wake.