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Published in the Gazette June 25, 2000

           I’m feeling very anti-boy today.

            It might have something to do with the coffee table.  My two small boys attacked it with metal spatualas the other day, covering it with splintery dents.   “What are you DOING?”  I gasped in horror when I came in to investigate the noise.  “That table is a bad guy,” Robbie explained, and then he and Eli tore off into the basement.

            It might also have something to do with the laundry.  I have reluctantly become an expert at getting mud and grass stains out of the knees of jeans, but this week, like every other week, I was again thwarted by ground in stains on someone’s Sunday School Shirt—no amount of prewash, detergent, or bleach would get those stains out.  How did a shirt get so stained anyway?  (Moms of girls assure me that yes, their daughters get dirty, but, well, no, they don’t wear holes in the knees of every single pair of jeans.)

            Or it could be the constant, ear-splitting noise of little boys that begins at 6:30 a.m. and continues all day.

            Sometimes I think I wasn’t cut out to be a mother of sons. 

When I was about five months pregnant with my first child, my mother and father came to visit.  Mom got out of the car, hugged me, then held me back at arm’s length. 

“Oh, I don’t know, Jane,” she said.  “I think it looks like a boy--low and all in front.  That’s the way I carried Bill.”

“You think so?” I asked.  I didn’t quite believe her, but was somewhat shaken.  Of course I’m not going to have a boy, I thought.   That’s my daughter!

“Oh yes.  A boy.  I’ll have to think about this.”  Mom laughed.  “I was sure you’d have a girl.  I can’t really imagine you with a boy.” 

            At that point, I couldn’t imagine myself with a boy, either.  It’s not that I didn’t want a boy.  It’s just that I was going to have girls. 

            All my life, whenever I’d imagined being a mom (which wasn’t often, I have to admit), I imagined myself with daughters.  If I had children, they would be girls, of course, and I’d relive my own girlhood with them:  Laura Ingalls Wilder, dollhouses, art and music classes. . . . . or maybe I’d enjoy watching my daughters excell at volleyball or softball, sports being something I’d never been able to manage.  Either way, I could expose them to both the satisfactions of the domestic arts and the power of feminism . .       .

But the baby was Robbie, a boy, and the minute the nurse held him up for me to see him, everything changed.

            First, I realized I didn’t have my daughter.

            Second, or maybe simultaneously, I was completely and utterly smitten with love for my son.   And it happened again when Eli was born.

            I realize now that overturned expectations for a baby’s gender are good practice for the lifelong experience of child-raising.  You can’t choose whether you have a boy or a girl. You can’t choose when your child gets ill or how severely.   You also can’t choose whether you have an outgoing child or a shy one, an easy-going baby or a colicky one.

 “I used to tell people to simply set limits for their small children,” a friend, who’s worked as a child therapist, told me.  “I couldn’t understand why they found bedtime to be such a problem.  It wasn’t with my daughter.  But then I had my son, and I learned what it’s like to have a difficult—no, a spirited—child.”

As parents, we try as best we can to shape our children, to give them opportunities to grow into the best people they can be, but we are also shaped as parents by our the personalities and genders of our children.

            Of course, when you’re pregnant, the correct response when someone asks if you are hoping for a boy or a girl is “Oh, it doesn’t matter, as long as it’s healthy.” And of course, we are deeply satisfied when our children are healthy and thriving.  But it DOES matter if the baby is a girl or a boy, and it will matter for the rest of the child’s life—girls and boys live different lives, and so do moms of girls and moms of boys.   Spirited, “difficult” children will require different parenting skills than “easy-going” ones.  We can imagine ourselves as parents before we have children, but we only become parents in the cauldron of the day-to-day life of raising children. 

            Sometimes when I see a friend with a young daughter, sharing “girls only” time, I momentarily yearn for a daughter.  But mostly, I’m too busy being a mom of boys, sanding the coffee table and doing lots of muddy laundry, yes, but also discovering how many of the activities of my own childhood I can share with Robbie and Eli:  hiking, reading, music, science . . .  It’s a pleasure I hadn’t expected.