By Allison Gehlhaus
I am a real New Jersey housewife. I tell my girlfriends that we could start our own show, the Real Tired Housewives. A show without huge earrings or catfights but with a lot of driving and packing of lunches. A lot. I have five children. When I say this (actually, mumble it) people’s mouths drop open, and some mixture of awe and repulsion twitches across their faces. Wow, they say. I can feel them calculating. They do not know whether to bow down in reverence or call for a psych exam. And then comes the part that I really hate. Four girls and one boy, I say.
“Is the boy last?” they always ask.
They get this hopeful smirk on their faces, like they have caught me. Like I kept on having kids, until I got a boy. As though the girls were obstacles on my way to getting it right. The Holy Grail, a son. “No,” I answer, with a thrust of my chin. “He’s the fourth.”
That boy, my fourth, is now twelve. His name is Henry. He loves me. Oh no, he hates me. Loves me, hates me. He’s twelve.
* * *
It’s been an eye-opening twelve years. A time to examine some preconceived—literally—notions regarding the raising of boys and girls. Especially my own. I had been stunned and hurt by the comments I heard after the birth of our daughters. The nurses at the hospital told me that they hear a lot of women apologize to their husbands after giving birth to girls. Seriously. Right in the labor room. One nurse said, “Don’t they realize that it is the man who determines the sex of the baby?” Another quipped, “So maybe the men should apologize.”
So I shouldn’t have been surprised when visitors would say, “Maybe next time,” with a dismissive wave at our little pink bundles of joy. Or, “How soon are you going to try again?”
My brother-in-law actually said, “Three girls. That’s the pits.”
He’s lucky to be alive.
“Another girl? Is Hank mad at you?” a neighbor asked.
And when I answered, “Yeah, my husband’s furious, he’s kicking me out next week,” she didn’t even flinch.
And yet: No one was as shocked or as happy as I was when the doctor held up that baby boy in the hospital.
“I feel like I won the lottery,” I said to Hank.
I’d had three miscarriages after my three girls and before Henry’s birth. I had been flush with grief. I was delighted with my family but had wanted more children—not necessarily a boy or a girl, just another baby. When my body didn’t cooperate, I was stunned, but also ashamed. It’s a feeling my obstetrician said that many women confessed to, but that he couldn’t understand. It had been a terrible time, trying to mother my three daughters with the joy they deserved while being sick with the loss of those unborn babies. Finally having a healthy baby made me gleeful.
But still something nagged at me. People were now treating me like I had finally done something correctly. Did I secretly agree? Was I that big of a jerk?
“It’s about time,” I heard again and again. “Oh, your husband must be thrilled.”
So even while I was telling myself that I was just happy to have a healthy baby, I was thrilled to have a son. Finally. A small voice inside me yelled, You patriarchal hypocrite, as I floated and gloated through the aftermath of his birth.
* * *
That aftermath, though, was so thick with sexism that we all noticed it. My girls began to feel assaulted. The line they heard people say to me most often was, “Thank god your husband finally has a son to take over the family business.”
Our business happens to be an amusement park on the Jersey Shore. My daughters and I tried to make jokes about it, anticipating the comments and our snarky comebacks. We began to say, “Yup, the king was born. We’re nicknaming him Elvis.” Our oldest daughter, Meghan, then twelve, finally looked at me one day and said, “What? He’s got a penis so he gets the boardwalk?”
“Right on, sister,” I said, “We never said that. You’re the oldest. Girl or boy, we don’t care, if you want to run the business, knock yourself out.”
Meghan eventually wrote her college essay about how all this made her want to study business to help with the boardwalk. Even if she was a girl. She left the word penis out, for which I was proud.
* * *
I had told my friends that I was not going to be one of those mothers who shrugged and said, “Boys will be boys,” while their three-year-old sons beat each other up in the park. There would be no guns. Nor was I going to instantly label him as tough, while my girls were sweet. I had three brothers. My father’s preferential treatment of them had infuriated me growing up. I had read Gloria Steinem. I took sociology of gender in college. I was determined to raise this boy to be a peaceful, loving, non-rock-throwing kid who would grow up to be a fine man, as comfortable in the kitchen as he was in the boardroom. I had standards.
And yet, just last week, we were all cleaning up after dinner while my son was in the other room, killing Nazi zombies on Xbox. My daughter Emily looked at me and said, “Do you realize that your son, never, ever cleans up anymore?” Yikes, I thought—she was right. How did I let this happen? My husband was right in the trenches with us, scrubbing away. Annie, our nine-year-old, was sweeping the floor. My twenty-two-year-old daughter Shannon was clearing the counters, and Henry, aka Elvis, was on the couch, shooting and blowing up people. I had screwed up. I had let myself veer off the path of equality. I had become one of those mothers—one of those “boys will be boys” mothers.
I yelled into the other room, “Hey, get in here—just because you have a penis, doesn’t mean you’re exempt from cleaning up.”
I showed him.
* * *
Although I never intended to treat my son differently than my daughters, the reality of who he is, this particular boy, has forced me to. As Shannon said to me, “He is an alpha male with a different operating manual than we have. You need to chill.” And while I can see that my daughters have some stereotypically masculine qualities and my son some female ones, I’ve come to believe that I do need to chill. Even a mother with the best intentions has to concede to gender differences.
I could see this early on. Henry turned Barbie dolls upside down and made slingshots out of their legs. He flushed dollhouse furniture down the toilet. When he was four, I heard him calling me, and when I went down our long, narrow hallway I couldn’t figure out where he was. Finally, I saw him. Flush to the ceiling. He had scaled the wall. His feet were on one side of the wall, and his hands on the other.
“Jeez,” I said, “at least put some pillows on the floor if you’re going to act like Spiderman.”
I never had to utter a sentence like that to my girls. My daughters never asked me to go to the hardware store so they could design and build their own air soft guns. I’ve never said to them, “Wow, that revamped bicycle pump gave you a great amount of pressure.”
Nor have daughters ever called me and asked me to buy potassium nitrate on the way home from work.
“What do you need that for?” I said to Henry after he did exactly that.
“I’m making something,” he mumbled.
“I’m worried that the FBI is going to show up on my doorstep one day because you’ve researched the making of something,” I whined.
“Chill,” he said. “I don’t want to blow anything up, I just want to make my own smoke bombs. They’re harmless.”
The truth is, I don’t really know how Henry turned out to be, as a friend called him, “A boy’s boy in a house full of women.” I have tried over the last twelve years to tease out what is nature and what is nurture. Sometimes I think he is a lot like my father and brothers, and of course Hank, all strong, take-no-prisoners kind of men. It could be also that I am simply comfortable with that kind of male and thus subconsciously encouraged his “boyness.” Or maybe Henry was determined or destined to be who he is no matter what.
Will boys really be boys?
As I try to figure this all out, I am watching the caveman my son evolved from.
Henry grunts instead of answering me. He will knock things off the counter when he is mad. He runs with a pack of boys whose rules of hierarchy astound me. One time in the middle of an argument when he was ten, I said to him, “Instead of throwing my books on the floor, why don’t you say, ‘I get mad when you won’t let me buy a bb gun.'”
He doubled over laughing. “Yeah, right,” he said, kicking my door on the way out. “Like that’s ever gonna happen.”
Once when we suspected our contractor of stealing, we arranged a meeting to confront him. Henry spent three days designing an intricate pulley system so that when the guy opened our door, a small rubber ball hit him in the forehead. He was six. He makes me wish I bought stock in vinegar and baking soda. He plays sports with a ferocity that borders on scary.
As his mother, I find myself also adapting to the changes in our own little ecosystem. Do I love watching him shoot Nazis, design weapons, climb walls? No, not particularly. Am I happier shopping, gossiping, or cooking with my girls? Yup. But it shouldn’t be about what makes me happy. Or comfortable. Although I wrestle with all this, I do strive for some sort of balance between what Henry needs and I need. And that changes day to day.
Hank and I argued once about the way my son threw his best friend out of our house. Just told him to leave. This boy’s mother and I are good friends.
“Your problem,” Hank said, “is that you don’t understand boy world.”
Anytime a husband starts a sentence with “your problem is,” you know you’ve got big problems.
“I have three brothers. I understand way more than you think,” I said.
“Raising a son is different than having brothers,” he said.
“Duh,” I said, because I am such a grown up.
“He should apologize,” I said. “There had to be a better way to handle it.”
“He’ll figure it out,” Hank said. “It’s dog-eat-dog out there. Who’s strong, who’s not backing down—it’s a whole different ball game than with the girls.”
What I should’ve said to my husband was that at least with the girls, I understood some of the ways my daughters and their friends worked out their conflicts—by talking behind each other’s backs, alienating each other, and other similarly lovely tactics. Regrettably, I’d even participated in those kinds of tactics at one time or another.
Instead I said, “Thanks a lot Darwin, I’ll keep that in mind.”
It took months to work out. Henry held his ground, even when the other boy got everyone at the lunch table to get up and move, leaving him alone. There were parties where only one of them was invited because of the rift. Eventually, though, they became friends again when they both played on the school baseball team. Neither one had backed down; they respected each other for it. And most importantly to my friend and me, no punches were thrown.
It was excruciating to watch. Boy world.
* * *
We are in a restaurant, or an airport, or at the beach. Someone comes up.
“This was exactly my family growing up, four girls and one boy.”
“How’d the boy turn out?” I always ask, exposing my weakness and not caring.
“He’s great,” they usually answer. “He makes a fine husband. He really understands women.”
And this is the other worry. Besides keeping him alive, I know that someday, some woman is going to be his wife. So when he yells at me that he can’t find his basketball jersey and it’s all my fault because I do the laundry, I go from zero to sixty. I am doubly mad. Triply. I think of his wife. I don’t want her to be burdened with a man who thinks women are his servants. It can get messy, this raising of sons.
* * *
Of all the parenting advice I’ve read, the one sentence that has kept me going is from psychologist Haim Ginott: Treat your children as though they are already the people you want them to be. I love this; it encourages you to reinforce the qualities you desire, while subtly ignoring the ones you wish would disappear. This is big-picture parenting, the kind that acknowledges the power of the language we use about and with our children over time. And every now and then, a situation arises and you realize, with a quiet kind of awe, that your children actually are the people you want them to be.
This past Memorial Day, while I was working at the counter at one of our food stands, a customer left without paying. It was ridiculously hot that day, and crowded, and our whole family was working. That was the third time someone had stiffed me in an hour, and I was angry. “Where is that guy?” I asked, steaming mad, looking around.
Another customer pointed to the bar across the way and said, “The guy in the plaid shirt? He went in there.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Henry leave our stand and walk into the bar. A twelve-year-old walks into a bar. He came out a minute later, walked to our cash register, and put a twenty in. He nodded at me, didn’t say a word, and went back to filling up the ice machine. Good boy, I thought.
About half an hour later a woman came up to the counter, apologizing for her husband. “He said you were mobbed—he swears he would have come to pay you later.” She shrugged like she wasn’t so sure she believed him. “But I have to know: Who is that kid, the one that came over?”
“My son,” I said, nervous. “Why?”
“He just came up, kind of quiet, tapped my husband on the back and said, ‘Excuse me, sir, but you owe my mother money.’ “
I looked over at my son, who was now sneaking up behind the grill guy, trying to put ice cubes down his shirt.
She smiled and said, “You don’t got to worry about that kid.”
“I’ll try to remember that,” I said.
Author’s Note: Why do I love the story of Henry walking into the bar? Why is it this story I tell? Because it lets me choose from it a combination of qualities that I want my son to have: strength, loyalty, empathy, respect, sprinkled with a dose of good humor. All things that I would want to foster in a good human being. Girl or boy.
When I told Henry that I had written an essay about him, he said, “Of course you did—I’m a fascinating character.”
Allison Gehlhaus’s fiction has appeared in Mothering, and an excerpt of her almost finished memoir, Tough Little B*tch, appeared in Booth. “Raising Elvis” is her first published essay.
Brain, Child (Spring 2012)