No one was more surprised than me when I gave birth to not one but two boys (19 months apart). I was destined for daughters, with my penchant for floral prints and ribbons and all things pretty. I have a doll collection, for goodness sakes, catalogued by name and place of origin, carefully boxed for the day I would hand them lovingly to my (female) offspring.
Not that I’ve contemplated trading my boys in, but I have on occasion wondered what to do next. Being a boy mum doesn’t come naturally to me. I’ve had to step up.
With girls I’d be in my element. I’d only need to cast my mind back: tea parties and ballet, making perfume from mulched camellias, The Fairy Who Wouldn’t Fly, dressing guinea pigs. I’ve tried all that with my boys, but their interest wanes.
I don’t want to engender gender division with cliched playtime. I always intended to follow my boys’ lead, and they lead me to diggers, street sweepers and fire station open days. Before they could walk they’d upend their girl cousins’ toy prams and spin the wheels. Which is how I find myself on construction sites and waiting expectantly on the kerb on garbage day. I rise early for Milo cricket and spend winters on icy soccer sidelines. I’ve endured a professional soccer game (my first too), taken them fishing, and force myself to kick balls and build Lego, an attempt to showcase the top boyhood picks so they can find their inclinations.
But there’s far more at stake, as a boy mum, than sporting fixtures. What I want – don’t we all? – is for them to become good men – kind, empathetic, thoughtful, big-hearted men who respect women, and are handy with a vacuum cleaner. Their dad inevitably plays a part too but, because we live apart, much rests on me. According to Psychologist and author of Raising Boys, Steve Biddulph, a boy’s first love is his mum, his “practice girlfriend”, setting the tone for his future relationships, and holding the key to his self esteem. “You are the prism through which he will see all women.” writes paediatrician, Meg Meeker in Strong Mothers, Strong Sons. No pressure.
In this climate where we see adolescent boys and men disconnected, unsure who to be, I want my boys, more than anything, to open up. To let me be their anchor. We’re off to a good start. “I kissed a girl”, my six year old pipes up from his booster seat on the drive home from school. Don’t react, I tell myself. This is a defining moment which could shape the format of all future interactions. If this goes well, if I let it slide, he’ll be more inclined to divulge things – bigger things than playground crushes – as we go along. What I’m saying by saying nothing is whenever you have big news, it will go like this. I won’t burden you with my own hangups or expectations. “Where?” I ask nonchalantly, meaning where at school did this momentous happening happen. “On the lips”, he shoots back, proudly. I gasp. At 16, maybe. Not six.
Funny that he tells me in the car because seasoned boy mums say boys talk best in cars, a captive audience. Talking “sideways”, as Biddulph puts it, gives them time to search for the right words.
My meditation teacher, Tim Brown, (a mentor, of sorts), explains the Vedic view that the gender of our children is no mistake. One of the few things left we can’t control (well, not legally), it’s not too far a stretch to lean into grander notions of destiny. I was meant to have boys. With my sensitivity and propensity to overthink, I could do with a dose of steady masculinity.
Just as they could do with me. A mother who encourages her sons to be au fait with emotions. “Crying’s good”, I say, working overtime to foster empathy and self awareness, regrettably not traditional male traits.
How touching to hear the young co-founder of Orange Sky Laundry (restoring dignity and purpose to the homeless by doing their washing), Nick Marchesi, attribute his drive to his mum. “The feeling of unconditional love that you bestow on your sons every day, it adds up”, he tells a roomful of Mothers of Boys (yes, it’s a thing). “Knowing someone cares, makes it easier to transfer that to others.”
Former Prime Minister Paul Keating similarly ascribes much of his sense of self to maternal love. “I walked with grandmotherly and motherly love and I think that it kind of radiates for you and gives you that inner confidence”, he told Kerry O’Brien.
They don’t need to be Prime Minister (unless they want to) but that’s my hope for my boys too, that they’ll “walk with motherly love”. That I will be enough.
This article was first published in Sunday Life Magazine and DailyLife.com.au on 4th September 2016