From the moment of conception I was sure my baby was a girl. I just knew. I built dreams of what we would do together, how she would look, what I could teach her, and fueled my thinking with the confirmation of friends and family. Of course, I would have a girl – girls always come first in my family. As my pregnancy progressed, my focus on gender grew. What if this baby wasn’t a girl? What would I do with a boy? How would I relate to him? What would my feminist friends think? As my belly grew, so did my fear. I was amazed to hear comments from friends, who expressed their concern at the possibility this baby could be a boy. Comments like, “I think it is a boy – sorry” and “I hope for your sake you have a girl” fueled my anxiety.
For many years I had worked in women’s organisations. Gender was our business and feminism was our point of reference. We provided analysis on a range of social issues from a gender perspective. We advocated for the needs of disadvantaged women and “fought the good fight”. Not that any of this was wrong per se, but for the first time I was beginning to see the flip side of this coin. I was beginning to realise why men were feeling so angered by our responses. This baby in my womb was being subjected to the same negative generalisations as the women I advocated for – just this time it was in reverse.
I was forced to face the source of my fears. What would be so terrible about birthing a boy? What prejudices was I bringing to my pregnancy? I had internalised much of what was being played out in the community around me and my own internal conceptions were challenged.
Finally, I found peace and fell in love with our baby prior to birth. The significance of gender seemed to melt away as my attachment to the individual child inside me grew. I let go of the cultural expectations and fears and we welcomed our son into the world as a being in his own right.
Through letting go a whole new world opened up to me. This wasn’t an easy and quick process but a necessary step in accepting the wisdom of the universe and the value of every human life and contribution. I soon began to explore new understandings of the world and felt very proud of my boy. I also began to feel quite protective and responded at times with resentment towards those who continued to categorise boys as difficult and problematic. I felt privileged to have such a beautiful child and was determined to treat him as an individual, with individual needs and pursuits.
At first caring for Harrison, I felt a sense of awkwardness or embarrassment. After all I had little experience of caring for the male anatomy in such intricate detail. As we made decisions about circumcision and learnt to care for our son, I became more comfortable with my son’s anatomy. However, little prepared me for the “puppetry of the penis” to come. At three, Harry’s penis became his constant play mate. His fascination seemed to boom and he willingly shared this with his friends. Sword fights and comparisons became part of his toileting regimes with other boys. His constant fascination, whilst I respected it as normal, at times challenged my need for privacy and acceptance from other mothers. The differences in gender were beginning to transpire in my son’s social interactions with others. The gender neutral days were over and I was becoming acutely aware of his “boy-ness”!
Recently we have noticed an increased vigor in Harry’s play. He has a new found desire to be more boisterous and rough in his interactions with others and has developed a fascination with guns and robots and anything that is loud and destructive. This is the age of testosterone! Harry’s testosterone didn’t hit with a bang but has slowly crept up over the last couple of months. Whilst it has been useful having information about the physical changes he is experiencing I can also see the danger in accrediting all aspects of boys behaviour to increased testosterone. Whilst it is important to accept our biological differences it is of equal importance to manage the social constructs around gender to allow children equal expression and support in their learning and experiencing the world.
This brings my thinking and exploration to the nurture versus nature debate. Are boys and girls inherently different or, is gender socially constructed and evolved solely through the environment in which we live?
In reading a number of recent publications on boys and fatherhood it saddens me to see a competitive debate emerge. As stated by Joanne Howard (in Sullivan 2003: 107) “we are given to believe that boys are not faring well in society as a direct consequence of girl’s success”. This seems to be a common theme amongst writers with evidence of poor academic success, suicide rates and participation in high risk behaviours as a measurement of boys suffering more than girls. It must be realised however, that if other variables are considered, such as prevalence of sexual assault, depression or employment in well paid or positions of influence, a different picture emerges.
Little good can come of a competitive approach. Disadvantage is structured into many other differences amongst people – not just gender. We need to acknowledge that there are serious issues impacting on both boys and girls that need to be addressed. An approach that advocates that one gender excel at the expense of the other only sets us up for further trauma and disadvantage. We need an approach that acknowledges the inherent differences in boys and girls and treats children as individuals rather than homogenous, competitive groups. If we subscribe to the view that boys are inherently different due only to genetic composition, we surrender our power to make a difference to the social fabric in which we live. If we subscribe to the view that gender is only influenced by the environment in which we live, we deny the power and ability we are innately born with.
A combined and balanced approach allows us to nurture our children with understanding and knowledge and respect them as individual beings with their own journey to unfold.
I was recently challenged about gender differences through my recent contact with Aletha Solter, author of Helping Young Children Flourish and Director of the Aware Parenting Institute. Aletha encourages an equal and compassionate response to the expression of feelings by our children. Such an approach includes embracing our children’s expression of anger and frustration, and allowing them the space and support to cry and rage as a means of healing everyday stress and trauma.
In applying this approach within our own family we began to realise that by attributing Harry’s recent increase in aggressive behaviour solely to the hormones charging through his body, we were ignoring some of the key indicators for his need to express much pent up anger and fear. Whilst we acknowledged the physical changes experienced by our son, we had a desire for deeper understanding.
As parents we were forced to consider the idea that we have not allowed our son the expression of feelings he most desperately needed. Unconsciously maybe we do treat boys differently to girls and give them less opportunity to cry. Studies have shown that parents rock their boy babies more vigorously than their girls and treat them more harshly. Maybe this lack of opportunity accounts for the anger felt and expressed by many boys and men rather than testosterone and genetics alone.
We acknowledged the physiological changes our son was experiencing and provided opportunity for rough play and male expression of energy. We also gave him (and ourselves) the space and permission to cry and rage. This approach values both the biological and environmentally influences on Harry’s life.
This is still our experiment and we are yet to see the full results but in our attempts to understand our son and support him and our family in our struggle we hope to uncover a way that suits us to meet the needs of all of our family members.
Our son has been a precious gift in my life. He has given me the courage and impetus to broaden my understanding and view of the world. He has challenged me to step outside my prejudices and become part of a solution that values each being in their commonalities and differences. To respect each person’s journey as their own and to provide mothering that doesn’t attempt to box or control but rather to explore and express.
Bibiliography: Howard, J. ( 2003) “A Feminsist Perspective on Fathering” in Focus on Fathering; ACER Pres, Victoria. References: Biddulph, S. (1994) Manhood – An Action Plan for Changing Men’s Lives; Finch Publishing; Sydney. Biddulph, S. (1997) Raising Boys – Why Boys are different and how to help them become happy and well balanced men, Finch Publishing, Sydney. Gurian, M. ( 1997) The Wonder of Boys; Tarcher and Putnam, USA Solter, A. (2001) Aware Baby; Shining Star Press; USA Solter, A (1989) Helping Children Flourish; Shining Star Press; USA Solter, A. (2000) Tears and Tantrums; Shining Star Press; USA. Sullivan, R. (2003) Focus on Fathering; ACER Press; Victoria.