When we unknowingly tell little boys to “man up”, we set them up for a potentially limiting life. By Sya Taha.
Two months ago, I gave birth to a baby boy. I was hoping for a girl, because I had all these ideas about how I was going to raise her as a rocking feminist – I had even chosen for her the name of a dazzlingly rebellious woman in Islamic history – who would break societal norms of what women should be. But then I slowly got used to the idea of a boy. While I expected sleepless nights and a neverending barrage of blue clothes and toys, I didn’t expect my son’s initiation into manhood to begin so early.
But I should have seen it coming. Before I was even planning to have a baby, I read the book Real Boys by William Pollack, a result of 20 years of research on what it means to grow up as a boy in the US. Pollack mentioned a study from Rutgers University found that mothers tend to respond differently to their infant sons from their daughters. One such example is to smooth over their sons’ feelings of discomfort instead of providing unconditional empathy. The mothers in the study did not intend to treat their sons especially differently; these women were acting on the gender norms of society. These norms push boys and men to show less of negative emotions like fear, embarrassment and shame – a more limited range of feelings overall.
I saw this phenomenon happening with a small occurrence: A family member who was playing with my son suddenly pulled off his mittens. I had put these on his hands to prevent him from scratching his face (which he really liked to do and had me resisting the urge to nickname him “Scarface”). Because babies can’t control their hands, right? Either that or they are born masochists, and I’m more inclined to believe the former.
The incident happened so fast and the conversation was lost in translation. Later when I asked my husband why mittens were unacceptable, he explained that that family member thought our baby should toughen up by not wearing such delicate, frilly things. And by toughening up, it includes learning to bear with scratches on his face.
Things got more heated in the evening. Since he looked rather sleepy, we put our son in a corner while we all sat down to dinner. I was barely halfway through my steak when he started crying and spitting out his pacifier. When my husband got up to look at him, he was chided by the same relative to leave the baby alone. By this point in time, we could hardly have a conversation over his howls – I picked him up and rocked him in my lap with one hand while deftly spearing my French beans with the other.
A baby (boy) should put up with scratches on his face? A baby (boy) should be banished to a cold corner of the room when he’s upset? While distressing from a maternal point of view, it is however interesting from a sociological one.
My son was being taught that fear and weakness were not appropriate for boys (and men). He was also being toughened up to endure pain and suffering as a normal part of (a man’s) life. Perhaps most heartbreakingly, he was being trained to not expect love or comfort when he needed it.
What does this bode for his future? I worry that he will only be able to express certain emotions like anger at the expense of a broader range that includes empathy, sorrow and anxiety – emotions that are typically associated with women and femininity. I worry that he may grow up to be like many boys and men I see around me, who suppress these last emotions and then act out in unhealthy, aggressive ways because their communication skills are stilted. I worry that he may feel lonely, sad or confused. I worry that he may become depressed, violent or abusive towards himself or others.
In Real Boys, Pollack also mentions another study by psychoanalyst John Ross that I found really interesting: Up to the age of six, most healthy boys still believe that they could get pregnant, carry a child in their bellies and give birth, just like their mothers – their primary caregivers and primary role models. I thought that this shows just how unbiased about gender roles little boys are, and that as parents, we shape them into society’s idea of boys and men.
Boys just want to be children, like girls. For me, this is the challenge of raising my son: Nurturing him to become a kind and gentle person, free to express his personality and feelings, whatever they may be; yet be aware of societal expectations and have the confidence to find his own way.