Like many couples with their first child, we opted to be surprised by the sex of our firstborn. “Surprised” was a curious word to use in this situation. My grandfather had a brother (who had two sons); My grandfather had two sons (my father and my uncle); My uncle had two sons; My dad had three sons; My older brother has two sons. There had been no girls with my surname for a few generations. All the old wives’ tales — how my wife carried, the baby’s heart rate — suggested we’d fall in line with this pattern.
So when our daughter was born on that August morning, surprised was indeed the right word. She immediately became a source of pride as well as an anomaly. I thought, “Well, I know nothing about this.”
While I know that it shouldn’t take the birth of a daughter for men to grant women (many of whom occupy some incredibly revered and respected spaces in our lives) our full reserve of empathy, it remains simply a matter of fact that for me — and, I imagine, many other fathers — it was rather a revelation. Surprise.
In 2019, hashtag culture includes important and necessary movements like #metoo and #timesup that encourage men — even those like myself who believe themselves to be progressive and sensitive to women’s issues — to examine how we’ve behaved in the past. And we should. Because even if we haven’t behaved in criminal fashion, most men who’ve been raised in a misogynistic culture will likely find instances of bad behavior toward women. This is a necessary reckoning. And it’s led me to not only assess how I am going to do raise my daughter, but also my son, who was born less than two years later.
The implication here is that without my daughter, I’d have raised my son to be a typical male dirtbag with no empathy for anyone other than himself, but I would disagree with that implication. To be honest, the hardest part of all of this is engaging in the impossible thought experiment that makes me ask myself how I would have raised him if he had a brother versus how I will raise him as the younger brother to an incredible big sister. It’s a question I grapple with daily — and I write that without exaggeration.
Like most siblings, my children aren’t immune to bickering. My daughter can antagonize my son with incredible dexterity. In the midst of playing, she can toss him to the ground with ease. She’s got a significant height and reach advantage. Just the other day, I told him to fight back. He’s shorter, but has some leverage if he gets close. And he did – he wrangled her right to the ground.
My wife did not like this.
Part of me totally understands her reaction. The phrase “boys being boys” perpetuates and excuses all echoes of just this sort of behavior and thinking throughout their lives, argues that by simply acting the way men have always acted somehow absolves them of their actions, whether harmless or deviant. It is exactly this that we’re trying to eliminate from society.
But another part of me wanted to encourage my son — who was being verbally and physically harassed — to stand up for himself, regardless of who was the antagonist. Of course, physicality is not the answer to life’s problems. In fact, it’s rarely the solution — but it is a reality of life. It’s a reality of life, too, that one day he may be called on to use his physicality in defense of his sister or friend, girl or boy. This is a sinister, narrow bridge that we’re crossing.
The balancing act is tricky. We want our son to be patient, kind, and thoughtful. We want him to be genuine in his empathy for women, and we want him to be responsive to the world around him and how it treats women. We’re hoping that the lessons we teach will be lessons the world learns alongside him. But, truly, we cannot guarantee that’s happening.
My wife and I can say this much with confidence: We don’t care about our son being macho, though we think it is important that he learns how to defend himself and others – with assertiveness and confidence and, occasionally, his hands; We don’t care about our son following gender norms, but we think it is as important to know how to use a screwdriver as it is to be kind and nurturing; We want him to know the difference between standing up for women and patronizing them.
The old “watch out for your sister” credo is not without merit. Of course we want him to look out for her, just like we’d want him to watch out for a brother: Not because she’s incapable or weak, but because you stand up for injustice, you stand up for people being treated unfairly, and you stand up for people being bullied. And we want her to do the same for him — and for others — once she’s over this very normal phase of picking on him.
I think I’m a progressive dad. There’s just as much pressure to raise a daughter that is self-confident, poised, and proud as there is to raise a son to be rational, resolute, and resort to words over force.
Representation matters, without a doubt. When a black child can look at the presidents we’ve had over several centuries and finally see someone who looks like them, it gives them a glimpse of what they can be. Similarly, when a young girl can look on a screen and see women making powerful statements in the Capitol Building or appearing as the most powerful superhero in the universe, it sends a message: Your voice, your strength, and your potential, they all matter.
It matters, too, to boys. I’m a white male raising children of the same persuasion. When I was growing up, the superheroes, the presidents, the Speakers of the House, they looked like me. That’s true for all of the white men my age and older. And while that doesn’t excuse old behaviors or old prejudices, it shows the truth in the fact that representation matters. And why it’s so important for my son to be able to watch Wonder Woman kick butt, and see a more colorful kaleidoscope of public servants on his television and in the media, and see — eventually, assuredly — a woman take the highest office in the land.
All of this matters. It’s on me, absolutely, to help assist him in seeing these things, but it’s on all of us too.
We’re hoping that the lessons we teach will be lessons the world learns alongside him.
About the author
Matt Osgood is a freelance journalist based out of Haverhill, MA, where he lives with his wife, their two kids, and dog. While life as a dad certainly provides him with the best material, he writes mostly about sports and booze, both of which provide much needed therapy.