I WANTED A boy.
I’ve admitted as much to my daughter Marcy, my firstborn. When I was pregnant with her, I longed to give my husband Doug a son, hand him that down payment on the future: Here! Your line goes on! Oh, sure, I said what every prospective mother does: I don’t care, so long as it’s healthy. But I harbored hopes of a dynasty. And when our ob-gyn announced, at the moment of delivery, “It’s a girl,” I was disappointed. Any fool can be a girl. I knew; I had two sisters, but only one brother. Boys were special. Boys were heirs. Kingdoms foundered for the lack of them. Okay, maybe I read too much historical fiction at an early age. But kingdoms still do — look at the fuss in Japan until Princess Kiko finally came through with a son.
Lucky for Marcy, she was a charmer, and won me over. By the time her brother came along three years later, we were happily buying Barbie dolls, watching Cinderella, gossiping about what had happened at daycare, bonding over chocolate-covered strawberries.
Even after Jake leveled our household out census-wise — two males, two females — Marcy and I seemed to be in charge. Doug works lunatic hours, and since Marcy is the oldest, she trumped Jake when it was just the kids and me. She claimed the front seat in the car, and radio control. TV time? She ruled the remote. (It didn’t hurt that she liked what I liked.) “Just wait,” I consoled Jake, “until she goes to college. You’ll get to be in charge then.”
The future is now. By the time this appears in print, Marcy will be gone, off for four years at her new college. (We’ll just call it Dicklenburg.) Jake will be in the front seat with me, tuning in headbanger rock and hungry for revenge. I’m about to become the last woman standing, a lone voice raised against public farting and Bruce Willis movies and dirty socks strewn all over the place. And the prospect of becoming a household minority has got me thinking about what gender means to the guys in my life.
THE GOAL OF CHILD-REARING is to get your kids to do what they don’t want to do. This is the essence of civilization. Nobody really wants to vacuum. Nobody wants to pay taxes. But there’s dog hair all over the living room rug, and the war in Iraq must go on. So: If you can get your kids to vacuum, chances are they’ll someday do their part in funding the military-industrial complex, tra-la.
We’re halfway to that goal. I can get Marcy to vacuum, and she does a good job of it. I can get Jake to vacuum, but he doesn’t do a good job. He’s piss-poor, in fact, at this and any other household task he’s assigned: lawn-mowing, trash-emptying, you name it. He’s disengaged. He doesn’t give a damn. And while I tried for years to think otherwise, I now believe it’s because he’s male.
Men are the baseline, the norm. Anything else (women, gays, children) is deviation. Guys don’t sit around thinking about this; it’s just something they know from birth. The way they experience life, the way they feel (or don’t), is the right way. I like a clean bathroom? Phht. Crazy neurotic female. I feel I should visit my aged father once a week? Go ahead, nutcase; a few times a year is enough for Doug to go see his folks. I know where the (choose one) dog license paperwork/calamine lotion/YMCA card is? Well, no wonder — there’s plenty of room in my empty little head for such minutiae, whereas the male brain is preoccupied with more vital matters (such as who else to add to the stupid-joke e-mail list). As Jake forges into manhood, he’s showing the full monty when it comes to taking responsibility.
For instance: I get home from work late, in the dark, turn the front-door key, and step inside. He’s sitting at his computer. The floor lamp beside the door, I can’t help but notice, is blindingly bright. It’s blindingly bright because it’s missing its glass globe. “Hi, hon,” I say to Jake. “What happened to the globe on the lamp?”
“I broke it,” he says gruffly.
“You broke it? How?”
“I forgot to take a key to football practice, so I had to climb in the window. And I knocked the lamp over somehow, and it broke.”
“That lamp belonged to your great-grandmother,” I say as mildly as I can.
“Why don’t you try to make me feel worse than I already do?” he asks, showing no sign whatsoever of remorse.
“You could have been more careful coming through the window.”
“I was careful,” he shoots back. “I took out the screen. I moved the fan. I even moved the freaking plants.”
“Or you could have remembered your key in the first place.”
He turns to grimace at me. “What-ever.”
I’ll never find a replacement globe for that lamp. I move further into the living room, see the midden of dirty socks and granola bar wrappers and cast-off shoes and empty water bottles surrounding his computer desk. “And you could pick up after yourself instead of making this house into a pigsty!” I say, gathering steam.
“Those two things — the lamp and picking up my stuff — have nothing to do with one another,” my son announces, in a tone of infuriating blandness.
“Of course they do! It’s all about taking responsibility for yourself.”
“You’re just angry with me for breaking the lamp, so now you’re trying to make me feel guilty for anything you can. It’s totally illogical.”
Jesus. I’ve spawned Mr. Spock. “What’s totally illogical is you thinking the entire house exists as a giant trash can for you to leave your gum wrappers and soda cans and — ” I’m still going, but he’s clapped on his headphones and isn’t listening. And you know what? He won. He totally called me. I was mad about the lamp, and I was grabbing for ways to guilt him, and there wasn’t any connection between the lamp and his socks.
But Marcy would have seen the connection — would have intuited it, felt it. Hers is a girl mind, and it works just like mine. Having her in the household has been more than backup for buying the floral-print couch; she comprehends that there’s an order to the universe and an order to the living room — and a link between the two.
“Somebody set the table, please!” I call from the kitchen at suppertime.
“I already swept the porch and vacuumed,” says Marcy, who’s watching TV from the sofa. “It’s your turn, Jake.”
“I’m busy,” says Jake, slaying computer aliens in some galaxy far, far away.
“I already did my chores! It isn’t fair!” Marcy screeches.
Jake doesn’t move.
What do I do? Dig in? Tell Jake to get up off his lazy butt and set the table?
Too late. Marcy flounces into the kitchen, seething but resigned. It’s our lot in life to serve them. We are deviants. They’re the norm.
I DON’T HATE MEN. I really don’t. The socks on the floor make me crazy, though. So do the little hairs that crop up all over the bathroom counter after Doug trims his beard. If it’s hysterical to wig out over those who leave one half-tablespoonful of ice cream in a carton so they won’t have “finished” it, well, I’m a bitch.
And I do hate how the men in my life have managed to avoid the guilt gene — whatever part of the X chromosome it is that causes women to shoulder familial responsibility. My widowed dad’s been living in a retirement community for three years now. My sisters and I all juggle crazy-ass schedules to get to see him once a week or so. My brother’s like Doug: He hardly ever goes, and hardly even calls. Meanwhile, my son sits like a pasha at his computer desk, littering the carpet with peanuts and Tic Tacs, and thinks I’m unreasonable when I ask him to clean up after himself.
Where will he be when I’m 85 and need the clocks changed to daylight savings time, the newest version of AOL downloaded, the functions of my cell phone explained? I’m afraid I’ll have no leverage with him — that, Spock-like, he’ll rationalize away what Marcy and I feel as family obligation, the same way Doug and my brother seem to manage to. But I also worry that my behavior, my (irrational?) expectations, are what’s driving him away, pushing a wedge between us, creating him as a stoic, non-guilt-driven American male. It’s chicken-or-the-egg: If I don’t impress on him that leaving dirty dishes on his computer desk is disgusting, how will he figure it out? But if he doesn’t find dirty dishes on his computer desk disgusting — and clearly, he doesn’t — then he just thinks I’m, well, crazy. Dismisses me. Tunes me out.
I want so much to be more to him than a nag.
I remind myself that he’s a teenager. That it’s supposed to be hard.
“Marcy and I are going to visit Pop,” I tell him each Saturday morning, as he sits at his computer. “Want to come along?” To forge a connection to his grandfather. Make a memory. Something to hold onto in the face of inevitable loss.
“Not this time. Say hi for me.”
BACK IN THE ’70s, women honestly believed we had a shot at changing the world, overturning the hierarchy, making equality a matter of law. Remember the Equal Rights Amendment? A few simple words, that’s all we needed. Ratify that sucker, and we’ll all be the same.
Our naïveté was stunning, in retrospect.
“Time for bed,” I call downstairs from my office to Jake, who’s at that damned computer.
“I have until 12:30,” he shouts back.
“It is 12:30,” I tell him.
“It’s 12:28,” he says. “Your clock is wrong.”
His clock is right. It’s the male clock. That’s how he knows.
Maybe Marcy will get past that. Maybe the world has changed enough that her generation will be able to say to men: We want you. We don’t need you. It doesn’t seem likely, though. On one side of the abyss are burkas, and female genital mutilation, and Chinese baby girls filling empty American cribs because they’re considered worthless at home. On the other side is The Girls Next Door.
It makes my head spin. It makes me angry. It makes it so hard to raise my kids. All I can do is tell them both: “This isn’t right.” Jake doesn’t seem to have gotten the message, but then, why should he mess with the status quo?
Marcy, though, gets it. And while Jake sits at his computer, pretending to wreak havoc, his sister is heading out into the world as an actual ninja warrior. A rebel with a cause.
“I’ll be back,” she says on one of her last summer days at home, breezing out the door in shorts and a cami. “I have to take Janis to Planned Parenthood. She’s been having unprotected sex with Jason.” (Those aren’t their real names.) She scrunches her nose at my expression of horror. “I know. I think there’s some part of her that wouldn’t mind if she had something of his to hold onto forever.” She leaves it at that for a moment, and I watch it tug at her like a strong tide, the whole Barbie/Cinderella/happily-ever-after thing. Then she shrugs, physically shakes it off.
“I’ve got to get her on the Pill,” she says.
MARCY DOESN’T MISS MY CONFLICTEDNESS about gender roles. She’s declared a tentative women’s studies major at Dicklenburg.
“God, who’ll go out with you?” says her boy cousin.
“Why don’t you study something real?” asks her uncle.
“Women’s studies? What about men’s studies?” her grandfather says.
It’s all men’s studies, Pop. And somehow — I haven’t figured it out yet, exactly — you’ve gotten us to buy into that. Despite the fact that one in four women lives alone or heads a household, we’ve been conditioned to believe we can’t make it on our own. We are willing to shoot toxins into our foreheads, have our breasts made abnormally large, tan ourselves into a cancerous state, and diet ourselves to death in the desperate hope that you will pluck us from the slush pile and let us cook for you, maintain your social network and pick up after you for the rest of our lives.
Marcy recognizes the absurdity. It’s what’s propelled her to her proposed major, has made her stick to it in the face of puzzled expressions and antagonistic questions: “What will you do with that?” She’s like Einstein and unified field theory; she’s on a mission, a quest to figure out the big picture, starting with this: why her mother, who loves her inordinately and takes such pride in her, wanted her to be a boy instead.
Honey, it’s so simple. To make your father happy. I wanted a boy so I could please a man.