In all the generalizations about little boys—all the things that made me hope for a daughter instead of a son—all the #boymom hashtags; all the jokes about pee and penises—there is no mention of the tenderness of little boys. You don’t see it in the culture, or in the parenting books.
Boys are different, people tell me. Boys are just like that. Get used to it. Boys will be boys. As a feminist this makes me cringe; but I admit to stereotyping his love of cars and engines and smacking things with sticks, too. Maybe this is how boys are. But then I looked closer—as an adoptive parent of a kindergartener, I’ve had to learn to fly in mid-air, so to speak.
He’s having an intense love affair with masculinity. He adores it; queerly, mysteriously; he’s drawn to the way things move without quite knowing why. He is curious about men—all men—the older gentleman in a bowler hat walking on the sidewalk. My sister’s boyfriend who drives a gutted Range Rover with a kayak strapped to the top. His gymnastics teacher, limber and beautiful in his short shorts.
There are no men in our house, and some of the men in his life before were not safe. He doesn’t have an abstract category in his mind for men, so he interrogates each. He wants to understand how they work; he wants to shrink them down and drive them back and forth to understand their hinges and engines.
People like to tell me he’s all boy. He moves a lot, makes a lot of noise. Beeping and snorting and whistling, revving imaginary engines. The boys we think of as feminine, as gender creative, are quiet and sweet; slink around with dolls.
Like a good feminist mother I supplied my new son with dolls, which he politely rejected. He plays with trucks and tiny trailers, and builds more of each out of Legos, out of cardboard and painters’ tape. Maybe this is just how boys are.
But then I looked closer, and saw that his play—which I was stereotyping as aggressive, or domineering, simply because it was LOUD– is nurturing. Has a tenderness that destroys me.
With his grubby hands he picks things up so gently– flowers, other kids’ dropped crayons, his beloved cars which he lines up and talks to, naming them Dad and Son. I find these families of cars underneath the couch, lined up on windowsills, in the bathtub, in my own, actual car (a Honda Civic, two of the first words he learned to write).
The dad car makes the son car go to school. Sometimes they go to the hospital to see the mom and baby. Sometimes I get to be the son. Sometimes I get to be the steamroller (“rimstolla”) making the road smooth and straight, safe and clear, for the mommies and babies and daddies and dogs. The workers don’t want nobody to get hurt so they make the road nice and good. That worker is bringing a snack for everyone because he’s (here his voice squeaks with pleasure) so nice!
Nobody told me how deeply tender he would be towards his friends, how intensely he would notice things about them. Michael is really good at writing. Jameson got a haircut and it’s a Mohawk.
After his adoption party, he lay in bed processing the events of the afternoon. Colton had a really nice outfit. And it’s true. Colton did have a really nice outfit—a little blue plaid shirt, and jeans, and his blonde hair, straight and clean, falling across his forehead like bright straw. In the pictures from the party, Colton—a head taller– slings his arm over J’s shoulder, and J grins broadly, wildly happy.
When my grandmother had surgery, J was there worrying about it all, inquiring about the brakes on the bed, the tubes and machines. How that works? He asked. This was before he’d mastered syntax; he talked like a very empathetic caveman. So the bed don’t roll away?
He walked with her at physical therapy, holding her hand, inching around the brightly lit room of old ladies with new hips. This, a child whose default speed is rocketship. His hand on the small of her back.
He tells safety story after safety story. He builds Lego ambulance after Lego ambulance, hospital beds and stretchers. The farmer is building a fence for the horses, to keep them safe from the wolves. They can’t go out alone until they’re a little bigger.
It’s not just him, either, it’s his friends, too. At Moe’s, waiting in line for quesedillas and juice boxes, Cameron takes his hand. This is my best friend. We love each other.
Oh tender boy, if you grow into a man, be one with soft hair and quiet hands. There are birds building a nest outside my window and they dart down to get small twigs and bits of soft grass. Bits of soft grace. Oh, be a boy who makes a nest where a hard heart could be.
Remember that god is the blue, blue sky so you will never be alone. Oh be a boy who is also a golden fish, a boy who is a fish is a bird smacking taut belly first into the YMCA pool, chlorinated and deep.
Oh, be a boy who sleeps deeply and dreams of good hard work, a nest of puppies, who drinks big gulps of cold water from a tall glass when you are thirsty.
Keep being a boy who admires a chest full of tattoos, an old man’s nice suit, or a girl’s party dress. She looks so pretty. The girl’s mom spins around. Thank you. The girl’s dad carries a baby carrier, draped with a blanket. (Be a man who keeps the sun out of Baby’s eyes.) Oh tender boy, never stop blowing kisses or touching shiny things.
Oh tender boy, if you grow into a man, be so good that you soften the hearts of evil men, if you grow into a man be every boy I have ever loved, in specific and devastating ways, be a poet with roses on the back of your arms, a young minister with a curly beard; be a wiry, quiet Midwesterner coaxing greens out of the earth; be a goat, be an old white dog at last, hobbled and lapping coffee out of a lowered cup. Be every man I have ever loved and none who’ve terrified me, or others.
I was scared to have a son. I was scared to raise a man that wasn’t good enough. But it’s already there, inside, all that goodness—it makes me feel humble, it makes me feel faint.
When we give our crib away to a friend, he puts his stuffed alligator and a drawing of a tractor inside. For the baby. She will think it’s pretty.