Mothers of Sons and MAle Culture

One of the puzzles of being a woman raising young men has been how to interact with the male culture that they inhabit--more and more and they grow older. In the beginning it was pretty simple. Who wouldn't choose to roughhouse with a wonderful two-year-old? And if the power of their attraction to trucks and balls raised disturbing questions about genes and sex roles, they were as charming at that play as they would have been (or were) with dolls and cooking projects.

As they got older, however, there were more and more things that I was less and less inclined to do with them. In particular I've had a hard time with games that have a war strategy theme at their base. These come in all varieties--card, board, computer, video, action figure, little soldier. But the basic premises are the same: how to attack in order to survive, and how to be smart about who you sacrifice (and when and where) so that you'll come out on top. I just don't like to play that way. To make it worse, while I don't dislike sports, there were not part of my childhood experience, and I don't jump at the opportunity to play with them. Their father obviously enjoys both these types of activities, and we've slipped more and more into a situation where he does those things with the boys, and I participate in an ever-diminishing part of their play life.

It isn't the worst thing in the world. They count on me for other things. They know I love them and they love me. I'm not worried that they'll grow up to be war mongers or cut-throat competitive jocks. It's wonderful that they have so much of their father. But still, something hasn't been sitting right with me.

I've been assuming that it makes sense for the men to handle the "male culture" part of our sons' upbringing. Clearly they're more comfortable with it. They can play those games, go by those rules, and it doesn't seem to bother them. In fact, they seem to enjoy it. Surely I, who have feelings up to my eyeballs about casual violence, preemptive strikes, loss of thousands of lives, and winning-at-any-cost, should step back and let somebody who has a little more slack interact with them in these moments, right? After all, I'm just likely to make harsh judgments--or burst into tears.

I'm coming to think, however, that this assumption is flawed. That raises a very unsettling--and exciting--prospect. What if we women are the ones to help our sons with male culture? What if men's comfort with these ways of playing comes, not from greater understanding or flexibility, but from their own total immersion in that culture and those values? It's comfortable because it's what they know, perhaps all they've ever known. But if you're inside something, you can't see it very clearly.

As women, we have the advantage of seeing from the outside. The intensity of the competition, the willingness to sacrifice guys right and left in order to win, doesn't look normal to us. Most of us don't like it. Some of us hate it with a passion. But the fact that we can see and name it, as a way of viewing life that doesn't nurture the human spirit, positions us to lead the way out.

I think it's important here to appreciate the men in our lives. They never chose to be trained this way. They deserve only praise for every bit of humanity they've retained in the face of an oppressive requirement that they be independent at any cost, in conflict with others to survive, and ultimately expendable. Our men are treasures, their presence in their children's lives is a gift--and we can lead the way here. (It also occurs to me, not without discomfort, that they can play a similar role with us--the parts of female culture that envelop and blind us--and our daughters.)

The details of how we actually lead are not entirely clear to me. My guess it that many of us have to start by noticing how intensely we hate some things, and taking space away from our sons to clear out some of those feelings. Once I'm not so filled to overflowing with raw hatred and grief for a system that makes sweet little boys sacrifice their guys and squash their friends in the name of fun, I'll have a little more space to think.

My guess is that it won't be easy, that it will involve stretching in areas where we don't feel competent, trying out things we wouldn't normally choose, trusting that people can make good contact in ways that are totally outside our experience, and taking the time to pour out our anger and grief again and again. I'm sure that it will involve being close, not making judgments, putting out a different point of view, joking around, trying lots of different things, loving the men in our lives, never giving up. And I think everyone will win.