By Lauren Apfel
I am a mother of three boys.
When I see a list of what it is to be a “boy mom”—and I see a lot of them—I bristle. Partly because I hate gender stereotypes, hate them with such a passion that it sits like a lump of coal under my solar plexus. But partly because they are not reflective of my reality. On most days, you see, the thread of commonality that binds my own sons is so thin as to be almost imperceptible. My own sons who tend to astound me, in ways big and small, with their differences not their similarities: the first intense and cerebral; the second emotional and imaginative; the third stubborn and logical and as sweet as honey.
I am also the mother of one girl.
And let me tell you about her, my daughter who is at once exactly herself and a mixture of each of her distinct brothers.
1. She farts and gets dirty. She fights with her siblings, both physically and wildly. She screams, she bounces, she bears her teeth.
2. She likes pretty things—a skirt that is especially swirly, a bracelet that is especially sparkly—but then again so does her twin brother. He is more likely than she is to ask me to paint his nails.
3. She watches Lego Friends on Netflix, and Mermaids and Strawberry Shortcake, but loves Star Wars best of all. Yoda is her favorite character bar none. She sleeps with a stuffed version of him, not a baby doll, though she likes dolls too.
4. She doesn’t particularly care if her hair is done. She’s had it both short and long, and it’s me who insists she pull it back half the time, simply to get it out of her face. My first son’s obsession with his hair puts his sister’s mild interest to shame; my third son will, on occasion, ask for bunchies.
5. She was excited to get patent leather Mary Janes to go with her new school uniform—a pair with a tiny bow at the top of each shoe—but was then dismayed when they started to hurt her feet, what with all the climbing and playing.
6. She can sit still for numbingly long stretches of time, doing puzzles or coloring inside the lines. She has perfectionist tendencies; her oldest brother is exactly the same.
7. She is the sportiest and most agile of all of my children.
8. She is emotional and can be dramatic, but her outbursts are nothing, I mean nothing, compared to my second son’s at the same age.
9. She often chooses the boy figure when we play Chutes and Ladders; sometimes she picks the girl. She often chooses the red or green or light blue version of a toy; sometimes she picks the one that is pink or purple.
10. She doesn’t love me in any way that is “less than” the way her brothers do. She hugs me fiercely, and kisses me all over my face. I have yet to notice a discrete or more intense “boy” means of loving a mother, despite what all the articles say.
My point is not that my daughter is a “tomboy” or a “girly girl.” She is neither and she is both. She is whatever combination of traditionally masculine and traditionally feminine traits she wants to be, to display in a given moment, as are her brothers. The biggest ways in which she varies from them are those that I have imposed on her, together with society. The way I dressed her from the moment she was born. The special attention I give to her hair. The gifts others have bestowed upon her. I work hard, so hard, to raise my children absent the straightjacket of gender stereotypes, but there will inevitably be manifestations of them along the road. And that’s fine. The goal is not to remove gender from the equation altogether, it is to deny it such an overriding role.
As my kids grow, they will certainly have experiences that are unique to, and contingent upon, their sexes. The expectations society will throw at them are not the same: Man up, my sons will be told, in some shape or form; Act like a lady, my daughter will no doubt hear, explicitly or not. And that, in the end, is the true difference between raising boys and girls when they are young. Not that boys play with police cars or love Minecraft or grunt responses, while girls don’t. No, the difference lies in the nature of the insidious stereotypes we, as parents, have to protect them against—both from inside our homes and out.
I have a picture of my children on their first day of school. The older boys are ten and eight at the time, the twins four and a half. They are all sitting on the stairs, my sons on one level, grabbing each other, heads mashed together in faux combat. My daughter is a step below, as calm and poised as a sunflower, smiling beatifically at the camera while her brothers tussle behind her. When I shared this photo on Facebook, I made a joke out of it. Because I don’t believe in gender stereotypes, I wrote, I am posting this with no comment. Of course the picture captured something real about my kids, about their genders. But it captured only a snapshot of their lives, only one sliver of the truth of who they are.