We’re in Target, threading through the narrow back aisle in home goods. The boys, 6, 4, and 2, are standing stack in the middle of the aisle. An old lady wheels toward us and I scold them, “Move. People are trying to get around you.” They look at me dumbly. She jackknives around them, and I apologize, “I’m so sorry.”
Or I am standing in the Starbucks line. The kids have selected their juice boxes and jump around in a dance they’ve made themselves while I wait for my trenta, unsweetened, black, iced tea. Their dance is taking up too much of the line, and I say to them, “Boys, other people need that space.”
Or we’re in the grocery store. The 2-and-a-half-year-old baby squeals in joy to see the piles of apples. My older sons argue about the merits of different colored apples, about which we got last time and which Daddy likes better. Their gesticulations take up the whole aisle. An old lady stands behind them. “Boys,” I tell them, “please be polite. Someone is trying to get past.” And they move, or don’t move, and she threads her cart through them.
And without a doubt, someone says to me every single time, “Three boys? Oh my.”
I nod ruefully about my reproductive choices, because I was raised to be polite to my elders. “Yep,” I say heartily. “Three boys!”
It’s as if something about the aggregation of them invites remarks. Three of them. Only three of them, I think most days. We yearn for more. We’re those people, the ones who have lots of kids, just without the numbers yet. Three is a paltry number. I have friends with seven, nine, eleven. Three’s small.
But she probably came of age around that sweet spot when the pill hit, 1960, so she didn’t have to have seven kids, like my great-grandmother. Or five, like two of my other great-grandmothers. Those great ladies were one of seven, one matriarch the eldest of seven sisters. Maybe she sees too many kids as gauche, or wasteful, or more of a poor mama situation. There’s a tacit assumption that with three so close together, I may not have been using birth control. I’m a throwback. I’m dangerously old-fashioned.
And she’s only commenting because they’re all boys. When my sons had long hair, no old ladies gifted me with these observations. There’s something about a pack of three boys, I suppose? Something wild, something ungovernable, scampish and troublesome. Like the Little Rascals, only without the overalls. Whatever it is, it’s something that makes them an oddity, or at least different from two girls and a boy. Or two boys and a girl.
Because girls can be none of the things above. Sugar and spice and everything nice, that’s what little girls are made of. They help their mamas and never make a scene. This isn’t true, of course, but still society places these labels on girls versus boys. I resent all of this for the loud little girl I was, a champion tree climber and capture-the-flagger.
She nods her head. Sometimes, she says, “They’ll keep you busy!”
I hate that one. It says that if one of them were a girl, they wouldn’t keep me busy, which is the gender stereotype all over again. I’m magically more busy because of their gender. And by “busy” she means “chasing after them,” literally, because they’re troublemakers.
My poor sons. They’re rebellious troublemakers who are somehow wild, packish, and adorably naughty. There’s no credit for the good behavior they mostly exhibit. They can’t be quiet or gentle. They are, instead, too busy keeping me busy to show the softer side of human emotion.
Most people are going to think that I’m picking on old ladies here. I’m not. I’m picking on the stereotypes we use to talk about our children. Those stereotypes can be harmful: boys are loud and rough; girls are quiet and sweet by comparison. Boys can’t show emotion. Boys are ill-behaved, and their bad behavior is cute. Having kids close together is somehow accidental or reprehensible.
We can’t allow these stereotypes to damage our children. The first step toward keeping our kids safe is being aware that they’re real. That they’re dangerous. That we need to point them out, and contradict them as much as we can.
And at the right time. And the right time isn’t an old lady making conversation in the grocery store. I hate what she’s saying, but I smile kindly. My kids were, after all, in her way.
“I love ‘em to pieces,” I say.
“I bet you do, baby,” the old woman tells me. “I bet you do.”
That we can agree on.More On