By the time we left the hospital 34 hours after my son, Jules, was born on 14 July, two nurses had commented on the strength of his suck, four friends had written us some version of “Finally, you’ve got your boy!” and even my female obstetrician had commented favorably on the size of his penis. (If you must know, it had to do with the clamp used during his hospital circumcision.)
I had already had two daughters, but having a son somehow immediately launched me into new parenting territory. On the phone between nursing sessions, I told a friend how even-keeled I felt in comparison to the first few days postpartum with the girls, which I remember as a hormonal rollercoaster of weeping joyously at Goodnight Moon, yelling furiously at my husband for forgetting diapers, and spinning out about how I might crush my baby with my newly enormous bosom – all within the span of an hour.
“When you’re carrying a boy, there are higher levels of testosterone in your body,” she said. This explanation struck me as so clearly unsound that I researched it, and soon confirmed it as unscientific and misogynistic dreck. My friend is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Harvard. If such a dubious theory had been able to slip past her usually rock-solid bullshit detector, how much was slipping past the less thoughtful among us?
Surely this was just the beginning of what Jules would hear as a male in our society, the same kind of comments that likely helped make his father wildly overconfident – as in so confident he once decided to man the grill at an off-duty barbecue for Michelin-starred chefs. It can be an attractive, albeit confounding, personality trait. And while I am thankful that the only thing my son is currently internalizing is breastmilk, it’ll be just a matter of time before he starts picking up on his gender’s elevated stature.
When I broached the topic with friends who had older girls and younger boys, I heard variations on a theme: even at an age when a baby’s gender is about as visible as his pinky toe, and even in an age when #metoo and similar movements have put misogyny in the spotlight, each had witnessed a very real preference for their sons.
“My father-in-law only ‘likes’ the photos on our shared family stream that feature our boy,” one told me. “The language we use – he’s the heir, he’s carrying on the family name – these images of masculinity from when they’re so tiny, it’s really frightening.”
“We also got a big penis comment on day one,” emailed another, who noted the vast number of people who complimented her husband on finally “getting his son.”
But I also found a glimmer of hope in our older girl/younger boy triad.
One night before bedtime, my two-year-old, Charlotte, paused to “bap” her little brother – her version of burp, which involves a perfunctory wallop somewhere in the vicinity of his back, more often than not his ear – before asking that we “build a castle for Baby Jules.”
As I watched my daughters’ multicolored Magna-Tile structure rise higher and higher around their brother, I wondered if this was the key to raising a good son: having him literally surrounded by castles built by his two, strong, wiser and older sisters – even if he did occasionally get a tile to the face.
And when I spoke to Dr Susan M McHale – a professor of human development and family studies at Penn State University, who researches sibling dynamics – she allowed as much. Girls, she told me, tend to be more relationally oriented.
“To the extent to which girls are ‘better behaved,’ their younger siblings are going to see that as a model and want to copy,” she said. Conversely, some studies have found that brother-brother dyads lead to an increase in risk-taking behavior for the younger boy, perhaps because the older one serves as a gateway into spending time with older peers and delinquent behaviors. McHale is a firm believer that sibling relationships are unique and extremely important, even though they are the least studied. “The amount of literature is much smaller about siblings even though it’s the most lasting relationship in people’s lives,” she said.
A lot of how things work out depend, she cautioned, on the parents: if they favor one child over another, or have higher or lower expectations. Learning how to praise each child’s strengths goes a long way towards equity. But when I told McHale that I harbored hope that Jules was, by chance alone, in a prime position to end up with a well-adjusted outlook on gender roles, she offered up a highly unscientific example.
“My own brother had three sisters, and he’s a fabulous husband and father,” she said. “His sisters take all the credit.”