The mother of boys can’t help but think, once in a while, of those female characters in children’s literature who find themselves in all-male households: Snow White, looming large over the irrepressible dwarfs, or Wendy Darling, placed in a freakishly early state of pseudo-motherhood. I was neither coerced onto my island of boys, nor did I somehow lose my bearings and wind up there by mistake. And yet somehow I have found myself wondering at times how I found myself in this faraway place in which I am the lone female.
I had always imagined I would have a daughter. In some way, my fantasies of being a mother were interchangeable with fantasies of being mother to a daughter. In those nebulous images, I saw myself with a child on my lap. And the child, upon closer inspection, was always a girl. She could often be found reading The Secret Garden, or Harriet the Spy. After all, I knew girls, having been one myself, and having grown up in something close to a matriarchy, with a strong, articulate mother, an intense older sister, and a father who was off at work a lot, thereby unable to offset the sense of overriding femaleness that filled and inflected the rooms of our small suburban house.
Boys were less known to me; as a child, I regarded them with fascination and envy, and often from a distance. A couple of the boys in my class did and said exactly what they wanted. One afternoon in the middle of math, a boy jumped up and ran outside onto the playground, which, back then, was not coated by federally-mandated sponge, but instead was hard and uneven and offered the promise of wildness, concussions, adventure. The teacher had to go pry this boy from the climbing apparatus. I remember being scandalized by the scene, which took place decades before plenty of male children were branded ADD or ADHD and given pills to quiet and harness them. Surely some of the behaviors I witnessed were chemically-caused and over the top; but still it struck me then that there was a certain astonishing freedom allotted to boys — or at least that boys somehow simply and effortlessly reached out and took that freedom for themselves, as if it was a glass of milk someone had poured for them.
When I gave birth to my first son, the shock of his gender quickly and naturally was eclipsed by love. But still I was preoccupied by the fact that there seemed to be a distinct female-child bias in American culture. The mothers of daughters banded together, doing their ballet-type activities to which boys and their mothers were not invited. They almost seemed Wiccan in their constant, purposeful, secretive grouping-together. The mothers of boys banded together in a slightly ragged, outcast, by-default way, chasing our charges around when necessary. “He never stays in one place!” some mother would say, exasperated but proud, or, “I tried to get him to play with a doll, but it’s trucks and cars all the way for him!” The exasperation was mostly meant to conceal the pride, which was more complex an emotion, and somehow slightly shameful. The pride we felt about our sons partly implied that we had been denied some of their freedom ourselves and now, many years later, we were going to reclaim it. At least, it implied it for me.
In the beginning, being a woman in a houseful of males is a novelty, a pleasure, a joy. You are the queen of all you survey. You are the literal life-giver, and your role is essential. As you and they get older, from a development standpoint the boys are briefly meant to become deeply attached to you. “Oh, I love your dress,” one of my sons once swooned when he was tiny and I had lurched into his room in the middle of the night in a crappy, mothy old nightgown in order to bring a requested glass of water. The man in the household sometimes colludes with the boys to make the woman feel special, central, different. He too becomes one of the besotted dwarfs. The activities that the males engage in together serve to highlight the female’s separateness and specialness. The man goes out with the boys on the various relevant holidays (birthdays, Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day) in order to bring home a cone of flowers. They beam, all of them, as they present it to her. She adores them, and they adore her.
I had imagined, in my narcissism, that the atmosphere would remain like this. Forever it would be them and me. Them with their baseball gloves, and me with my “dress.” But as they got older they became more discerning, and, of course, precipitously less interested. They had their own concerns. No longer were my sons’ milestones events that would automatically be shared with the whole family. They wanted me neither intruding upon their privacy nor making myself too present in my femaleness. It wasn’t exactly as if they were saying, “Hide yourself, woman!” but I understood that the fact of gender difference was not meant to play a central role here in the family, at least not anymore.
To lose the special role in the all-male household is a little bit like finding a lost chapter of “Snow White,” in which the heroine is banished from the house of dwarfs — summarily handed Bashful or Sleepy’s hobo stick and pickaxe and asked to take herself elsewhere. There’s a sadness in losing this centrality, in being far less overtly loved and needed. But children always banish their parents. Boys banish mothers, though perhaps sentimentally, with flickers of that early love-state still shining briefly, before dying away like memories of a fairy tale they haven’t been told for years.
©2009 Meg Wolitzer, author of The Ten Year Nap: A Novel
Meg Wolitzer is the author of seven previous novels, including The Position and The Wife. Her short fiction has appeared in The Best American Short Stories and The Pushcart Prize. She lives in New York City.