When we give special consideration to our children’s emotional health are we taking care of girls, but coddling our boys?
I was 35 years old when I gave birth to my only child, a son. My decision to wait until I was older was a conscious one. Having endured significant abuse in my childhood, I wanted to make sure I had worked through my issues. The last thing I wanted to do was perpetuate the cycle of abuse, as had happened in the generations before me in my family.
I wanted children who were physically and emotionally healthy. Regardless of their gender, I was determined to teach them how to be compassionate, self-confident people, capable of talking about and expressing their feelings in healthy ways. Would I have had different goals if my childhood hadn’t been traumatic? Perhaps. But wanting my children to have both a high I.Q and E.Q. couldn’t possibly be a bad thing. Could it?
My son was mauled by a dog when he was seven months old, sustaining serious injuries to his head and face. Cradling him against my chest after he came out of emergency reconstructive surgery I barely remember the doctor telling me to expect that he would experience developmental delays. He would be spending a lot of time recovering over the next year, the surgeon explained, rather than exploring his environment, learning language and mastering motor skills. It was a horrible thing to hear, but I felt we could cope. When he showed immediate signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder I thought I could also deal well with that. After all, I had been coping with PTSD for decades.
No one ever complained about the way I handled my son’s developmental delays. He went to a therapeutic pre-school program, receiving Speech and Occupational Therapy. Had I not sought those services and performed the in-home exercises the specialists required, I think most people would have thought me negligent. But when I was also diligent about attending to his emotional and mental health needs I received a whole different type of feedback. Suddenly my behavior was seen as “coddling him” rather than helping him.
For years after the mauling, despite counseling and special education assistance, my son remained terrified of strangers and unfamiliar situations. He did not even tolerate most family members caring for him without my presence. He only wanted me. After my divorce from my son’s father, I made the decision to not take full time work outside of our home so that my boy did not have to struggle to cope with day care. I was a single mother, and choosing not to work full time outside our home left us living below poverty level. But I felt it was worth it as I believed my son was best served by being with me at home, where he felt safe.
At the time, and even years later, I received significant negative feedback about my decision to stay home with my son. People said it wasn’t fair of me to reduce his standard of living as much as I did. Yes, we were affluent when I was married to his father. Now, we rarely had the money for a trip to a fast food restaurant, let alone live in an amenity-filled home like the one we left behind. I could cope with those negative comments. I had enough confidence in my decision to trade financial position for my son’s emotional well-being to deflect that criticism.
What did sting, though, were the comments that keeping my son out of daycare was coddling and sheltering him. I was told I was being overprotective, and doing him a disservice. Forcing him to face his fears by putting him in situations where he felt insecure was, in many people’s opinion, by far the better choice. As long as he was physically safe and staff genuinely cared for my boy, then I needed to take him to daycare and leave him to work through his fears on his own.
People felt I was failing my son by not teaching him to be emotionally tough. When he was older, they swore, he needed to be able to stoically handle everything life would throw at him. That was, in their opinion, a mark of manhood.
Was I emasculating my son by not enrolling him in daycare 50 hours a week? One friend insisted I enroll my son in karate classes to toughen him up and teach him how to defend himself, as if my keeping him home from daycare would set my son up for a lifetime of being bullied. My son didn’t want to take a martial arts class. I decided not to force him to do so. My friend still insists I will come to regret that decision sometime in the future.
There were nights that my choice to keep my son out of daycare kept me awake, worrying that I was indeed harming, rather than helping, my son. Was I preventing him from developing into a fully emotionally equipped man by refusing to put him in a situation that would cause him to confront his fears in huge ways? Was I robbing him of an important life skill rather than helping him heal?
Now, more than a decade away from the dog mauling, my son does not meet the definition of being a “man’s man”. He isn’t an avid sports fan, doesn’t play team sports, and will eagerly catch a fish but doesn’t have the heart to kill it. I don’t think he can name five professional football players, unless you let him Google the answer. Would he better fit the definition of masculinity if I had put him in daycare, or are his current preferences those he was destined to develop because of innate hard wiring?
I cannot answer that question. What I can say is that my son is a kind, compassionate young man who goes out of his way to reach out to society’s outliers. I listen to him play video games and I watch him interact with his peers at school activities. If someone is alone or looks left out he invites them into an activity or conversation. He may never be the life of the party or the high school athlete with letters in multiple sports. But he will be the one who perpetually circles the edge of the crowd, making sure no one feels like they are alone or unwelcome. Is that a masculine attribute? I’m not sure, but I’m fiercely proud that he has it.
Would people have been so critical if my son were, instead, a daughter? Would my decision have been suitable in the eyes of my critics? Do we consider focusing on the emotional well-being of a girl to be a good thing, but dysfunctional for a boy? In my experience, yes, society does value emotional fluency in girls while devaluing it with boys.
But even if that’s true, should that guide my decisions about how to raise my son? Obviously, I chose not to allow that to happen. Have I paid a price for that? Yes. But that’s fine with me. I’ve paid higher prices for other things in my life. The person I don’t want to pay a price for my decision is my son. As parents we never want our children to suffer negative consequences for things that we do. But knowing all the right choices and making all the right moves is not easy. As people often say, there is no parenting handbook.
It’s good to know societal expectations. But each parent-child circumstance is uniquely individual. No one knows the people or situation better than the parent involved. As a culture we can set generalized standards. But the individual decision whether to follow those standards, or what we feel is best for our child, is up to each of us. Sometimes we get it right and sometimes, despite our best intentions, we get it wrong. I hope this is one of those times that I got it right. Not for my sake, but for my son’s.
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