You can’t have my sons.

On some level, boys are a total mystery to me. Culture informs so much of who they are. Their exuberance can be read as aggression because it’s so often loud and physical, with lots of yelling and jumping and general wildness. None of these are exclusive domains of masculinity; girls and women act this way sometimes too.

But some things show up so early, I’ve wondered if boy-ness is airborne. A friend and I watched her son, next to mine on the floor, only a few months old each, reach over and pick up a neutral rectangular wooden block and make a distinctive “vroom” sound. We didn’t drive blocks or other items over them, vrooming and repeating the word “car.” He just did it.

My younger son wasn’t as heavily built as his older brother, but we called him Hulk from before he was six months old, because he would just mow down obstacles. By twelve months, he was Baby Zilla, as immortalized on his birthday cake, for having powered through three different kinds of baby gates. I mean, just laid his shoulder against them and pushed until they collapsed and he could walk over the wreckage. He outsmarted a number of them too, but brute force was intuitive.

I was most comfortable around boys in my youth. We liked Star Wars and D&D. I didn’t have to use my autistic coping skills to play the social scripts girls seemed to prefer. Even after my sexual assault and abusive relationship, the guys I knew in high school felt safe. All of these boys did silly, incomprehensible, rowdy things, like running around the school in their boxer shorts after a successful yearbook deadline and dragging a gymnastics springboard into a mosh pit at a school dance. And whether they thought of me as a girl when they included me in their bizarre male rituals, they included me in that solidarity.

I thought I’d add another generation to the phenomenally strong and smart matriarchal line in my family, defying the patriarchy that limited their options. And I’ll admit I’ve mourned the loss of what I expected to be and do. I hope I’m contributing to that heritage by how I hold other women and girls in the world around me, by having their back and fighting for their space to be heard. But I want to break the chain of toxic abusive masculinity in our society, and I see my role as mother of two sons as essential work. It wasn’t the work I’d expected, but it’s got to be important.

What I’m trying to get at is this: fuck anyone who tells my sons that violence and outrage are their only path to manhood. They deserve the reciprocity of compassion and consent with every person they meet in their lives. They deserve the freedom from obligation to stoic strength and furious screaming that seem to be the binary options toxic masculinity offers them. If you think you can twist them to see women as enemies and affection as weakness, you’ll have to come through me first.

Because my sons are as much a part of my feminist legacy as the women who’ve gone before me.