My son was born seven months before Donald Trump was elected president. Though he’s only two and a half now, it feels a lifetime ago. A geologic age.
Consider that when first I peed on the stick that returned a vivid positive, Barack Obama—a respectable, dignified, intelligent black man—was president of the United States; the Antonin Scalia vacancy was the sole scandal roiling the Supreme Court; and Prince was alive (though not long for this Earth). Equality and tolerance were in vogue, and our first lady was someone you wanted to be, not someone that hashtags have sought to free. To be educated and healthfully nourished and self-deprecating and generous of spirit and humble was admirable, and members of the media were treated with respect.
And I, well, I was knocked up. Yes, it was a glorious age of innocence and possibility, and yet even then, even in the midst of the progressive-bending Obama era, the thought of raising a boy—a white male in America—gave me pause.
Okay, okay. It freaked me out.
The panic began the very second I found out I was having a boy. I’ve only ever been a girl, after all; what was I to do with a boy? Word of the Y chromosome spread quickly though, and before the sun set on the news of the penis, someone asked me if I would be decorating the nursery with a sports theme. Balls, you see.
And then, dear reader, I lost my shit.
My husband was traveling for work; I called him to let fly a panicked diatribe that began with, “Just because he’s a boy he has to be a jock? What about reading and music and art and cooking? What if he wants to be an accountant, would that be manly enough?” and ended with, “Does he have to be a bully and rapist too?”
When boys are made to understand that there’s only one way to be… why should it be a surprise that our culture teems with aggression and violence?
Today, my husband and I play that incident for laughs—he had been in United’s queue to board the flight home when he whispered into the phone, “I don’t want him to be a rapist either,” as the other weary travelers raised eyebrows and leaned in to hear more, texting whoever one texts at 5 a.m. to share the scandalous whispers of the tall dude in the Premier Plus line.
I admit I was a touch hysterical during this exchange. (Pregnancy did indeed take me for a ride; prior to dialing, I organized the spice drawer. Twice. Once by genre, then alphabetically. You may wish to know that coriander and cumin are forever joined, no matter the organizing principle.)
But, then again, perhaps that hormonal deluge merely left me uniquely clear-eyed. Innocent intentions of the nursery-décor-curious aside, aren’t such limited, limiting assumptions where toxic masculinity begins?
Seriously though: When boys are made to understand that there’s only one way to be, of course they’ll be desperate to prove that yes, they are “that way” and shunt everything else to the side. When they feel that, in order to be accepted, loved, and valued, they must demonstrate that they are masculine enough, why should it be a surprise that our culture teems with aggression and violence, sexual and non?
My mama bear was out, and she was pissed. No one was going to saddle my precious little zygote with their stupid retro assumptions if I had anything to do with it. This was 2016! This was America! My child would be whoever my child was meant to be, and by god, I would do everything in my power to let this child discover and become that person. Pronouns aside: If he wants to wear princess dresses, he will be given every friggin’ princess dress I can get my hands on, full stop.
Fast forward to Election Day. I pushed my darling, precious, drooling baby boy to the Unitarian church up the street to cast my vote for Hillary Clinton. I was never particularly passionate about her, but I supported her, wanted her to win, drank the inevitability Kool-Aid. I remember getting a little weepy even as I waited to cross the street. “Wow,” I thought, “my baby boy is joining his mother as she casts her vote for the very first woman president of the United States.” The scene took on a sepia hue before my eyes, history in the making. Some nice guys helped me hoist the stroller up the steps. The kid and I each got an “I voted” sticker; we left them on all day. It was all terrifically lovely.
That night, child down, my husband and I ate takeout barbecue while watching the returns. I was so confident that I had texted him while he was at the restaurant to tell him to grab a piece of cake too. Because what is a celebration without cake?
Things turned dark so fast, the frosting was no longer celebratory; we hate-ate it like one might an entire package of Double Stuf Oreos under cover of a darkened pantry. I found fitful sleep on the couch for a couple of hours then woke to my son’s cries. He was hungry. I picked him up and nursed him as I watched Trump take the stage in a fugue of victory. It was like something out of The Hunger Games. I sobbed. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” I wailed, as my tears spattered my poor kid’s still-bald head.
Once, it may have been impolitic to acknowledge one’s feelings of bigotry and misogyny, but in Trumplandia, hatred is a feature, not a bug.
The next day felt like 9/11. Everyone was in a daze. The only consolation was hollow: Don’t worry. It won’t be that bad. He’ll surround himself with people who know what they’re doing.
We all know how that turned out.
My baby matured as Trump’s presidency… aged. When I look back on this chapter of my life, I shall title it “Tantrums.”
In the case of my kid, melting down is healthy and developmentally appropriate. He’s supposed to lose his shit five million times a day. Even still, I’ve heard people say to him, “Only girls whine like that.” While the whining of a toddler is admittedly annoying (whine, meet wine), what exactly is a comment like this intended to achieve other than to drop dual devil lessons that not only is behavior gendered but that which is categorized as female is lesser? (And that if you, young man, act in a way that strays from the traditional, you can expect to be shamed right back into line.)
Such messages are everywhere, and the cumulative effect is one of dehumanization. The cumulative effect is Trump. Weinstein. Kavanaugh.
Women would have to be viewed as less than human, I’d think, for a man to find any kind of enjoyment in forcing a woman to—oh, I don’t know—have sex against her will. Or for a boy to hold down a screaming girl while groping her to the hoots of a male audience.
Watching the news, what are our sons to learn other than that they can expect to get away with it, no matter what it is? The rich, entitled, white, old men in power will do anything to maintain their power, up to and including deferring to the bully with the largest pulpit or siding with the effectively groomed yet credibly accused bro—who they know will be on their team while ruling on such issues as, say, health care and reproductive rights—as opposed to the believable if soft-spoken accuser. The woman who held herself together while reliving the greatest trauma of her life on the biggest stage imaginable while man after man took the opportunity to indulge in temper tantrums. (I have a toddler in my house. I know temper tantrums. I’m looking at you, Lindsay Graham. You too, Brett Kavanaugh.)
Their behavior is meaningful: Part of living in a patriarchy is living with paternalism—that is, we’re taught to look up to those who hold positions of authority, to hold them as examples. For brevity’s sake, let’s forget the crusty old crackers in Congress, the entitled frat boys of the mother-loving Supreme Court, and the manna-fattened captains of industry. Let’s consider only the White House, in which we find a liar, a cheat, a fraud, a bigot, a bully, and an assailant who was captured on tape bragging about committing assault.
When you’re famous, they’ll let you do whatever you want.
He’s an entitled man who is toxic masculinity personified and uses his platform to make clear (in an incoherent sort of way) what he really thinks about women, minorities, immigrants, the poor, and the other. And it gets votes. Once, it may have been impolitic to acknowledge one’s feelings of bigotry and misogyny, but in Trumplandia, hatred is a feature, not a bug.
We’re furious because we’re attempting to raise boys — boys who can resist the insidious scourge of reductionist, poisoned masculinity.
If he is a lesson, it’s that power is king, that those with it are forever hungry for more, always hunting in the break, and that those without it are chum in the water. He is unmoved in the face of attempted bombings targeting the media and his political opponents, monotone in his soulless recitation of sympathies after an event of terrorism directed at a house of worship, accusatory in the face of tragedy. It’s transparent in his cheap hypocrisy (email@example.com much?) and defense of statesmen who order dissidents to be murdered.
Every day that goes by, the most insidious danger digs its claws in deeper. With every day that passes, this absurdity becomes normalized just a little bit more.
Fortunately, the last election saw a modicum of decency restored. And I think the lurches we saw toward the middle and the left had a lot to do with parents who, like me, are furious. (Anger, of course, is generally frowned upon when coming from a woman. Unless that woman is a mother. All hail the mama bear trope.)
Maybe we’re furious because we’re fighting to raise children in a country in which, thanks to the National Rifle Association’s influence and the spinelessness of those in charge, the rights of gun owners precede the rights of people to be safe at school, concerts, the mall, the movies, a bar, or church.
Maybe we’re furious because we’re fighting to raise girls who are confident and empowered yet simultaneously armed with the knowledge that, in many ways, the world-as-it-is views them as prey, and thus, we are left to send them into the world on defense.
Or maybe we’re furious because we’re attempting to raise boys who can resist the insidious scourge of reductionist, poisoned masculinity and who are somehow healthy enough to allow full expression of themselves and not simply the stuff that can be shoehorned into the cramped corner of traditionally, societally approved masculinity and therefore, maybe, god-willing, who will embody an organic respect for women because they recognize that women are complete people too and not simply because they’ve been told that ladies are delicate flowers. Boys who don’t worry that their supply of love will be cut off if they decide to grow their hair long or wear pink. Boys who won’t ostracize others for doing that too.
Boys who might even be human enough to acknowledge their privilege and use that privilege to stand up for those who lack it.