“supposed to be,” and the major sources of anxiety she wants to address while it’s happening.
The correct thing to feel upon learning the sex of your unborn baby is likely indifference. Why waste your energy wondering and worrying over an increasingly irrelevant aspect of identity? Sex isn’t gender, after all. You know this, feel astonished and offended by onesies that are arbitrarily gendered: “Here comes trouble!” for boys and “Daddy’s little angel” for girls. Babies don’t give a fuck about cruel societal constructs and aren’t interested in obedience. Babies care about being fed, about shitting their pants, and sleeping, and then shitting some more. Babies can’t even see color for the first five months of their lives, so why would they care what’s pink or blue?
“Be ready for him to wake up hungry. Boys eat more than you can imagine, even as babies.” —Mother to Son: Wisdom from the Heart, page 9
In Iowa, a pipe bomb is detonated and instantly kills a fifty-six-year-old woman. The pipe bomb was full of colored powder as part of an elaborate, supposedly celebratory, gender-reveal party. One death should have been enough to kill the practice entirely, but in Texas, a small plane crashes while releasing dyed pink water. The pilot only has minor injuries, but still. In Arizona, a wildfire is started by blue-colored explosive. You see videos of alligators biting open watermelons filled with dyed fruit. Or is it Jell-O? You don’t care. People are willing to court death in order to celebrate the penises and vaginas their penises and vaginas have made. The fact that this new tradition already boasts a body count is, you think, all too apt.
“Accept the fact that boys and girls are different.” —Mother to Son, page 16
So when you get the results of a routine blood scan that tells you the baby you’re carrying has XY chromosomes, why do you cry? Partly, you tell yourself, this is because even if it is all stupid and subject to change and superstitious, it is the first piece of information you receive that identifies the baby as an individual. This is a nice feeling, maybe one of the first times it feels like you’re in the business of making a human being. It’s felt—thanks to IVF and its various related medical procedures—more like a science experiment up to this point.
But that’s not all, is it? You always assumed that you were expecting a girl. You have a sister, three step-sisters, and almost an entirely female and enby group of friends. There is always the chance, of course, that this baby is trans or non-binary or bi-gender or will somehow eschew cis-male assignment. But if he doesn’t?
“Remember, he’s a boy. He thinks differently than you. Before you decide he’s the weirdest person on the planet, check with his dad.” —Mother to Son, page 311
You read Ronan Farrow’s Catch and Kill, and are surprised by how not surprised you are by his horrific findings. Nothing about the institutionalized protection of predators is shocking to you, even if you were unaware of their particular machinations. You’ve seen it on a smaller scale for your whole life. The way guys rallied around that one friend, the one who always waited for girls to get violently drunk before making a move. The way your father raised his eyebrows when, years later, you tell him about that same guy. He doesn’t say, out loud, that he doesn’t believe you. Privilege seems to instinctively protect itself, this you know. Even the cis-men who believe themselves allies seem incapable of seeing the benefits they live with daily that are reflexively bolstered by other cis-men.
“Right around the age of three, he will heroically start to think he is your protector. This never goes away.” —Mother to Son, page 55
At the beginning of your second trimester, they take an ultrasound, and print out pictures from it for the small fee of five dollars: a keepsake. If it feels weird to get charged for souvenirs at a medical institution as if you’re at Disneyland hurtling down Splash Mountain, you don’t say anything. The nurse takes four photos. Two of the profile, your baby’s nose just visible on a giant head. Then she moves the scope around, and takes a picture of your baby’s perineum. His penis and testicles as seen from below illuminate the screen, which is projected onto the wall of the dim room. She uses the computer to place an arrow pointing directly at his genitals and types “It’s a boy!!!!!” with an excess of exclamation points. You can’t remember exactly how many, but it was more than four.
“Oh,” you say. “His junk.” She does not think this is funny. She prints out your photos and when you get home you cut the strip in half so that only the two of his face remain. The last photo of his ribcage is sacrificed along with the picture of his taint, which you toss in the trash, then feel guilty for tossing in the trash. But it feels too weird to have his first dick pic be taken without his consent and also on your refrigerator.
You read recently in a story (fiction, but upsettingly realistic) that trace amounts of DNA from every one of the mother’s previous lovers’ sperm presents in the baby. This horrified you more than the story itself, and you can’t bring yourself to look up whether or not it’s true. It’s probably not, you tell yourself, it’s not. It smacks of the kind of propaganda used to punish women for any kind of sexual appetite. It’s also exactly the kind of factoid that keeps you up late at night, your eyes open against a glowing phone at three, then four, then five in the morning as you try to distract yourself from the nightmare of your youthful sexual choices coming to bear in your unborn child.
It feels too weird to have his first dick pic be taken without his consent and also on your refrigerator.
“Remember, boys show affection for girls by teasing them, wrestling with them, and generally annoying them. Girls somehow get the message anyway.”—Mother to Son, page 273
You had a boyfriend—who you were madly in love with and who also quietly refused to use condoms—accuse you of getting pregnant by someone else when you needed an abortion, and subsequently would only cum when he used your face like a fleshlight. Sputtering and watery-eyed, you would swallow his pleasure and pretend at your own. If you touched your clitoris during sex, he would stop, offended. As if his dick should have been enough, and that by showing otherwise you were being not only rude, but selfish. He had a knack for rendering your desires tacky.
There was the boyfriend whose mother you were unusually close to, and when you suspected he was cheating on you, she ferreted this information out. She’s not manipulative, just smart. She was sure her husband cheated on her, too, but that ended okay anyway, she assures you. He came back. She was not excusing her son, so much as begging you to stay. You were her only window into his life by that point. For reasons you never understood, he had shut down against her entirely. Without you, how would she ever know him? You left anyway.
“Don’t be surprised when the girl he introduces as his future wife is uncannily similar to you.” —Mother to Son, page 282
There was that guy you had sex with at odd intervals over many years, your history long and full of crimes committed in both directions. You broke his heart a few times; he broke yours once. On one of your reunion hook-ups you didn’t want penetrative sex. He made all indication that this would be ignored, positioning his body and his hard-on such that your refusal was moot, until you begged “please don’t please don’t please don’t” at a whisper so repetitively and desperately into his ear that finally he conceded with a pout.
Not to mention the boyfriend who would drink himself pathetic and terrifying, using his giant body to block exits and then cry at you about how you didn’t love him. And maybe you didn’t. You didn’t respect him, even if on sporadic Friday and Saturday nights you feared him. Maybe on some level he knew that fear was the closest thing to respect that he could earn from you.
“Inevitably, a girl will break his heart.” —Mother to Son, page 278
The thing is, you don’t even regret these men. They were, by and large, woefully wrong for you, but not terrible in the spectrum of straight cis-men. But even abandoning the horrible idea that their sperm has somehow wormed its way into your baby, making some minute changes to his person, this baby will still grow up in a world where these men are normal. Good, even. At least two of them are married now, and maybe their wives are planning gender-reveal parties of their own. You hope there are no explosives.
“Don’t forget that God has given you an awesome responsibility: raising a son in today’s world.” —Mother to Son, page 194
An Amazon package is addressed to you and your husband. Inside, there’s no note, no gift receipt, no evidence of any kind—just a copy of the book Mother To Son: Wisdom from the Heart by Melissa Harrison and Harry H. Harrison Jr. Each page inside is a single aphorism of parenting advice for mothers of boys. You scan through it with horror. It contains not only multiple entreaties for prayer, but also some of the worst ideas about what a man can be, framed as loving guidance.
This seems to serve as the perfect metaphor for all of this, all too apt: a framing for what boyhood means, delivered by an amoral megacorporation from an unknown but well-meaning sender. Someone who cares enough to track down your address, but not enough to know that you and your husband would never use any of this advice. Even if these pages will never reach your son—you hold on to the book just long enough to write this essay—the sentiments within them will. Through neighbors and teachers, other kids’ parents, TV. You cannot inoculate your son against these pervasive ideas; there’s no vaccine for sexism, nor toxic masculinity.
This seems to serve as the perfect metaphor for all of this: a framing for what boyhood means, delivered by an amoral megacorporation.
You’ll try, of course. Both you and your husband are committed to talking to him about these things as often as he’s willing, to try to guide him away from thinking his sex is his destiny. But Mother To Son will still be out there, and the “wisdom” it holds will still be shared by many in his life, as unavoidable and imposing as death. You cannot shield him from the enormous influence gender will have on the way he is perceived and treated any more than you can shield him from mortality. You are not helpless, but you are hamstrung.
You flip through Mother to Son, hoping to find even one page of good advice, one true and good thing you agree can agree with—because surely there must be common ground somewhere. Surely, there is something universal. And there it is, on the very last page.
Maggie Tokuda-Hall has an MFA in creative writing from USF, and a strong cake-decorating game. She is the author of the 2017 Parent's Choice Gold Medal winning picture book, Also an Octopus, illustrated by Benji Davies. The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea is her debut novel, which is due out on May 5th, 2020. She lives in Oakland, California with her husband and dog. Her dog is objectively perfect, thank you for asking.