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A woman laughed as she recalled her son's birth to a group of mothers gathered to talk about their adolescent sons. "Congratulations," her mother had phoned. "You're a member of the club." "The club?" the new mother asked. "Yes," her mother chortled, "the Mothers of Sons Club."
"All my life," this woman continued, "my mother would sigh, 'Ah, mothers of sons.' She knew they had a special relationship. My father's mother adored him, worshipped the ground he walked on. My mother always commented on that." The woman telling this story has a sister, no brothers, and never quite understood her mother's apparent feeling of exclusion from "the Club."
But now as she looks at this young man who is her son, she thinks about her mother's comment. What were her own feelings when he was born? Are they influencing her effectiveness in parenting him now during his adolescence?
Each mother responds uniquely to her newborn, and emotions vary with each woman and each birth. Some women do not experience a "special" response at the birth of a son and may favor a daughter who will remain close to her the "rest of her life." She may be more comfortable with women and puzzled by how she should act with a male child. Or she may want a son, to replace a beloved father, to please her husband, or to balance the family.
Some cultures still favor sons over daughters for reasons of tradition. A news story recently reminded us that baby daughters "disappear" in China. A woman from India told me, "To have a firstborn son is definitely the done thing. I figured he would be a boy, but I wanteda girl desperately, everything was pink. My parents were very happy, rejoicing that it was a boy."
A pregnant woman may hear many theories about the advantages of one sex over the other, with some people declaring that boys are easier to raise than girls and others claiming the reverse. Hopefully, a new mother will ignore her relatives' and friends' predictions and trust her own experiences and instincts.
The mothers I interviewed who preferred one sex over, the other usually cited personal reasons. "I have worked so hard to get where I am, I want to show my daughter how much I have worked and what I have attained," responded one woman hoping for a daughter.
Stating the opposite view, another woman said, "I didn't want to have a daughter because I had such a lousy relationship with my mother." She smiled, adding, "Besides, I always loved boys."
A desire to please her husband may also motivate a mother. "So many women who come into the office want to give their husbands a son," commented a nurse in an obstetrician's office. They're disappointed when it's a girl."
Still others just want to experience the opposite sex. "I would have been disappointed if I didn't have sons," one mother reflected. "I had only one sister and she wanted to do her hair and worried about her clothes. I desperately wanted a brother to go out and climb trees with and do all the things that boys do that I thought were fun and I didn't have any access to. That was part of my life I missed."
Speaking to the desires of most mothers, one woman said gratefully, "I had hoped to have children of both sexes and fortunately we did."
For the majority of mothers, the thrill of holding a healthy baby is all that matters. The anxiety and fear about labor are over and the baby can be loved as a real person. But as much as a baby is enjoyed as a baby, mothers and fathers take care of their sons and daughters in distinct ways and, according to psychoanalyst Christiane Olivier, the gender of the child is never a matter of indifference to a family.
A baby daughter, Olivier contends, is desired not because she is a girl, but for the qualities she will bring to the family her sweetness, her lovableness, her goodness. She will be her mother's companion. A boy, however, is desired for his own sake. He is a boy, a completion of his mother, her pride and joy.
"For it is in her son," Olivier writes, "that the mother has her only chance of seeing herself in male form. This child that has come out of her belongs to the other sex, and so the woman gets the chance of believing in that ancient dream that all humans have: bisexuality....Just watch how proudly she carries this son who has come along to complete her in a way that no one else can."
Mothers may disagree with Olivier's assessment of the importanceof gender or her belief that humans desire qualities of both sexes, but her observation that mothers and fathers "gaze" at sons and daughters differently is reflected by many mothers whom I interviewed.
One woman felt a sense of accomplishment when after two daughters, a son was born. "We did it," she exclaimed to her husband. Another who had twin sons announced with pride and a touch of superiority to an acquaintance, the mother of two daughters, "I hit the jackpot."
In many a mother's eyes, no one will be as wonderful as her son. She radiates as she talks about him, expecting that he will fulfill her dreams of the perfect man. A mother told me, "You look at him to your husband and think, Well, he isn't exactly what I want him to be. So you look at your son and think, Maybe I can make him into what I really want a man to be." Then she laughed and said, "Then all of a sudden you have these teenage sons and they aren't what you expected and everyone has to adjust."