What scares Hugo Schwyzer the most about raising his newborn son is that one day he might repeat the terrible gendered mistakes of his father.
“It’s a boy!” cried the doula, as our infant son slid out of my wife’s body. David Aneurin Nikola Schwyzer, our second child, was born earlier this month—and until that moment he slipped into the world, his mother and I had no idea that he was indeed a he. As we’d done when Eira was pregnant with Heloise, David’s older sister, we chose not to find out the sex until birth, allowing ourselves to be surprised. In each case, for me the real surprise wasn’t the revelation of the biological sex—but the intensity of the love and devotion I felt so instantly and so overpoweringly for these tiny, beautiful, new persons.
Here’s a truth: I’m more scared to raise a son than a daughter. Before Heloise was born, I’d had a gut feeling my first child would be a girl. I didn’t bribe the ultrasound technician to give me the scoop when my wife was out of the room; I just had an instinct so strong about her sex that when she was born it seemed the fulfillment of something entirely preordained. I wasn’t the only one who “expected” that I’d have a daughter first. Much of my best-known writing revolves around women, body image, sexuality, and perfectionism; “it makes sense that you’d have a girl” was a sentiment I heard from many friends and readers in their congratulatory notes. It certainly made sense to me.
One men’s rights activist with whom I’d long sparred online commented that he was relieved that Heloise hadn’t turned out to be a boy. “If you ever had a son, you’d fuck him up,” the MRA wrote; “you’d poison him into believing that his only purpose in life is to serve women.” I laughed that off, but noted quietly to myself that for different reasons, I shared the MRA’s relief. I was enchanted by my daughter and thrilled to have her for her own sake, of that I had no doubt. But I also recognized, to my own embarrassment, that I felt as if I’d been let off the hook.
Children need healthy role models of both (perhaps it would be more accurate to say “all”) sexes. That doesn’t mean that a single parent (or parents of the same sex) can’t do every bit as good a job raising kids as can a mother and father working in tandem. Most gay or lesbian parents make conscious efforts to ensure that their children are surrounded by loving male and female adults. At the same time, role models of the same sex demonstrate to children what it’s like to live responsibly in male or female bodies; they can show how to navigate through the storm of gendered messaging, which is an inescapable part of growing up.
When it comes to same-sex role models, I had no doubt that my wife would be a splendid mother to a daughter. Though I’d like to think I’m keenly aware of the challenges young women face today, and though I’m under no illusion that daughters are any easier to raise than sons, I also had little worry about being a good dad to a girl. (I’ve written before about the pitfalls good fathers should avoid with their girls.) At three and a half, Heloise is captivating, exasperating, and has an endless capacity to astonish me. But even in my astonishment, I don’t feel overwhelmed. My friends with teenage daughters assure me I’ll change my tune in a decade, and they may be right—years and years of teaching and working with adolescents only get you so far with your own kids. They may be right.
In the fortnight since my precious David was born, it’s struck me how gendered my fears for my children are. I worry about both children getting sick, or being in pain, or being hungry, or cold. I worry about both of them being victimized by predators. I know enough to worry about both of them growing up around toxic messages of physical perfection (a particular problem where we live in West Los Angeles). But I realize that I’m not anxious about whether Heloise will grow up to be violent or predatory herself. I know girls can bully—but despite the claims of MRAs, the evidence is that girls are much less likely to rape, to hit, to abuse.
The truth is, I worry about both my children becoming victims. But it is only my son whom I worry might himself become a victimizer. That’s not based on “misandry” (the irrational hatred of men), nor on any special insight into my baby boy’s character. That fear is based on statistics about which sex commits most physical abuse and it’s based on an all-too-intimate familiarity with a culture that mythologizes and glamorizes masculine violence. I’ve spent years and years unlearning the destructive tropes with which I was raised, just as I’ve spent years and years making amends for the very real harm I did when I was young. It wasn’t until I was well into my 30s that I began to love and accept my own maleness.
To put it simply, at the base of all of my worries is the fear that sweet little David will grow up to repeat his father’s cruelest—and most gendered—mistakes.
Thankfully, we don’t parent in a vacuum. I’ve got friends who are great moms and dads to sons, and I’ve watched as they’ve worked (mostly successfully) to raise up guys who are kind, empathetic, self-confident, and emotionally articulate. They do this without pathologizing the stereotypically male boisterousness of their sons. And in turn, those sons have shown me, time and again, that healthy masculinity isn’t just a theory, but an authentic and imperfect practice that can be lived out in a host of different ways. Parents and sons alike will hold me accountable as I take on a task of which I’m afraid and for which I’ve longed: raising a little guy of my own.
When Heloise was born, I discovered fears I never knew existed. When David Aneurin slipped into our world, I found one new anxiety I hadn’t felt with his sister. But as my own parents told me would happen, when I became a daddy I found a wellspring of tenacity and love that I knew instantly was deep enough to drown any fear. It is that love that will help me raise this beautiful boy.
Hugo Schwyzer has taught history and gender studies at Pasadena City College since 1993, where he developed the college’s first courses on Men and Masculinity and Beauty and Body Image. A writer and speaker as well as a professor, Hugo lives with his wife, daughter, and six chinchillas in Los Angeles. Hugo blogs at his eponymous website and co-authored the recent autobiography of supermodel Carré Otis, Beauty, Disrupted. You can find him on Twitter at @hugoschwyzer.