The world is my daughter’s oyster. It’s different for her brothers
Jen Hogan: The world of equality appears biased if boys want to take ballet classes
Jen Hogan with her daughter Chloe and sons, from left, Adam, Noah, Zach, Tobey, Luke and Jamie, in their home in Co Dublin. Photograph: Cyril Byrne / THE IRISH TIMES
The world of boys was pretty alien to me until my second child, my first son, was born. Hailing from a house of girls, friends’ stories of extremely irritating and smelly brothers who couldn’t pee inside the toilet bowl if their lives depended on it, was as close as I got to having any sense of understanding the “challenges” of growing up in a house with the male of the species.
I’m still not quite sure if this was a hindrance or a help.
Ignorance is bliss apparently – six sons later I’m certainly no longer ignorant. It turns out the toilet bowl claim was true and entering the bathroom slipper-less inevitably results in wet feet or soggy socks. So far though, my boys smell quite nice most of the time, particularly my five-year-old who has a penchant for his father’s Lynx and his sister’s lime shower gel.
They’re a noisy bunch who hold varying views about the importance of underwear. They look alike, are very close and if farts and burps could be converted to a renewable energy source then Hogan Power could potentially corner an area of the world’s commodities market.
But that’s where conforming to type largely ends.
Like their sister, as toddlers and small boys, they loved every type of toy – from train sets to toy kitchens. One had a hoover he loved more than life itself though, unfortunately, also like his sister, his love of chores had long since disappeared by the time he was old enough to operate a real one. And though the great philosopher that is Piers Morgan might not approve, the youngest still loves to push his buggy with a teddy, whose nappy, incidentally, he’s a whizz at changing, unaware of his imminent emasculation.
Boys will be boys it’s alleged, and in our case that means they’ll be rambunctious, loud, careless, physical, sport-loving, gentle, sensitive, destructive, loving, deep-thinking, sport-hating, confident, shy, artistic, rough, thoughtful, focused and kind – with insatiable appetites.
Outside the confines and safety of home, however, and into the wilderness of society and school life, expectations of boys haven’t veered much from the stereotype. As my daughter considers what she might do after her Leaving Cert, she knows the world is her oyster. There is nothing she believes she can’t do and there is nothing her brothers believe she can’t do either. Because, quite rightly, they all assume that girls can do anything boys can do, though Yorkies may be one area of conflict.
For lads, things seem different.
Boys should like sport, boys shouldn’t cry, boys need to “overcome sensitivity”, boys should be strong in every sense of the word, and boys shouldn’t like pink beyond a certain age. And, somehow, even though we’ve got to a stage where girls taking part in what are considered more traditionally boys or male activities is championed, the reverse is scenario non grata for some parents.
“No way would I allow my son to do ballet” came the response of a young mum to whom I posed the hypothetical question. She had a daughter who played football and attended ballet lessons and a son who played football also. “And no way would you either,” she said dismissing my claim to the contrary. “Think of the slagging.”
A school dad said: “I think you’re using an extreme to make a point”, when asked the same hypothetical question and I pointed out the disparity between what he considered acceptable for his daughter versus his son. I laughed, never having thought dance could be so controversial.
As any parent of more than one child knows, the same ingredients don’t necessarily produce the same result, and my boys have proven to be as similar and as different from each other as they are from their sister. It’s an aspect of parenthood I’ve enjoyed but one that causes me to worry for some more than others.
The pressure to conform to how boys “should be” intensifies with age and the world can be a ruthless place for the sensitive and the vulnerable – particularly when they’re not readily accepted traits for your gender.
With a sixth-year student in the house, recent dinner conversations have centred on what everyone might be when they grow up. The one closest to being grown up has little idea what she wants to do yet. Some of her siblings have clearer notions – it seems we have a budding author and actor, train driver, international football superstar and teacher potentially in our midst. But most certain of his impending role in the world is the Lynx and lime-smelling five year old – “I’m going to be The Hulk” he announced to his very accepting-of-the-possibility audience.
Maybe not in keeping with his plans some weeks earlier to be Wonder Woman (“so I can be strong like you Mum”, he added), but probably a plan that society would deem more suitable.