The Love of a Son
How often have I pondered the question about how a perfectionist “good girl” like me could have ended up with three spirited, independent-minded sons and no daughters? How often have I asked out loud—sometimes in sheer frustration, sometimes in absolute wonder—how I, of all people, ended up with three boys who rarely saw the importance of the attention to detail about the upkeep of the house, of their homework, of remembering that it was trash or recycling day, of how much time it would take to make out college applications and what the due dates were, and at 11:45 PM before midnight deadlines would be asking for some last-minute help with the required essay? Order and responsibility in my mind meant that one’s applications were completed and mailed without any help from parents at least three weeks ahead of schedule, that the thousands of Lego pieces strewn on the playroom floor got picked up by the end of the day despite the “neat” inventions lying on the floor among them, that one pees in the toilet, not on the walls or the floors (and, at the least, one should wipe up if one misses the toilet), that GI Joes were not to be burned on the kitchen stovetop in a metal tray in an experiment to see what happened to them. (Hint: they curl up in molten balls and release the worst fumes and smoke that you can imagine for a full hour), that lacrosse was an outside game and that ball marks on the ceiling from the kitchen to the living room were an impossible housekeeping task, that having one’s adolescent friends in T-shirts and flannel pants up for breakfast on late Saturday mornings scratching themselves sleepily in private places and then opening the refrigerator door and grabbing milk was not something I banked on when I became a parent. I would sometimes walk through my house after a particularly messy play date or a teenage-boy sleepover saying, “Why me, God? Let a messy, disorganized, patient, and freewheeling woman be the mother of only boys—not me—a semi-OCD, bright, neat, accomplished college dean and writing lecturer by day.” The sheer volume of noise, activity, and disorder was overwhelming at points, much as I loved my sons with all my heart.
Truthfully, somewhere not far from consciousness, I wanted my boys to be like me as a person, a student, as a child to my parents, as an organized, always-at-the ready, Type A girl. Why couldn’t they organize their homework and backpacks for school the way I did? Why couldn’t they get straight A’s in school like I did and still do housework before and after school? Why couldn’t they get their college applications done without their mother’s help? Why couldn’t they avoid the pitfalls of high school parties and study for three hours each night?
What I often failed to take into account in these moments of high frustration was that they were not me and would never be. Among the risks they took that I did not approve of were many good risks I wish, in retrospect, I had taken more of as a high school student: playing tough, competitive sports at a high level and accepting painful defeats as well as victories and learning to live with them; writing and performing and producing hip hop music for ten years instead of following a traditional path to college (I always dreamed of going off to Santa Fe and writing); going 2500 miles away to a big university in the West; doing tough, exhausting service in urban ghettos (all three of them) and in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina (one of them); remaining loyal and loving friends to guys so at risk that they sometimes scared me and their dad. The truth is I played it safe to be so good to the adults in my life. My sons played it real and much more independent of adult approval. I see now that their choices were often imbedded in their budding male identities. Hello? What was I thinking to think they would not be? They showed over and over again to me that wondrous male loyalty and love in the depth of their feeling for less-than-perfect friends. “Stand by Me”—they did, over and over again for male friends struggling mightily. In truth, they were much more courageous than I ever was at their age.Now as one married and two-about-to be-married men, they have more than proved that they did not need to get straight A’s to become good, successful, and worthy adults. Between them they work with/ for young males just out of jail trying to find a new start in life, for urban kids in city schools, for modest mid-westerners trying to keep their manufacturing jobs. My heart fills with joy and I laugh out loud as I read the loving and hilarious commentary on one of my son’s wedding websites from those same friends who hit lacrosse balls in the house and made marks on the ceilings, who opened the kitchen doors without washing their hands after scratching, who spent many Friday nights eating mounds of pizza with us after Concord-Carlisle football games or soccer games or playing wiffle baseball on the front lawn of our house instead of studying. In this commentary, I see evidence of deep and abiding love and brotherhood, gratitude for having spent time with my sons in our home as “brothers” learning to be men. I see that my sons and their friends have not been afraid to become loving partners to others, and that, in particular, the women my sons love call them good men and characterize them as so wonderfully attuned to their feelings and needs. Somehow the lessons of being good, worthy, and successful human beings went in without the perfectionism, the straight A’s, and Ivy League undergraduate programs. As I look forward to two weddings this summer and with any luck more grandchildren in the near future, I now give abiding and deep thanks every day for what I got from my sons and not for what I wanted from them.
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