Published on June 19th, 2022 | by Caleb Wolfson-Seeley0
Becoming Men Together: On Raising Boys When I Wasn’t One￼
My wife carried both our children within herself for nine months. In some ways, they have always been in her, their genes living in her eggs since her own birth, traveling with her through her joys and sorrows, triumphs and failures, loves and heartbreaks. I navigated her pregnancies as an outsider: literally removed from the physical gestation process and extraneous in the creation of new life. Other men generously provided the scripts to the other halves of my children, hidden keys to ordain their very beings.
My queerness demanded I be untethered to biological ties to any future family I imagined. I had no fears I could not love a child who did not share my ancestry; I had never expected to give birth or fantasized about gazing into a face that mirrored mine. Holding, caring for, and loving my children came as instinctually as breathing. Any misgivings I had about parenting came years later with the realization that my wife and I could not remain the only influences in the molding of our offspring. As infants born with the conventionally external markers of male sex, they were immediately declared boys, an assignment continuously upheld. As they become more comfortable in that identity for themselves, I am forced to confront the question: What does it mean to shepherd my sons through boyhood when I did not have one myself?
Watching babies and young children grow gives one a front row seat to gender assignment and reinforcement. My sons were no more born with genders than the dandelions whose fluff they delighted in blowing across our yard. They were fluid in their outward expressions, their internal desires, their daily pursuits. My own queer bias framed how I viewed their manifestations: How I celebrated when my younger son dressed himself in rainbow tutus, proudly wore his starred skirt until it had worn through, grew his hair long, asking for it to be pulled back in pigtails, carried a baby doll on his back; how I struggled when his wardrobe faded to blues and greys, his hair became cropped, his interests turned to athletics.
So while I should not have been, I was caught off guard by the realization that even at six and eight, society has seeped into my boys’ skin. I could only stave it off for so long. They now have other sources to learn what is male and female, girl and boy, strong and soft, pink and blue. Because I was treated as a girl child, these things never occurred to me. The assumptions of masculinity had not seeped into my skin. I had to develop my own manhood, define it as I went. I learned to be a man from butch dykes and fairies, from drag queens and kings, from those whose relationships with masculinity were fraught at best. My education happened in lesbian bars, at poetry readings, on drag stages. I felt like a secret agent who had slipped into manhood undetected, evading the years of conditioning required. I still often find myself disarmed when others place their expectations on me, from the relatively benign assumption that my wife is the primary caretaker to the more harmful belief that I will welcome their sexist comments.
Queers have the privilege of putting ourselves together; we do not come prepackaged. My gender does not rely on the external narratives we tell about men. If my masculinity is a form of political protest, so is my femininity. Those dykes who took me under their butch wings at seventeen taught me that softness and strength are not in opposition. It’s a lesson that has served me well in fatherhood.
My younger son, like many children, likes to sort, categorize, and explain his life, leading him to binary definitions: short or tall, black or white, fast or slow, good or bad, boy or girl. (My older son is gifted with neurodivergence, which, like queerness, allows him to complicate the world more easily.) Adults likewise are given to simplifying ideas, believing children cannot understand more complex interpretations. At the extreme, this leads to prohibiting discourse around gender or sexual identity in classrooms, claiming that discussions about same-sex families or genderqueer people would confuse children. But even well-meaning adults leave children’s assumptions unexamined for simplicity’s sake. We tell them boys have penises and girls have vaginas, even when we know we mean most of the time. The gift I give my children is that my very existence interrupts their desire to place people—and themselves—in neat boxes.
Even if my boys grow up to be men, which they are statistically likely to do, they will be raised with the best model of manhood I know, a queer one. They live in a society that will present to them a template of masculinity, and they may mistake that representation for their own reflection. Queers know not to search for definitions of our identities externally. When we cannot find ourselves in the world outside, we look inward. My sons might not be forced to question all assumptions about their genders, but I’d like them to look upon those expectations with a healthy dose of mistrust.
As my children progress through a boyhood I did not experience, I find myself more uncertain of my role in all this. Perhaps I was too quick to dismiss the limitations of my family structure. I started the process of having children in my mid-twenties, insistent that biological ties are not what make a family; now in my mid-thirties, I admit there are truths I failed to acknowledge in my rejection of a heteronormative narrative. Just as a white parent must face his inability to fully understand the experience of his Black child, I recognize there are pieces of my children that are not mine. But this is one more gift queerness has bestowed upon me: none of our children are ever wholly ours. At least queers are honest about that reality.
Having children itself is a daring act of optimism, a statement that the future might improve upon the past, that it might be worth investing in. A few weeks ago, my son—my athletic, competitive, gender conforming child who shares no biological connection to me—asked me for a notebook and a pencil. Sprawled across the floor, he began to fill the pages with poetry, requesting the correct spelling for a word now and then. As I watched him explore this new way of expressing his identity, it occurred to me that he’s watching me become a man, too. My observant son, who wants to know how and why the world works the way it does, has been deconstructing his father, expanding his understanding of masculinity to include caring for children, baking birthday cakes, walking quietly in nature, and using the written word to tell stories, investigate ourselves, and lay bare our deepest yearnings. He did not grow inside me, does not have my genes written in his body, but the truest pieces of me are embedded within him, and those fragments are my investment in tomorrow.