This week essayist and guest blogger Susan Bono muses on handfuls.

The first time I got pregnant, I hoped for a girl. I knew nothing about babies and everyone said girls were easier. Three years later, when a sonogram revealed a second son, I had to grieve the daughter I would never have, but I’d gotten over my fear of boys. Babies were just a lot of work, period.

But when my sons were little, it was always, “Oh, you have two boys. You must have your hands full!” Every mother I knew was exhausted and on the verge of madness, but this comment suggested that because I had boys, my situation was more dire. Did everyone assume I spent my days chasing after grubby little imps, trying to get them to stop bashing other children, teasing dogs, and running into traffic? I knew plenty of little girls who were more willful, more restless than my sons. In the baby play group that constituted my social life in those early years, there were biters and tantrummers, but none of them were boys.

There was no use arguing with people. Whenever I tried to point out how my oldest son in particular was as sweet and cooperative as they come, the looks from my sympathizers changed from conspiratorial geniality to pity and suspicion, as if delinquent behavior was the only sure sign of health in a boy. If my gentle sons weren’t born aberrant, although such a defect was highly likely, bad mothering had perverted their natural tendencies toward savagery and violence.

No one ever warned me that teenaged boys might be capable of self-restraint. Along with the “hands full” comment, I invariably heard, “They must be eating you out of house and home!” The pride with which people listed the quantities of snack foods and dairy products their sons put away made me feel like a failure. In reality, most of the cookies, chips and large second helpings consumed in our household could be traced to me or my husband. I always worried that my kids were eating other mothers out of house and home and revealing their hideous lack of judgment in places they could really be themselves.

Despite everyone’s predictions, the oldest moved judiciously through his so-called partying years with a group of reasonably sensible friends. The youngest preferred hanging out at home. Whatever unlawful or dangerous adventures I worried about them having (thinking all the while of my own misspent youth), I never had to experience one of those terrifying middle of the night phone calls or the defiance all mothers of sons get automatic credit for. I was always braced for disaster, vacillating between relief and the feeling I was missing something, but in the end, my parents were the ones to pay me back by pulling more scary stunts in their final years than my sons ever did as teenagers.

Now that my boys are in their twenties, I’ve come to understand that children will confound you on levels you can’t possibly anticipate. My parents were unprepared for the explosion of sex, drugs and social unrest that drove their children’s choices in the ‘70s. I, in turn, still can’t get over the fact that “hippie” is a dirty word in my kids’ vocabularies. Instead of beseeching my youngest to be more careful during his teen years, I am goading him into taking more risks now that he is an adult. My husband and I are even in counseling to find ways to get our baby bird to fledge. For all I know, he’ll wind up joining the police force or the military and become the kind of son everyone told me to expect. With children, you always have your hands full, but of what is anybody’s guess.

Susan Bono is a writing teacher and freelance editor living in Petaluma, CA. She founded Tiny Lights: A Journal of Personal Narrative in 1995, and its online counterpart, www.tiny-lights.com, shortly thereafter. Her writing has appeared in publications such as Sheila Bender’s Writing & Publishing Personal Essays, the St. Petersburg Times, the Petaluma Argus Courier, and Passager Magazine. Lately, she’s been doing more cupboard cleaning than writing, but finds time to write a postcard a day.

2 Replies to “Handful”

  1. Susan,
    As the mother of three sons and one daughter, I know exactly what you mean. Each of my children has his or her own personality and it has nothing to do with their gender. Great post. This is my first time visiting this blog and I look forward to reading more of it. :)

    1. Clarissa, I can only imagine the comments that get tossed your way regarding the configuration of your family. I confess my first reaction to your comment was, “Wow, 4 kids! How does she do it?” Which proves I have so much more to learn about biases! I love the way personal stories help identify and break down assumptions we carry around and impose on others. Thanks for writing and stay tuned to Ken’s blog. It’s a good one! susan

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