The Stories We Tell Our Sons
About Becoming Men

Sophia Shalmiyev on Raising a Boy in America

I worry about Jake all the time. I worry about his ADHD, about his inability to plan, about task initiation, self-regulation, sequencing, sensory stimulation, agitation, general unresponsiveness. I worry he will autopilot through life as I become his hypervigilant time management air traffic controller.

Jake has long silky blond hair and giant green eyes. He’s a white American boy. He’s Christian and Jewish. He’s German, Irish, Russian, and Azerbaijani. He makes gun fingers and pretends to kill me when he’s angry, which is often. He mimes reloading a rifle to blow his sister’s head off at dinner when he’s bored. He hits me hard and gnashes and bares his teeth when screen time is taken away. Or, when he feels insecure, when he’s interrupted, when he’s overwhelmed with a change in plans, when he’s stuffing his feelings about being a child of divorce—about moving between two homes—way down into a stomach too full to eat at the table, but then always starving when he’s tucked into bed and the lights are out.

I want him to become a man, if he wants to be a man. Not macho, not toxic, not especially masculine, but I want him to be a grown up. It will happen very soon with these long days and short years flashing by. He is only 10, but he’s already more than halfway through the time I have left in my legally sanctioned timeframe of raising him.

Yes, I fear for him. Everything in our house seems to be about him. Or, does it just seem this way because he can’t pay attention and the repetition of basic asks creates that etched loop?

I tell him that feminism is about demanding equality, and equality is about access: the same access to power, opportunity, creative expression, medical and mental health care, income and status. I want a future man who will rise to the occasion, domestically, without prompts or coaching. I want my son to be a partner who isn’t passive when it comes to making boring decisions or organizing a household.

I worry about Jake all the time. I worry he will autopilot through life as I become his hypervigilant time management air traffic controller.

I am scared he might turn out to be inconsiderate towards women, waited on—the sneakier, post-buzz-word contemporary male who thinks he knows what gaslighting is yet comes off as wink wink baby I am on your side, but I just don’t get what you actually want from me. When Maxine Waters declared that: “She is taking back her time,” we all cheered and roared, but how do we concretely make that part of the reparative process between men and women? I can’t seem to scratch the surface of attempting this model in any of my relationships, and certainly not when bringing up a boy and a girl side by side.

I expect a man to be vulnerable and respect and revere what was once deemed as only a feminine attribute and adapt it to his version of masculinity. I expect him to cultivate nurturance, dependability, anticipation of the needs of others, and active listening as his priorities. To deal with all the doctor visits, the playdates to set up, the vacations to be planned out, the family holidays to manage, the tickets for ballet to purchase. They may even talk about their emotions without that cartoonish, hopeful gaze, summoning our approval for doing so, for being vulnerable, and not simply submit themselves to the fate of living with a “nag” or a “shrew,” to resign themselves, maybe learn to like the rancor, and start doing what is asked of them with resentment as their stone wall. This is the magical and romantic storyline that needs to appear in my son and daughter’s texts.

*

Beyond what I can control within our home, what I want for my son—what I wish for him to become, rather than avoid becoming—doesn’t yet seem to exist. Not by a long shot. Not when we live in a country of tiki torches paraded down our streets in the night by angry white men, and the convenience of a suburban Home Depot to buy them in bulk for a frat boy slob turned hate marcher. Terror after terror. Mass shooting after mass shooting. Rape after rape.

Every one of the intruders and killers has been a man. This is a country that forgives men who rage and casually take whatever they want from women they deem less human and less able to fight them off. Only in the heat of overwhelming tragedy, the megaphone of a news cycle, do we rage back, impotently.

Children’s stories are often horror stories. Kids are wired to crave suspense, to play hide and seek a thrill, to imagine gore and brutality in the name of valor—but only if we protect them and give them firm boundaries in real life can they sublimate beyond the fantasy. The fear to which we expose our children must be measured and useful, kept at a comfortable enough distance from our loving night lamps in their dark rooms. We can try to monitor what they see on a screen or in a book with witches and goblins cackling madly.

And Mom must stay as pure and ready as a brand-new sponge torn out of its wrapper each day she wakes to care for them. She definitely will not scream, “Fire,” outside the bounds of the crowded theater of her own tortured mind and body, triggered by villains of testosterone, rapists, harassers, creeps, losers, enablers, deniers, revolting power hungry men—all never getting the punishment they deserve.

I grew up reading violent and sinister ancient tales about jealousy, status, hunger, societal norms, and danger—the kind that usually befalls children, especially girls, poor girls being most vulnerable of all. The match girls freezing to death; the little mermaid who gave up her own kingdom and tongue for legs that made her feel like she was walking on swords and needles; the girl with ostentatious dreams of red shoes at inappropriate venues, so showy they would dance her right into her grave. These girls yearned deeply, worked hard, and were punished harder. The boys mostly roamed and rescued and were adventurers without borders. These hungry girls died or slept or married, if they were lucky. At least there was sweaty dancing for some before the final curtain.

There is no fairytale I recall from my childhood about boys and men who are brought to trial for being non-protecting bystanders, who are taken to task for looking the other way and allowing witches to burn, women to be beaten and enslaved, children to be used or neglected. The boys of my youth were always allowed to be ostriches—the stereotype of an avoider—just like our men always have been when uncomfortable with what the women are screaming about through a gag of propriety and fear of losing the job, the financial security, the reputation, the community standing or the romantic relationship.

No son of mine can be an ostrich. Boys being boys must mean: blindfolds off and heads out of sand, now.

James Baldwin knew that, “If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don’t see.” I am the flashlight and magnifying glass to my son but what if he sees and does nothing, changes nothing, believes in the easy way out?

*

My friend and I meet at a park, momentarily without our children, in between root canals, writing deadlines, and arranging myriad therapeutic services for our sons. She is so exhausted she begins to cry. I cried last time we met. Crying is still considered a reason for taunting women. Men who see us become so frustrated when we cry, instinctively call us babies or babe, like they used to on the playground in second grade. If I get so upset I rage-cry or sad-cry or give-up-for-a-minute cry, I’m a mess—not to be trusted as a stable enough leader for public life or to be taken seriously as a thinker. But if I button it up and sew a metal plate into my previously quivering upper lip and tell it how it is, well, I’m a bitch.

The Big Bad Wolf in Little Red Riding Hood is the ultimate psychopath trope for my son to reject and play against type. The news is filled with men luring women, at work, in marriages, in green rooms of comedy clubs, at art openings, in auditions, at internships, within literary communities, and academia into believing they are as harmless and familiar as their granny; then they swallow her whole, drug her, rape her, take away a job they promised once she stops sleeping with them, or simply laugh her off as naive or opportunistic for even showing up to the cabin after a long walk in the dark wood and expecting to be safe, to be taken seriously.

What is expected of a man today vs. what might be expected of him when my son goes through puberty and is no longer a child? This is what my friend and I talk about next, shivering on the concrete seats. We laugh hoarsely and cough through the list of things that are currently expected of men, which I recall on the spot—because it seldom changes, and hasn’t changed since I sat around with the other girlfriends in the rehearsal space in south Brooklyn waiting for my boyfriend’s band to finish up.

But what is a good guy? A passable guy? How low is the bar? I scoff and tell my friend that at this point, he must only keep it in his pants unless asked, say please and thank you, show up on time, be funny and kind, and maybe play guitar. So, he is a neutered Labrador with a rhythm section, basically? If he is able to come to at least half the meetings at academic institutions, or family functions, and not be threatening or an out-and-out rapist he’s good to go. Cooked! Finished! Created! Credits rolling.

Are our standards that low, or are we just tiring of setting them at all?

*

If you wish to learn more about equality, you can become a divorced feminist writer of a ten-year-old boy and a six-year-old girl.

After months of interventions and meetings at the elementary school, I get a reassuring email from Jake’s fourth grade teacher in which he is dictating his thoughts to us: “I have had two really good days. They are good because I have been doing my work and earning tokens, so I can go to Frances’ classroom. I think this is a really good plan for me. I feel good because I am getting some work done and I am getting to go to Frances’ class.”

Will he think of me as a victim, a survivor, or none of the above?

My son’s ADHD isn’t something I need people to validate any longer, the way I did when he was flagged in his last year of pre-school as not ready for kindergarten. I have lived with it for years and have developed a spare psychic self I keep around when I no longer know what to do once the next medication fails and taking him off the prescribed drugs has the school calling me every day, or his friends and sister screaming STOP ad nauseam.

I teach him to be nurturing and kind. I hold him close and show him my process in the studio or let him dig his warm chin into my shoulder and follow along while I edit an essay. I explain the details of my day after he tells me about his schoolwork in little clips so that he might see my time as a writer and painter as precious; that I am not his slave. Some nights, Jake even asks me, beaming in my direction, “How did your writing go today, Mom?” He earns time, time he uses to go visit his sister in her kindergarten classroom, if he can complete a task or deliver a few written sentences or not crawl around on the ground and distract the other children. He wants this prize so badly. He is learning how to have a considerate and quiet body so that he can go care for more vulnerable souls. So that he can feel useful.

The Boy Who Cried Wolf enjoyed messing with the village folk, taunting them and waking them up for his amusement. His biggest crime was wasting other people’s time and creating a false panic when real work or rest were taking place. Not unlike the current wolf-crier-in-chief today sounding the alarm of distraction and blind hate, whining that any call for responsibility and accountability is “fake news.” My motherly advice to myself is always: Do not overreact or give your child more of the same when he is seeking negative attention. I attempt to starve out the hostility and praise him when he is being gentle and thoughtful about the needs of those around him.

But my son, like most kids, can be what therapists describe as a “help-seeking rejector.” He is despondent about having to do his homework or put away the dishes but growls and moans when a mild suggestion is offered as a possible remedy. He doesn’t want to take his proverbial medicine even with a bucket full of sugar to make it go down easier. My relationship to grown men is eerily similar, and so I find myself quite dizzy with anxiety in a middle of a bridge spinning my head to see what boyhood and manhood look like on each side.

When Eileen Myles and I recently had a conversation about misogyny during a reading at the McNally Jackson bookstore, they expanded on the idea of men taking a break from vital art jobs and positions of power in academia and literature for the next 50 years or so. The hyperbole is a tool of necessity; we need to move the needle on the record any way we can. Let all men in power who can afford it give up their top dog positions in the arts, and instead open up daycare centers at the sites of their old jobs, I proposed. An ultimate modern-day fairytale we could use straight from my witchy mouth.

My kids love to talk about their future selves as we drive around. It feels like pure magic listening to them narrate their wishbone adulthood. Franny wants a little sports car with only two seats. Jake wants a station wagon and two children.

As a child, Jake gets to be neutral, he gets to learn about me when he is ready. That is his right and his freedom and I will not take it away from him. Will it ever matter to my son that in his family, it was the woman who was sexually assaulted multiple times, never a man? Will it matter that his mother was raped as a 12-year-old immigrant being vetted in Italy, awaiting her American refugee visa? Will he learn that immigrants are hated and actively work against the xenophobia if he can comfortably blend into a crowd of maleness and whiteness? Will he think of me as a victim, a survivor, or none of the above?

I just want my son to want to become the change I fought for.

Jake is taught about consent every day, even if he doesn’t know it. He doesn’t get the meaning of the word rape, though it is in the media, in the air, all the time. He is aware that I’m writing about him, about misogyny, about my hopes for his future and about his inheritance—his familial legacy. What is an inheritance? Isn’t it simply put: a given. A gift you can count on. But inheritance can be a toxic family secret or a frightening family confession. He knows he can only read parts of my book. Yet, Mother Winter is dedicated to my two children equally alongside a nod of gratitude to my feminist foremothers for a reason.

Because I can only hope that this is not my son’s legacy to repeat. It is, however, the history of men.

Sophia Shalmiyev
Sophia Shalmiyev
Sophia Shalmiyev emigrated from Leningrad in 1990. She is a feminist writer and painter living in Portland with her two children. Mother Winter is her first book. sophiashalmiyev.com





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