Wednesday, June 19, 2024

The Trials and Tribulations of the Boymom

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Until a few months ago, the parenting influencer Avery Woods, who has more than two million followers on TikTok, was best known for adding potty-mouthed voice-overs to videos of her toddler daughter; to wit: “Hey, asswipes, come with me to my first dance class. Mom squeezed my rolls into this tiny-ass outfit and bought me tap shoes that are cutting off the circulation of my cankles.” Many of Woods’s detractors (and some of her fans) expressed concern that her videos, which have variously featured closeups of the little girl chewing gum, eating whipped cream, and gyrating in a bikini, could draw the attention of child predators. Woods also has a preschool-age son who figured far less prominently in her rise to niche online fame—until, that is, one fateful day when she uploaded a quickie vlog from her car. “My boymoms feel me on this, but my son has my heart—my heart and my soul,” she declared from behind sunglasses. She was “obviously obsessed” with her daughter—“she is just the greatest little girl in the world,” Woods went on. “But, my whole life, I always wanted to be a boymom.”

Perhaps it should have been touching that a professional sharenter chose the less monetizable of her two children as her favorite. Still, Woods was roundly and predictably denounced for her confession (which she has since deleted). The offending video circulated so widely in part because it provided a forum for unpacking a mystery that has loomed darkly over online parenting discourse for years: What, precisely, is the #boymom? Is the category zoological, applying to any mother of a son, or any mother of sons but not daughters? Is it a way of defying stereotypes of boys as feral and housebound—captives of porn, video games, and men’s-rights activists? Does it denote a belief structure—that raising boys is easier or tougher or more rewarding than raising girls, and that doing so grants membership into a proud and exclusive club? Is the boymom just trying to countervail her disappointment in not having daughters? Is she isolated and besieged, like the mother in “Bridesmaids” whose three sons insult her and drench her home in semen? (“I cracked a blanket in half. Do you get where I’m going with that?”)

And what about the mother of boys and girls—can she still attain boymom certification if she displays a certain aversion to her daughters? (“I love my girls,” Kim Kardashian said last year, “but a girl, like, steals your clothes and has an attitude, y’know? There’s nothing like being a boymom. Like, seriously, it’s the best.”) Most hair-raising of all, is the boymom a nightmare of toxic narcissism and internalized misogyny who sees her son as a crypto-romantic interest, and other girls and women—even her own daughters—as her nemeses? On social media, avatars of this last subtype sometimes send up flares of rueful epiphany: one wrote of the moment that “you realize [you’re] gonna have to share the love of your life (my baby boy) with another female one day,” and another captured the instant when “your son shows you his crush . . . but you were his first love.” Some women dread turning into their mothers; others look forward to turning into Jane Fonda in “Monster-in-Law.”

In a new book, “BoyMom: Reimagining Boyhood in the Age of Impossible Masculinity,” the journalist Ruth Whippman offers another possible criterion for entry into this league of motherhood: chronic existential angst. Whippman, who has three sons, gave birth to her youngest in 2017, the year that Donald Trump took office and the first avalanche of #MeToo revelations broke. “I was truly scared to be a mother of boys,” she recalls. “Everywhere I turned there were bad men. I was frightened both for and of the tiny piece of patriarchy growing inside me, worried sick over what he and his brothers might become. The potential for darkness that I might be powerless to stop.” Her “pregnant brain,” she writes, “churned out a ticker tape of bad outcomes for my unborn boy: rapist, school-shooter, incel, man-child.” The list continues. Reflecting on how her seven- and four-year-old sons roughhouse at home, she feels “the cold dread that it will be a straight line from this grade-school house of horrors to pussy grabbing and school shooting.” She discloses that “every time I saw a little girl in a ‘THE FUTURE IS FEMALE’ T-shirt, I felt a secret, shameful stab. What did this mean for my boys?”

Whippman mixes memoir and reportage in “BoyMom,” interviewing, among others, psychologists, incels, young men accused of sexual assault, and a right-wing social worker concerned about “demasculinization.” In these encounters, she is trying to define “masculinity”—it slips and thrashes and shorts in her hands like an electric eel—and to find the ingredients for the elixir that will help her sons “learn to be good in a world that wanted to make them bad.” But she evinces little optimism that her quest can succeed. Inertia permeates the book; it often seems trapped in 2017. It engages #boymom as an Internet phenomenon only briefly, as sour grapes in reverse: “The narrative has a bit too much of a consolation prize flavor to it, a barely concealed attempt by mothers of boys to convince themselves that they got the better deal.” Whippman does not tarry with such pathetic illusions; in her “liberal bubble” of Berkeley, even before #MeToo, “it was becoming increasingly clear that girls were now considered the prize,” she writes. Her catastrophizing is feverish, contagious: “My tribe was rejecting my kids.” But isn’t the “tribe” half boys?

Mother-son relationships are a lavish mansion of possibilities: Freud and Jung and Saussure in the library; “The Manchurian Candidate” and “Psycho” and “Ordinary People” and “Spanking the Monkey” in the screening room; in the parlor, a bust of Olympias, a shrine to Mother Mary, “Donda” on the stereo. “BoyMom,” alas, mostly denies itself the mirroring pleasures of art and popular culture—there’s no fizz and foam to let out some air. The reporting is overfamiliar (much of the chapter on campus sexual assaults could have been written a decade ago or more). And Whippman’s dismaying fatalism about screen time feels out of step with the current conversation; Jonathan Haidt’s “The Anxious Generation,” which sets out to undo precisely this kind of learned helplessness, has spent more than a month at or near the top of the nonfiction best-seller list.

“BoyMom” is a jumpy, irritable book, written from a defensive crouch, relentless in its solipsism. It is difficult to know how to engage constructively with a world view in which seismic political, social, and cultural transformations are most acutely relevant as a hypothetical affront to you, personally. Whippman’s book is useful, however, as an embodiment of the scarcity mind-set that deforms so much of our civic life, whether it’s debates over universal-preschool funding or élite-college admissions, immigration reform or health-care policy. It’s a grasping, hoarding impulse, and a fundamentally conservative one. When Whippman wonders which parents have got the “prize,” the “better deal,” she is speaking the language of competition and rivalry, not care work and community. She insists that “boys need more parenting than girls, not less”—and, rather stunningly, she finds two experts who say much the same. She praises how Gen Z is dismantling received notions about gender, but can’t help adding, passive-aggressively, “The one gender category that seemed almost impervious to all this dazzling change was the one that included my own sons: cisgender boys.” (All genders matter, you might say.) In the realm of “BoyMom,” you can squint hard enough at pretty much anybody—a sexual-assault survivor, a trans teen, a baby in a “GIRL POWER” onesie—and they might start to look like your opponent in a zero-sum, us-or-them game: What do I get? How might I be harmed? What does this mean for my boys?

Gender norms, of course, are the ultimate zero-sum binary, and the #boymom phenomenon could not exist without them. For all the voices that Whippman seeks out, her book doesn’t push with any genuine force against this binary; instead, it enacts the pain and unease of being locked within it. Fortunately, the author may underestimate the extent to which younger generations—certainly the ones who inhabit her “bubble”—are shrugging it off. Recently, I asked my son (b. 2017), “What do you think ‘boymom’ means?” He paused to think it over, and replied, with deliberation, “That’s a . . . trans mom.” I would read that book. ♦

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