Raising Richmond: A most important task

Two recent acts of violence against women help me remember what us parents of boys must do…

Just over four years ago, in an operating room at Henrico Doctors hospital, I looked up at my husband and watched his blue eyes crinkle as he smiled behind his surgical mask.

“We have a son! A giant son!”

As I lay like a starfish on the table, insides all askew, I breathed a huge sigh of relief—because our child arrived safely, because the birth was over, because I would soon be able to put on my shoes by myself…

…and a little bit because I gave birth to a boy.

Many of you probably now think I’m terrible, but there it is. I felt it; I’ll own it.

Let me be clear that I don’t think boys are better than girls. Girls are great. I was once a girl. Some of my most favorite children are girls.

But the prospect of raising one scared the shit out of me.

It wasn’t about the battles over clothes or the “drama” that many deem inherent to life with a daughter. As a former teacher of pre-teen girls and boys, and now as a parent, I don’t believe girls automatically corner the market on those two issues; it’s insulting to claim they do.

My fear came more from a place of self-doubt, mostly because this world isn’t known for treating its female citizens particularly well. Even in the most loving of homes and the most supportive of circumstances, life as a girl can be hard, disheartening, and unfair. When I became a mother at 27, I still sported some pretty gnarly scars of my own; I just wasn’t sure I was up to challenge of guiding a daughter through her own battle with the realities of girlhood.

So when I held my fresh-from-the-oven baby boy back in November of 2008, I felt as if I’d been spared, in a way. Not spared from having a girl, of course, but spared but from a lifetime of worries I was sure came standard with raising a daughter….

  • Will she be comfortable in her own skin even if outside influences say she shouldn’t be?
  • What’s the best way to help her cultivate a healthy appreciation for her physical appearance without seeing it as the only source of her self-worth?
  • How do we teach her to not make assumptions about herself because of her gender? How do we teach her to respond to those who do?

And here’s the big one–the one that probably scares parents most because they feel they have the least control over it…

How do we keep her from becoming the victim of sexual assault?

A very specific fear but a very real one, nonetheless.

The statistics say that one out of every six American women has been the victim of attempted or completed rape during her lifetime. For men? It’s one out of every 33.

I’ll admit, when I first read those numbers a few years ago (after swallowing the initial desire to vomit because I am, after all, an American woman), I thought that as the mother of a son, sexual assault is just not something that needs to be on my radar to the extent it would for the parents of girls.

And then I immediately called bullshit on myself.

Granted, my son’s place in this world as a middle class white male makes him a less likely victim of sexual assault and rape. But that doesn’t mean it has no place on our parental radar, and it definitely doesn’t mean my husband and I get to stop thinking about it as we raise our son. We just think about it (and worry about it) in a different way. We have to.

Because of things like this…

Last August, two high school football players in Steubenville, Ohio were charged with raping a 16-year-old girl at a series of back-to-school parties. According to a New York Times article on the case, “Twitter posts, videos and photographs circulated by some who attended the nightlong set of parties suggested that an unconscious girl had been sexually assaulted over several hours while others watched. She even might have been urinated on.” A few weeks ago, Anonymous leaked a video of a former Steubenville High School student joking with his friends about the rape.

Just this past December, a 23-year-old Indian woman was gang raped and beaten by five men on a moving bus in Delhi. Medical reports indicate the victim was penetrated with a rusted, L-shaped iron rod, and the rape was so violent she was found with only five percent of her intestines still in her body. She died 13 days later.

Those are two very recent stories of (alleged) rape occurring in two very different parts of the world. Two unspeakable acts of violence, each perpetuated by a complete disregard for the value of a woman’s body and life. Two tragedies that have inspired me to put into writing a promise to the girls and women of this world:

I promise that my husband and I will do everything in our power to raise our boy into a man who does not do these things. Not only that, we will raise him to not stand idly by if they happen and to not joke about them when they do.

Our son will do right by you.

Even though he’s only four, we’ve already started the conversation. At this point, we limit it to age-appropriate reminders that range from “There are no ‘boys only’ and ‘girls only’ activities,” to “If someone asks you to stop touching him or her, you stop immediately.” I’m sure as he gets older, our guidance will become more specific and explicit—as in “You do not put your penis or any other body part into anyone that does not or cannot give enthusiastic consent.”

He will be mortified, yes, but he will also know what is acceptable behavior and what is not. Because we owe that to girls—the world does. To be honest, it’s the least we can do. And even though I’m not sure I’d be the best mother to girls (at least right now), I’ll be damned if I’m not going to do everything I can to make sure my son understands what it means to truly respect and value them.

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Valerie Catrow

Valerie Catrow is editor of RVAFamily, mother to a mop-topped first grader, and always really excited to go to bed.

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