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Nashville Scene Growing Boys

The joys of a mother's garden

By Margaret Renkl

APRIL 26, 1999:  Even before I was pregnant the first time, I had a recurrent dream about motherhood. The details never varied: I was always kneeling in my flower bed, working the soil with my fingers to break up the larger clods of dirt. Sitting beside me, a little girl in blue jeans sat patiently waiting to push a seed into each hole I dug. The seeds would cling to the dampness in her clutching palm. The wind would stir the wisps of light-brown hair at her forehead. Sunlight would slant across our hands.

That's all the dream consisted of: a picture of me and my daughter planting seeds.

This dream never came true. I haven't much of a garden anymore, as one thing the dream failed to factor in was how much less time there would be for cultivating the soil once I began to cultivate human beings. I haven't a daughter at all, no patient little girl who shares my interest in watching flowers grow. Instead I am the mother of sons, three rambunctious, imperious, wonderful little boys who have spent not one moment of their collective lives patiently waiting for me to do anything.

Most strangers assume that my third son was the result of one final attempt my husband and I made for a girl, and even some of my friends, knowing my interest in feminist issues and my 10 years teaching at an all-girls school, suspect that my third boy was a bit of a disappointment, the failure of an important dream.

When I was pregnant the first time, I actually did want a daughter. Like many people who are not yet parents, I had this vague idea that the children would arrive according to my own script regarding their gender and estimated time of arrival. Considering that my first pregnancy itself was a pure accident, you'd think I'd have figured out that families do not get served up, restaurant-style, based on an order placed by the parent.

It took parenthood itself, and not merely impending parenthood, to make me understand. From the moment I saw my first son and fell desperately in love, I never wanted him to be anything other than himself. The fascination of watching this boy grow into a person so different from me and yet so clearly of me, long ago transformed all desire for a daughter into thorough delight with the funny, generous, curious little boy of mine, and later with his equally fascinating brothers.

Certainly I would have loved a daughter just as much; that's the nature of a mother's love. But I think there's a difference between the way a mother loves her daughters and the way she loves her sons. For better and for worse, a daughter reminds a woman of the girl she once was, or of the girl she wishes she had been. All mixed up in the way a woman thinks about her daughter is the way she thinks about herself.

It doesn't work that way with sons. A boy may remind a woman of her father (the man who raised her) or of her husband (the man she chose), but in spite of these intense connections, a son is always something of a mystery. No matter how fiercely she loves him, a boy is fundamentally and forever different from his mother.

Whatever I might have believed as a feminist about the nurture-versus-nature argument of personality development, all those theories went out the window when I first faced an actual baby. Before they are even born, a lot of boys act like, well, boys. By the time I was eight months pregnant with my first son, the nurse found it almost impossible to measure my abdomen; the baby was kicking and rolling so violently the tape measure kept slipping off my swollen belly. "It's a boy?" she asked the first time it happened. When I said I didn't know, that my husband and I wanted to be surprised, she just smiled.

All little boys, I know, aren't rough-and-tumble swaggerers. As it happens, I grew up with a gentle brother who would spend hours in the woods, designing miniature houses of bark and moss for the woodland elves, and it never once crossed his mind to pick up a stick and pretend to shoot the birds.

But all three of my own boys are obsessed with firearms, even the baby, who currently prefers to gnaw on a water gun instead of a teething ring. I tried valiantly to keep the arsenal out of the house. For the first two years of my first son's life I made sure he never even saw a picture of a gun, but still one day he bit the corner off a saltine cracker, pointed the straight end right at me, and yelled, "Pow!"

It's also true that the favorite games in this household are those that have a reasonable chance of ending in blood. Chasing games end with the shortest boy gashing an eyebrow on the corner of the dining room table. Wrestling games end with the tallest boy (and thus the one with the poorest center of gravity) hitting the floor and biting his tongue or busting his lip. Contests with the toy light-sabers almost always end when someone receives an energetic pop that happens to land right on his fingers.

It's this grand-gestured physicality of boyhood that constantly amazes me. Even when I'm right there, making sure the play stays safely in the play range and doesn't escalate to revenge mode, it can be hard to see the injuries coming. One moment everyone's laughing and dancing around in a happy flurry of human limbs, and the next moment someone's lying on the ground and weeping while someone else is patting him awkwardly, beset by concern. Meanwhile, I'm scooping up the injured party and wondering: I was right there the whole time; how does this keep happening?

But it does happen, again and again, because my husband the former boy won't let me make a rule that all indoor games have to be quiet ones featuring cards or colored tokens, games we play sitting at the dining-room table. Boys, my husband tells me, need time at home to run and jump and clamber all over each other. Boys need to shout and growl and grab their hearts while they fall to the ground in mock agony, even if they bleed a little or take out a lamp in the process. Our job, my husband says, is to help our boys learn to do these things with a minimum of danger to themselves or each other. Too much of life already makes them sit quietly and color in the lines.

Luckily for me, life with sons is not only about physical exuberance. One of my sons is a budding naturalist, a boy capable of sitting silent and still for great swatches of time while he watches a mother mockingbird carry grubs to a baby too big for the nest but too young to hunt. Another son is a passionate chef, dragging his little chair around the kitchen so he can climb up to counter-height and watch every step in the making of a quiche or a meatloaf. The baby son is a cuddler always leaning in, soberly presenting himself for kiss after kiss, as though they were his absolute birthright, as necessary as food.

I thought of my early dreams of motherhood the other day as I was setting out seedlings. My middle boy squatted beside me, carefully patting the soil around each small clump of roots. "We make the flowers grow," he told his father proudly. Wind was lifting the ends of his hair, and sunlight glinted on his grubby hands.

There are dreams, it turns out, and there are dreams come true.

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