The secret lives of boys
Boys will be boys ... "Having a son has changed so much about how I view the world."
I’m as much of a fan of martial arts as I am of major dental work. But this week, as I watched my little boy wrap a white belt around his skinny waist, join a line of his mates and learn to kick, my heart swelled with love. Having a son has changed so much about how I view the world. From understanding martial arts, to healing a fraught sibling relationship and possibly, in some ways, even how I think about men.
I have two brothers but the brother closest in age was a frenemey. We would play beautifully for snatches but as we got older we increasingly fought - violently, loudly and mercilessly. I was constantly annoyed by his exuberance, his ever-ready energy and what I saw as his aggression. I then went off to an all-girls high school and boys become a mystery until they became an obsession. Since then, my male mates and my husband have taught me a terrific amount about being a bloke, but seeing a son grow up is giving me a cellular, visceral and emotional understanding.
My son looks a lot like the brother I battled. He even talks, walks and acts in a manner that transports me back to being 9 years old. I can see myself in his older sister as she slams the bedroom door in his pleading face. I feel his hurt at the rejection so deeply I wish I could rewind time to apologise to his uncle. I now understand what happens on the other side of that door; the sweetness and vulnerability of the boy that battles.
While my daughter lives in an imaginary world of her own creation, my son is firmly grounded on earth. I can see his body constantly craving excitement, sensation and physicality; hence the tackling, hugging, hitting and whacking of friends and his family. While I used to be furious at my brother for picking up asend wielding every stick he saw and destroying every single toy we had – I see my son as a physical entity making sense of the world with his body. I feel my daughter’s pain at the consequences but realise she usually gives as good as she gets. Perhaps I’ve edited my own violence out of my story.
My son’s need for physical sensations even wake him most nights. He still comes into our bedroom, so I wake nearly daily to the brush of his soft warm cheek and puffs of tiny breath inches from my face. At his most vulnerable, sleep filled state he miaows like a satisfied cat.
His non-verbal communication is another understanding he’s given me about boys. While he’s often a chatty young thing, my son doesn’t need to talk about everything. In fact, when he’s most emotional, the verbal part of his brain shuts down – his first sentence at age 3 was ‘Mum just stop talking’. Sometimes, less really is more.
While my daughter can fool me rather easily, my son is more transparent when he’s been naughty. His body betrays him; a tight twist to his mouth, his long lashed eyes cast to the side and shoulders hunched. When I ask, “What have you done?” he’ll reply “Nothing but don’t look under my bed”. When I then find the party animal or diary he’s stolen from his sister, he’s astonished by his inability at subterfuge.
There’s also purity in his passion.
My son loves music. As do all his mates. They dance rapturously; connecting with a primal, deep, beautiful and spiritual rhythm. I pray the day never comes when they get self-conscious and resort to the Aussie white boy shuffle. The girls sing to hairbrushes and do their jazz ballet but for the boys, the music is glue that binds them to one another and to their bodies. They absorb it totally, recklessly and powerfully. They meet in its beats as their bodies meet in space.
I see my son’s friendships, forged on the dance floor and the martial arts hall, in all their glory. I am coming to understand the visceral need boys have to belong. I’ve always bristled at the word ‘gang’ but now feel my son’s desire to bond; his band of brothers feel confident and secure in their unity and they love each other deeply.
I once heard a male educator say humour is a great way to connect with boys. He’s right. My son may not need to talk but he frequently needs to laugh. He has a fabulous sense of the ridiculousness in life and doesn’t always try to make sense of it. I can see the male sense of humour forming and I honour it as much as his tears of pain. Perhaps this generation of young men, far less likely to be told ‘stop crying, boys don’t cry’, will keep showing that vulnerability.
While hearing my son’s glorious giggle and watching him negotiate the rigors of school and a world of complications, I ache for his vulnerable spirit. I can now see my brother’s softness, bruised heart and good nature. And at times, I find it easier to see the boy in other men.
As a bonus, my brother has had a little girl. It’s beautiful to watch him begin a journey of understanding from the other side. I hope if my kids have kids they’ll get the same lesson. But I have to go now; my daughter and son are killing each other.