NOTHING BRINGS A MOTHER OF sons more feelings of things left undone than the thought of handing one of them off to another woman. I did it for the first time on August 31. Perhaps if I’d done my job better, this would have happened earlier. Are wet towels mildewing on the floor of their apartments a factor in this extended bachelorhood? The empty toilet tissue roll with no spare in sight? The toothpaste-encrusted bathroom sink? The little piles of used Kleenex, gum wrappers, Post-it notes, and pocket change always accumulating on every flat surface?
Give me some credit. They’re out of diapers, bathe and brush their teeth regularly, and do their own laundry. Two of the three can fold clothes better than I can. One can iron. (I’m sworn to secrecy.) Yes, I know, one just pulls what he needs from the clean pile in the corner. All of them can cook breakfast, steam broccoli, boil pasta, and grill a hamburger. The one who irons also does excellent yard work. I have never packed a suitcase for any of them.
Such résumé details, however, only suggest a certain self-sufficiency, a hope that they will not be a burden to those around them. The larger question is whether my influence in this all-male household was sufficient to instill respect for and understanding of women. They respect me, but that wasn’t the assignment. I worry that I have given them a skewed idea of what women are like and what they expect.
I am by temperament and upbringing a low-maintenance woman. Writing at home doesn’t require a lot of clothes. I have never felt the need to hide extravagant retail purchases in my closet or the trunk of the car as I know some women do. I have no gift closet in which to store items to give spontaneously to friends. I never believed that one size fit all. I have no collectibles other than a handful of books signed by authors I greatly admire.
If the fashion magazine articles that I read in doctors’ waiting rooms are any indication, I’ve done an exceedingly poor job of preparing my sons for the expensive beauty regimens that seem to be standard for women today. With my middle son, Drew, in tow, I once sat at a counter at Henri Bendel’s in New York letting a makeup artist transform me. Drew thought it was hilarious. “This is so weird. My mother never does this,” he kept saying a bit apologetically to passersby. As the salesperson totaled up the products that my transformation required, my customary indulgence of eight good haircuts a year and drugstore lipsticks seemed a Lenten discipline. That a woman might also require regular and costly hair coloring, eyelash dyeing, waxing, collagen injections, massages, nail applications, pedicures, liposuction, and spa visits—well, don’t hit my boys with this all at once.
Low-maintenance moms fit comfortably into male households where shopping is neither a recreational outing nor a bonding experience. The only regular shopping boys’ mothers do is to replace items that have been lost, broken, torn, or eaten. Boys require only two pairs of shoes. Beyond having the prescribed, suitably distressed jeans, they never worry much about what is in their closets. Guys rarely give each other gifts. Once zits are banished, their grooming requires about four items. Their idea of decorating their rooms in their teenage years is a beer can pyramid and a Sports Illustrated swimsuit calendar. Spend 25 years in this environment and your God-given female ability to sweat the small stuff is greatly impaired.
I REALIZE, OF COURSE, THAT I am not the measure of all things female. For many years, however, I had to be the interpreter. Girls intruded in their lives long before they were ready to take much notice. One