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 early phone conversation with my youngest son went something like this:
“William? Do you like Sarah?”
“Nope. Who is this?”
“Do you like Alice?”
Getting nowhere, the young lady changed her tactics.
“William, I’m going to name five girls. If you like any of them, just say ‘yes.’”
My boy was totally baffled by this conversation, but I recognized the ploy. One simple scrap of a “yes” from the uninterested male could fuel the romantic speculations of all five preteen girls attending the slumber party. I have tried to translate complicated female behavior for my sons, but in a house where talk about feelings once veered off into a discussion of dental fillings, I made little headway.
They were frequently puzzled by girls’ questions. They still relegate certain female queries to the category “up or down,” an allusion to a time in the fifth grade when a girl asked my eldest son if he liked her hair up in a ponytail or down. He was struck dumb by the question. Was he supposed to have an opinion on that? I occasionally forget where I live and ask similar questions of my menfolk about a new lipstick color. They respond, “I don’t know, Mom, up or down, I guess.” They have promised to tell me, when I’m in my dotage, if I’m going around looking like a clown with too much cheek color, but I’m not sure I can trust them.
A father of three girls once asked me, “How did you find time to write books? All of my wife’s energies were devoted to engineering the girls’ social lives.” In high school, boys would have no social lives if the girls’ mothers didn’t do this elaborate planning and engineering. Would the boys miss it? Probably not. This arranged social world is fraught with complexities and underlying agendas that boys don’t understand. Most boys don’t think about or even mention an invitation until it’s almost too late to rent a tux or order flowers. I once saw five guy friends work up the courage to ask a girl to a required social engagement by making a game of the asking. They made up lists of off-the-wall words and bet money that nobody could use all five words