The Four Boys Questions

*Warning:  If you like visiting my blog to see photos of my family exploring our new home country or to see my art work but you don’t enjoy my occasional ranting and raving so much then you probably ought to gloss over this blog entry and wait for the next one to appear instead.  If, however, you enjoy the schadenfreude of my gripes or you just find other people’s moaning diverting then do please read on.  Consider yourselves warned.*


As regular readers of my blog will know, I am the mother of four boys.

This seems to be something people – by which I mean random strangers – feel the need to pass comment on and lately I have been feeling that quite acutely.  It’s not an experience particularly related to our migration across the Atlantic: plenty of people passed comment on the fact I had four sons back in Britain too.  However, living in a very small community as we were for the past decade, I was somewhat insulated on a daily basis from people finding it necessary to comment.  Indeed, where we lived it was not that noteworthy to have either four children or more or for all of the children in one family unit to be of a single gender.  Of course, people would often refer to me as “the one with four boys” but only as a way to differentiate me from others with the same given name.  People in our small community did not feel the need to pass comment about it or interrogate me over it.  That would happen on ventures into bigger towns and cities but, of course, those trips were few and far between.  Now, however, I have been catapulted from a small community where everyone knew me to at least some degree to being in the suburbs of a major city where nobody knows us.  As such, meeting strangers is a frequent  occurrence and this inevitably leads to the passing of comments or the asking of questions about our family dynamic.

Probably the most common response I get from people seeing me with my gang is, “Wow!  Four boys, eh!”  Nothing to bristle about there.  It’s a mere statement of fact.  I cannot comprehend the element of surprise that necessitates me using exclamation marks to quote it but, yes random stranger, I do indeed have four boys.  Well done.  You get to pass basic arithmetic and get some credit towards your biology grade too.  Yet, unless this comment is made as I am walking past the stranger at a rate of knots, it rarely stops at this exclamation.  That’s when I start to get a little fed up but mostly, at this stage of motherhood, just bored with the tedium of people saying the same old things over and over about the products of my womb.

“You must be exhausted.”  Why, yes, I am exhausted.  As previously noted by you, I am the mother of four children.  That makes my life pretty busy and pretty hectic, balancing out all of their needs, making their schedules mesh, processing all of the relentless laundry, picking up all of the lego….  Honestly, this is not a remark I mind so much.  It’s true and in some ways I am grateful for the recognition that raising kids is really hard work.  Variations on this theme are things like “Your house must be noisy”, “That’s a whole lot of energy” or “That must be hectic / chaos / fun” and really it is.  There’s no inherent negative judgement in those statements, just an observation that having four kids makes me a very busy person.  “I bet they keep you on your toes” is another one I get a lot.  Why, yes they do.  But the thing I often tell people – because, of course, people ask – is that the most difficult transition I made was from being childless to having one child and then the next most difficult transition was going from having just the one child to having two because I had to split my attention and focus.  Adding the third and fourth did not actually make life any more exhausting or complex.  All parents of young children are exhausted whether they have one child or many.  Life is spent relentlessly at the coalface when you have kids who depend on you for their every need.  So, yes, I am exhausted.  Thanks for noticing.  Parenting is indeed exhausting whatever the shape of your family.

The thing I often wonder about this remark, however, is if the same person would deliver the same remark to a mother of four daughters or the mother of a tribe of mixed gender kids.  I cannot answer my own query because I obviously have no experience of being the parent of anything other than boys but somehow I often detect an implication that I am more harried than the average mother, even perhaps more than the average mother of four, precisely because I have all boys.  Clearly boys are assumed to generate additional chaos and mess in a way that girls would not.  That would be the “slugs and snails and puppy dogs tails” trope at work I suppose.  There is also the inference that I look utterly and appallingly exhausted, which is not a particularly welcome “compliment” from a complete stranger but ho hum.  I know fine well that I have matching sets of luggage under my eyes, scruffy hair (and not in a boho way) and dress in a thrown together way but that is partly just motherhood itself – whatever form the brood comes in – and partly because I am a lifelong tomboy who doesn’t put much time or effort into my appearance.  I looked just as unkempt when I had just one child.  I am pretty sure I would look identical had I been the mother of four daughters.

“Are they all yours?”  Um…..yes.  Of course, occasionally I might have five or six boys trailing behind me.  I have had eight.  On those occasions I let strangers off the hook because, of course, the answer is that no, only a fraction of them are mine, albeit the biggest fraction.  Otherwise, however, this is another one of those boring, humdrum questions I have to deal with.  Yes, they are all mine.  That is why they look like variations on the same clone, right down to identical hair whorls that make buzz cutting their hair extra-annoying.  Plus, if they were not all mine then there is no way I would be dragging them all around the supermarket, kicking and screaming.  Taking my own four kids on such an “outing” is not exactly fun so taking along some extra kids is surely no one’s idea of a great playdate.

“You going for the football team?” and other variations relating to building a sports team.  I don’t watch sport.  I have no interest in sport.  Not only do I not want to discuss how many children I have chosen to have with a total stranger but I also do not want to engage in any sports-based conversation with a stranger.  Besides, often it leads to a probing question about how many kids we might have in future.  Something along the lines of “With Dad, you have a five-aside team; are you going to go for the full eleven football team?”  A large sigh and a curt no is my standard reply.  Does anyone truly think that random encounters with strangers are an appropriate forum for conversations about family planning?  Even if the lead-in question was sports-based?

“At least you won’t ever have to [insert gender stereotype of choice]”  And that is when I insert a huge sigh.  Correct, I probably won’t ever have to have a discussion about menstruation with my sons in the same way that I would if I had a daughter.  They don’t necessarily need to know the practicalities of how to deal with that particular ordeal.  But they already have regular contact with one woman who does menstruate so I am making sure they know about it just the same.  I am not sure ignorance of the biology of the other gender is helpful to anyone after all.  And, no, I won’t have to deal with a teenage daughter being into the latest annoying fashion.  But all but my oldest son have pretty firm ideas about what they will and will not wear and like to put outfits together themselves so I am pretty sure there may come a time when they wear something I think is hideous.  Teenagers try on identities and clothing is part of that and I am pretty sure teenage boys are just as annoying on that score as teenage girls.  If you have seen all those boys with jeans hanging below their butt-lines then you know this to be true.

I am not going to fib: when I knew for absolute certain that I was never going to have a daughter, I did have a wee wobbly moment where I thought about some superficial things like not having a daughter to pass my jewellery on to but every single thing that passed through my head in those couple of minutes was so superficial as to be meaningless.  Plus I might end up with some granddaughters to pass the jewellery onto.  Whether they like it or not.  Unless my magpie 8 year old son has already made off with it.  Because that is the other things about gender stereotypes – not everyone is going to fulfil them.

“Boys are SO much easier than girls.”  I often detect an agenda in this statement that actually speaks to pity rather than celebration but brushing that aside, really?  Are boys really easier than girls?  Because I am finding raising boys to be plenty challenging.  I don’t think I could every be that emphatic about how easy it is to raise any child.  Furthermore, I am pretty sure that my brothers as well as my sisters and I contributed to my parents’ grey hair, creased brows and gave them sleepless nights.  Raising kids is tough.  It’s the hardest job there is.  All kids present their parents with difficulties, I’m sure.  The idea that having a Y chromosome makes a child any more biddable or easy to rear is just preposterous.

However, all of those queries are pretty harmless really, are fundamentally well-intentioned and can be seen off with an inward sigh and a polite no.  It’s when we get into the more personal territory that I really start to get hacked off.

“Nothing better to do in the evening where you live, eh?”  Even without a seedy wink-wink-nudge-nudge tone, I really do not want to entertain this type of conversation with a stranger.  Or anyone.  Of course, in the wilds of Scotland, we still lived in stone bothies and washed our laundry in the stream and slept on straw beds next to our cattle to keep warm at night. Of course there was nothing better to do on that basis.  Breeding also keeps you warm on those long, dark, winter nights after all.  Once television reaches such remote environs, the population is going to decline into extinction.  Well by jings, if only I had not already read every book in the house or had a jigsaw to divert my attention, I might have just ended up with one child.  If I had learned how to play charades, I might yet be childless.

“You must be really fertile.”  Again with the questions about a really private aspect of life.  I am hardly that legendary Russian woman with 69 children.  I have four.  Just four.  That they were born at roughly two year intervals also does not make me some noteworthy example of fecundity.  Furthermore, my youngest is now five years old so my womb is well and truly retired yet people still occasionally say this to me.  It is one of the rarer offerings, I must admit, but it is one that makes me seethe inside all the same because, while I offer a controlled “No, not really”, I have to suppress the urge to explain that it is unkind and cruel to discuss the fertility of someone whose journey to parenthood you know absolutely nothing about.  It’s an assumption too far to think that all women with what you have determined is a large brood of chicks is super-skilled at popping out babies.  What I sometimes wish I could tell those people is that actually I am not super-fertile.  That actually my clutch of four boys was hard won through some emotionally gruelling trials and tribulations.  That actually we were once informed that the chances of us having even one biological child without assistance were pretty slim.  That actually I went through countless months of failure, blighted ovum, a devastating miscarriage and even worse tragedy to have my family of four boys.  But, of course, I am not going to share all of that personal information with a stranger* in the middle of a shop when put on the spot like that.  No, instead I just politely say, “No, not really” and move on.

But it gets worse.

“Were you trying for a girl?”  This one makes me want to karate chop people in the windpipe at times, the times when they say it within earshot of my sons, the sons they have just determined must have been failed attempts at having daughters.  It makes me spit feathers to think that someone would even look at me with my four lovely sons and even sub-consciously be thinking “What a shame she ended up with all of them.”  At no point did we try for anything other than a baby.  I hear tell there are all sorts of myths and legends about how one might influence the gender of the baby but I am pretty confident, even having done zero research into it whatsoever, that none of it works.  The fastest sperm wins the race and gets to choose whether baby develops a hamburger or a hotdog.  That’s it as far as I am concerned.  I had a strong feeling every single time that I was pregnant that I was having a boy.  By the time I had my second son, I felt absolutely certain that I would only pop out boys.  That didn’t stop us expanding our family.  That didn’t send me rushing off to read hokum about how to make sure the next one might be female.  By the time I was pregnant with my third son, I could even argue with people who posed such a wretched question that actually another boy was easier because of sharing bedrooms and hand-me-down clothes.  Still they would look at me with a somewhat pitiful look.  Sure, when we were first starting trying for a family I imagined having a mixed gender family not as any sort of hope but simply because I am from a mixed gender family myself so it was what I knew and where, therefore, my imagination wandered.  But each and every time, all we were ever hoping for was a healthy baby.  With my last baby, for reasons that will become clear, the doctor could have told me I had just been delivered of a bright green space monkey and I would have been thrilled as long as he was breathing and healthy.

That is because actually, in all truth, I am not the mother of four sons.  I am actually the mother of five sons.  My fourth son was stillborn.  He was no more a failed attempt at a daughter than his brothers.  Therefore, for very emotionally charged reasons, I was extra happy when I was told my youngest child was another boy because then I would not have to deal with people saying, “You got your girl at last” and have to process the fact that they must consider that the loss of my tiny baby boy was the price I had to pay to finally get a daughter.  So, for the most part, when some random stranger comments that we must have been trying for a girl I just say “No, not at all” but if they catch me at a time that is difficult for me emotionally, when my internal edit doesn’t function so well, then they might just be given some insight into why it is we should be thankful for healthy baby boys, girls or even bright green space monkeys.

“Are you going to try for a girl?” or “You will need to keep trying for a girl” are almost as bad.  Aside from the fact that I see no reason to discuss family planning with anyone other than my husband and doctor, do they really expect me to say, “Yes, these failed attempts at daughters I drag around after me are not fulfilling me as a mother so I am going to keep popping out babies every couple of years in the hope that I get a female one before I have enough boys for an American Football team.”  We wanted four children.  We have four children.  Our job here is done.  The only upside to this stupid line of questioning is that it implies that perhaps I don’t look quite as harried and busted up as a mother of four as some other interrogations imply.  Perhaps I am managing to make mothering four kids look like such a breeze that people think it would be a cake walk for me to have umpteen children to care for.  However, the real agenda to the question is the same as “Were you trying for a girl?”, that assumption that I must be disappointed to have four healthy, smart, witty, interesting children because they all happen to have the same genitals.

Then you get the people who over-share.  The people who, for instance, have two boys and confide that they would love to try for a third baby but are scared in case they get another boy.  I actually have no words for such people when this happens.  It sucker punches me every single time.  I am surprised my jaw doesn’t drop aghast and appalled each and every time this happens – which is more often than it ought to.  I say nothing on these occasions.  What I really want to say to these people sometimes (when at an emotional low ebb)  is that I am not entirely convinced they should have another child, that maybe they should focus on those “failed daughters” they already have, that maybe they do not even deserve to have a bright green space monkey, because if the idea of another beautiful baby boy fills you with such dread then you probably do not have the capacity for selflessness and unconditional nurturing required to be a successful parent.  I am not going to judge someone who feels momentary disappointment or even fleeting sadness that they are having another child of the same gender.  That’s OK.  Those passing thoughts I can comprehend.  Aside from anything else, pregnancy hormones make you go crazy.  But to articulate the thought that that transitory disappointment would translate into fear of yet another child of the same gender just beggars belief.  There was a time when I was more tolerant of people expressing such things.  I am afraid, however, that my experience of losing a baby has made me a bit more hard-line because every single baby is a little miracle of biology, a little wonder, and an amazing privilege to have in one’s life and all that superficial and stereotypical baggage that gets attached to the different genders is just such small beer, so absolutely meaningless, compared to the gift of a healthy, happy baby.  How can anyone fear that?

I strive to be a tolerant person.  I work hard to respect that not everyone shares the same perspective as I have on certain aspects of parenthood.  I am as capable of being as judgemental as the next person but I (mostly) keep the snippy comments in my head and sometimes mentally slap my own wrist for thinking that way.  And that for me is the key thing.  Be impressed that I exited the store with the same number of kids I came in with, that’s fine.  Marvel at the fact that I happen to have four kids who all have XY chromosomes because, I mean, what are the chances of that?  About 50/50 every time actually.  Be sympathetic about how run down I look because, you know what, parenting really is a hard job.  That’s all fine.  But please, dear random strangers, keep those thoughts to yourself.  Think it but do not say it.  And especially – absolutely especially – do not say anything about the fact my kids are all boys in front of my sons.  I really will never fathom why a person would find it acceptable to embark on a family planning conversation with a complete stranger because really the only thought that should enter their heads when they see me, tired and fraught as I may be, with my rag-taggle assortment of boys is “Isn’t she lucky” .  Because I am.  Very.



* And, yes, dear Reader, I am aware of the fact that in writing this down in my blog I am sharing these thoughts and experiences with random strangers.  However, I will justify it by stating that clearly it is my choice to do so in this context – and that on a busy street or in the middle of the supermarket is not the context I would ever choose – and that humans are fallible when it comes to hypocrisy as they are with everything else.