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Mothers of Boys— The Feminist Dilemma

The Persian Gulf War spurred millions of new American mothers to ask, for the first time: “What will war mean to me as a mother, and what will it mean to my son?” It was this question that in Spring 1991 brought dozens of women to the “Mothers of Boys” support group sponsored by the Bay Area Jewish Family and Children’s Services in San Francisco.

“Mothers of Boys” was created in the spring of 1990, and its timing couldn’t have been better. Though there was a good amount of interest in the group from the outset, “interest really peaked around the Gulf War and the possibility of the draft,” according to Alison Ehara-Brown, one of the staffers.

There are two sections of “Mothers of Boys” sponsored by JFCS’s Parents’ Place and Children’s Institute, respectively. The group’s founder, Joanna Levine, runs an introductory mini-session that meets twice for two hours each. Alison Ehara-Brown coordinates a more in-depth support group, meeting for six weeks.

Guns and war and violence are only some among the many issues that the participants discuss. Says Ehara- Brown, “A lot of these women have feminist backgrounds. They are struggling with being parents and having a working life. And they went into parenting with a strong sense of wanting to raise boys who would be different—nonsexist, sensitive, non-violent.” Mothers come to “Mothers of Boys” to deal with the intense differences they face in the socialization of boys and girls. They come to share ideas about how to raise someone who is different from them and from what they know about growing up as girls.

Violence is perhaps one of the most common subjects the mothers want to discuss. One mother, says Ehara-Brown, had raised a “gentle child, disposed to loving and nurturing rather than fighting.” Once the child went to elementary school, however, “he was hassled by the other boys.” His mother has to struggle with her need to protect him and his need to assert his independence and figure out for himself what he needed to do to survive.

Yet many mothers, considering themselves liberal by any measure, come up against their own surprisingly ambivalent feelings when their sons like pink, want to wear dresses and play with dolls.

“For some mothers,” says Ehara-Brown, “raising boys is an opportunity to reclaim those areas they were shut out of, growing up as girls. For some, there’s a conflict between having to discipline a son and being somewhat intimidated by him because of his sex. For other women, raising boys means having to deal with all the things—football, camping—they hate. But always, raising boys can be an opportunity to expose young boys to a wide spectrum of life experiences.”

Currently, there is a waiting list for the program. Ehara-Brown attributes the interest to “the tremendous amount of isolation and confusion that parents feel. There has been a change in the roles of mothers and fathers, where things aren’t as clear-cut as they used to be. It opens a whole series of questions never asked before.”

Levine concludes, “We don’t pretend to have all the answers. But I think it’s important for them to know it’s alright to ask the questions.”