When Did Being A ‘Boy Mum’ Become Something To Be Pitied?

Ruth Whippman opens up about parenting her three sons

Boy mum

by Gaby Hinsliff |
Published on

When Ruth Whippman announced she was expecting her third son, she wasn’t expecting sympathy.

But unnervingly often, she got it. Another boy? Poor you! The sense there was something wrong with being male only deepened when, still nursing her newborn, she watched the MeToo movement erupt on social media, unleashing a torrent of pent-up female anger against toxic men. Though the feminist in her was thrilled, she wondered if her small sons would grow up feeling ashamed to be male, or guilty by association.

The result of all this was BoyMum, her memoir about raising sons to do better  - but without treating them all like mini-rapists in waiting. “I felt like if I were experiencing all these conflicting emotions then presumably other people were too,” she explains over Zoom from the Californian home she shares with husband Neil and sons Solly, Zephy and Abe (now 13, 10 and 6.)

This is delicate terrain, and Whippman - a British ex- BBC journalist - stresses repeatedly that she’s not endorsing some dubious men’s rights movement or minimising violence against women. But as the mother of a 17-year-old boy, I recognise the feeling she describes of being thrilled to see girls more empowered, and anxious to raise good men, but worried about lost and alienated boys being drawn to the easy answers of misogynistic YouTubers. Many mothers of sons meanwhile struggle to recognise our own funny, half-formed but essentially kind boys in headlines about toxic masculinity, rape culture, and a Gen Z anti-feminist backlash.

What shocked her about the teenagers she interviewed, Whippman says, is how lonely they felt. “Even the ones that had a lot of friends were missing that connection – that they couldn’t say anything personal or vulnerable. Quite a few used the same expression which was ‘you can never let your guard down.’”

The message boys absorb from babyhood, she concluded, is that manliness means being strong and dominant – leaving many feeling ashamed of not being strong enough. But now this kind of masculinity is understandably deemed threatening, leaving them confused. "They’re still expected to be the boy who is masculine and makes the first move - girls expected that. But step just a smidge too far over the line and you’re a creep. A lot of boys were just avoiding relationships and sex all together - like ‘this is just too much, I’d rather just watch porn on my own.’”

The root problem, she argues, is we’re not teaching boys the fine social skills needed to read emotions and navigate equal relationships, or showing them how dismantling sexist stereotypes actually benefits them too.

Whippman picked her title before the #boymom hashtag went viral on Instagram and TikTok, but is struck by the way it often portrays sons as basically lovable dogs, boisterous and hyper. Of course they can’t sit still, or emote!  They’re boys! It sounds comforting, says Whippman, given her boys often were constantly fighting. But it’s also very reductive.  “If anyone says ‘girls can’t do maths’ or ‘girls are naturally suited to caregiving’ then your hackles go up,” she says. “We limit boys before we even start.”

Research shows parents spend more time reading and singing to girls, she says, and use more emotional language with them. Where girl-oriented stories and games focus on feelings and relationships, boys get superhero movies.“We feed them this story all the way through childhood which is ‘you’ve got to be tough, life is all about battles and fighting and winning and losing’.” Teenage hours spent video gaming with friends from their respective bedrooms, meanwhile, come at the expense of learning to interact face-to-face.

With her own sons, Whippman hasn’t banned screen time but she rations it to make room for real-life socialising. She also consciously points out sexist stereotyping of boys in books and TV shows to her sons, and encourages talk about their feelings. For mothers whose teenagers are arguing that feminism has gone too far, she recommends not scolding or shutting them down but getting them to talk about why they feel that, before encouraging them to consider how badly women have historically been treated. Above all, she wants boys to see equality as liberating for them, not threatening.

“Masculinity influencers have really tried to frame it as feminism taking away from boys -  actually the feminist project benefits boys. The same system that oppresses women and puts us in a box, and keeps us in these rigid stereotypes and roles, does exactly the same for boys,” she says. “If we mock boys or demonise them, then of course they’re not going to buy into the idea.”

She admits her sons occasionally ‘roll their eyes’ at her but hopes something sinks in. “My mum was a real Seventies second wave feminist and I used to hate it  - ‘Oh God, she’s banning pink’ -  but actually now I’m so grateful.” Will all our sons one day say the same?

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