I’m the mother of two boys.  Sometimes this fact seems like karmic revenge for a crime I didn’t know I committed in a past life. How can I be the mother of boys? I mean, does a tomato plant suddenly sprout beans?

Two days ago, Liam turned eleven, so I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a boy, a subject that obviously has me at a tremendous disadvantage: I’ve never been a boy and at this point I think it’s safe to say I never will be. As much as I’ve always wanted a daughter, there are times these days when I hear stories from friend with daughters the same age as Liam and I breathe a sigh of relief—the world of pre-teen girls (as I remember all too well) is fraught with pitfalls…pitfalls I was still climbing out of well into my thirties.

The pitfalls for boys seem different, in part because they have been inscribed into our culture so deeply we almost don’t see them as problems: our ideas about manhood, about masculinity: boys don’t have deep friendships, don’t cry, don’t feel. And so we forget to give them the language to talk about their feelings, forget even to give them the space to have feelings. We don’t even notice it’s happening, or if we do, we chalk it up to “growing up.” Maybe we stop giving our boys as many hugs, or the bedtime tucking-in ritual starts to seem “invasive,” or maybe we don’t hold their hands when we’re walking down the street. John Wayne died a long time ago, but his machismo lives on.

Liam may think of himself as a grown-up these days (there’s hair gel applied in the morning, sometimes so thickly that his head looks like a decoupage project; there’s a thin silver necklace around his neck and a swagger in his walk that wasn’t there last year) and sometimes he yanks his hand out of mine when we’re in public, but when the world gets too hard, he still climbs into my lap to tell me about his travails.  And that’s how it should be; it’s what I want him to do. There’s plenty of time for adolescent sullenness and withdrawal—and, truth be told, some of that is already happening: Liam, we say, what’s wrong? NOTHING, is the response, accompanied by a slammed door.  What can I say? He’s always been precocious. But given his pre-adolescent angst, I’m all the happier that he still finds comfort in my lap.

Where else does he find comfort? In the world of the computer games he’s designing (writing code, writing stories, creating worlds filled with the sort of minutiae that will probably lead him to spend his college years in a dark room playing Dungeons & Dragons); in books, which he devours like chocolate (The Hunger Games were the Best. Books. Ever. Until he finished The Lord of the Rings); and in soccer—excuse me, football—which has unfortunately led him to speak in faux-Brit accent drawn from his English soccer coach, the team’s Irish manager, every British football announcer he’s ever heard, and the entire cast of the “Harry Potter” movies. It’s atrocious.  He trots off the pitch field and says “mummy, I think I need new boots.”  Is it wrong that I pretend not to know him?

No matter what he does, Liam goes at it full tilt. I wonder sometimes if the sheer accident of his birth—being so tiny and having to fight so hard just to stay alive—created his forceful character: he’s still not much taller than his seven-year-old brother, but he’s got a personality the size of Russia.

Liam’s mind moves at a gallop; he says he resents sleeping because it’s a waste of time. I imagine that inside his brain it would be positively baroque, that it would look like a piece of music by Handel sounds: arpeggios, swoops, curlicues, all repeating around and around, building into something magnificent, symmetrical, and mathematically perfect.

This is a boy who never met a test he didn’t like (and master), and who believes in himself to a sometime absurd degree.  When he was six, after his first-ever ice skating lesson (during which he let go of the wall exactly twice) he said “mommy, I think I’ll make my living playing hockey.”  Hockey never materialized, thank god, but his confidence remains (mostly) unshakeable.

And while his competitive intensity does wonders on the playing field, or when it comes time to study for a school test, it’s a little less attractive when all you’re doing is gathering for a family game of Monopoly.  All games, for my darling boy, are blood sports. He doesn’t know how to turn it off.  If I have a specific worry for Liam—and parenting involves both the free-floating “what if” horror stories as well as child-specific anxieties–it’s precisely his intensity.  There are times when all his energy turns into anxiety, even a kind of frenzy:  forgot a math assignment? Death spiral. Can’t find the mouthpiece for his instrument? Utter disaster.  Forgot to bring in cookies for the bake sale? DESPAIR.  At some point, he’s going to have to find a bit of slacker in his soul—and when I tell him to relax, that maybe his quiz in gym (in gym??) doesn’t matter, he stares at me as if I’m the stoner hanging out in the bathroom instead of going to class. “Of course it matters, mommy.  Everything matters.”  His eyes fill with tears, his lip trembles, all the big-boy stuff melts away and for whatever reason, he’s worried and sad, and so I take him on my lap and rub his back.

I wonder how much longer he’ll let me do that?

a friend recently wrote a good book that challenges conventional wisdom about boys. It’s called Deep Secrets and it’s about the importance of deep, intimate friendships in boys’ lives. You should probably click right on over there to the Amazon portal and get yourself a copy…