Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Analyzing Ben

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Before I had Ben, I wondered if the gazillions of mothers who claimed that boys are massively different from girls were exaggerating. And even if they weren't, it seemed to me that this difference would probably show up around puberty. A mere 16 months after the birth of my son, however, I've been able to empirically determine that in fact, boys are massively different from girls.

As an engineer with a fondness for data, I've been preoccupied with trying to quantify the differences I've observed between Ben and his big sister, Riley. Now I admit, my sample size is small and I have no control group, but after extensive observation I have concluded that Ben is 15.3 times more likely to do something dangerous and/or violent, per hour, than Riley was at the same age. Or at any age. They do not appear to be from the same species. She cuddles and tickles him; he yanks her hair and tries to poke her eyes out. Her first word was "book;" his first (and so far, only) word was "uh-oh." I've compiled a few additional stats on my kids, and I'll share them with you here:

Instances of: Riley, 16 mos. Ben, 16 mos.
Eating dirt

None

Uncountable

Hitting

A few

Uncountable

Plugging things into
other things

A few

Uncountable

Sitting in my lap,
being read to

A lot

Two

Engaging in acts of
wanton destruction

A few

A billion

Other relevant data:
Number of
words spoken

About 15

About zero
(does "uh-oh" count?)

Objects used
as hammers

Hammers

Just about
everything

In the process of compiling this data, I have come to identify strongly with the famous primatologist Jane Goodall, who spent years living amongst chimpanzees in the jungles of Africa. As I sit on the couch watching Ben and Riley, I think of Jane squatting in the forest, scribbling in her notebooks, trying to unravel the mysteries of chimp behavior. She spent hours observing her subjects in their natural habitat; me too. Jane's subjects had much in common with human beings; mine too. We are not so very different, Jane and I.

Certainly I had expected to see personality differences between my two children; what's come as a shock is just how closely their behavior differences align with common gender stereotypes, and just how early these differences manifested themselves. From what I can tell, however, Ben appears to be fairly typical of youthful masculinity. I recall, for example, when the six-year-old son of a good friend earnestly told me what he had learned in school one day, with his own special interpretation: "Safety first," he told me seriously, then added with a grin, "danger later!" I remember watching Ben go on a destructive breaking-banging-hitting-screaming-whirling-dervish episode a few months ago, and shaking my head as I asked my husband afterwards "How do you people [men] function in society when this is what lives inside of you?"

He knew exactly what I meant, and he had no answer.

I can't help but notice that, unlike my daughter, my darling son is inordinately preoccupied with Things That Plug Into Other Things. I can see, in my mind's eye, his interview with his high-school counselor, trying to determine what to study in college. "I like to plug things into other things," Ben will say. "Ah yes," the counselor will respond, checking a box, "you must go to engineering school." Because that's what all the really good engineers are like. My engineer husband, for example, has only the thinnest veneer over this primal urge to plug. Ben once observed his dad using an electric drill, and as soon as the little guy had the chance he grabbed the drill, successfully plugged in a new drill bit, and tried to turn the thing on. I was somewhat appalled by this episode, but my husband and son could not have been more pleased. I caught the two of them exchanging smiles that bordered on the maniacal. "Yikes," I said softly.

In another example of the plugging thing, Ben recently discovered how to stuff his finger up his nostril. As he walked around with his forefinger rammed in up to the second knuckle, I could see a glow of happiness ("So that's what it's for!") suffusing his face. My little cherub.

And if fingers are fun, penises are even better. If you have a boychild yourself, you must have noticed that they really like to play with this particular appendage. Apparently penises, like fingers, need to be explored and experimented upon by their owners, though I assume that it will be years before Ben understands how they fit into the grand plugging scheme. From Ben, I have learned that penises are -- in terms of elasticity, anyway -- not that different from rubber bands. He recently spent an entire bathtime yanking on his, and after one particularly hard tug I could swear it went "BOINGGGGG!" when he let go. He's not gentle when it comes to exploring body parts, whether they belong to him or to some unfortunate bystander (me, for example).

I have found it to be extremely difficult to discourage Ben from engaging in active (and often destructive) exploration of the world around him. In this sense, I think that Jane Goodall had it easy. She only had to observe her subjects, not try to control the little beasts. There is virtually no area of our home that has not been thoroughly investigated, and I do not say this with great joy. I remember when my daughter was a baby I scoffed at the toilet-seat-lock thingies -- what kind of pathetic parent, I wondered, can't teach their child not to play with the potty? With Riley, all it took was a firm "no" and that was that. Ben, in contrast, considers the toilet his personal spa. It does not matter how many firm "no"s there are, how many times I dump him in his crib to make my point, or for that matter, how many times he crunches his own fingers by dropping the lid on them.

Just today, for example, I noticed that he had been playing quietly in the bathroom for about ten seconds -- and with Ben, quiet is never good. I walked into the bathroom and saw that he had lifted the toilet lid and was up to his elbows in potty water, cackling wildly. "Benjamin!" I growled in my most dangerous tone, which made him swish all the harder and chortle all the more joyfully. "Are you aware that you're possessed by Satan, or does he do it without you knowing," I muttered as I dragged him away.

In yet another exciting episode, the little guy pulled a stepstool up to the kitchen counter (this was before I realized he actually knew what stools were for -- you'd think the drill episode would have taught me something, but apparently not), climbed up, grabbed his box of dry oatmeal cereal, and dumped the entire carton on the floor. I found him sitting in what looked like a pile of snowflakes, grabbing handfuls and dumping them over his head. When I changed his diaper later, he had sticky oatmeal goo smeared all around places where oatmeal really should never be. Maybe I've just forgotten, but I don't believe my daughter ever managed to get a breakfast cereal pasted onto her private parts. She simply didn't have the requisite drive to climb, grab, and dump that propels Ben so strongly, and that so often yields unfortunate results.

Now don't get me wrong; my daughter is far from passive. Riley's actually a soccer-karate-tetherball-tag-playing tomboy. She's certainly not a girlie girl, and until I had Ben, I had never thought of her as particularly feminine (in the dainty, frou-frou sense). So I had expected that having a boy wouldn't really be that much different. It's only by having the contrast of Ben the Boy Baby that I've realized how many gender stereotypes are being played out in our household.

Until now, I had never noticed the way she has always been able to sit for long periods of time with her hands quietly resting in her lap. How she could admire a flower without mashing it into little pieces. How she was always more interested in watching my facial expressions and communicating with me than in trying to stick her fingers up my nose. How she went her entire babyhood without, to my knowledge, plugging an extension cord into itself more than a couple of times. I understand her; we instinctively connect. She's a normal person, after all. And Ben -- my baffling, infuriating, adorable Ben -- is a boy.


Jennifer Eyre White lives with her husband and three kids in the San Francisco Bay Area. From 2003-2005 she was a humor columnist for Literary Mama, and her essays have been featured in a variety of anthologies and magazines. You can find her online at HavingThreeKids, a site for those who have three, want three, or fear three.


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