Please, Stop Asking Me If I Want a Son

harrison scott key essay
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I’VE GOT NOTHING against men. They’ve done many good things for society, like invent democracy and put the faces of other men on all the money. But please, stop asking me if I want a tiny one.

It started when my wife became pregnant with our first child, some 13 years ago. “I know you’re hoping for a boy, right!?” people exclaimed. Am I? I wondered.

This was in rural Mississippi, my tribal homeland, where all the men are strange, all the women are strong, and all the teenagers are pregnant, preferably with boys—according to the people I knew anyway. To be sure, there were once practical reasons for wanting a son. But was I some kind of Bronze Age farmer who needed the superior upper-body strength of boys to harness oxen? No. At the time, I taught high-school English.

Plus, my own football-coaching, gun-toting badass of a father had prayed for a boy all his life and ended up with me, a son born with a love for libraries and calligraphy. Any boy of mine, I reasoned, would just as likely disappoint me the way I had my own dad. And yet I did feel a deep, explicable compulsion to sire a male who might carry our surname to the precipice of human history. Maybe it’s primal?

Eventually, the baby came. And it was a girl! We were overjoyed! My wife and I vowed to give her as happy and healthy a life as we could. And most of our friends and acquaintances pretended not to pity us, even though the child would never have a chance to score a Sugar Bowl touchdown or be Pope.

TWO YEARS LATER, my wife became engorged again. “Dude, you know you want a boy,” friends insisted. But I still wasn’t convinced. I’d begun writing stories about my father, in hopes of redeeming the suffering we’d inflicted on each another. Would I warp a son in petty and ridiculous ways, despite my attempts to love him, as my father had me? I didn’t have a chance to find out.

“Another girl!” everybody exclaimed when Baby #2 showed up. “Welp!”

“Maybe your next one will be a boy,” old ladies would winkingly say to me as I pushed a double stroller through Piggly Wiggly.

I tried to give people the benefit of the doubt that they meant well with their remarks; perhaps it was reasonable to assume that for variety’s sake I’d want a son instead of another daughter. Still, what drove this tenacious preference for males? I wondered.

I scrolled through parenting discussion boards and discovered that some moms and dads seemed unable to tell the difference between their daughters and a baby jaguar. “Girls are like sneaky cats,” one comment read. “I find little girls are very high maintenance,” said another. “And I can’t stand the screeching!”

The remarks boggled me, as did a 2011 poll that found that about twice as many Americans want a boy over a girl. (A follow-up poll this year suggests that the percentage has dropped only slightly since then.) What does this preference say about us, as a people, and how we value the sexes? Probably not great things.

WHEN OUR THIRD daughter debuted, two years later, people’s remarks took on a pitying, sorrowful tone, the way you might talk about a puppy on the internet with wheels for legs. “You just wait!” people said. “One day!”

But as my girls have gotten older, a new sentiment has emerged from strangers—especially from the mothers and fathers of just boys. “Be thankful you have girls,” they say. “Boys are a handful!” This comment strikes me as a particularly transparent humble-brag, implying that boys are all-American rascals, whereas girls are tidier; better mannered; and, well, less interesting.

How can I explain to these parents that—though there’s a great deal of hair-related crying in our home—my daughters engage in all sorts of dangerous behavior, including topless whittling and frying sausage naked? They’ve broken arms in and outside the house, use knives to sharpen pencils, and can destroy a room with the facility of highly trained looters. We arm-wrestle at dinner, leg wrestle at dessert, thumb wrestle at church. I’ve taught them how to hold hissing bottle rockets and hurl them barehanded into the night sky.

And, sure, my daughters might never play starting quarterback, but all three can throw a decent spiral. I’ve seen to it.

AS I’VE GOTTEN OLDER, I’ve put to rest some demons about my father, and I’ve stopped getting angry when people ask me if I want a son. Which they still do. “We have three baby jaguars,” I say, “and they’re the best.”

Maybe a son will emerge from my wife one day. If so, we shall embrace the lad. But I no longer have urges to sire a male heir to keep my name alive. Because, really, who cares? (Besides, my name lives on in bookstores across the land, which requires not sons but editors.)

The truth is, I’ve dedicated my life to trying to be adored by women, and now that my days are filled with little women daring me to be adored by them, I don’t hate it. Of course, you’re free to want your child to be born a boy or a girl or a nectarine, if that’s your thing. But leave me alone about my daughters. I will cut you. Or they will. They have knives.

Harrison Scott Key is the author, most recently, of Congratulations, Who Are You Again?: A Memoir, out in November 2018. Watch the trailer here.