I was chatting with a young mother recently while two of her three sons simulated a boxing match. The baby watched avidly from his stroller. Turning to me, my companion said, “I’ve never been a boy. How am I supposed to understand them?”
I don’t really think she was expecting an answer. But the differences between the genders don’t go away as children get older. Over the last few years, I have watched my daughters and their friends transition from adolescence into adulthood. I have seen that the challenges they face are entirely different from those that my son and his peers face as they navigate the same years.
I know that today’s social and economic realities dictate that both sexes explore career options. But there are very different implications for boys and girls though it is perhaps politically incorrect to point this out. The burden of career commitment rests far more heavily upon the shoulders of boys than upon girls. Deep down, young men know that their masculinity is intimately linked to their being successful providers.
They know that any woman who decides to take “time out” from her job and focus on her home has not made herself any less of a woman. They know that when a woman decides not to return to work after maternity leave, much of society approves. However, men also knows that if a man announces to his wife that he no longer feels like going to work he will be viewed as an irresponsible failure. For him, work is for keeps.
The woman in her twenties or early thirties who adamantly declares that she doesn’t want children or that having a family won’t interfere with her dedication to her studies or career, may well mean it sincerely. But young men can get themselves into quite a mess if they gamble on those feelings never changing.
Economic factors often force many women into the workplace even if they truly would rather be building a home or spending more time with their children. But women whose economic situations allow them genuinely to exercise choice often choose to work only part time or to stop working altogether. I have read that in countries such as China after years of being fully integrated into the work force, more women are choosing to stay at home as economic and social changes allow that option.
But, whether we think it fair or not, men don’t have the luxury of choice in this area. As a society, we ardently defend the idea that women should have full access to professional schools and the careers of their choice. But we also insist that they should have complete freedom to opt out of school or work if they choose. Then we refuse to acknowledge that we have different expectations for men. Something is wrong with this picture, isn’t it? Ancient Jewish wisdom teaches that one who is obligated to do something and does it, is exhibiting more greatness than someone else who volunteers to do the same thing. The act of doing what we should rather than what we choose requires greater commitment.
Since graduating college, my son and his friends have been navigating the career waters trying to find occupations in which they can prosper and thrive. In contrast to summer jobs they may have held, they are now looking at years, not weeks, of work ahead of them. Embracing this challenge can be a part of what molds them into the type of men who will make good husbands and fathers, the type of men whom our daughters seek as life partners.
When we pretend that gender doesn’t matter, that – as a group – young men and young women have equal stakes in the job game, we are lying to both sexes. While I admit that sentence would have infuriated me at eighteen, and probably will infuriate most college students today, I think our society suffers when we pretend that we can make up any rules we feel like, even when they run counter to reality. Those little boys I saw whose behavior was perplexing their mother are going to want to wrestle and struggle in ways most little girls will never understand. And if they channel that masculinity and grow up to accept the yoke of supporting a family, they deserve our appreciation.