At 5:47, on the evening of Aug. 17, 2007, my husband made the least surprising announcement in the history of our family.
“It’s a boooooy,” he said. He drew out the last word with a kind of amused resignation. It was a foregone conclusion, really. We had never even settled on a girl’s name for our second child.
That’s because, we are, quite simply, boy people.
I have four older brothers, a fact that has been as formative to my life as few others. Though my father later wryly told me he’d been “hoping for a basketball team,” the long-awaited arrival of the only Mendelsohn girl was such huge news that my brothers went knocking door-to-door through the neighborhood to announce it. My pink booties were hung outside the house like a trophy until they got yellowed from the sun.
Male blood relatives in my family always seemed to outnumber the female ones. (My father only had brothers; his only first cousin was male; and an alarming number of my female ancestors had died young and tragically.)
The lone holdout was my father’s mother, the second of four very close-knit sisters. I desperately romanticized them as a font of femininity—the kind of women who shared needlepoint sampler maxims and brisket recipes—but, in reality, my grandmother was very much one of the boys. She had a fierce love of sports, a killer instinct for picking the ponies at the racetrack. And, according to family legend, she was once rounded up on a paddy wagon for betting on a neighborhood poker game. Refreshingly for a woman of her generation, she relinquished all of the household domestic operations to my grandfather.
Though my brothers weren’t drawn to stereotypically testosterone-loaded activities, I still felt perpetually outnumbered by the sheer fact of their maleness. I was keenly aware that I was always forging a solo path: the lone frilly dress in a sea of coats and ties at every family event, the lone devotee of Louisa May Alcott and Raggedy Ann, the lone coveter of a training bra and pierced ears. Though I did heed the family calling and became a rabid New York Mets fan, I still dreamed of riding a girl’s bike with pink streamers instead of the hand-me-downs I inherited from my brothers.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that when I got the call that my first niece had been born, I was so overcome with excitement and bewilderment that I spilled an entire cup of coffee all over my living room sofa. I simply could not believe there was another member of the girls’ team.
Three years later, I married a man who is one of three brothers and whose parents both have … only brothers. When I was pregnant with our first child, we decided to find out the gender in advance. The next time we wanted to be surprised. (Or “surprised,” as it were.) But our then-2-year-old (boy) was a step ahead of us: he would hear none of this “you’re getting a baby brother or sister” talk, and told everyone quite emphatically that Mommy was having a “little brother named Alec.” I am still convinced there are some people who don’t believe that we really didn’t know.
It is a cardinal rule of modern parenting that we must never suggest that our special snowflakes of children are anything other than exactly as we had hoped.
Let me break that rule momentarily to con- fess that I had really wanted a daughter.
This doesn’t mean that I don’t adore my two boys with every fiber in my being or that they’re lacking in any way. It doesn’t mean I don’t realize what a precious and irreplaceable gift it is to have been able to have two children of either gender.
But it’s also a fact that … I had wanted a biological daughter. Perhaps it was vain or superficial, but I was tired of feeling outnumbered. I was infatuated with the idea of having my DNA pressed into a female vessel, curious what it would feel like to stare into a girl’s face like mine, or to see glimpses of my younger self in a teenage girl’s body.
After Alec was born just shy of my 39th birthday, I grieved a shameful, selfish grief for all the clichés that would never come true. I grieved the ability to dress my mythical daughter (Amelia? Eliza?) in pink ballet leotards. To buy Mary Janes and white tights and prom dresses. To hold tea parties and get manicures and have heart-to-hearts in our pajamas. To be the mother of the bride, rather than the mother of the groom, who is traditionally told to “shut up and wear beige.”
The strange thing is that as I sit here now, almost nine years after becoming a mother, I can still remember that fierce longing I had for a daughter, but I cannot even remotely summon its sting. It has been washed away by the happy reality of mothering the two precious children I was given, who look like boys and dress like boys and—dear God—sometimes smell like boys. Though I did insist they have a play kitchen as toddlers, the intervening years have been a (mostly) blissful parade of Thomas trains and Pokémon and Nerf guns and burp contests and Little League practices that last approximately 12,000 hours.
The concrete joys of what is far outweigh the wistful and impotent fascination with what could have been. The ferocious, mama bear love I feel for my children—my children!—makes superficial trappings like clothes and toys entirely irrelevant. It seems silly to have ever thought it could have gone any other way.
Yes, I am once again outnumbered, but I clearly have the family I was born to have.
Jennifer Mendelsohn lives in Mount Washington with her husband and their two boys. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, People, Slate and USA Weekend. She also serves as one of Us Weekly’s Fashion Police “Top Cops.”