When raising boys, what of love?

In a war against women by men, feminist mothering that teaches boys how to give and receive love is a radical political act.

Women in South Africa are in hell. As poet Megan Ross reminds us, it is not monsters that walk among us and torment us, but men. These men were once boys. Boys who came from women’s bodies. Boys who were nurtured and nourished by women’s bodies. Yet it is women’s bodies that are targeted, assaulted, objectified, violated and disposed of. 

I am scared of men. They are the creatures I most fear on Earth and I know many women share this sentiment. So it is with great irony that I am a mother of two boys. Boys who will grow into men.

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It is difficult to write about this and not be sensational. The creativity and imagination men have used to brutalise women in South Africa is sensational. We are at war. Women living in South Africa experience what people living in conflict zones experience. Man hangs his four children. Man bludgeons young woman at post office after raping her. Man rapes seven-year-old girl in restaurant toilet. Woman hacked up and found in black bags in apartment block. Man shoots girlfriend in the head. Man throws two hand grenades at wife, killing her. Men gang rape and disembowel woman. 

I want to say all of their names but I cannot. So many names. So many. We are at war. Writer Rebecca Solnit calls this “the longest war” – and it really is. As history shows, men’s hatred of women has constructed systemic ways to disbelieve, erase and silence us. 

A learned violence

Yet we know that boys don’t start out this way. They are not inherently violent. They do not inherently hate women. Boys, like girls and all children, are curious, empathetic, affectionate, funny, adventurous, creative and expressive. And yet, they do not remain that way. 

“All boys in patriarchal culture, learn early that manhood is synonymous with the domination and control over others, that simply by being male they are in a position of authority that gives them the right to assert their will over others, to use coercion and/or violence to gain and maintain power,” says bell hooks. 

In her book, We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity, the chapter titled “From, angry boys to angry men” details how black boys, in particular, experience what she terms “initiating trauma” of patriarchal socialisation. This happens systemically and methodically through very clear and limited definitions of masculinities. Boys who do not conform to these narrow definitions are brutally victimised. 

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“Our cultural tolerance for young men who deviate from what we deem masculine is limited, and our intolerance expressed in singularly ugly ways … The consequence of opposition is psychological and often physical brutality,” writes hooks. 

Her argument shows how (an imperialist white-supremacist and capitalist) patriarchy is fundamental to stunting the emotional growth of boys, ensuring that they stay shrunk in limited versions of masculinities. She also shows how anger, and in turn violence, is but par for the course. 

Rebecca Solnit echoes this in her collection of essays, Men Explain Things to Me, saying, “Violence doesn’t have a race, a class, a religion or a nationality, but it does have a gender.” This same patriarchy creates a fertile field for rape culture. 

Radical political act

Most women know this. And as a feminist mother to boys I feel quite deeply that the odds are stacked against me. No matter my efforts, my boys will become men who will become violent towards women in one way or another. 

However, after the assault that is Women’s Month, during which men have indeed made a sport out of killing and raping women and children, I feel the urgent need to turn my gaze and efforts to activism. I have to believe that I can do something to make a difference. Solnit sums up my feelings by saying that globally and at the country level, each rape is treated as an isolated incident when it isn’t. 

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“We have dots so close they’re splatters melting into a stain, but hardly anyone connects them, or names that stain … it’s a human rights issue, it’s everyone’s problem, it’s not isolated … It has to change. It’s your job to change it, and mine, and ours,” she says. 

It is through this urgent need to act that I keep coming back to understanding mothering as a radical political act. 

This is not a new notion. Dani McClain shows in her book, We Live for the We, how black women have long treated the personal acts of mothering as deeply political. In her seminal work, Rape: A South African Nightmare, Pumla Dineo Gqola says that while raising boys differently is critical, fundamentally we need to hold rapists accountable. We need new tools in finding ways to dismantle the rape culture that makes rape permissible. She writes: “Audre Lorde … reminds us that ‘the master’s tools will not dismantle the master’s house’. Violence is the master’s tools.” 

Questions of love

This resonates and brings me to the question, what of love? Is it possible to work tirelessly in teaching specifically our boys about love? And in doing so, we teach boys about accountability. 

It seems so banal but in a society so violent that turns boys into violent men, surely we can safeguard against some of this by a radicalised and intentional mothering steeped in love? What if we taught our boys about all the work that goes into love? What if we consistently and carefully unpacked the incredible lightness and deep importance of all the things wrapped into love? Things like consent, communication, using your words, accountability, acceptance (not only of others but profoundly of self), care, affirmation, commitment, trust and honesty. 

I am not suggesting that mothers do not love their boys enough. I am saying that we teach our boys to love differently. We teach our girls to do the grunt work of love, and we teach our boys to receive love. We teach our boys that they are entitled and in so doing they learn no boundaries. Also, if they are always entitled to receive love and never taught how to give it, how do they love themselves? 

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To quote hooks again, she says in her book All About Love: “In patriarchal culture, men are especially inclined to see love as something they should receive without expending effort. More often than not they do not want to do the work that love demands.” 

“Schools for love do not exist,” hooks continues, “everyone assumes that we will know how to love instinctively.” This is certainly not the case. 

I have to believe I can make a small change by consciously raising my two boys into thinking, sensitive, aware, critical men who understand that their masculinity – as purported by a violently patriarchal society – is limiting and outdated. 

Dare I say my male peers are a lost cause? There is simply too much damage there already, not enough will, limited tools to do the work and an inclination for women to step in and teach. I don’t have the capacity for that work. And quite frankly I am tired of not being believed. 

So I will tend to and nurture and work and watch and yell and teach and talk to my sons. I will whisper in their ears, show them alternatives, remind them of their humanity and empathy, allow for their creativity and fight with them to do better because they will know better.

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