Gingerbread Men

by Yule Heibel on December 20, 2005

It’s nearly Christmas, isn’t it? The time to find solace and warmth in exotic and historically expensive spices: ginger, bark of cinnamon, mace, coriander and cumin. Coupled with warm ovens and tricks of kitchen chemistry, we can bake plenty of goodies to give mouthfeel satisfaction.

The other day I observed something strange about some boys. For some reason, I’m tempted to call them a young gaggle of gingerbread men. There was my son, there were a couple of his friends. They were in our front room. Another mother was inquiring when to pick up her son. She and I stop to chat, by the front door. The boys, 14 and 15 year olds, some distance away, are loud and all jostly, young bucks sounding off, happy to be there for one another. Quietly, flying low beneath the testosterone-laden din, I tell the mother that we two really have to make time, and that we must do so soon: we must make time to socialise, to share some food, to get away from our routines. The boys keep jumping up and down, they make the sort of moves and sounds that belong to boys who know they could, if they had to, be men: taller than we their mothers are, precociously hirsute and nearly furry (compared to us, their naked mothers), strongly muscled but still thin, they are in full-fledged development, and this is all as it should be — no surprises here. My daughter, who is friends with this group, is at this “bucky” moment definitely not within the frame that defines the oscillating bunch of boys who are a mere two or three arms-lengths away. Where did she go? She is there, yet she isn’t — she didn’t, it seems, want to jump up and down, so she walked into one of the adjoining rooms, perhaps to check her computer.

I’m still talking to that mother, and very quietly I mention that for me it’s been a difficult fall and early winter, that too much has been going off the rails in weird sorts of ways, and that it has taken its toll on me. I tell her that I have, in fact, been feeling in quite a depression these past few days, no …weeks, no, wait, I did mean days… it’s ok, I’m not really crazy — just days, only days that’s all. And as soon as I’ve softly said the word depression, I’m aware of the absolute stopping of time, as manifested in a total cessation of movement. The boys, on a dime, stopped jumping up and down: they all stood stock still and to a man, all of a sudden, turned to listen in on this conversation that was taking place between drop off and pick up, between two women who happen to be mothers, and who thought they weren’t being listened to. Time itself stopped to pick up its ears: all those enormous room-filling boys are suddenly listening, straining to catch a glimmer of meaning from two mothers talking about being on the edge of erasure.

What does a boy want? At some level, I would guess, he wants to know what his mother wants. “What do you want, Mother?” Trying to please her is the flip side of understanding what the hell she wants. At some level, he can’t figure her out: she is so mysterious. For my daughter, there is not as much of a mystery (note: I do not write, “no mystery,” but “not as much of”). This is not an inherent difference that should be gendered a priori; rather, I prefer to think of it as a difference that derives from different positions which in turn are determined by differences in gender. It’s a subtle, almost nit-picky shift I’m insisting on, but I think it matters insofar as it helps undercut essentialism. Essentialism postulates an “essence of woman” or an “essence of man”; essentialism tries to answer the “what do you want, mum?” question. It’s not the case that my daughter understands me because we’re both female — she doesn’t “naturally” understand me at all and has to work as hard at understanding me as anyone (myself included) does — and she is the first person to tell me that she is not going to waste precious time trying to figure out puzzles that have no answer. Nor does my son have a blockage in understanding me because he is male and I am female: we very often understand each other better than son and father do. But somewhere along this continuum of understanding and mystery, my son has a different position vis-a-vis my emotional life than my daughter does: whether it’s a difference that’s actually there or whether it’s a difference that sons at some point believe is there matters less than the fact that the son pays attention to that difference differently than the daughter would (as in turn the mother’s attention to the children’s gendered selves is inflected). Insofar as boy-girl differences are bound to matter to a boy at all (irrespective of his sexual orientation), it matters to him to pay attention to boy-girl differences between himself and his mother, himself and his sister, if he has one. Insofar as I am female while the son is male and the daughter is female, there is a difference in my interest angle: naturally, we mothers are modelling sexuality and intimacy for our gendered (sexual) children. Now, in every instance and along every step of the way there is plenty of room for misinterpretation: I misinterpreted my own mother’s desires and frustrations for decades before finally casting those iterations aside to admit that her life was constructed according to her own history, and that these conditions were gendered (albeit not “essentially”: there is nothing natural about the oppression of women), and that I was too late in coming to rewrite her history. But — and here’s the rub — no one wants to be too late. And that’s why, sensing an intimate moment between two mothers, a room full of boys pricks up all ears.

My mother had seven daughters about whom she could (and naturally did) claim that they did not understand her, even though we have all gone on to replicate her fate to one degree or another (for starters, we all became mothers, although I held out the longest, till I was 34…). Had she had sons — even one son — she could have indulged in the narcissistic joy of knowing that there was one being who was bending over backwards trying to understand her — and who would be able to escape being assigned to the gendered position which was her lot.

What if, conversely, you’re a woman who becomes a mother who has only sons? Will you recognise how your son is acting from a gendered position that determines the questions he has, and will you recognise your own gendered position in that relationship? How will you know that your gingerbread man, fragrant, spicy, full of promise, has a right to a life that’s far away from the mirror you create for him?

Run, run, as fast as you can
You can’t catch me, I’m the gingerbread man…

For a slightly weirder spin, see the 1875 version of the story: the gingerbread man manages to run away from mum, and dad and the cow and the threshers and all the rest of them, but of course he can’t get away from the fox:

And he ran till he came across a fox, and to him he called out:

I’ve run away from a little old woman,
A little old man,
A barn full of threshers,
A field full of mowers,
A cow and a pig,
And I can run away from you, I can!

Then the fox set out to run. Now foxes can run very fast, and so the fox soon caught the gingerbread boy and began to eat him up.

Presently the gingerbread boy said, “Oh dear! I’m quarter gone!” And then, “Oh, I’m half gone!” And soon, “I’m three-quarters gone!” And at last, “I’m all gone!” and never spoke again.
He “never spoke again”? So that’s what happens to some of those sullen teenage boys. Not the cat, but foxy, got their tongues…?


maria December 20, 2005 at 10:40 pm

Ah, interetsing topic … and as a mother of boys, I can tell you that personality sometimes trumps gender. There are those boys who want to figure out what their mothers want, whether because they care or have figured out that this is a good startegy to get what THEY WANT, makes no difference.

And than there are those for whom want is not a part of their emotional repertoire or vocabulary. Some of these will take the company of foxes any days over that of mothers. At least — so they mus reason — foxes will devour them in silence and without any commentary, unlike mothers with their wordy appetites.

Interesting post — lots to chew on here (pardon the pun)

Yule Heibel December 21, 2005 at 1:01 am

You’re right — personality definitely matters a lot. And I can think of a boy or two who tries to figure out what Mother wants so that he can get what he wants…

The fox eating in silence: I quite like that image. So what is the fox then? Reason? Intellect? Or foxiness (sexuality) and embodied “dangers” of that sort? Is the fox the Ego trumping the Id, or is it the latter pulling the former into its depth and shutting up reason’s light of day?

To every boy his own fox…?

Boys, know your fox… Personality again!

maria December 21, 2005 at 2:10 pm

I don’t want to get all Freudian here, but I imagine the fox to be that unacknowledged (not to mention, untamed, or uncivilised) animal in all of us, bos and girls. Except that girls have to engage the fox — not to mention sort of be on, when they become mothers.

I know, too opaque and all that … but this break in my ankle seems to have fractured my reasoning capacity lately too!

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