Is He Gay? Boys Will Be Boys—or Will They?

Dear Mr. Dad: I’m worried about my eight-year-old son. He loves sports and does a lot of “boy” things, but sometimes I find him playing with dolls. Does this mean he’s gay? Is there a way to tell this early on? And if he is gay, what should we do?

A: Whew, that’s a lot of questions, so let’s dive right in. Boys play with dolls all the time—they’re just named Batman, the Hulk, and Captain America. But since you’re worried about it, I’m assuming you mean that your son is playing with Barbies. Does that mean he’s gay? Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer. Plenty of heterosexual men occasionally played with dolls (girly ones) when they were kids. At the same time, studies of women conducted by Kelley Drummond and of men conducted by J. Michael Bailey and Kenneth J. Zucker have found that those who engaged in “gender nonconforming” play as children were more likely as adults to identify as gay or lesbian.

There are two important things to keep in mind. First, we’re not talking about occasional cross-gender play, which is incredibly common—and perfectly normal. The gay and lesbian adults in these studies were almost always bucking the stereotypes as kids. Second, the operative phrase here is “more likely.” In other words, while cross-gender play may be an indicator of homosexuality, it is by no means 100% accurate. Plenty of boys who play with dolls and girls who play hockey are heterosexual—and plenty of boys who play with trucks and girls who wear frilly dresses and have tea parties grow up to be gay.

With Bruce Jenner publicly (and bravely) announcing that he’s really a woman, I’ve heard from a lot of parents who are worried about “gender dysphoria”—that their son might actually become their daughter or vice versa. Again, while play may be an indicator, what’s more predictive is a child who refuses to acknowledge his or her biological sex, refuses to wear clothes associated with their sex or to play with opposite-sex children, and wants to go to the bathroom the way opposite sex people do, according to Britain’s National Health Service. But it’s nowhere near 100% accurate. Bailey and Zucker found that the majority of children who seem to have gender dysphoria grow out of it by adulthood. As a preschooler, my oldest daughter (now 25 and heterosexual) spent 18 months wearing pants and a cute hat and insisting that she was Oliver Twist—and refusing to answer to any other name. (She also insisted on calling me Mr. Bumble.)

Bottom line, it’s pretty unlikely that your son is gay. But either way, does it really matter? There’s nothing you can do about it anyway—if he’s gay, you’ll find out about it sooner or later, if not, you’ll find out about that too. If he is, you have two options: You could give him your unconditional support, understanding, and love. Or you could make him feel rejected and unloved. Choose option A. Please.

In an article in the journal Pediatrics, Caitlin Ryan and her colleagues found that “lesbian, gay, and bisexual young adults who reported higher levels of family rejection during adolescence,” were more likely to be bullied in school. Worse yet, they were 8 times more likely to have attempted suicide, 6 times more likely to suffer from depression, 3 times more likely to use illegal drugs or have unprotected sex.

In the end, your child’s sexuality is his business. Watch and learn. In the meantime, love him. He’s your son and always will be.

Morning Sickness: On the Job All Day Long

Mr. Dad: My girlfriend is about a month pregnant—her second baby but my first. I’m concerned because she’s nauseated and vomiting all day long. She calls it “morning sickness” and says she had the same thing with her first baby and that it’s normal. But doesn’t the name imply that the problems should be limited to the morning? Either way, what can I do to help?

A: Given that your girlfriend has been through this before and says it’s normal, take her word for it. As the pregnancy develops you’ll have plenty of other things to worry about, so let this one go.

The name “morning sickness” is a little catchier—but less accurate—than “all day long sickness,. As you’ve noticed, the heartburn, queasiness and throwing up are by no means limited to the actual morning. Between half and 85% of pregnant women get morning sickness but no one’s quite sure what causes it. Some researchers believe that it’s the pregnant woman’s reaction to changing hormone levels, in particular human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG), which is produced by the placenta and is the same stuff that’s picked up by home pregnancy kits. Many women with morning sickness also have food aversions, especially to eggs, fish, meat, and poultry—all of which can go bad quickly and may carry disease. That has led a number of researchers, including Samuel Flaxman, Margie Profet, and Paul Sherman to speculate that morning sickness is the body’s way of protecting the baby-to-be from food-borne substances that could cause a miscarriage or birth defects.

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Long-Distance Parenting

Dear Mr. Dad: My ex and I share custody of our son (age 6) but she recently moved a few hundred miles away so I sometimes don’t get to see him for a few weeks. In between, I really miss him and I worry that he’ll forget who I am or won’t want to see me when we finally get together. I sometimes feel like giving up. How can I stay connected when we’re apart for so long?

A:  Great question, one that also applies to single moms and anyone else who has to spend extended periods of time away from their children (military servicemembers, for example). As hard as those separations are, the good news is that not being together physically doesn’t mean that you can’t be together emotionally. The even better news is that while it’s not easy to keep those bonds strong while you’re away from your son, you can—and do—play an important role in his life. And it’s vital to both of you that you not give up. Here are some steps you can take to stay involved.
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Why You Should Wrestle with Your Daughter

Dear Mr. Dad: I’ve got twins—one girl, one boy—and we love to wrestle together. I always thought I was treating them the same, but a few days ago, my wife told me that she thinks I play very differently with them—very physically with my son and much more gentle with my daughter. I started paying attention and I have to admit that she’s right. So now I’m wondering: is there any actual reason to be more gentle with my daughter? And should I be more gentle with my son?

A: No and no. Assuming you’re playing in a safe way and the kids are having fun (you should always take your cues from them), there’s absolutely no reason why you can’t be just as rough and tumble with your daughter as you are with her brother. As the father of three daughters, I can assure you that little girls are just as sturdy as boys. In fact, based on science, one might argue that girls are actually sturdier. Although more males are conceived, more die in utero. And while more boys than girls are born, boys are more likely to be arrive prematurely and they’re more susceptible to disease and death. Boys are more likely than girls to die from SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome) and less likely to survive the first year than girls. As they get older, boys are significantly more likely to be diagnosed with autism, learning disabilities, mental retardation, and many other conditions.
Despite all that, we still have this idea that girls are delicate and need to be physically coddled. That’s an idea that starts from the very beginning. What’s the first question people ask when someone has had a baby? Boy or girl? We ask because we want to know how to treat the child in question. Parents (both dads and moms) encourage independence and exploration more in boys than girls. They typically (and unconsciously) allow boys to cross the street by themselves at younger ages and wait a few seconds longer before picking up a boy who’s fallen than a girl. And, of course, they wrestle more with sons than daughters.
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Babies Can Sometimes Bring out the Worst in Us

Dear Mr. Dad: I’m a new dad and I sometimes get incredibly angry when my son cries. Of course I haven’t acted on my anger, but I’m feeling really guilty that I get so mad in the first place. I’ve always been a pretty patient guy, but I don’t think I’ve ever had such intense feelings before. Am I a bad parent?

A: Babies have an amazing capacity to bring out feelings in us that are powerful, unfamiliar, and sometimes scary. On the positive side, we get to experience being on the receiving end and the giving end of unconditional love—something I don’t believe exists between adults. On the negative side, there are the feelings you described. We’d all like to believe that we’d throw ourselves in front of a moving train to save our children, but every once in a while they make us so furious that we think (very briefly) of throwing them in front of the train. I know that sounds horrible, but here’s a reality check: Everyone has feelings like that. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either lying to you or doesn’t have children. So, no, you’re not a bad parent at all.

That said, while there’s nothing wrong with feeling intense anger, it’s what you do with it that can be a problem. Here are some suggestions that can help you get your anger under control.

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New Mother Has to Go Back to Work Too Soon

Dear Mr. Dad: My husband and I just had a baby two months ago. I’ve been off work under the Family Leave Act until now and would like to take the remaining 4 or 5 weeks. But, unfortunately, we really need my salary to make ends meet. The prospect of leaving my baby (my husband needs to work full-time too) is making me miserable. I’m feeling like a terrible mother and I have no idea what I can do to feel better about this situation.

A: You may find this hard to believe (I certainly did), but the United States is one of only a handful of countries in the world without a paid family leave policy. Combine that with a tough economy and the social pressure many new moms feel to go back to work, and it’s no wonder that the average maternity leave is only 10 weeks. It’s even harder to believe (but true), that about 16 percent of new mothers taken between one and four weeks of leave, and a third don’t take leave at all, rushing back to work as soon as they’re physically able. That’s according to the latest data from HRSA (the Health Resources and Services Administration, which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services).

I’m sure some of those new moms are happy to be working again, but I’m betting that a lot more are, like you, miserable, beating themselves up for being bad mothers, and wishing they could quit their job. You’re not in an easy spot, but here are a few ideas that should help:

Talk—and listen. A lot of couples in your situation tiptoe around the elephant in the room: money (or the lack of it). You and your husband have to buck that trend and start talking about finding a reasonable (and fiscally responsible) way of making sure that everyone’s needs are met, or that they’re at least taken into consideration. That means listening to each other carefully and respectfully and acknowledging the pressures that each of you face.

Get your childcare situation in order. Fear that the baby won’t be adequately cared for is what many new mothers—and fathers—find most unsettling about going back to work. Since you need your husband’s income as well as your own, make finding a trusted childcare provider a top priority.

Relieve some of the pressure. Most couples, regardless of how enlightened and egalitarian they want to be, end up slipping into “traditional” roles after becoming parents. And because women put so much pressure on themselves to be good mothers, you may try to do more around the house than you can handle. Don’t. If your husband can’t take on any more, you can either hire someone to help out (which, given your financial issues, doesn’t sound very realistic) or learn to relax your standards. Does the house really need to be immaculate? Also, be sure to schedule some couple time or “me” time. A few hours alone with your husband—even if it’s just renting a video and snuggling up on the couch—will really help.

Spend more time with the baby. Since you and your husband will be working, you’re both going to miss your baby and you’re both going to want to spend time with him from the moment you walk in the door. Negotiate first dibs with your husband—especially if you’re still nursing: your breasts may be ready to explode by the time you get home and you’ll need the baby to do what babies do