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Ruth Whippman's book 'BoyMom' explores the challenges of raising men in the modern age


Ruth Whippman starts her new book, "BoyMom," with an anecdote.

RUTH WHIPPMAN: (Reading) At night, as I battled insomnia, heaving my bump around the bed from one achy compromise to another, my pregnant brain churned out a ticker tape of bad outcomes for my unborn boy - rapist, school shooter, incel, man child, interrupter.

KURTZLEBEN: Whippman charts the complicated path from boyhood to manhood in the post-#MeToo age, and she does this through her personal experience as a mother to three boys. But you may ask yourself, with everything that girls and women still have to face in our patriarchal society, why focus on boys at all?

WHIPPMAN: One, I think boys clearly need special attention because there is a systemic problem with how we're raising boys that's teaching them it's OK to do wrong. You know, I think during the #MeToo movement, we kind of realized that we had normalized this serious systemic male harm that was happening. But I think the other side of that is not just how can boys do better for women, but this system of patriarchy harms boys and men, too. I think we've got to the point where we've almost forgotten that, so I think, you know, we have to look at the way that we're socializing boys, both for their sake and for the sake of women and girls.

KURTZLEBEN: Now, this book is both very personal - you talk about parenting your own three boys - but it's also very deeply researched. You talk to mental health experts, a lot of writers, and, very crucially, you make sure to talk to a lot of boys and young men. They're here. They're in their own words. Why was that so important to you?

WHIPPMAN: Well, I think we've done a lot of talking about boys and men as a culture, you know, and pointing the finger and pointing out harm, but I don't think we've done, actually, so much listening. In this cultural moment, all of the kind of old pressures and stories of masculinity, which encourage men to kind of suppress the way that they feel - those are very much in circulation, so it's hard for boys and men to talk about their feelings. We know this.

But also, I think, in the wider cultural conversation since #MeToo and this whole sort of talk about toxic masculinity, there's been this other sort of imperative, which is it's time for men to be quiet and for everybody else to have a turn to speak, which came from a good place, but I think it's sort of had the effect of shutting down men and boys even further.

Boys are not doing well at the moment. They're doing badly academically. They're increasingly not going to college, not getting jobs, not finding partners. They're moving dramatically to the right politically. They're angry. They're resentful. There's a real crisis of male loneliness and male mental health problems, and I think what we need to do now is not to diagnose the problem without listening.

KURTZLEBEN: I got to say, I was a little surprised at how much politics plays into your analysis of raising better boys. You talk in this book about identifying as a progressive and how that shapes your feelings about what your boys, quote-unquote, "should be." You talk to some conservatives about their own views. Were you surprised at how much politics was a part of your book?

WHIPPMAN: In a way, I was not surprised. I have three boys, and the final one was born right as the #MeToo movement was exploding. It was a year into the Trump presidency, and just raising boys felt like this incredibly fraught political project. You know, aside from all of the normal challenges of parenting, I think the idea of raising boys - and multiple boys - felt very politically charged, so I think I went into this knowing that it was going to have a political edge. I didn't want it to be party political, and I wanted to move beyond some of those culture war conversations, but I think - I'm a progressive, I'm a feminist, and I think that along the way, I had my preconceptions challenged in multiple ways, from multiple different types of people.

KURTZLEBEN: How has your own parenting changed as a result of writing this book?

WHIPPMAN: So one of the big things that I found, both in the science and from what people were telling me, is that boys are kind of slightly undernurtured, but what we've done in our culture is kind of masculinize baby boys, and we see them as tougher and sturdier, and that goes on all the way through childhood - that we tend to discipline them more harshly, we talk to them less about emotions and we don't give them so much of a kind of relational social education.

So I think knowing that really gave me a different orientation in my own relationship with my own boys. It almost changed my entire orientation towards them. Rather than thinking, I need to control their behavior and stop them turning into these toxic men and be harsher and be stricter, what I realized that boys in general in our culture are missing is this level of emotional nurture, and so it helped me to kind of correct for that kind of undernurture that I think is there in the culture.

KURTZLEBEN: Ruth Whippman, author of "BoyMom." Ruth, thank you so much. This was great.

WHIPPMAN: Thank you so much for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.