When did Boy Mom Culture Become So Problematic?

There’s science to back up the idea that parenting boys is different—but social media has made it weird.

When did Boy Mom Culture Become So Problematic?
Illustration by Raquel Aparicio.

My mother used to tell me a story from when she was pregnant. She was desperate for a girl; she’d had three brothers growing up and the last thing she wanted was a repeat of that experience.

Boys, in her mind, were slugs-and-snails clichés: dirty, smelly, loud, unruly, and emotionally stunted compared with their female counterparts. 

Perhaps to nudge fate, Mom picked out the perfect name for a girl and a million cute little dresses. Then, a close friend gave birth before her, and Mom’s heart sank. “Louise had a girl,” she’d say at this point in the story, “and I knew then that I’d probably end up with a boy.” 

I wasn’t a boy, of course. Mom was delighted—over the moon. 

It’s a story I asked to hear over and over again as a child, because it showed me how much I was wanted. But it’s also a story that burrowed its way into my psyche and came out the other side looking very different. Because when I became pregnant with my first and only child (shoutout to other members of the “one and done” community), I was genuinely taken aback to find out—at eight weeks, via a routine blood test—that I was having a boy. By the look on my mother’s face when I told her, so was she. I could tell she was disappointed for me.

As for me, I didn’t know how to feel. I had two half-sisters; all of my cousins were girls. I’d spent most of my career writing about feminism. What did it mean to raise a boy?

Boy babies, girl babies

I’m based in the U.S., but in other parts of the world, my story would play out differently. 

A strong preference for male babies in many parts of the world—especially the developing world—is well-documented, with India, Bangladesh, Nepal, South Korea and China leading the trend. Female infanticide and the clandestine abortion of female fetuses are the two most horrific consequences.

In China especially, the preference for male babies combined with the infamous one-child policy has led to an extreme population imbalance, with some areas seeing as many as seven boys for one girl. The “missing women” of China—who were either abandoned to die as female infants, adopted internationally (many of them by Americans), or who were never carried to term—are now the subject of much angst in Chinese media and politics. Many young men will now never marry or have children of their own because there simply aren’t enough women to woo. Indeed, there are 37 million fewer women than men in China—a disparity The New York Times has pointed out is bigger than the entire population of Poland.

Elsewhere in the world, the situation is different. In Europe, recent research shows would-be parents in 11 countries including the Czech Republic, Estonia and Hungary have a clear preference for girls. There’s no concrete theory about why this is, although anecdotally, people I spoke to for this story told me that they imagined being emotionally closer to daughters throughout their lives and echoed a fear that sons would become distanced from their parents once they married.

In America—one of the few countries in the world where sex selection during IVF remains legal—fertility doctors report that more couples choose to transfer female embryos than male. Chrissy Teigen, the television personality, admitted that she and her husband, John Legend, chose a female embryo when they were doing IVF. And while Teigen was heavily criticized online for her decision, the fact remains that Americans choose the sex of the embryo about a third of the time for their first baby when they do in-vitro—and over 60% of the time for the second.

One family admitted, in the pages of The New York Post, to spending $100,000 over seven rounds of IVF to get a baby girl. The piece quoted the mother of two sons as saying, “You feel incomplete as a mother until you have a girl.” Fertility clinics know their clientele often seek what is euphemistically termed “family balancing” after one or multiple sons. Many attract potential patients through SEO-optimized articles with headlines like: “Can sperm sorting improve our chances of having a baby girl?”

Enter the #boymom

The retaliation against this state of affairs is the very American phenomenon of the “boy mom,”—the defiant mother of sons who wants everyone to know loud and clear that she was never hoping for a daughter. She knows everyone’s hoping for pink smoke to come out of that gender reveal gun; she feels the applause was half-hearted when it came out blue. But boys are what she got—and now she’s determined to let everyone know that it’s better that way. 

How does she profess this to the world? She lives the “boy mom life” on TikTok, and gosh-darn-it, you will consume her content. “I’ll never have to go to Nutcracker on Ice because we’ll be partying at Monster Jam!” professes ReelMomStuff—which does make me wonder where that leaves all the little girls who prefer more rough-and-tumble play to ballet.

In one popular loop, videos showing mothers holding their baby boys are set to Aaron Carter lyrics—“You’ll be his first kiss, his first love,”—a sweet sentiment, no doubt, until you consider that it effectively sets his second love up as a rival to his mother. I was told multiple times by other parents in the real world that I was lucky not to have a daughter anyway, because “girls are sneaky” and “girls are complicated.” All of this was delivered without irony, as if I weren’t once a little girl myself.

“I'm going to love you so much that no woman is ever going to be good enough for you,” these self-styled boy moms seem to say, in the same Oedipal way Monica from Friends did at the birth of her onscreen son two decades ago. “Sons love their mothers,” I was constantly reminded by well-wishers during my pregnancy.

It's little wonder, really, that the boy mom movement has garnered its own online backlash: “Toxic boy moms” are told they’re overcompensating for gender disappointment on social media—and are even being called out for “ruining the future” of other mothers’ daughters.

Parenting boys versus girls

There is actually science to back up the idea that being a boy mom is different from being the mother of girls. For example, studies have shown that your marriage is more likely to survive if you have a boy, with scientists and analysts suggesting it's because fathers are more engaged parents when they have sons. ('Do daughters really cause divorce?' researchers asked in a logical follow-up.)

There’s some evidence that people who are less stressed tend to have sons. The leading theory is that, from a medical perspective, carrying a boy is harder on the body and keeping one alive is a bigger challenge; males, with their flimsier Y chromosomes, are more likely to have genetic issues and have less active immune systems in childhood. Instances of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) are higher in male babies and males at every stage of life have higher mortality rates. Simply put, evolution seems to say that boys are a bigger risk. According to this theory, your body is much more likely to incubate a lower-risk female fetus if you’re sending it signals that you live in a high-stress environment.

If you are a mother of daughters, you may take (limited) solace in the fact that the worst thing you can do for your marital satisfaction—at least short-term—is to have a child at all. And that’s true for boy and girl moms alike. 

But if, like me, you’ve already procreated, there’s still a sliver of hope: Long-term, your happiness as the parent of one child is predicted to increase. Women in particular have higher life satisfaction overall with a “lonely only.” Adding more kids after one doesn’t have much effect on the happiness of the father but is significantly correlated with the decreased happiness of the mother. 

Strangely, the unhappiest mothers of all are those with three daughters—so if you’ve hit your stride with two and are wondering whether to continue, take this as a cautionary note.

If you're finding this evidence somewhat circular and infuriatingly inconclusive, you’re not alone. There’s simply no guaranteed route to parental happiness (though staying off the #boymom hashtag might help).

But here’s what I do know: We boy moms have a responsibility to raise young men who don’t become domestic burdens in the future. 

One way to do that is to eschew a culture that leans heavily on gender stereotyping. We can’t afford to say being a boy mom is “more fun” because girls are a drag, even flippantly, when sports superstar Harrison Butker delivers a college commencement address informing the assembled graduates that young women will actually find their best calling as “wives and mothers.”

Making sure our sons aren’t complacent in a society that slides right back into sexism every time we look away (hello, tradwives) is a challenge that’s much bigger and more daunting than dressing him in a daddy-and-me outfit. But it’s certainly one worth fighting for.

Holly Baxter is the author of CLICKBAIT, and an executive editor at The Independent in New York City.