Monday, May 12, 2014

Snips and snails and puppy dogs' tails: What a difference a Y chromosome makes

Before the recent birth of my son, I was pretty convinced that we were having a girl. Almost everyone I knew disagreed - everyone had "a feeling" it was a boy, or insisted that I was carrying like it was a boy, or that my face hadn't changed, or that my "beauty hadn't been stolen," so it had to be a boy. (Remind me to be insulted if people start guessing that the next one's a girl.) So much for mother's intuition - he's definitely all boy.

I think we were still in the delivery room when I remarked to my husband, "I guess the reign of the Gatto women is really over." My mother was one of 8 children - 7 girls and 1 boy. I was one of 20 grandchildren on that side - 13 girls and 7 boys. (And those numbers are misleadingly even; the first 10 grandkids are 9 girls and 1 boys; the next 10 are 4 girls and 6 boys, so the older cousins grew up in an environment that was all girl, and our younger cousins are growing up in an environment that is substantially boy.) My son is now one of 5 great-grandchildren - 0 girls and 5 boys.

So I decided to draw up a few statistics. Are the gender differences between these generations really as stark as they seem from the inside?

  • In the 1950s, there were 5 births, all girls. 100% female.
  • In the 1960s, there was 1 birth, a boy. 100% male.
  • In the 1970s, there were 4 births, 3 girls and a boy. 75% female, 25% male.
  • In the 1980s, there were 9 births, all girls. 100% female.
  • In the 1990s, there were 4 births, 1 girl and 3 boys. 75% male, 25% female.
  • In the 2000s, there were 6 births, 2 girls and 4 boys. 33% female, 66% male.
  • In the 2010s, there have been 4 births, all boys. 100% male. 

There are as many 100% male as 100% female decades, but on the boys' side is my one uncle born in the 1960s, and on the girls' side are the 9 of us cousins born in the 1980s. 

  • From the 1950s through the 1980s, there were 19 births, 17 girls and 2 boys. 89% female, 11% male.
  • From the 1990s through the 2010s, there were 14 births, 3 girls and 11 boys. 21% female, 79% male.

When you break it down like that, it's pretty apparent that my aunts and the cousins I grew up with really did inhabit a substantially different family environment than my young cousins - and my son - will. I hate to perpetuate gender stereotypes, but I'm pretty confident in stating that, as a whole, these little boys will play far fewer games where they pretend to make jewelry. They will choreograph fewer dance routines and play more pick-up basketball games. They will go to fewer of their cousins' dance recitals and more of their football games; fewer horseback-riding lessons and more wrestling matches. The current crop of young girls - okay, just the one young girl - will have no one with whom to compare the flare of her fancy dresses at holidays. (Picture this: Spin around in a dress. Does the skirt flare straight out, perpendicular to your body? If so, you're wearing a "cake" dress, and can feel superior to your cousins who are merely wearing "cupcake" dresses that don't flare so much when they spin! That is the kind of thing you are surrounded by when you are 6 and your family is 89% female.) 

For much of my early childhood, I had just the one boy cousin. He frequently occupied himself teasing the life out of the younger girls who surrounded him. We'll find out how that looks in reverse, with one little girl growing up in the midst of nearly a dozen boy cousins. 

This situation makes me wonder what I'm in for in the coming years - as someone who grew up with only sisters and mostly girl cousins, boys are kind of an alien species - as well as how these accidents of birth affected other people in my family throughout history. Gender can have some very substantial effects on someone's life - career prospects, health, ability to vote, military service - but what about the more subtle effects? How would my grandfather's life have looked different if he'd had 3 sisters instead of 3 brothers? Would it have changed the way my great-grandmother grew up if the genders in her family had been more evenly distributed, instead of all the girls first, followed by all the boys?

In an oral history I recorded with my late grandmother, who was born in the Bronx in 1927, she told me that her brothers always roamed farther from home than she and her sisters did. "When you're little boys, you hang around more. When you're little girls, you stay kind of by your stoop." She also mentioned that they would have to stop playing softball with the boys when her father got home, because he didn't like girls and boys playing together. "I guess he didn't want us to play with the boys . . . they were very strict about that when we were younger."

Clearly, the differences between a family full of boys and a family full of girls would have been even more stark in previous generations!

1 comment:

April said...

I love this, so interesting how you really have girl and boy "waves" haha. There's a kind of pattern in my fam, at least for my first cousins. My parents and their siblings all have either a family of all girls or a family of all boys. My dad is one of 3 boys and my mom is one of 3 girls (though technically they had a younger brother but he didn't survive past like 2 or 3 yrs,I think). Makes me curious to see if the pattern will continue among my cousins and me. Though I don't think it applies with my distant cousins, so it's probably unlikely haha.