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Memoir Offers Advice On 'How To Raise A Feminist Son'

Apr 6, 2021
Originally published on April 6, 2021 6:12 am

When Sonora Jha gave birth to her son, she was certain of one thing: She wanted to raise him as a feminist.

Sasquatch Books

Jha was living in India at the time, working as a journalist. She moved to Singapore and eventually Seattle. There was a divorce along the way, and she found herself a single mom.

Jha's book, How to Raise a Feminist Son, is about those experiences — but it also has practical to-do lists about how to tackle some of the hardest conversations. And while she notes that race comes into the discussion, she says it's universal.

A feminist son, she says, means many things, including "a boy who believes in the full humanity of women and girls around him, who knows how to trust his mother's voice, her anger, her love and then extend that to other women in society or other women around him."

Feminism for boys also means feeling the whole spectrum of emotions as well as recognizing that they can be led by women, Jha says.


Interview Highlights

You open up about the sexual abuse that you suffered over and over as a child and a young woman, and you ended up sharing that with your son, Gibran, when you thought he was old enough to carry the weight of that conversation. I wonder if you wouldn't mind just talking about the consequences of sharing that with him.

I was doing it by instinct. This was before the #MeToo movement, when he was 14 and 15 and he was becoming a young man. And I wanted him to know that women are vulnerable, that he needs to recognize what his place is as a man as he grows. And so it was important for me to tell him these stories and to give him the sense of the dangers that women face — and that he needs to be sensitive to those dangers. And that he'll also be a more loving partner if he understands that and believes them. And if he would listen to my stories, that he would listen and be open to listening to other girls' and women's stories.

So I told him about my sexual abuse. The only thing that I regret now is that I wish I had consulted a therapist and I'd talked to him with language around sexual assault and things like that and say, like, "We are safe now." Because he did tell me later that he felt a little vulnerable in the world and felt like, "Oh, my goodness, are we unsafe? Is my mother still unsafe?" And so that's something that I pass on to other parents and say, "You can do it better than I did." But he's 25 now, and he understands that when these things come up, how they can work as triggers for me and for other women. And I've given him that language, and I get to now enjoy that solidarity from him.

How did you broach conversations about sex and our bodies?

I was taking his lead ... because I was sensitive to the way my body had not been allowed its own autonomy, growing up as a girl. I began to realize that even as a boy, it doesn't mean all is open and everything is game. So when we used to play this lovely game called "the mama clinch," where I would hold on to him and he was supposed to kiss me in order to free himself. And I used to love that, and he loved it as a child. And then when he was about 8 or 9, he started to not really enjoy that game and he would not jump into it. And I realized, "Oh, he's growing up and he wants his own autonomy" and picking up on those cues. And I talk in another chapter about how important it is for us to pick up on those cues from our kids, and then that way they learn to pick up those cues from others.

You wrote that the idea of a vulnerable masculinity was the biggest gift you assembled for him. Do you think he is living that out?

I think so. When he had a heartbreak, he called me, but I wasn't the one that was going to serve him best in that, so he called his friends, and these boys, these young men, are talking to each other about heartbreak. They're talking to each other about "Oh, dude, maybe you should see a therapist." And they're talking to each other about missing their families, missing their moms and what should they say to a girlfriend, etc. And I think that is so unusual among men in my generation that it just feels like, "My goodness, like, you've got it. You're able to be vulnerable with your male friends." And that way he's healthier. I know that he's fine out there because he can pick up the phone and call someone.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

When Sonora Jha gave birth to a boy, she was certain of one thing - she wanted to raise him as a feminist. She was living in India at the time, working as a journalist. She moved to Singapore and eventually Seattle. There was a divorce along the way. And Jha found herself a single mom. She has a new book out about that experience. It's a memoir, but it also has practical to-do lists about how to tackle some of the hardest conversations with your son. It's also a love letter - not just to moms, but to the next generation of men. I asked Sonora Jha what it means to have a feminist son.

SONORA JHA: It means having a boy who believes in the full humanity of women and girls around him, who knows how to trust his mother's voice, her anger, her love, and then extend that to other women around him. And also feminism, for boys in particular, is about, you know, things like feeling their whole spectrum of human emotion, right? Feeling sad, being able to cry, being able to have that feminine side. And then also as they grow, to recognize that they can be led by women, that they believe women's stories. Do you believe that you are at the center of everything or that you can sometimes follow and pass the mic or let them lead the way or get out of their way?

MARTIN: Race is intrinsic in all of this, right? It just has to be part of our conversations about parenting and your experience in particular, raising a brown boy in America. But this is not just for families of color. You talk just explicitly - teach your white boy about our world that privileges whiteness in the same way boys of color are taught about staying safe in that world.

JHA: Yes, the privileges of a white boy. If you don't do that now, look at what is happening in society. Look at the insurrection on January 6, and look at the Atlanta shootings and the violence against Asian women's bodies by this 21-year-old, which I think is, you know, just out of boyhood - which is not to say, oh, he's just a sad little boy, but it's to say that if we don't teach our boys that every human being matters and everyone is precious and we don't teach him how to express his anguish, how to, you know, see that you are just one person and you might also need to struggle for what you have - and so once you start to de-center yourself, you're actually going to feel like you earned something.

MARTIN: You make yourself vulnerable in this book in several ways. I mean, you open up about the sexual abuse that you suffered over and over as a child and a young woman. And you ended up sharing that with your son, Gibran, when you thought he was old enough to carry the weight of that conversation. I wonder if you wouldn't mind just talking about the consequences of sharing that with him?

JHA: Yes. So, you know, I was doing it by instinct. This was before the #MeToo movement, when he was 14 and 15, and he was becoming a young man. And I wanted him to know that women are vulnerable, that he needs to recognize what his place is as a man as he grows. And so it was important for me to tell him these stories and to give him the sense of the dangers that women face and that he needs to be sensitive to those dangers and that he'll also be a more loving partner if he understands that and believes them and, if he would listen to my stories, that he would listen and be open to listening to other girls' and women's stories. So I told him about, you know, my sexual abuse.

The only thing that I regret now is that I wish I had consulted a therapist and I had talked to him with language around sexual assault and things like that and say, like, we are safe now, because he did tell me later that he felt a little vulnerable in the world and felt, like, oh, my goodness, are we unsafe? Is my mother still unsafe? So that's something that I pass on to other parents and say, you can do it better than I did. But, you know, he's 25 now, and he understands that when these things come up, how they can work as triggers for me and for other women. And I've given him that language. And I get to now enjoy that solidarity from him.

MARTIN: We should just point out - we've mentioned the to-do, the guidance that you give, practical guidance for parents, for mothers at the end of these chapters, and in that chapter, when you discuss the consequences of sharing those vulnerabilities with him, it was like, make a list of your regrets and then forgive yourself for each one of them.

JHA: Yes, that's exactly (laughter) - it's just a two-point to-do list. Just forgive yourself, you know?

MARTIN: I wanted to read a little bit about the section on sex and our bodies because these are conversations so many parents have a hard time broaching. How did you approach those conversations with your own son? Did you just go right into it? Did you take his lead?

JHA: Yeah, I was taking his lead as well, you know? I was - because I was sensitive to the way my body had not been allowed its own autonomy growing up as a girl, I began to realize that even as a boy, it doesn't mean all is open and everything - you know, everything is game. So when we used to play this lovely game called the mama clinch, where I would hold on to him and he was supposed to kiss me in order to free himself (laughter).

And so I used to love that, and he loved it as a child. And then when he was about 8 or 9, he started to not really enjoy that game, and he would not jump into it. And I realized, oh, he's growing up, and he wants his own autonomy and, you know, picking up on those cues. And I talk in another chapter about how important it is for us to pick up on those cues from our kids, and then that way they learn to pick up those cues from others.

MARTIN: You wrote that the idea of vulnerable masculinity was the biggest gift you assembled for him. Do you think he is living that out?

JHA: I think so. You know, when he had a heartbreak, he called me, but I wasn't the one that was going to serve him best in that. So he called his friends. And these boys, these young men, are talking to each other about heartbreak. They're talking to each other about, oh, do - maybe you should see a therapist. And they're talking to each other about missing their families, missing their moms and, you know, what should they say to a girlfriend, et cetera.

And I think that is so unusual for - you know, among men in my generation that it just feels like, my goodness, you've got it; you're able to be vulnerable with your male friends. And that's why he's healthier, you know? I know that he's fine out there because he can pick up the phone and call someone.

MARTIN: The book is called "How To Raise A Feminist Son: Motherhood, Masculinity, And The Making Of My Family." It's written by Sonora Jha. Sonora, it was so lovely to talk with you about this. Thank you very much.

JHA: Thank you very much for having me, and love to your boys.

MARTIN: Thank you.

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