My 22-year old son, a liberated sort of guy who's been cooking since the age of 8, called from Japan the other day with an urgent request: "Mom, I'm having people over for dinner and I need your recipe for barbecued chicken." He paused. "And Aunt Pat's recipe for eggnog."
He was rustling up this slightly weird combination of food and drink, he told me, for Japanese friends who had expressed an interest in these two "all-American" dishes. It wasn't an unusual request. Last month I sent him my recipe for apple pie.
Later that week I received a phone call from my other son, a student in Colorado. A liberated sort of guy who's been sewing and mending things like climbing equipment and down parkas since he was 12, this son wanted my advice about sewing machines: "What's a fair price for a second-hand sewing machine?" he asked.
This is the same son, incidentally, who for years begged me to teach him how to iron shirts. I always refused, afraid that if I gave up all my "mother-type" domestic skills my sons would not need me.
It's funny. When I realized I was never going to have a daughter I grieved a little over what I thought I was going to miss: the pleasure of sharing "womanly" things, things like cooking and sewing and gardening, with another "woman."
And I feared missing the kind of deep intimacy that as a daughter I had shared with my own mother. I knew I could love my sons deeply -- but identify with them? I wasn't so sure. I grew up with an older brother and the gender gap between us remained too wide to cross.
The fact is that by the time I reached motherhood I had bought into the stereotype that the emotional reactions of boys and girls were completely different. And that I would never be able to identify with my sons.
But time -- and my sons -- proved me wrong.
As the mother of sons I have come to understand that boys are just as vulnerable as girls to all the emotions that define the human condition. Feelings of love, friendship, rejection, ambition, insecurity, envy, generosity, anger, tenderness, self-esteem, lack of self-esteem -- these are not gender-specific feelings.
I have watched my sons' pursuit of love and friendship and the need to belong. And once you have watched a son fight his way through feelings of sadness or rejection over the loss of a friend, the failure of a romantic relationship, the disappointment at being left out of some desired event, you soon understand that some things transcend gender identity.
It's been said that many men become feminists when they have daughters -- that as the father of a daughter, they truly grasp, for the first time, the limitations placed on women by gender barriers. And there are few fathers who do not wish for their daughters the same opportunities in the world as they do for their sons.
But being the mother of sons is a consciousness-raising experience, too. And one of the things it teaches you is that while there are many differences between the way boys and girls view the world -- and the way the world views them -- there are also many similarities.
I know what it's like to be a woman. But being the mother of sons offered me a singular glimpse into what it's like to be a man.
Humorist Russell Baker once observed that the "three absolute requirements . . . required to qualify for 'man' status" in our society are "utter fearlessness, zest for combat, indifference to pain." Given such requirements, Mr. Baker added, he would have to consider himself "only a second-rate man."
What he's describing, of course, is part of the "macho myth." And just as the "feminine mystique" forced confining standards on women, so too does the "macho myth" force many men to feel "second-rate" if they don't measure up to that confining view of manhood. Both concepts also add to the suspicions with which men and women regard one another.
But over the years, as I've watched and listened and shared my sons' lives, I found there was not a lot -- emotionally speaking -- that I couldn't identify with. All I needed to do was summon up my own feelings from the past when something similar happened to me.
Of course, it was a wonderful bonus when my sons expressed an interest in such things as cooking or gardening; things I thought I could share only with a daughter.
On my most self-confident days I like to think my sons have learned something from me about what it's like to be a woman. But mostly I'm grateful to them for allowing me to witness day by day, year by year the unfolding of the boy into the man.
Beginning Aug. 11, Alice Steinbach's column will appear twice a week. Look for it Sundays in the People section and Thursdays in the Today section of The Sun.