There are over 8,400,000 posts on Instagram tagged with the hashtag #boymom. It sits under baby bump photos (“we’re one month away from little dude’s due date!”), banal portraits of chubby-cheeked babies (“my baby boy teaches me something every day”), and photos of little boys doing stereotypically #boy things like rock climbing or cruising in toy cars. In one post, a toddler boy lays on the floor, in the throes of a tantrum. “When is this over with?” his mom asks in an exasperated caption.
“Boymom” is a mommy blogging and Instagram caption staple, massively more popular than its feminine counterpart (#girlmom on Instagram, for example, only pulls up over 2,790,000 posts). At its simplest, a boymom is a mother of boys, and typically only boys. In a moment when bloggers and influencers regularly advertise the gender of their children with surprise, strictly binary flashes of pink or blue, titles like “boymom” or “girlmom” easily get the point across.
But the boymom label is its own subculture, one of confessional blogs about quintessentially boymom experiences and page after page of Etsy goods for “mothers of boys.” Here, to be a boymom is to be a steward for little, gurgling vessels of stereotypical masculinity, a feminine traveler in a foreign world of action figures, mud-stained clothing, and gross-out humor. “What would we do together? Would it be roughhousing and fart jokes and stinky little boy feet?,” reads a Babble post titled “19 Pictures That Sum Up What It’s Like to Be a #BoyMom.” The post is filled with photos of toy bikes parked in the middle of a flight of stairs, athletic cups and Hot Wheels abandoned in the unlikeliest of places, and even a photo of a child gazing at a woman in a bikini, with the caption “typical.”
In a post for Huffpost Life, contributor Katie Workman lists the lessons she’s learned as a boymom, including “everything is a gun” and that boys love penis humor. She recounts a jarring “Boy Mom Moment” while changing her son’s diaper: “I peeled off his revolting, horrific onesie, holding him with one hand on the changing table while I rooted around underneath for a diaper,” Workman writes. “As I did this, I heard a strange sound, much like burbling. I looked up. He was urinating in an arc into his own mouth and gargling on it.” In between stories from the front lines of mothering the male sex, boymoms often speak of the term as a badge of honor, particularly in the face of those who wonder if mothers will “try for a girl.” “I don’t need pigtails and pink rooms. I’m happy being the proud mom of two healthy little men,” writer Ashley Wasilenko wrote in a piece for Motherly on why “Being a #boymom is right for me.”
“Raising boys is really hard, so I think it’s a good thing to have a community around it,” says Chrissy Powers, a family therapist and podcast host with two young sons, one of whom briefly interrupts our conversation after shooting a toy bullet at his sleeping cousin. Powers previously proudly owned the #boymom label to her 81,000 Instagram followers, though she’s since had a daughter. “I think a lot of women own it when they have solely boys. They’re like: that’s it, I am a boymom and they get the shirt and I think that’s healthy to an extent.”
“I think people are a little bit more loud and proud about what they are now, it’s kind of trendy,” says Chynna Hansen, owner of Little Mama Shirt Shop, which sells shirts emblazoned with phrases like “Just a Mama and Her Boys” and mommy and baby matching sets printed with “Mama’s Boy,” among other designs.
Etsy, where Hansen also sells, is flowing with apparel and accessories for that loud and proud contingent of boymoms, from shirts that read “celebrate wild life, raise boys” to mothers as “chaos coordinators.” But while the hashtag flourishes on social media, only one boymom is actually allowed to print the phrase on shirts: Amy Williams, president of the Dallas-based Boymom LLC, which has held the trademark to the phrase “boymom” to use on apparel since 2007, trademarking it for other goods in the years after. In 2008, she filed the trademark for “girlmom.”
“I didn’t have brothers growing up and when I gave birth to [my sons] it was so different than anything we had growing up,” Williams says. “You’re raising the opposite sex, is what you’re doing.”
After her first son was born Williams noticed that when she’d go to the local park, fellow moms would say things like, “well, so and so is a boymom, so she gets it” and separate themselves in terms of “girlmom” and “boymom.” A girlmom might snidely remark to Williams about her son walking around in a Spiderman costume, “Well, does he ever take that off?” But a boymom would understand. “There is a subculture... and nobody talks about it but it does exist,” she says. “It was just funny because you would just experience different things and kind of band together because you’re going through this journey.”
“My worst nightmare, back then, was that I would end up being a Mom of Boys, one of those women with a ‘practical’ haircut and flat shoes who spent her afternoons at the baseball field and washed a lot of sweaty athletic clothes,” wrote Allison Slater Tate on New York Times’s parenting blog in 2008 who did, ultimately, give birth to a baby boy instead of the girl she wanted.
In the mid-’00s, “boymom” was not as widely used as it is now, but just as America was having a panicked conversation about how to effectively raise girls, books and articles were grappling with how to raise boys. Around the time Williams trademarked the term, books like Raising Boys Without Men: How Maverick Moms Are Creating the Next Generation of Exceptional Men and House of Testosterone, One Mom’s Survival in a Household of Males were being published for single moms and mothers dealing with being the only woman in their household. In 2006 PBS ran a documentary titled Raising Cain exploring “the inner of lives” of American boys. The documentary took on stereotypes of inherent masculine violence and asked why girls were outperforming boys in school. In its romantic affirmation of stereotypes about boys—that their mess and chaos is innate and even delightful—boymom content celebrates or satirizes rather than criticizes what conversations about “boys falling behind” center about boyhood.
Williams trademarked the term and created the Boymom brand after her sons went to school full-time. “Don’t infringe our trademark,” reads the Facebook page for the Boymom store. “You’ll get cooties. And we’ll have to defend ourselves.” On Etsy community pages sellers have complained about Boymom LLC’s legal aggressiveness when it comes to versions of “boymom” including variations like “boy mama.” “This kind of nonsense makes me want to climb a mountain and live off the land,” one community member wrote. When asked if she’s ever had to get litigious Williams declines to go into detail. “If somebody was selling Coca-Cola out on the street, don’t you think they’d be out there protecting their trademark?” she says.
The cottage industry around boymom, and the content its hashtag generates, arguably grounds boyhood in extremely limited terms. Boymom is a very specific aesthetic, one that essentially associates being a boy with almost debased chaos. “Just had to bath[e] my child for the first time due to a total shit explosion,” reads a #boymom tweet. “Changed him... then he puked on me. Living the good life.” A t-shirt for sale on Etsy that reads “Not Today Satan” is tagged explicitly for moms of boys. There’s also a noticeable competitive edge to boymoms as they stake their claim to the more difficult, literally messy aspects of parenting. For mothers who struggle with the difficult routine of parenthood, like changing dirty diapers our cleaning up after your kids, the boymom label is an easy way to have your labor recognized and validated, so much so that you can wear it on a t-shirt.
Self-identified boymoms don’t think the term is particularly limiting, either for boys or the parents who raise them. “I think in a society that’s all about being genderless I think it’s a good thing because we do have gender, we are different,” Powers says. “Boys learn differently than girls and I’m okay with saying that. Yes, individually, all of our kids are different, but generally, I know that my son has way more energy right now than a little girl his age and he needs to get that out because he’s a boy.”
But perceived gender differences in children are less biological than they are prescribed by widely held stereotypes. A 2005 study from psychologist Janet Shibley Hyde found that, for example, boys and girls perform the same in math up until high school, where boys might gain an advantage simply because girls are overlooked due to assumptions about how they’re less proficient in math. “There just simply aren’t cognitive differences or learning differences between boys and girls,” says Christia Spears Brown, professor and associate chair of developmental, social, and health psychology at University of Kentucky and author of the book Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue: How to Raise Your Kids Free of Gender Stereotypes. “People have looked and they cannot find them.”
“It’s the same for [energy], boys are slightly more active as infants but it’s not a very big difference,” Brown says. “The problem is when you have a baby [and] you presume that they’re going to be really energetic and be focused on trucks and enjoy math, then parents really do, and I would say subconsciously, reinforce [that] from infancy.”
“I’m not saying because I’m a boymom that means my boys are into sports or this and that, my kids are very artistic, they write music and are interested in architecture,” Williams says. “I think you just embrace your children no matter who they are. You let your children figure out who they are.”
But because the term boymom ties a mother’s identity as a parent so heavily to the gender of their children, not only does boymom culture not take into account the fluidity of boys’ identities, but the potential fluidity of kids’ gender identities at all.
“When you say stuff like [boymom] we really are boxing ourselves in and we’re kind of boxing our kids in,” says Nicole Pecocaro, a mother who runs the blog Mom Transparenting. In January, Pecoraro wrote an article for the website Fairy Godboss titled “Moms Are Obsessed With Being a #Boymom, Here’s Why We Need to Stop,” detailing how parents need to understand that when it comes to their children’s gender, nothing goes as planned. After her son came out as trans, Pecoraro began to feel differently about all the heavily gendered language she encountered in mommy blogs or elsewhere, and that includes boymom. “What if your boy doesn’t fit the boy mold?” Pecoraro writes in her post to boymoms. “What if he likes his fingers painted or playing with dolls. What if he turns out to be (gasp!) transgender!”
“[My son] is upset about old pictures and I can’t do anything about that because I can’t change the past,” Pecocaro says. “Had I had a huge focus on his gender from the beginning I think it [would have] made things a lot more stressful for him and he’s already stressed.”
“The language that you use can change people’s perspective and can have a bigger meaning over time,” she says.
Boymoms say the label is simple: it’s for mothers of boys, an unspoken subculture of women dealing with raising the opposite sex. While some might insist that the term’s definition of boyhood is open-ended, the shirts and blogs say differently, clearly connecting the boymom experience to stereotypical ideas of gender that run rampant in mommy blogging. Boys are either hyper-energetic destructive monsters running around the house, or an overly romanticized little prince. (“You will always be their queen. And he will always be your prince,” reads one blog.) And just as the boymom label meme-ifies boys personalities, it does with moms as well, who seem content to boil down these mothering experiences into shirts that read: “Dirt. Trucks. Superheroes. Dinosaurs. #boyblessed.” #Boyblessed, indeed.