Jack and Baby Vicky sittin' in a tree

A gender-bending love story about a boy and his toy.

Published December 14, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Three years ago, a high-resolution ultrasound scan confirmed my hormonally enhanced intuition that I was pregnant with a boy. Despite my early inklings, I was floored to learn my body had produced someone who might expect me to take him to a football game.

I'd grown up in an extended family chock-full of girly-girls. We went to art exhibits, sobbed at old movies, sang show tunes, struggled with math, curled up with good books, dished over spoonfuls of raw cookie dough and shopped as strenuously as finances would allow.

Although my lovely, beleaguered father adored sporting events, I didn't inherit his enthusiasm; masculine elements in our household just couldn't take root amid the constant tidal wave of estrogen.

But my yin did at last embrace my long-lost yang when I fell in love with my husband. David hails from Minnesota, where men can be deported for nonlinear thinking. He grew up in a family of such avid sports fans that they installed a basketball court inside the house.

His mother and two sisters never succumbed to a single mood swing; his father was quoted in a magazine as saying he had never experienced a doubt about anything in his entire life. To this day, my in-laws prefer to travel in a pack, speak as if projecting across an astrodome and classify everything in numerical terms, as in: "I'm only feeling 75 percent today!" or "I give the Cobb salad a 9.5!"

Considering David's and my different backgrounds, one question looms in the minds of our friends and families: Will our son Jack, now 2, be a Macho Boy or a Sensitive Boy?

Jack loves trucks, but he prefers cats to dogs. He's not much of a swimmer or climber, but he can hurl his toy cell phone from across the room and bonk you square in the face every time. He likes french fries and Coke, but he's also fond of black beans and soymilk. He's got long, golden locks to rival any Junior Miss, but he's also a neighborhood heartthrob; according to the father of one smitten girl, "Jack's the Jan Michael Vincent of the toddler set, pre-drug problem."

Several weeks ago, however, Jack's Sensitive Boy moved into the lead, edging out Macho Boy.

After returning from a play date at his friend Nevin's house, Jack looked up at me with big moony eyes and said, "I want Nevin's baby." Nevin's "baby" was a newborn-size doll. Nevin could have cared less about the doll, but Jack had spent the entire morning examining the toy infant's behind and exclaiming: "Baby has poo-poo in the diaper!"

Now back at home, Jack was in the throes of severe baby-doll withdrawal. His little chest heaved. Tears streamed down his cheeks. He grabbed onto my legs with the desperation of a man lost in the desert without his sippy cup, shrieking in escalating decibels:

"I want Nevin's baby! I want Nevin's baby! I want Nevin's baby!"

There was only one thing to do: Haul ass to Toys 'R' Us.

Being the mother of a son, this was my first foray into doll shopping. My initial quandary -- boy doll or girl doll? -- quickly became moot as I browsed the baby-doll aisle. The shelves sagged with "Baby Jennies" and "Baby Susies," but nary a "Baby Billy." The packaging showed only little girls diapering, bathing, feeding, grooming and strolling their female babies. Here was subliminal marketing at its most sexist.

Apparently, not one toy manufacturer believed that some boys might want to nurture; in fact, they seemed to be saying that this trivial matter of being sensitive to others' needs was strictly a girl's domain. The more I stared at the plethora of pink-packaged dolls, the more I realized I'd need to compensate for society's antiquated gender typecasting.

Then I glimpsed her. She looked longingly at me from inside a beat-up box collecting dust at the back of a shelf. She came equipped with a computer chip and a heart-shaped screen on her chest that signaled whether she was hungry, sick, sleepy, wet or in need of a hug.

She also came with a bottle, diaper, medicine dropper and what I would soon learn was a disarmingly lifelike cry. And because she'd been price-slashed from $32.95 to $9.99, I knew she was meant to be ours.

The only other time I saw my son so excited was when he got a child-size plastic fire truck for his second birthday. His eyes sparkled and he gasped with delight as I placed the new baby in his arms. For reasons unknown to me, he promptly christened her "Baby Vicky."

Over the next few days, Jack and Baby Vicky were inseparable. He fed her, gave her medicine, changed her whether she needed it or not. He rocked her on his lap. He dragged her by the foot everywhere he went.

At night, he brought her into his crib, covering her with a blanket, making sure her bottle was nearby. What the hell did Toys 'R' Us know? My son's nurturing qualities had emerged without any suggestions on my part. I was so moved, I thought my heart would melt.

My husband was also moved, but in a different way.

"Is it normal for him to play with a doll?" David asked, his voice breaking with the merest hint of homophobia. "What happened to trucks?"

I assured David that the other boys in Jack's social set also played with dolls. I just didn't mention they did so only as a last resort. For whatever reason, the little guys I'd observed were much more attached to their cars and bikes, while our son clearly preferred Baby Vicky.

When I described Jack's activities with Baby Vicky over the phone to my mother-in-law, there was a loud pause.

"What are you trying to tell me?" she finally asked.

"Just that he likes his doll," I said innocently.

The truth was, I was gloating. I loved the fact that my Sensitive Boy had scored a TKO against the leading contender. Like David smearing Goliath, Jack had shown Macho who was boss. It was a beautiful thing to see.

It just didn't last long.

Being a girly-woman with pitifully limited mechanical skills, I had failed to set Baby Vicky's internal clock correctly. Consequently, she became nocturnal, waking us all for 2 a.m. feedings with her sobs. On more than one occasion, I had to run into Jack's room, yank Baby Vicky from the crib, check her heart-shaped screen for a diagnosis, and give her whatever she needed so she'd shut up.

Sometimes she only needed a 4 a.m. hug and I'd have to squeeze her tiny computerized hands till she giggled and said: "I love you, Mommy." But sometimes she'd groan, "Mommy, I'm sick," punctuated by something that sounded an awful lot like a dry heave. I'd feel that familiar lurch in my stomach, the lurch every mother has when her child is ill. So I'd gently place the medicine dropper in Vicky's mouth until she stopped crying and a genuine wave of relief washed over me, knowing I'd made my "child's" hurt go away.

Even when Jack's nanny fixed Baby Vicky's clock so her yelps for attention were confined to daylight hours, I found myself searching the house for the howling baby doll. But as I took more interest in Baby Vicky, Jack took less. One night after I'd tucked them both in, I heard an ominous clunk. I hurried back into Jack's room.

Baby Vicky lay sprawled face down on the hardwood floor. I looked at my son; he flashed me a smug smile.

Once I found myself arguing with Jack over Baby Vicky.

"She's hungry," I said, pointing to the bottle icon on her heart-shaped diagnosis screen. "Don't you want to feed the baby?"

"No!" he shouted.

"May I feed the baby?" I asked, holding the bottle to Baby Vicky's lips.

"No!!" he screamed, grabbing the bottle and hurling it across the room like Nolan Ryan. Then he wrested Baby Vicky from my grasp and tossed her onto a pile of Legos where she wailed pitifully.

"Jack? Don't you want to -- ?"

"Mommy, no Baby Vicky! Mommy, no Baby Vicky!"

Apparently, the only thing as strong as the maternal instinct is sibling rivalry.

Now the little black knob on Baby Vicky's back is set to the "off" position. Because she's perpetually mute, I have no cause to wonder whether she's hungry or sick. Usually she can be found on the floor with the other toys Jack plays with in five-minute bursts before his attention span wanes and he moves on to his toolbox and fire truck.

The other day I watched out the window as David and Jack "played" football.

Resting on a lawn chair in the shade, David tossed the football across the lawn. Jack ran as fast as his chubby legs would carry him, his little arms pumping the air. He fetched the ball and proudly handed it back to David.

"Daddy throw foo-ball, Daddy throw foo-ball!"

I smiled as my tiny angel went long to retrieve another pass. Who knows? Someday this boy actually might get me to a football game.

By Virginia Gilbert

Virginia Gilbert is a screenwriter and freelance journalist living in Los Angeles.

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