June 5, 2015
After peeing in the potty—an activity he sometimes feels the need to strip all clothes off to complete—he ran to my closet and said “I wanna wear a dress, Mama!”
“You want to wear a dress?” I echoed. “A towel dress?” (We have gotten into the post-bath habit of wrapping and tucking a towel around him, just under his armpits, which he calls his “towel dress.”)
“No, not towel dress. A dress!” He was insistent.
Though he now stands nearly 3 ½ feet high and weighs a whopping 41 pounds, I knew that all of my dresses would still be too big for him. So I did what all parents and caregivers of toddlers do—I improvised. Pulling a tropical-patterned summer shirt from the hanger, I fashioned my son a dress. He immediately pranced to the full-length mirror to admire himself and move around in his new attire. He was delighted.
There are a lot of things that scare me about being my son’s parent, but they aren’t the stereotypical “helicopter” worries that get depicted in the media. I am often the only mom not shadowing her child on the playground; I let him eat food that’s fallen on the floor and drink out of the hose in the backyard. I let him climb on things and cook at the stove and cut vegetables with a real knife—I show him how to be safe, of course, but I’m not interested in trying to protect him from all danger. Danger is a part of everyday life. It’s inherent in the bargain of living. While I would never encourage my child to be reckless or to take unnecessary risks, I also don’t want him to grow up being scared of the world around him. I want him to feel capable of engaging wherever and however he wishes.
Which is why I’m scared of a much less tangible and more insidious set of dangers—the cultural norms and pressures that would cause so many people to be alarmed and disturbed by the idea of my dress-wearing son happily admiring his image in a mirror. It’s the same set of norms and pressures that had me hesitate for 2 seconds in Target the other day when Shiv & I were looking at shoes and he pointed at the pink, Frozen-themed “girl” shoes and said “I want those.” Literally checking over my shoulder to make sure no strangers were about to swoop in and impose their gender norms on my child, I helped him look for his size, which they did not have, so he happily settled for a pair of more boring but still pretty cool “boy” shoes.
I am so tired of the mechanisms that snap into place to enforce and reinforce what we as a society have decided are acceptable, the mechanism that causes people to balk or laugh when they see that my son’s toenails are sometimes painted—at his request, and usually in his favorite color, green. It’s the mechanism that thought for sure we would switch out the few non-gender-neutral onesies we had acquired for our child when we were told we were getting a daughter, once we discovered that we had a son. Because bows and flowers and hearts and kitty-cats and pink are for girls and dogs and dinosaurs and ships and robots and blue are for boys, even though newborns can’t see in color for the first few months of their life anyway AND even though it totally used to be the other way around. It’s the mechanism that causes us to forget that we made up all of these social norms in the first place, that they were INVENTED by human beings, not handed down by some power on high, the mechanism that enforces a binary even though we know scientifically that human gender and sexuality exist on spectrums, not in neat little categories of black or white.
It’s this kind of categorization that will cause some people to say “Oh look how those lesbians are screwing up their son,” because he is imitating what he sees around him, like all children do, and what he sees is his two moms, so when he pretends to “go to work,” what he puts on are high heels and a purse. It’s this insistence on monolithic constructs that will see something wrong with this scenario, or wrong with the fact that my son currently uses female pronouns exclusively for everyone, even though we as a society routinely use male pronouns as if they are universal. It’s the violence that comes with these narrowly-defined boundaries that keeps all kinds of kids (and grown-ups) to venturing into territory that is appealing in their hearts but forbidden by the society around them. That lack of room to move around, to breathe, to experiment and risk, hurts and limits us all.
Am I saying it’s bad if a girl wants to wear pink or a boy wants to play with a truck? No, of course not. Children should be free to play and dress as they wish. Shiv loves to dance AND he loves to wrestle. He has a play kitchen AND toy trucks. The problem is that often what children end up wanting is what we have taught them to want; they do what we have shown them to do, what we have modeled for them as acceptable. They learn, very early on, to hide the parts of themselves that are deemed unacceptable by the world around them, to subvert interests and desires that we are unwilling to make room for.
I don’t think it “means anything” that my son wants to wear my shirt as a dress, other than that he wanted to wear my shirt as a dress, but if it does turn out to mean something more than toddler dress-up, he will have the room to explore whatever that may be. This is my commitment to him—that his self-expression is far more important than my comfort or discomfort, that I will push past my own limits and reject whatever conformist BS I have to in order to make sure that he is boundaried as little as possible. I know that I cannot protect him from the rules and norms that will work to trap him, but I believe that I can help him stay joyful enough in his own being so that he has the strength to carry his beautiful self in whatever way he sees fit.
For more about gender & sexuality spectrums:
The Gender Spectrum [excellent topical overview + resources for teachers], via Teaching Tolerance
The Spectrum [extremely useful graphic] -via The Trevor Project
Understanding Children’s Gender [resources for parents] – via GenderSpectrum.org
For more about gender norms:
Gender Roles Affect Everyone [blog series], via National Conference for Community and Justice
How To Shake Up Gender Norms, via TIME magazine
It’s Time…talk about gender norms, via National Sexual Violence Resource Center
For clothing & toys that buck the trend:
12 Brilliant Kids’ Clothing Lines that Say No to Gender Stereotypes, via Huffington Post
The 20 Best Gender-Neutral Toys for Toddlers, via Babble
What the Research Says: Gender-Typed Toys, via National Association for Education of Young Children