the freedom to like who + what you like

While out shopping with my mother recently, I waited by the cash register and saw two displays:

Let me break this down for you with my reaction to each.

On the girl side:

  • a "fashionable tale" about Cinderella (what does that mean?)
  • a sticker book about being a princess (cool)
  • a princess stamp set (fun)
  • a book about one's favorite dress (sounds boring)
  • bright pink stuffed animals (fine)
  • a "Dust! Sweep! Mop!" set (LOL nobody is that excited to clean)
  • a baking play set, complete with stainless steel pots and pans (do easy bake ovens still exist?)
  • a treasure hunt book with 500 pictures to find, such as diamonds and flowers and teacups and crowns and fairy wings and cupcakes and purses (.... okay)

On the boy side:

  • a book about a farm (we live in Iowa, not surprising)
  • a sticker book about building trucks (that's neat)
  • books about curious monkeys and polar bear noises and truck sounds and dinosaurs (I would read those) 
  • books about firefighters and pirates and how to be a spy (I would read those too)
  • a jellybean game complete with real jellybeans (SWEET)
  • more farm toys (Iowa again)
  • race cars (exciting)
  • the exact same treasure hunt book with 500 pictures to find, such as cars and boats and dog bones and footballs and robots and tools and animals (... okay)

I stood there and rocked E in his stroller, back-and-forth, back-and-forth. I looked at these vastly different selections and thought about how my son would feel if these were the sets of preferences presented to him. And how his whole life, the largely prevailing narrative will push him toward the "boy" side of things: toys, apparel, attitude, etc. And how he might be interested in dresses and pink teddy bears and learning how to make dessert, and he might have no interest in sports or dirt or building. And vice versa for girls: his potential sister someday, his female friends, his potential lovers or girlfriends or partners.

There is nothing wrong with girls and women liking everything deemed "girly." I was totally that child obsessed with Barbies and ballet, and now I'm a woman who enjoys makeup and fashion. Likewise, there is nothing wrong with boys liking everything on the "boy" side. But it scares me that marketing SCREAMS at children and adults in an effort to guide us toward stereotypes, toward a sense of what we "should" like. Which, in turn, affects how we view ourselves, how we measure our self-worth, and how our identity shapes itself. It affects who we choose to love and how we create our lives.

All I want is for my son to know he's got options. He can like what and who he likes. And I want him to know that everyone he knows has that exact same freedom.

I read a story last year about a couple who adopted twins, and then one twin transitioned from a boy to a girl by the time of adolescence. The mother, in the interview, made a comment in passing about how she and her husband devoted so much time to naming their children, and the child who transitioned ended up picking a different name (which they supported and accepted). That tale stayed with me; I kept thinking how hard it would feel to name your kid only to have him or her discard that name years later. 

When E arrived, I wasn't surprised that he was a boy; it was more of a "oh, here you are" sentiment than shock. Everyone asked constantly what we predicted, girl or boy, and truthfully, I didn't have strong feelings either way. I dreamt about a girl and I thought it might be a boy based on nothing at all. We decided not to find out the gender of our baby during pregnancy for two reasons: first, because it seemed fun! Major surprises like that aren't easily accessible these days. Second, because it kind of . . . didn't matter to us. Of course, I can only assume that finding out is delightful in a lot of ways—you can plan and dream and feel closer to the baby on the way. I think my husband would've gone either way on the issue, but I felt pretty strongly about waiting. 

The waiting, the not-knowing, more so drove everyone else crazy. 

But I loved it, and as time went on, I appreciated that the not-knowing resulted in an inability to put gender-based expectations on full blast. 

Right now, E has a purple pacifier, a pink Rock 'N Play, and lots of gray, blue and white clothing. All of which would be perfectly sufficient if he had been born a girl, too. Surprisingly, people often ask if his name is gender-neutral; it isn't, at least to my knowledge, but I kind of enjoy that folks are unsure. Because it doesn't really matter.

I notice that the fact that he IS a boy leads to easy commentary about him playing baseball or soccer, or winning over the hearts of future ladies. Every single time, I'm quick to chime in and say, "He might like ballet or piano or art; he might be gay!" I do this on purpose and frequently, I receive a response *look*—the "what-are-you-talking-about" look. The "that's-fine-for-other-people-but-not-MY-grandson" kind of look. The "but-he's-a-BOY" look. I don't mind this *look*. Know why? Because I want my child to grow up knowing very clearly that all paths of identity and interest are available and open for exploration. I will communicate that fact over and over again, and I will protect his ability to explore these things whenever I can. 

My job is not to tell my son who to be. My job is to show my son how to be. I want him to be curious and playful and resilient and honest and kind and smart. I want him to know he is deeply loved. I want him to feel secure in his roots yet willing to venture out. And in a day and age where so much hatred exists toward people who are deemed "different" in some way, due to race or age or gender or sexuality, I want him to be both compassionate and authentic.

Who he is will shift over the years, but I hope that how he is will lay the foundation.

When Did You Stop Dreaming?

The other night, I watched a movie called The Internship, starring Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson doing their usual shtick of har-har-har jokes alongside tenuous plotlines. If you haven't seen it, it goes something like this: Vince and Owen are two salesman who've hit a rough patch, they manage to get jobs at Google (ha) and powered by teamwork and creativity, turn themselves around. There's one scene in which Vince's character messes up, big time, and he decides that everything everyone has ever told him -- that he is bound to fail -- is true. He leaves, and takes a shitty job selling electric wheelchairs for a nursing home. Basically, he gives up and settles for the life he thinks he deserves.

Of course, his good friend, Owen (his character name really doesn't matter, since they are obviously just the duo of Vince and Owen) comes to rescue him with a "when did you stop dreaming?" speech of sorts that goes something like this: so you messed up. Big deal. Try again. Don't you want more than this? 

Then the two return to their team, (spoiler alert) get their jobs, and live happily ever after. There are also plenty of Flashdance inspirational speeches.

In sixth grade, I signed up for the basketball team. A "no tryouts" school rule plus a tall, skinny girl with curly brown hair and braces with minimal hand-eye coordination skills equals . . . you can see where this is going. I sucked. Like, not in the funny, self-deprecating way, but really -- I had zero basketball talent.

So I spent a lot of time on the bench. Watching the other girls. Half not minding it, half wishing desperately I could be fast and furious, sneakers squeaking, back and forth on the shiny court. 

The few times Coach put me in, I both delighted and balked at the opportunity. It was exhilarating, passing the ball, being part of a team, trying to score points. It was also terrifying. Slow and stumbling, I didn't really understand the concept of defense or competition; I felt awkward about shouting or grunting. "Get physical!" Coach would bellow from his chair, pointing energetically. "Shut it down!" Shut what down? I pondered, racing to catch my breath.

Once, I managed to hang onto the ball, speed down the court, and throw it up in the hoop -- after a quick pass from Rachel F. A smile broke upon my face, cheek to cheek, as I heard the cheers of the crowd.

Except . . . oh . . . wait.

I had gone the wrong way.

The wrong way, YOU GUYS. I made a basket for the other team.


I can still remember the palpable heat of embarrassment. The physical rush and joy at seeing the ball go through the hoop, followed by the shocked noises from the other team, the rolled eyes from my own teammates, the pity "it's okay, it's okay!" from Coach. I felt so, so dumb.

Next year, I didn't sign up for basketball. 

I actually don't remember this story very often -- it's not a tale of horror from my youth, or something that makes me cringe. I think it's pretty hilarious, for the most part -- I mean, who makes a basket for the other team? Ha. But that formative feeling of risk followed by shame and embarrassment stuck with me for a long time.

When a risk pops up, people tend to respond along a spectrum of two extremes: they dive in, full speed ahead, or they pull back and wait until they're "ready." (FYI -- being "ready" takes an awful long time to arrive, if ever). Some people have thick skin; at least, they don't care about looking silly or messing up. Some people just flat out don't care what happens, even if it hurts other people or ruins plans or burns bridges or destroys their life. Some people have no choice -- the risk results in survival, and there is not another option. Some people carefully consider a risk for minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, their whole life, always waiting for the perfect conditions or feelings to decide, to know, to be all in, to go for it.

And some people acknowledge the risk -- my idea might crash and burn, he may not love me back, she could decide to leave, I may fail, etc. -- and then move forward anyway.

These are the people I admire. They've left the sidelines. They want to make a mark on this world and they believe in themselves to the point of delusion. They hear, "That's not going to work," and think, "But it might." They are told, "You'll never get there," and respond, "And yet I'll keep trying." They see a blank canvas, a blinking cursor, a piece of wood, a classroom, a dance studio, an abandoned building, and decide to make something come alive.  People who commit to repeated effort, match words with actions, invite discomfort, envision things that don't exist yet. People who say, "What if we . . . ?"

These people also scare me a little bit, because I'm not naturally one of them.

I want to be this sort of person. Sometimes I am. Other times, I am too afraid and too tired and too enmeshed in my comfort zone. I'm often a sit-on-the-couch-er. And a make-snacks-er. And a complainer. And once in a while, I default into the type of person who hangs out, watching from the sidelines.

Afraid to make waves. Afraid to step in. Afraid of being wrong, of messing up. Afraid of not being perfect.

It's safe on the sidelines, and it's nice when everybody likes you for not making waves, but damn, it is lonely and boring.

We hang out on the sidelines and hold back alllllll the time.

I see it in the yoga studio, when we break down an arm balance or posture, and certain students literally sit down and watch other people try something new. When I ask them to give it a shot, their response is, "Well, I'm not flexible" or "that pose isn't for me."

I see it in corporate cubicles, when coworkers schedule endless meetings where nothing gets down and gripe about red tape but celebrate their twentieth anniversary of being an employee. It's the health insurance, or the paycheck, or the job security, or the safety in knowing the bureaucratic ins and outs of a company, or wanting to make partner and get the corner office.

I see it in friends who are presented with a new love or job or opportunity and their first responses involve pointing out all the cons, all the risks, all the ways in which it could go wrong. 

People who get stuck. Who want something more, but have decided that this life, this marriage, these circumstances -- it's just the hand they're dealt and now they've got to stick it out. 

Or, it's the opposite. People who can't seem to get their shit together or commit to anything. People who flee to place after place, forgetting that they can never leave themselves behind. People who don't know what their dream is because they never stand still long enough to figure out what makes them tick and what hits them like a sick punch in the gut.

People who decide, eh, this is good enough.

I see these people, and I think, I never want to be like that.

Except for the times that I am, exactly, like that. 

It's amazingly, frighteningly, easy to stop dreaming and settle. There's an extremely fine line between comfort and complacency. Every time I fall into this sidelines mode, I have to actively pull myself out. Almost every single day. Over and over. And over again.

Because I don't always want to be vigilant. I don't always wanna hustle or do the work. It is exhausting and it never ends and nobody is there to do it for you, ugh.

To which the universe says, too bad, so sad.

For every dream of mine, my mind has an immediate reason why it can't happen or won't work. Like, IMMEDIATELY. And sadly, too many people hear that instant naysayer of the ego and they listen. They stop. They say, "Okay, I guess I can't . . . [lose the weight, earn more money, find love, get rid of all this clutter, feel happier, say how I really feel, be considered for the promotion, etc.]

We all fear complacency, but the truth is, we also like to be comfortable. As soon as we get cozy, we don't want to leave. 

Yet, if you want any of your dreams to become a reality, you've got to get off your ass and get moving. You have to become a master of telling your mind to shut up, yes, this is uncomfortable, but you're doing it anyway.

Otherwise, you stop dreaming, you settle, and one day, you wake up asking yourself: didn't I want more than this?

Because you do. You want more and you deserve more. Your dreams have purpose. Start tomorrow, however small. Wake back up -- you're meant for more than a life of pure comfort. Get uncomfortable.