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.