I had planned to write on a different topic this week, but when Sarah shared her fantastic piece on gendered clothing for young children, I just had to continue the important conversation. As a mom of both girls and a boy, one of whom is showing tendencies towards gender non-conformity, and a member of the LGBT community, I have a lot of opinions about how we *should* be presenting gender to our children. But as a mom who loves her children fiercely and cringes at the thought of even a moment of their pain or embarrassment, I know that executing those *shoulds* can be damn hard.
I shared this story a few years ago…
This weekend I had the glorious opportunity to sit my bum in a salon chair and read to my heart’s content. And when I got home, my son ooo-ed and aaahh-ed over my pink sparkly toes. Princess toes, he said.
Naturally, being 4 years old and only at the initial cusp of understanding the burdens our society places on the genders, he asked if he could have painted toes too. I said yes and let him select his colors. He now has sandal-ready green and blue toesies. Proud as punch and showing them off to everyone he encounters – he’s grown up. Pretty much 5. With painted toes, just like mommy.
Two (bratty) 10-year-old girls at the playground didn’t think it was quite as cool as he did.
“Why are your toes painted? Are you trying to be a girl? Ewww!”
[thank goodness I was trailing a wild toddler or my inner mama bear would have jumped the railing and clawed her face. okay, not really. but almost.]
“I’m a boy but my mommy said I could still have pretty toes.”
“That’s your opinion.”
And just like that he pivoted those painted toes in the opposite direction and marched away, head held high, and found himself a new playmate.
Tears of pride and sadness came to eyes. When did he get so big? And brave? And confident? My goodness, I’m such a fan of that kid.
Great story right? I’m still so freaking proud. Proud of my son for his amazing sense of self…and proud of myself for painting those toes.
The part of the story that is missing above is the way that my mind raced as I brought the brush of the polish over each tiny toe. “It is definitely okay at home.” “Should I have him take it off when we got out?” “Should I warn him that it’s not *normal*?” “Just insist he wears sneakers?” “But what message does that send??” “I can’t be a part of the solution if I am part of the problem.”
In the end I shut my mouth, and did nothing more than smile and share my son’s excitement. Not easy, but I’m so glad I made that call. The world can (and did) hammer my sweet child about what is “for boys” and what is “for girls” but that will not be the message he gets from me.
In the years that have passed since that day, we have run the gamut with his attempts to navigate the complicated world of gender roles. One year he quit gymnastics, refused to so much as touch anything with pink, and took a hiatus from playing babies with his little sisters. I was glad that stage was short and the pendulum has now swayed closer to the middle. He’s back into gymnastics and loving it. Favorite color is proudly purple. He looks fantastic in pink. And he’s one of the most popular kids in his class. It is incredible to hear his thoughts as he expresses, “Some of the kids at school think stuff can only be for boys or girls, but I think they will change their minds when they get older.”
And now I’ve got myself another 4 year old who is learning about and bravely testing gender roles and boundaries every day. I still hold my breath a little. I catch myself worrying about what people will think or say. But as I’ve learned from being here once before, my job is simply one of support. Yes, my child. Even when the world tells you differently, you CAN be anything you want.