I’m the mother of a little boy with an active imagination. He will happily tell me stories for hours, with incredible patience and enthusiasm, about the planet of the robots, where the fairies go to do war against villains and use their ice powers to freeze giant insects with multicolored eyes. I’m embarrassed to say that his stories are so long, so intricate, so enthusiastic, so effusive, that I can’t keep track. Often, my brain is so tired from a day of work or is wrapped up in some adult banality (or childish banality. Human banality) that I don’t even try to listen to the story. I put on my smilingest eyes and respond as authentically as I can, but it’s really a stream of, “uh huh! No way! Really?” which feigns engagement instead of actually jumping in.
My little boy has an alter ego that he values much more highly than his own natural-born self. His alter ego is 2 years older, goes to school (never daycare), and is the big sister of his primary ego. Her name is Anna, and she’s a fairy with ice powers (thanks, Frozen), and she has a sister Elsa, another sister Tinkerbell, a little brother Jean-Luc, and another little brother, Isaac (coincidentally the name of a close daycare friend). Because she is a girl, and a girl fairy no less, she has no interest in wearing “boy clothes.” Only “girl clothes.”
And as Mom, I have to figure out how I feel about this, and what I do about this.
At first, I was really happy to have a little boy who liked to twirl around in a skirt. He had a book where the central character, a little girl about his age, put on her prettiest dress for her birthday, and took such pleasure twirling around in it. I thought to myself, true! One of life’s great pleasures is twirling around in a full skirt. Why deny my little boy that pleasure, when he’s quite literally asking for it? I’d already bought him a kilt (dutiful bagpiper as I am), but the kilt didn’t twirl. So for his 3rd birthday, I bought him a big pink tulle tutu. It was a quick favorite, especially paired with his butterfly wings that Santa had brought, because butterflies had been all the rage in our house for the prior months.
That was when his first female alter-ego emerged, Zoë. Zoë wasn’t a well-defined character, just that she was a girl and liked dresses. She loved going to female friends’ houses and putting on their princess and fairy dresses most of all.
But recently my son has been doggedly interested in what it means to be a boy, and what it means to be a girl. It’s not surprising, when there are such strong distinctions, and when so many kinds of play are seemingly restricted by gender codes. My boy likes pink and purple, but finding pink clothes means shopping in the girls’ section by default. He likes flowers and hearts and stars and unicorns and fairies. He’s fascinated by magic, and wants to have magical powers. You know what? I just realized that magical powers are largely coded as feminine. Witches get magical powers. Fairies get magical powers. Witches and fairies are girls, by default. They have the ability to change reality, to make things happen, to control their surroundings, to build talking creatures out of snow, to frolic through the sky on a flying unicorn, to make flowers grow.
You know what boys get? Superpowers. Fighting powers. Strength. Danger. Sometimes (and only sometimes) these powers can be creative and productive. But they are largely destructive and adversarial. Light sabers. Flying machines with guns mounted on them. Laser beams. And my son likes these too! He’s fascinated by war (thanks, Star Wars), and imagines robot armies and cannonballs and poison forests. (I saw my family struggle with this during the holidays. This year J-L received a plethora of superhero capes and costumes, presumably the “boy” version of fairy wings and skirts that they’ve been seeing in the photos I post online.)
At this point in his young life, there’s something about being a girl that is more appealing than being a boy. Girls can play fairies with magic powers. Girls can wear twirly skirts and pink leggings and shirts with flowers and shiny stars on them. Girls can be mamas and have babies. These are things that he feels are forbidden him as a boy, and that he can embrace as a girl. I’ve tried to explain that, with the exception of the last one, which biology gets in the way of, boys can do all of those things too. Pink is just a color, not a “girl color.” There can be boy fairies! Leggings are cool for everyone, but really not warm enough in the winter, for girls and boys alike! But he doesn’t buy it, and I don’t blame him. He’s no dummy, and his whole job right now is to figure out social norms. Just because mom says pink is just a color doesn’t change the fact that no other boys or men that we see anywhere wear pink, or leggings, or twirly skirts.
And at this point in his life, he’s valuing these “girl” things as highly or higher than “boy” things. There’s admiration there, which I’m trying to prevent from turning into envy, by making sure that he has access to all these things and doesn’t feel excluded from the simple pleasures in life that he thinks would make him happy. I want him to keep thinking, his whole life, that being a girl is awesome, even if I also want him to grow into an acceptance of being a boy, and how awesome that is too. I want him to respect womanhood for what it is, as he grows in appreciation for the fact that it’s more than magical ice powers and ruffles, and to keep his love of things which are socially coded as “feminine.” I want him to be part of a generation that doesn’t say shitty things like “you run like a girl” as an insult, that doesn’t equate femininity with infantilism or weakness or pity. I want him to keep thinking that “girl” things are valuable, even if I eventually want him to really challenge the notion that they’re intrinsically “girly.” And while he challenges that, I want him to realize the subtle (and not-so subtle) differences in the ways boy things and girl things are coded and are treated as distinct — for better, for worse, for in-between.
Clothing and appearance just keeps hitting me hard these days. The way that girls’ clothes are cut to cling to the body, are flimsy, make it harder to climb and play, tear holes quickly. Seeing skinny, cold legs in leggings and tights instead of the awesome flannel-lined jeans and khakis I bought. They way nail polish makes your hands less useful for rough-and-tumble play, starting from the 10 minutes you’re incapacitated sitting still while it dries, through every time you think about what your nails are touching so as not to chip the polish off. How sparkly headbands slip off your head while you’re running, making you stop and fix your hair every few minutes, until you find it’s maybe too cumbersome to run today. They way girls’ shoes have slippery soles that are lovely for pirouettes, but less useful for sprinting, or climbing. The way parents say, “careful, you’ll get your nice dress dirty!” and are concerned that running it through the wash will take all the sequins off. A real concern! But boys don’t have to deal with that. At the same time, they don’t get the pleasure of a sequined dress and shoes that let you pirouette. Am I wrong to try to give my son both, and navigate the in-between?
Ah, conflict. Of course. Being a conscientious parent involves always questioning your parenting choices, from day one. Am I confusing him? Am I encouraging something that will cause him problems down the line? Is some intolerant asshole going to punch my sweet baby in the face someday and call him a fucking faggot, all because his mother humored his childhood imaginative play and bought him a couple of skirts on sale at Old Navy? Is there something I should be doing differently? Is this a subtle form of acting out against family dynamics that are sometimes strained, despite our consistent best efforts to be solid and happy and secure? Worry, mama, worry.
I think we’re doing okay. I know we’re doing okay. One day at a time.
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