By Jacqueline Haskins
“Open the gate for the High King.”
Clad in sable and gold, a figure strides forward. “Dum da da da,” singsongs my son: “the King.”
“No, not him, the High King. This one’s the High King,” Finn declares.
“And then the invaders—”
“Wait — where’s the King’s jousting thing?”
“Here’s the King’s jousting thing. Then the invader’s space ship—”
“—why don’t you put a pilot in there?” Finn is the people-person.
“I like it with no one in there so it can fire. Like this: dzzzh, dzzzh, dzzzh.” My son, Raven, is focused on inner mechanisms.
Dominating the broad plain of the living room floor, the Lego castle gleams. Lego flags curl as though in a breeze, and Lego archers patrol past Lego torches flaming on the ramparts. A vast force advances across the green carpet—knights asteed, bubble-headed astronauts, club-wielding trolls, and plastic army-guys, who kneel in plastic mud-patches, sighting down rifles.
At this age, at least, war is all in the set-up, I observe, slipping upstairs to my computer. While the boys are engrossed, I’ll get back to my on-line discussion about women and writing.
Today a poet quotes Messud: “It’s a known fact that among children, girls will happily read stories with male protagonists, but boys refuse to read stories with female protagonists. J.K. Rowling was aware of this: if Harry Potter had been Harriet Potter, none of us would know about her.”
A novelist responds: “Who raised these men?”
I’ll come clean: me. I’m raising one of these men. Some of his best friends are girls — not an easy social stance at age 10. And yet Raven is more likely to pick up a book with a boy’s face on the cover. He wants to read The Lightening Thief and Ranger’s Apprentice, not Judy Moody.
My son at the public library — a disease-vector of gender bias? And, a mother’s favorite question, is it my fault?
One day when Raven was just a swell of my abdomen, an analyst dropped by my office cubicle. Beaming, she presented a gift. Inside, nestled in tissue paper, were thumb-sized hand-crocheted infant booties, snowy white with red tulips. “Thank you,” I said, “they’re lovely.”
Then she held out, almost like an after-thought, a plain yellow pair, unwrapped. “In case it’s a boy,” she explained.
I am ashamed to admit this generous woman became our running joke. “Our son will be man enough to wear tulips,” my husband and I liked to say. Yes, we were grand feminists before our son was born.
Raven sported those tulips. And one of the hats shielding his new-born skin was bright pink. If strangers called the little bundle in my arms “she,” I didn’t correct them. I’d heard Americans’ treatment of the genders differs starting in the womb. If people wanted to coo over my two-month-old instead of remarking how big and strong he looked, okay.
My parenting perversion continued when Raven could walk and talk. His dress-up box contained ninja black, pirate patch and sword, fireman’s hat, and also pink, swishy things and gaudy plastic jewelry. Dress-up, like all games, is more fun with friends. Some days a herd of little princesses and princessers pirouetted through my house. In the sheltered world of my friends and their kids, the adults nodded and shrugged as though boys in pink were normal, and the little girls fondled his jewelry and tried on his shoes.
I never admitted this: I myself was unnerved by how pretty Raven, with his delicate features, could look –- how much even my vision of him could be altered by a ruffly tutu. Parenthood is envisioning everything that might go wrong. Ten percent of girls are sexually harassed. I’ve also heard, on less certain authority, that almost as many boys are sexually harassed, much of it unreported. I felt a strange foreboding sometimes, when my little boy looked too pretty.
Lucas’ birthday party was sunny with big puddles from yesterday’s rain. Boys in jeans or sweatpants jumped from the swings, racing and splashing between or through puddles, filthy and exuberant. The one girl at the party, in a pretty white dress and shiny shoes, did not. A five-time iron woman, ultra-marathoner, and the mom of two of the boys, walked up to me and said with a knowing smile, “Girls sure are different from boys, aren’t they?”
Since my son was born, I have heard those words more times than I can count, from moms who are business owners, biologists, marathon-winners, the tri-state lead at work, even a first-female-ski-descender of an obscure Tibetan peak. Just as we “see” robins in the spring even though they may be in our community year-round, these women pounced on the moments that fit their preconceptions. Sincere, intelligent pulverizers of so many glass ceilings, still they rushed to embrace old stereotypes, seeking each others’ validation en route. I was left behind in that strange kind of lonely, when no one, not even the people you trust and admire, even sees what you see.
I wondered: are they blind or am I crazy? Maybe we hurt when our girls experiment with aspects of femininity we once denied ourselves. Maybe we struggle with Mom-guilt when our little boys bite each other or say “Bang! You’re dead.” Daily we confront an every-day wonder — each child’s difference from every other — in a strange brew of awe, competition and loss. Our children are so different from us, and so different from our expectations, from day one.
Waving a ridiculous pink thing from my son’s room, my sister confronts me: “You’re training him to be gay.”
I am as shocked as I am hurt. Not my sister—my sister votes in lesbian housemates to share her home, and volunteers for every “green” candidate and cause. My sister, the bachelor-auntie, who arrives every summer with professionally- wrapped and ribboned toys filling half her small suitcase, has delicately never once before broached a parenting suggestion. Her words strike deep, someplace before memory, where sister, freckled, fisted, is a steady breathing in the dark, keeping me safe all night.
Stunned, floored, I could not even reply.
Later a friend supplied: “I don’t think you can train for that.”
My family, who repeatedly encouraged me to break gender barriers, to be the only girl on the soccer field or in shop class, was appalled by what I was “doing to” my son. To them it was the equivalent of slapping a big “kick me” sign on his back.
I wish I could disagree.
“Shh, little seeds. You’re sleeping,” Raven’s dance teacher whispered. In the un-rented room behind the health food store, a handful of three and four year olds curled tight like little pill bugs, giggling.
“Now the sun is coming out. You’re waking up!” the teacher’s voice grew brighter. “Lift up just your head—just your head, Emily—and peek out.”
It began totally low-key, word-of-mouth, just for fun. Until one mom said, with all this practice, shouldn’t we end with a performance? “I think it’s really simple to reserve the gazebo in the park downtown,” someone else put in. As inevitably as our little tot sunflowers would open and begin to twirl, the plan grew. Once the public performance was a certainty, the talk on the margin of the tot garden was more and more about what the performers would wear.
As the days built toward the “big” day, the tri-athlete moms around me began to outdo each other, stage-rolling their eyes, trying to flatten wolfish grins: found this old thing in the closet… grandma was in town and just had to take her shopping….
As an adult, I can handle so much by just shrugging, not taking the bait, not buying in. But opting out has to come from within. It’s called something else if rammed down your throat by Mom or Dad.
What would you have done? I bundled my son into the car and drove him to the mall. I led him through Target to the children’s section, let go of his hand and said, “pick out whatever you want.” I stood with a heavy heart, wondering if there was anything he could lay hands on I wouldn’t have mixed feelings about buying. Then I slowly followed his eager scamper.
There’s no physical barrier between the boys and the girls department, but the invisible style line is shoutingly clear—at least, to my adult eyes. Did he not see the line, or did he not care? Passing a rack of tights and skirts, he lit up over a deep-plush velvety leotard, as soft to the hand as the cuddliest stuffed animal. He found pink ballet shoes to match. Should I have said something? Said what?
After the dress rehearsal, I didn’t even pick up a vibe. I had no idea. My son and I laughed over dinner, played a fierce game of Buggo, read goodnight, and lay with the lights out talking over our day, like always.
“Wake up,” I said the next morning. “It’s your big dance performance today. Time to get dressed.”
He rolled over, burying his head under the pillow. I laughed, gave him a playful wrestly kiss and hug, and pulled the covers off his bed. “Get dressed and come on down,” I said. “I’m starting breakfast.”
He came downstairs in blue shorts and a dinosaur T-shirt.
“No, we’re going to the dance recital,” I urged, confused. “Don’t you want to wear…where’s your…”
His mouth was clamped in a tight, straight line. He shook his head.
I put down the whisk, walked over and knelt beside him. “Sweetie, is everything okay?” I asked. “What happened?”
He glared past me at the wall.
I tousled his hair. “Pumpkin, did someone say something mean to you?”
“Do you want to tell me what happened?”
In a ring of cooing parents and a score of video cameras, all the other little sunflowers blossomed in shiny beads, glitter shoes, hair ribbons, and poufs of taffeta, tulle, and lace. In the midst of them twirled my son, in tennies and shorts.
That summer Raven quietly assigned to the too-small give-away box the last swishy scarves, costume jewelry, and that knockout pair of sequined red shoes. And I was relieved.
I understand my sister’s desire to spare Raven from hazing. Yet surely denying one’s true self must be even more crippling. On the other hand, if Raven didn’t want to wear sparkly red shoes, we were all off the hook. I jumped off that hook really quickly. Did I ask enough questions? Did I ask the right questions, the right way? Or was I as oblivious, in my own way, as those other moms?
I still struggle to navigate it—how to fit into society, how to be authentically myself. And now I am a tidal wave in my child’s life, forced to choose whether to propel him towards Scylla or Charybdis. From a parent, even the gentlest explanation, perhaps—boys usually do this; if you do that, some people will laugh at you—might come down way too loud, like expectation or judgment.
One spring evening, my pre-school son and I leaned over the railing of a second-story restaurant. There were bright red flowers in the flowerpots, an excited bustle in the air. It was dinnertime of prom night. On the sidewalk below us, girls swished along like Disney princesses, pastel dresses floating about them. They even wore those long white gloves. They carried long-stem roses. Raven stood on his chair, grasping the railing, eyes sparkling, drinking it all in.
A group of teenagers bustled onto the restaurant deck. Puzzled, my son pointed.
“That’s a tuxedo. That’s what boys wear.” I watched something indefinable dying in my son’s eyes. I scrambled to make it better somehow, “Isn’t it handsome? That’s called a cummerbund. Isn’t that a funny word?” But my son, like me, just gets quiet when something breaks.
Last week, a mom, grandma, and four-year-old came into the bookstore where I work. As the grandma laid a cookbook for kids on the counter, the mom, blushing and shifting from foot to foot, explained to perfect-stranger-me, “He loves cooking. I don’t know why. I’m sure he’ll grow out of it.”
Dismayed, I gushed: “Cooking is such an educational activity, isn’t it? My son likes to make pancakes. He loves to decorate them with swirls of whipped cream and pink sprinkles.” I winced inwardly—damn, what possessed me to say pink? “And blue sprinkles. Green sprinkles. All colors of sprinkles.”
In first grade Raven discovered his answer to that ubiquitous kid question, favorite color, an answer he’s clung to like a barnacle since: rainbow. The safe answer, or his authentic answer?
It might be real. The ultimate reward Raven begs for, to celebrate a great report card or soccer tournament is: at Cold Stone Creamery, their three boldest colors of ice cream—bubblegum, cotton-candy, and mint—mixed with gummy bears and M&Ms in a rainbow-sprinkle cone.
I asked the server, “Is this the most colorful ice cream cone you’ve made today?”
“That,” she answered, “is the most colorful ice cream cone I’ve made, ever.”
As for the library shelf: these boys who don’t pick up “girl” books — are they more nefarious than a past generation of girls who never learned to throw? Who is raising these men?
Until he writes his memoir thirty years from now, I may never know what Raven really loves. How young it begins, the secrets we keep to protect our parents, to protect ourselves from our parents, and to protect ourselves from the world.
“And the sorcerer—we always put the sorcerer here on the turret, but this room has the tower and the magic flame, he ought to go in here.”
“Yeah, for sure. And see this, on this guy—this is a mini-gun.”
“Okay, yeah. And we need a drawbridge. Look, we can attach it here…”
With a jolt of recognition, I realize Finn and Raven are playing with a doll house. They’ve spent hours changing the configuration of the rooms, moving the little figures from rampart to gate, dressing a knight in a breastplate that matches his shield, positioning the club carefully in the troll’s hand, and the sword just so in the knight’s hand. Lego crowns, helmets, catapults, a crystal ball, barrels, jewels, keys — even a Lego chicken leg that snaps onto a Lego table — they could not be more meticulous placing these things than if they were setting thimble-sized china cups on a miniature tea table.
“And check this out. This would just rip into the castle and destroy it all.”
“Yeah, luckily we have deflector shields.”
“Bluszzh! Woossh! Brrmmmm!”
“Time to play outside,” I call.
The boys hunt for their shoes, then both try to burst through the door at once, the puppy tangling their feet. Soon they are throwing sticks for the puppy, and shooting arrows—thankfully in different directions.
I kneel in front of the Troll’s Mountain Castle. It really is beautiful, with its crystals and stairways and smoothly hinged doors. A doll house. I am finally seeing what has been right in front of me.
Copyright 2014 Haskins