By Campbell C. Hoffman
Renee and I make our way through JoAnne’s Fabrics, pushing our shopping cart through the Halloween displays and aisles filled with scrapbook supplies. Griffin is with us, too, giving me that toothy grin from his perch wrapped around my belly in a carrier. Today, we’re on a mission. Renee is starting preschool, and kids are given a blue school bag meant to last through swapping of art projects and important papers, mittens and hats and library notices. They are encouraged to make this bag their own by decorating it, also helping kids recognize their blue bag hanging with all the other blue bags in the line of cubbies. Two years ago, when Grant first began school, he picked out patches for me to iron on. Now it’s Renee’s turn.
“I want sparkles!” she has told me, numerous times now. Each time, I’ve smiled and told her we’ll see what we can find. I’m not much of a sparkles girl. I cringe a little at the thought of sparkles that will brush off of the bag, leaving trails of pixie dust in our wake. But this child leading our shopping cart, my little girl-smushed-between-two-boys, is a sparkles girl. If it’s shiny and bright, she’ll take it. At my mother’s house she has a special stash of cast-off costume jewelry. She likes the weight of the gold around her neck, the twinkle as it shifts in the sunlight. At her friends’ houses, she knows where to find the plastic high heels, and she won’t take them off until it is time to go home. Sometimes I think she wants to be a princess.
The thing is: I don’t want her to be a princess. I want her to be a queen. Queens, who actually rule the kingdom, and have power—female power. Doesn’t she know she can have the strength of a queen, and not just the fluff of a princess?
I may not be a sparkles gal, but I never want Renee to think that she can’t be one. I want her to have her own style, find her own skin and be comfortable in it. And that starts with me.
I’ve inherited much from my mother, and one quirk that runs thick is her knack for editing children’s books while reading aloud. Oh, I’m sure most parents do this on some level, but usually it’s because it’s a bit too long. Her editing had more to do with content, often with a sociological bent. In this house, we like a book from the Little Golden collection The Good Humor Man written in the 1950s. There is a part in the book where the Good Humor man is ringing his bell, calling everyone out for ice cream, and “mothers leave their kitchens, and the daddies leave their lawn mowers” as they run to greet the good humor man. But every other time, I switch it up, and stick the daddies in the kitchens and the mommies out there getting some fresh air cutting the grass.
At first, the kids just thought this was funny. Grant, especially, is pretty keen on the memorized words of a book, and doesn’t like the narrative to stray from what he knows is on the page. So he would laugh, and correct me. But as I’ve continued in my madness, we’ve had conversations about this: about the daddies and the mommies and all the things that both can do. Because as silly as it is, this one little line of an old book, I want my kids to hear: you each, boy and girl, can chose to do anything, be anything.
As much as I want to show Renee that she can be a strong girl who doesn’t need to be rescued by any prince, I want Grant and Griffin to know that they don’t have to be princes. They don’t have to fall under any particular constraint of how to be a boy. This summer, as we traded in sneakers for flip-flops, Renee asked me to paint her toenails like mine. I said yes, of course, and sat her on the lid of the toilet, cupping her chubby feet in my hands as I carefully stroked out purple to match my toes. It didn’t take long before Grant decided he wanted his toenails painted, too. How much do I really believe what I’ve been telling these kids? If I am adamant that Renee have every opportunity to try on life, than shouldn’t I offer it equally to her brother?
So, yes, I painted Grant’s toenails, too. I want him to know he has choices. He is one of only a few boys in his gymnastics class, and his best friend at school is a girl. Grant sees the masculine physicality of his dad wrapped up with the tender love he gives so freely. A man who is not afraid to declare his love, and speaks these words often. But he shows it, too: in the way that he serves this family, every day working hard out in the world, and then coming home, to wrestle, play catch, to wash the dishes and fold laundry. Because that’s how it is in this house — girl, boy, man, woman — we all pitch in. We all bring something to the table; it’s not divided down the gender line.
Sometimes I feel this overwhelming pressure to understand my own sense of being a woman in order to parent through this well. To make peace with the choices I’ve made, and thankful that I have choices. To recognize what it is that I bring to this table, and celebrate it, too. I want them to see me work hard, and to watch me enjoy the benefit of doing just that. My kids are still young. They have years to decide how they want to be, male and female. They will try on different costumes, versions of gender, maybe find one that fits better than the others. But I see it as my job to make sure that they are offered all of those outfits. I guess that means that I can’t take the princess dress out of the closet, but I will make sure that the queen is in there, too.
Later that evening, I stood over the kitchen table smoothing the iron over the blue school bags, attaching the chosen patches. Her name is bold in white letters, bordered with orange flowers and silver stars underneath. There are butterflies on the front of the bag, and flip-flops on the side. The American Flag in heart shape is there, too, for good measure. I smile, because I see her in these decorations, and though secretly I’m glad there is nothing sparkly on this bag, ultimately I know that it was her choice, not mine. Queens can wear sparkles, too, you know.
Campbell C. Hoffman can be found with her carpenter-husband on a trail in Southeast Pennsylvania, encouraging (read: begging) her three kids to keep hiking. When she is not hiking, she is on another adventure not altogether different: motherhood. Sometimes she writes about it here: http://tumbledweeds.wordpress.com/