By Jocelyn Wiener
The gender stuff I breezed through with my daughter feels surprisingly fraught with my son.
“I want the yellow dress,” begs the weeping, shrieking pile of two-year-old boy that lies crumpled at my bare feet.
Still in my pajamas, I dig through my son’s overstuffed dresser, scrambling to locate the pale cotton frock he has appropriated from his 4-year-old sister.
“How about a striped one, instead?” I offer.
“Your special firetruck PJs?”
For my son, his desire for the dress is profoundly logical: He needs it to twirl.
Specifically, he needs it to twirl at preschool.
Now, against the backdrop of screaming toddler, my progressively minded, almost-40-year-old adult self does battle with the awkwardly dressed, frequently teased fourth grader she carries within.
The idealist in me wants to encourage my son’s self-expression, to embrace gender fluidity, to send him out into the world wearing (almost) anything he damn well pleases. We live in Oakland, a city where people regularly announce their pronouns. I am proud of that. But fourth grade me well remembers the casual cruelty of other children. What, she whispers, will they do to my little boy?
And so, even as I tear up the house in search of the dress, a small, fearful part of me hopes I won’t find it. Even though he’s worn it a dozen times at home, even though he looks adorable in it, this tiny voice hopes my son might instead venture into the world wearing something featuring dogs or monsters or sharks or trains. I feel ashamed of this voice. But there it is.
Eventually, I give up on the dresser, and begin sifting through a basket of clean laundry we have yet to fold. (Okay, multiple baskets. They’re a fixture in our home).
Somewhere within one of them lies that faded yellow dress with an empire waist, a hand-me-down from a cousin that my daughter wore regularly until berries stained the chest slightly purple. After that, it lived on a shelf until my curly-headed two-year-old discovered it—and fell in love.
I did not anticipate this particular challenge the morning my husband and I stared at a little white blob swimming in a sea of black.
“See that little line?” the ultrasound technician pointed at the screen. “It’s a boy.”
I looked at my husband – recognizing in his face the surprise I felt. I’d intuited a girl.
A son? We wondered aloud, as we walked to the parking garage. How were we going to raise a son? How would we protect him from the macho, sports-worshipping, emotion-repressing influences that pervade our culture?
My husband is decidedly – delightfully – not macho or sports-worshipping or emotion-repressing. He is everything I might hope for in a male role model for a little boy–kind, communicative, creative and fun. The first time he came home to meet my family, he baked brownies. My father and brothers found this perplexing.
I, on the other hand, seem to have unwittingly absorbed some of our culture’s expectations that boys be made of snips and snails and puppy dogs’ tails. Growing up, my three younger brothers dedicated hours each day to sports, video games and wrestling matches on the living room floor. By six, I swore off dolls, voicing concerns that they were instruments of oppression of my sex. I wore my hair short and refused dresses. Strangers often assumed I was a fourth son.
Maybe because of this, as a new mother the first time around, I found it easy to dress my little daughter in clothes from the boy’s section –especially given the pink everything of the girl clothes on offer. I laughed off comments from strangers who suggested my big, bald baby girl would be a linebacker someday. Who cared?
But with a son on the way, the gender stuff I’d breezed through with my daughter felt surprisingly fraught. In our culture, masculinity is still conflated with strength, femininity with weakness. It’s distressing and infuriating and totally bogus. But, try as I might to ignore it, it’s there.
As I prepared for my son’s arrival, I found myself sitting on the living room floor surrounded by bins of my daughter’s outgrown clothes, trying to figure out which were too feminine for a baby boy. As if baby boys cared about such things. Every time I kept a pink item, it felt subversive.
Our son arrived five days late – a hefty 9 pounds, 4 ounces who looked like my father. At his two-day-old appointment, our pediatrician commented that the baby had a “very masculine presence.” My husband and I laughed awkwardly. Later that day, as the lab tech drew blood from his tiny heel, she started chatting with us about football. We learned then that we’d unintentionally named our child after the 49ers quarterback. This was back when Colin Kaepernick was a rising star, but before he became famous for kneeling in protest during the national anthem. My husband and I hadn’t heard of him. My brothers shook their heads.
As our son grew from baby to toddler to preschooler, we were acutely aware of all the ways we, as parents, might fail him. Several recent studies have shown that parents tend to speak more to their infant daughters, share their feelings more with their preschool daughters and, in the case of dads, sing and smile more at their daughters. I try to be cognizant of that, smothering my son with kisses and asking him about his feelings. I’ve broached the subject of gender identity, but we haven’t gotten too far yet:
“Are you a boy or a girl?” I asked the other day.
A wry smile stole onto his face.
“Is your sister a boy or a girl?”
“What am I?”
“What is Daddy?”
“What is Papi?”
Much of the time, my son seems to identify as a dog, crawling around on all fours, barking, whimpering and licking people. I like it when he’s a dog, because he’s always nice to his sister in those moments. During dog hours, he holds her hand and nuzzles up against her while she pets him. During non-dog hours, he sometimes resorts to hitting and pushing. Even so, his big sister is his dearest friend and playmate. If she opts to wear a dress, he wants one, too.
But not just any dress.
Finally, I spot it, the faded yellow fabric peeking out from beneath the towels and T-shirts. Does my inner fourth grader urge me to leave it there, to coax my son into a shark-monster-train outfit instead? If she does, I shove the thought away.
I want my child to wear what he wants to wear. I also want him to stop crying.
I fish the dress out of the laundry basket and slide it over his tear-stained cheeks. The wailing ceases. We briefly do battle over his diaper. The dress, I am informed, twirls better with no diaper. I draw my line in the sand.
We are already late to preschool. We are pretty much always late, but this morning is shaping up to be extra late. I grab the kids’ lunches, and off we go, two small people in dresses, one grown person in sweatpants, tromping down the front steps toward school.
Do the neighbors notice? the inner fourth grader wonders. Would they care? Would it matter if they did?
I look at my little boy – a baby doggy for the moment – holding his sister’s hand as we prepare to cross the street. No, I decide. It wouldn’t matter at all.
A few minutes later, we knock on the preschool’s wooden gate.
The teacher who opens it greets my children with a smile. He says nothing about the dress.
A few older girls look at my son strangely. Later, over crackers and apple slices, they’ll ask his big sister why he’s wearing a dress.
“Because he likes it,” she’ll say. The explanation will suffice. Perhaps, some day, I can feel similarly unconcerned about such things.
As I turn to leave, I pause at the gate. I watch my little boy proudly show his outfit to another teacher.
“Do you want to see me twirl?” he asks her. The question is rhetorical.
Tears well in my eyes as I see a toothy grin spread across that little face. He stretches out his arms, lifts his chin skyward, and twirls and twirls and twirls and twirls. The yellow dress billows around him.
Jocelyn Wiener is an Oakland-based journalist who writes about health, mental health care, poverty, children’s issues, and her kids. Her website is www.jocelynwiener.com