I consider myself to be an open-minded, progressive, liberal feminist, but today when my son spent a half an hour twirling around the kitchen pretending to be “a beautiful sky dancer,” I felt the slightest pit in my stomach. Later, when he pretended a piece of plastic was a gun, I found myself feeling just a smidge of relief.
Go ahead and pause for a minute to absorb the full-on insanity of that. I’ll wait.
Because that kind of reaction is insanity.
I hate guns, and dancing is pretty much the best, so where did those feelings come from? How is it possible that these stereotypical gender roles are so ingrained in me that a little piece of me feels better when he plays guns than when he plays dancing?
Part of it, I know, is that this is not a one-off instance. He plays Elsa and Anna a LOT, and if I call out “boys” during this game he corrects me: “Mom, we’re girls.” I know this sort of pretend play is developmentally appropriate and doesn’t “mean” anything. (And if it did, so what?) But sometimes I feel like my son plays “girl” things just a bit more than other boys we know. Maybe this is because I encourage it. (Despite having two boys and no girls, our dress-up bin sports princess dresses, high heels, and jewelry right alongside the swords and Darth Vader masks.) Or maybe it’s just who he is. I don’t know, and it shouldn’t matter, but somewhere down deep it apparently does.
This summer he desperately wanted a pair of Crocs. And so one day I found a pair for a good price in his size. In purple. Purple is my son’s self-professed favorite color. I hesitated. I called my husband to get the green light (a thing I’d never do for any other run-of-the-mill children’s clothing purchase). Then I scolded myself for being so absurd, bit the bullet, and bought them. But on the way home, I stopped at another store and found a pair of black flip-flops. When I got home, these were the shoes I presented first, keeping the purple shoes safely unseen in my purse.
“Do you like them? Or should I keep looking for Crocs?” When he agreed that the flip-flops would work just fine, I felt a surge of relief. The purple shoes were returned the next day. These were shoes he wanted — in his favorite color. Yet I couldn’t wrap my head around having to let him wear them every day. Such utter nonsense.
My brother recently spoke of a colleague who believes we should not be labeling infants and young children as “boys” and “girls,” but children should essentially be allowed to be genderless until they decide on an identification. It’s a radical notion, and I can’t say it’s one I’m sold on. But the idea of not funneling children into boxes at such an early age is compelling. I hate that I have some preconceived idea of who my son should be or like based not on what he tells me or shows me, but based on his anatomy.
My 4-year-old should be able to dance and twirl to his heart’s content without the fear of me or anyone else thinking there’s anything wrong with that. He should be able to wear any damn color of shoes he wants without me worrying that other children will make fun of him or that other parents will judge me. Because that kid is incredible, and nothing as trite what he wants to play or wear will ever change that.
Not to mention, if I somehow wound up lucky enough to get to forgo countless sports games in favor of dance recitals? Jackpot.