By: Amber Leventry
“Don’t trip on your dress,” I said this to my son as he climbed the steps in preparation for nap time. Earlier in the day he had taken advantage of his big sister being at school and made himself comfortable in her space. He had also dug through her bins of clothing and emerged with a mint green and purple dress.
“Do you want to wear it?” I asked. He adamantly nodded yes. So I pulled off his t-shirt and slipped the dress over his head. He jumped up and down. He twirled. He grinned. He was comfortable in his sister’s clothing.
Ryan is two years old, a twin, and a little brother. He doesn’t know what gender is, nor does he have any understanding of expectations tied to the labels, boy and girl. I don’t think he knows he is a boy. Not because we haven’t called him one, but because my partner and I have not allowed his gender to define him. Other than his name, we haven’t handed him a label he must grow into. And he’s two. As much as he is our son, he is a possessive, energy-filled, tantrum-throwing toddler. Our goal right now is to keep him from pooping on the porch, not to identify by a specific gender.
His personality reminds me of lyrics from the nursery rhyme The Grand Old Duke of York. When he is up, he is up. When he is down, he is down. And when he is in the middle, he is neither up nor down, but he is very focused on contemplating which way to go. His moods have an intensity which can take over a room. His piercing blue eyes sparkle when happy and glisten when damp with tears of anger, frustration, and sadness. Both laughter and crying bubble up quickly and can linger for long periods of time.
And he knows exactly what he wants, including what he wants to wear. For the most part, what he wants to wear is considered to be girls’ clothing. A few months ago he refused to wear the clothes he and his twin brother, Ben, share. He threw a fit when I tried to put on a pair of red sweat pants, and said, “No, Ben.”
I tried blue pants, jeans, and corduroys and received the same response. Finally he said, “Dudda”, which is how both boys pronounce their big sister’s name.
“You want to wear Eva’s pants?” He gave me an irresistible, dimpled grin and nodded yes. And because I really didn’t care what he had on, as long as I could leave the house with a dressed child, I found an old pair of her leggings and put them on him. He was happy.
In that moment, Ryan simply expressed an interest, a preference to something. In the same way he likes cucumbers but not peppers, he likes pink, purple, sparkles, and skirts over blue, red, or stripes. We don’t label children as male or female when they eat certain foods, but when they choose a color or article of clothing we are very quick to put them into those boxes.
Ryan is often mistaken as a girl. It bothers me, not because I am embarrassed that my son is wearing a pink skirt, but because the assumption is that only girls wear pink skirts. Trust me, I understand where this assumption comes from, and it will take a lot of work for people to change their perception of what gender looks like, but I wish there didn’t need to be an explanation for my son’s choice of clothing.
While at the park recently, a woman kept referring to Ryan as a girl. I continued to use male pronouns. She finally looked at me and said, “He? That is a little girl.”
“No. That is my son. And he is a boy.”
Until he tells me otherwise, he is my boy. I am open to anything he chooses to identify with, but as his mother it is my job to make him feel confident and proud of who he is right now. I felt like I owed it to him to defend his outfit. I felt like I owed it to him to not accept her excuse that because he was wearing a Tinker Bell t-shirt that he should have a vagina.
The woman was kind and agreed that he should wear whatever makes him happy. That’s the point, right? To raise happy, self-assured kids? I think so. My hope is that all parents can agree, even if that means they are pulled out of their comfort zone by their son or daughter who chooses to go against the grain of societal gender expectations. The gender spectrum is wide. It’s not a measuring stick for success or a handbook to define roles. Terms like agender or gender fluid are used to define the many different and wonderful ways people see themselves.
What’s fascinating to me is that we offer the same choices to all of our children. Our four year old daughter gravitates toward dresses and sparkles and loves animals and soccer. Our other son will choose anything that involves a ball, though when given the choice between purple or blue, he chooses blue. He also carries around a pink and gray stuffed cat. I have no idea what their interests will be in a few months from now. Our daughter has recently declared her new favorite color is blue—I can’t keep up.
But I can let them be who they are. Right now they are just kids, and I am trying my best to nurture their spirits. My worry is not what they will become, but what they won’t if I don’t let them explore what makes them happy. When my sweet Ryan is up, he’s up. And when he is down, he’s down. And when he is in the middle, he’s probably wearing something pink with glitter on it.