“Hey little man!”
“Does he want to go in the dressing room with you?”
“Your son’s face just lit up!”
“She’s actually a girl.”
“No, she’s fine out here.”
“That was my daughter.”
“I’m so sorry!!”
“Oh, it’s fine,” I assure them.
Emma doesn’t notice most of the time. And if she does, she’s unlikely to say anything. Sometimes she’ll look at me with a mischievous smile and put one finger in front of her lips. She shakes her head slightly and covers a laugh at the little secret we’re in on together.
The secret is that she’s a girl; she just looks like a boy.
“It’s fine,” I say. But I don’t feel like it’s fine. I feel at once protective and embarrassed, maybe even ashamed.
And I am definitely ashamed by my discomfort.
When Emma first announced about a month ago that she wanted to cut off all her hair, I cried. Not in front of her, of course. In front of her I asked why and then told her to find a picture on the Internet that she could show to a stylist.
And then I went into the shower and cried.
I cried not because she wanted to cut her long hair, but because she wanted to “cut it all off like a boy”. For some reason that was the straw that broke the dam.
Emma hasn’t worn dresses since she was two. She hates them. Now, at ten, she’s usually wearing mesh shorts and a Packers t-shirt or jersey – or something old and stained and acquired for free. When she’s “dressing up” she wears skinny jeans and a plaid button down with her black and green Converse hightops.
I admit her fashion sense has always made me a little sad. When I found out I was having a girl I ran home and painted the nursery two shades of pink while fantasies of girls’ weekends and shopping trips danced in my head. I’d teach her how to do her hair and paint her nails. I couldn’t wait to start the journey with my very own mini-me.
But it turns out you don’t give birth to dolls, and instead of a mini-me I got a completely separate and independent human being with ideas and dreams of her own. And yes, that made me a little sad.
It also made me extremely proud. I’ve always been in awe of my daughter’s strong sense of self and amazed at how early it developed. “She’s been refusing dresses since before she was verbal!” I’ve been known to brag.
I’ve fought hard against the label tomboy.
“She’s not a tomboy,” I would assert. “She’s a girl who doesn’t like pink or dresses or playing princess. Who she is doesn’t require another label. Girl can encompass all of that and more!”
I thought I was empowering her and teaching her to embrace and love all of who she is and would ever be. I wonder now if I was also holding space for the possible resurrection of a long-dead dream.
Because I cried in the shower when she told me she wanted to cut all her hair off.
“We’re never going to have grandkids!” I sobbed to my husband on the other side of the shower curtain. “And I’ll bet you money neither one of our kids even go to prom!”
Yeah, because not just one but both of my children are constantly resisting and avoiding social norms of all sorts, especially the gender ones. And you know what? Sometimes that is exhausting. Sometimes it gets hard to constantly have your expectations thwarted and be forced to re-examine the status quo.
“You have no idea what’s going to happen in the future,” my husband said. My mother repeated the sentiment when I got out of the shower and shared my emotional outburst with her.
“And by the way,” she reminded me, “you never thought you were going to be a parent.”
Right. The irony here is that I didn’t grow up with dreams of what parenthood would be like. I didn’t grow up wanting children at all, in fact, and it was only through one very bad financial decision (birth control is so expensive! I said) that I ended up presented with the choice to be a parent. My dreams for my kids – and for myself as a mother – are barely older than the kids themselves.
And there I was crying about unborn grandchildren.
It wasn’t about the grandkids, I told myself. In that moment, on that day, I just wanted very badly for one of my kids to be normal - because maybe that would just be easier.
Of course I pulled myself together. I reminded myself that my kids are amazing. Both Jared and my mother reminded me that any resistance they have to normal is completely my fault, because I have not in any way raised them to fall in line with blanket expectations.
I helped Emma pick out a haircut – one we found by searching “androgynous haircuts” – and took her in for the big chop.
I also had a quick little conversation with her about whether or not she might be transgender.
Hey, it’s 2015 and I read the Internet.
“Em, do you feel more like a boy than a girl?” I asked.
“Are you talking about that” – and here she holds up two fingers and moves them back and forth to illustrate her point – “gender switchy thing?”
“Uhhhh… yes? And how do you know about that?”
“I saw a show about a boy who was born a girl and a girl who was born a boy and they liked each other and then they had surgery and they still liked each other!”
Hey, it’s 2015 and she clearly has way too much access to the Internet.
“Yes,” I tell her, “that’s what I’m talking about.”
“No, Mom,” she insists, “I am not a boy on the inside. I am scared to death of surgery and would never do that!”
Of course my response is, “what if you weren’t afraid of surgery?”
“No, I’m a girl, I just want boy hair.”
And so we give her boy hair, and she is thrilled.
She comes home from school the first day and tells me that she gave “the best answer ever to a practice question! My teacher says I’m a whole new person with this hair!” She also credits her new ‘do for a stellar performance at baseball practice. The kid is glowing practically all the time now, and there’s no hair behind which to hide her radiant happiness.
I can’t believe I ever doubted this stupid haircut, I tell myself.
She comes to work with me on Take Your Kid to Work Day, and everyone thinks she is a boy.
I gently correct them, she is oblivious, and I want to cry all over again.
And that’s how it’s been for the last month or so. I’m riding a rollercoaster of emotions about what my daughter looks like – or rather how others perceive what she looks like – and about how I feel about how I feel about it.
I suggest she wears earrings so people can tell she’s a girl. She concedes she’d like to remember to put her earrings in more often, but reminds me she doesn’t care what people think.
“You said it doesn’t matter what other people think.”
I tell her she’s amazing, and I apologize for having such a hard time with it.
“I don’t know why it bothers me, Emma,” I confess, “but I am so, so proud of you for being able to be who you are no matter how I handle it.”
“You just think people think you’re failing at raising a daughter,” she says matter-of-factly.
“You are so smart.”
“Yeah, I should probably be a therapist or something.”
How can I not be bursting with pride about her?
I wonder if therein lies the problem, or at least part of it.
As mothers, so many of us have a horrible habit of linking our children with ourselves far beyond the cutting of the umbilical cord. Their successes are our successes; their failures are our failures. How you see my child is, by extension, how you see me. We are proud of our children – or ashamed of them – as if who they are is a direct reflection of us.
The bigger problem, the real revelation for me, is that what I was placing value in was how pretty my daughter was.
I would have said that it didn’t. I would have been adamant that pretty is pointless. But I also have often asserted that we are all beautiful, which suggesst that it is important for us to be so.
Maybe Emma already knows something that I don’t: the difference between pretty and beautiful.
She is an artist, and she loves to be surrounded by color and light and luxury. “I can’t help it,” she once told me from the balcony of a five-star hotel room, “I feel better when I’m surrounded by beautiful things!” But she has no interest in pretty.
I admit that I do. I don’t want to keep beating myself up about that; shame is no good. I like to feel pretty and I am conditioned by a particular set of norms about what pretty is. That’s where I’m at right now.
But I’m also at:
…learning to separate my children from my reflection.
…wanting to keep expanding my own definition of pretty.
…examining the value I place on pretty.
…continuing to let go, let go, let go when it comes to my kids.