Learning How To Be Me

I recently completed a renowned, demanding, enlightening 200-hour yoga teacher training program. What was the most valuable thing I learned? Not breath work practices or class design, not yogic philosophy or sanskrit, not trauma-informed teaching or anatomically appropriate cueing. Nope. (I mean, I did learn alllll of that and more, but none of those topics were the most important, life-altering item.)

The most valuable thing I learned: how to be brave enough to be myself. Unabashedly. Unwaveringly. Unapologetically.

I’ve spent most of my 35 years on this earth trying to blend in. Trying to find my true herd. Trying to fit some unexplained mold it seemed most everyone else knew how to contort themselves into.

Any time I was close to blending in, I felt like a fraud. A chipped and chiseled, morphed and shrouded version of some human who barely resembled me.

My solution for most of my childhood through early adulthood was to wall myself off. To protect myself. I was quiet. Private. Guarded. I created protective divisions between myself and others. But, as shielding as that was, it was also incredibly lonely. By separating myself from everyone else, by mentally ascribing the self-protective label of “acquaintance” to individuals who should have been considered “friend”, I was isolating myself. I was reinforcing the idea that I was “other” and unable to belong.

Then, I had my daughter. The confidence that grew within me, the drive I felt to be a healthy example for her propelled me out from behind my self-built blockades. I began to shimmy out of my shell. I began to shine my light, but hesitantly so.

Then I had my middle son. His effervescent self-confidence and complete disinterest in following social norms astounded me. Inspired me. Enlightened me. If this 2.5-year-old could so fearlessly be himself, why couldn’t I? So I began to. Slowly. In certain safe scenarios.

Next, I had my youngest son and, by this point, with 3 kids under 4, I was often the focus of many unfamiliar eyes as I walked through the grocery store or wrangled my herd on the playground. There was no hiding anymore. I was out in the world and I was actually beginning to enjoy it. I tasted the freedom beyond my own walls, the beauty of the connections I allowed, the authenticity I granted myself. But I wasn’t entirely comfortable with my whole self yet.

Then, I began yoga teacher training. Every other weekend for 6 months I spent 12 hours with 33 people I had never met. We shared our feelings and life journeys, we grew and learned, we practiced and faltered, we cried and laughed. We became accustomed to speaking in front of one another, sharing ourselves. That baring of self to a large group was something I never would have been capable of doing prior to motherhood. But, 3 kids and hours of yoga teacher training later, I could. And I was unscathed. If anything, I was enlivened, strengthened, invigorated.

As months pressed on and more sharing circle times ensued, the electric anxiety that initially sizzled in my chest and stole my breath in the beginning of the training subsided. It was replaced with calm. With happiness. With ease.

My light shown brighter and I began not to hide it. I didn’t chisel or chip or morph or shroud. I was just me in my life in my world. And gradually I realized that all of those fears and worries that’d kept me hidden and crumpled for all of those years were nothing to be feared at all. For, if I loved me… if I was kindly and brightly and truly me, those who liked me — the real me — would gravitate and stay. And that’s what mattered.

I owned my laughter. I owned my quirks. I owned my silliness. I owned my stubbornness. I owned my crunchy spirituality. I owned my strengths and my points for growth. I owned my uniqueness. I owned my self.

Over those six months, I learned how to comfortably exist without a self-made fortress amidst others. I learned how to make choices that are good for ME and not just for others. I learned how to be myself no matter the circumstance, no matter the company. I learned to ignore whatever mold I was expected to chisel and melt and contort myself into.

I learned how to be ME!

After all of the hours of training and studying and the dreaded test, came graduation. In front my teachers and fellow trainees, and everybody’s loved ones, I thanked my friend who saw in me what I had not seen in myself and had, in that awareness, lovingly propelled me towards yoga teacher training. I thanked my husband for all of the parenting efforts he’d shouldered — without hesitation or complaint — and I thanked my teachers who had facilitated my growth. I thanked my daughter for her unwavering support. I thanked my youngest son for his “welcome home” cuddles after every yoga training. I thanked my middle son — my sparkly boy, my fearlessly true-to-self child — and tears welled in my dry eyes.

My voice halted. I — strong and tearless me — was crying in front of 60+ people thanking my 5-year-old. But I wasn’t embarrassed. I wasn’t ashamed. I didn’t want to run or hide or steel myself into unfeeling. I was being me. The real me.

“Thank you,” I said to my coiffed boy in his pink shirt, violet tie, and gray kilt. “For teaching me how to be brave enough to be me.”

When I returned home that evening and tucked each of my beautifully unique children into bed, I thanked my middle son again. “For most of my life,” I told him, “I wasn’t myself.” He looked at me puzzled and asked, “Then who were you being?”

I paused in awe of his wisdom. I replied, “I was too afraid to be the real me.” “Why?” He questioned.

“Exactly.”

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My 3-Year-Old Shocked Me

Sometimes your kids do things that shock you. That amaze you. That make you realize the impact you have on them. That make you recognize how beautiful they truly are. Yesterday that happened for me.

Three days ago, I bought my littlest a smoothie. As I don’t carry a change purse, I placed my coin change in the “Take a Penny/Leave a Penny” receptacle since there was no tip jar. “Why’d you do that?” Asked my 3-year-old. “Because when I put coins in there I’m helping someone else. If I need a coin one day, I can use it. If someone else needs a coin, they can use it. We help each other, right?” He nodded.

Three days and much activity later, we were in the mall — my 3-year-old, 7-year-old, and I — shopping to replenish my 7-year-old’s outgrown wardrobe while my 5-year-old son was at a birthday party. “If you do a good job, we can get ice cream from Ben & Jerry’s,” I told them (Bribery works! No shame here.)

While searching for the children’s section in a large store, my littlest sprung up in his stroller. “I found a coin!” He proclained gleefully. He held up the dingy dime to the light, admiring. He — in true tender-hearted, utterly cheesy form — hugged the dime to his heart complete with closed eyes and a maternal smile. He. Was. Ridiculous.

BUT this dirty little coin was keeping him happily occupied during our shopping expedition, so no complaints here! Hug a lint ball. Cuddle a napkin. Canoodle with a rubberband. Whatever it takes, kid.

And who would’ve guessed? That vagrant dime got us through an entire shopping trip sans melodrama. That’s right, an hour of shopping and not one peep from the stroller occupant. It was a miracle! So, as per the bribe, we headed for the Ben & Jerry’s kiosk.

“I need to go potty!” My 3-year-old loudly informed me as we entered the main portion of the mall. And so we scurried to the restrooms. (My speed invigorated by years old visions of the humbling time I had to strip down my now-5-year-old all the way down to his Paw Patrol shoes and wrap him in his coat like a toga all because I hadn’t made it to this very restroom in time.) No coat toga today! I told myself. Scurrying through the food court, zigzagging through meandering patrons, dodging mopping staff, calling “Gotta keep up!” to my 7-year-old who raced behind me, her eyes wide and sparkly light-up sneakers blinking to the beat of her gait. WE MADE IT!

After he finished his bathroom duties, my 3-year-old fetched his coin from the stroller. “He needs a bath.” He told me as he gingerly washed the coin. I smiled at the sweet silliness. After he’d tenderly dried his beloved dime, he climbed face first into the stroller– because who doesn’t climb with their face? — and off we went to Ben & Jerry’s.

As we awaited our dairy-free scoops of Coconut Almond Fudge, my littlest peered over the counter watching the young employees buzz about. Perpetually in motion. Perpetually friendly. “Mommy, can you lift me up?” I hoisted his sturdy frame out of the stroller to broaden his view of the ice cream happenings. He scanned the counter. “Hi!” Smiled one of the young women hurriedly scooping ice cream as she crinkled her nose at him. He grinned, shyly tucking his chin into his chubby neck. Then he shocked me.

As another young employee kindly handed us our ice cream, my 3-year-old looked at his dime and, without saying a thing, placed it in the tip jar, then casually climbed back into his stroller. “He gave us a dime!” The attendant shrieked to her coworker. They both cooed and thanked him. I stared at him in amazement. Disbelief.

This kid had literally given his last dime — the dime he’d hugged and cuddled for the last hour, the dime he’d bathed in a public restroom sink — to these strangers. He did so without hesitation. Without regret.

As he sat enjoying every bite of his well-earned ice cream I stared at him in amazement. In wonder. In pride. In admiration. This child who bellyflops in mud puddles, climbs with his face, curiously takes apart any toy, cries from his heart if he’s done wrong, loves earnestly but makes you earn any affection… this child has so much to teach me. So much to share. So much to give.

“That was nice of you to give them your dime,” I said to him. “We help each other,” he said, scooping another bite of fudgy ice cream into his chocolate smeared mouth.

We do.

THAT Mom

I round the corner of the grocery aisle, bypassing a sugary end cap display of Valentine’s Day goodies, when I hear it. Raptor-like shrieking and guttural bellows. Followed by the unmistakable toddler sqwak: “Yellow!” The toddler tantrum that’s migrated from one end of the store to the other has reached its peak at register 15. And something yellow is clearly either mortally offensive or exceedingly desirable.

Pushing my cart of food and — on this incredibly rare occasion — not children, I smile reflecting on my own plentiful experiences being THAT mom. THAT mom with the toddler flailing belly down in the cereal aisle. THAT mom with the nap-refusing child following me down every aisle in an unending tirade of tot tyranny. THAT mom wearing a breastfeeding infant while rushing a potty-training toddler in football hold across a crowded store shouting for her preschooler to keep up. THAT mom asking her toddler not to headbutt her sternum while telling her preschooler not to chew on his shoe — his freakin’ SHOE! — and coaxing her dramatic kindergartener mid-meltdown through the produce section. You know, THAT mom.. human birth control.

I sigh with relief that this time it’s not me. And head towards checkout.

I approach a register and peer down the lane to assess to line length. And: “YEEEELLLLLLLLOW!!!” rings out just feet in front of me. That’s when I realize I am at ground zero. Register 15.

Then I see it.

The eye roll.

The woman at the front of the line scoffs at the melodious cart behind her, eyes the cashier, and does a judgy eye roll towards THAT mom. If I trusted my aim, I would be tempted to chuck a box of black bean pasta at the judgy eye-rolling scoffer. But I don’t. So I don’t.

Then I see THAT mom. Long dark hair, which is beautifully wavy likely from lack of brushing rather than dedicated styling, steadily moving edibles from her car-shaped shopping cart to the conveyor belt while simultaneously kindly conversing with her one smiling toddler and patiently addressing the emotional upheaval of her second only slightly older toddler. THAT mom was a mom of TWO toddlers and she was completely capable of triple-tasking with the graceful patience of a Buddhist monk after having grocery shopped with said offspring, yet the child-free (at least at the moment) woman ahead of her could not muster enough emotional fortitude to stand without judgment or snark at the front of the checkout line? Cue yoga breath.
I push past and find the next register line brief. I load my groceries on the belt and say a little wishful prayer for THAT mom. I feel gratitude that this time it is not me in her position but I feel guilt that it is her turn instead.

Receipt in hand, I push my cart of bagged food out towards the parking lot and I see THAT mom parked along the side of the aisle. She’s rummaging through her cart — one toddler gazing at the ceiling, one toddler wailing — promising “I’ll find it!” to the tantrumer.

I stop my cart beside hers, pat her upper arm, and with a reassuring smile say, “You’re doing great.” She looks up at me, her eyes warm despite her mind swiftly spinning, and smiles. “Thanks,” she sighs.

As I near the doors I feel it. Tears in my eyes, lump in my throat, the familiar knot of exhaustion, the churn of anxiety, the wear of endlessly giving, the sting of judgment (both external and internal) that this time is hers and not my own. I keep moving.

Allergy Mom Saved

Oh man, did I fail! I failed hard. And publicly. And the mom guilt was overwhelming. I’m 6-years an allergy mom; I should have known better!

When you’re an allergy mom (the parent to one or more children with allergies), the little things few even consider are monumental to you. What’s everyday to most strikes visceral fear into an allergy parent. What’s a minute kindness to the thoughtful is joyful tear-inducing and heartwarming to an allergy parent. What is an easily remedied oversight to the dietarily unimpaired is an irreversible Mom Fail for an allergy parent.

Yesterday my daughter’s class had a family gathering celebration, which featured a beautiful and entirely unexpected bountiful buffet of edible goodies. My daughter grinned as we stood in line for the surprise smorgasbord. As I grabbed a paper plate, my eyes darted from one platter to the next. Bagels and cream cheese, doughnuts, cupcakes, cookies, fruit, juice, coffee… it was a carb carnival. Giddy classmates across the buffet heaped sugary treats onto already full plates. I looked down at my daughter. Her smile was wilting. She’d seen what I saw.

Like my middle son and me, my daughter has a dairy allergy. She could eat none of the sweets. I shook off the guilt and tried for a spin. “Fruit!” I exclaimed, trying to make it sound incredibly appealing as I scooped fresh spoonfuls of delectable produce onto her plate. “Ooo! There’s melon and pineapple and, look, there are four different kinds of berries!” She strained to see down the table, then the smile was gone entirely. “Plain bagel?” I offered, knowing full well that a dry bagel was of no consolation. Mom guilt flaired.

I looked to my husband with an unmistakable “Oh crap!” expression. He shrugged, wordlessly communicating, “There’s nothing we can do.” Ugh, I’d Mom Failed… hard.

“Why don’t you go with Daddy to find a table and I’ll keep looking. Ooo, I’ll grab you some juice!” Juice is this side of a delicacy for our kids, so I figured that’d help something somewhat.

I was wrong.

I circled the all-purpose room full of sugar-shocked kids and chatting parents, and then I found them. My husband and daughter were seated at an empty table. I placed the plate of fruit and cup of orange juice in front of my daughter. Eyes reddened, shoulders hunched, she was too upset to engage. Just then a trio of bubbly blond buddies sat down beside us. They warmly greeted my daughter as they dug into their plates of dairy-laiden goodies. That’s when the tears came.

I rubbed her back in gentle circles with the palm of my hand, just as I did when she was a crying baby on my shoulder. “I’m sorry, sweetheart! Sometimes these things happen. Can I get you some mango?” I whispered to my daughter, trying to assuage her disappointment. “No!” “Do you want a bagel?” “No!” “Should we go for a walk in the hallway?” “No! You’re being mean.” I knew she didn’t actually think that I, personally, was being mean but as Mom you get all blame and little credit. And in this situation I was getting every shred of blame.

“What’s wrong?” One of her kind friends asked mid-cupcake. “She can’t eat the treats,” I explained. The girls looked emphatic but wisely offered my daughter space to process the disappointment. “Can I go back to the classroom and grab her lunchbox?” a thoughtful mom friend offered. I declined the loving gesture knowing desserts were the desire.

I looked at my husband, hoping maybe he’d have somehow miraculously discovered a solution. No dice. I took a deep breath and headed to the buffet for one last ditch effort, Hail Mary hopeful spin. That’s when I saw them.

SCHOOL SAFE CUPCAKES! I dropped on my knees and picked up the package, bringing it closer to my aging eyes to ensure it wasn’t some sort of mom guilt mirage. “No dairy… no nuts…” the packaging read. My heart leaped! I could’ve hugged that plastic packaging! I could’ve kissed whoever had the forethought to bring them!

I grabbed two of the allergy-friendly mini cupcakes and excitedly walked to the table. “I FOUND TREATS!” I squealed. My daughter’s spine shot upright, a broad grin bloomed across her tear-reddened face. She dug right into the safe-for-her goodies with giddy abandon.

“I don’t usually like cupcakes,” she said to me with bits of vanilla frosting circling her mouth, “but I like these!”

The gratitude I felt in that moment for those miniature, plastic-packaged cupcakes, for the individual who included them on the buffet, for the positive resolution of the disappointment was overwhelming. Who’d have thought I’d get misty-eyed over a cupcake?

That afternoon on the way home from school I reviewed with my daughter the pitfalls of the morning and better methods of handling such disappointments. “You have food allergies,” I explained, “so there will be times in life when you simply cannot eat anything at a gathering. Mommy won’t always be there to pack you food to bring. So you will need to find ways to access your inner happiness despite not being able to participate like everyone else.” My daughter nodded with an entirely straight face. “It’s not fair,” I said, speaking from a place of my own such disappointments, “but remember that you get to choose whether to let food ruin your fun or whether to have fun anyway.”

And that’s what life’s all about, isn’t it? Our choices in how we react to situations. We can choose disappointment and circular mourning, or we can choose joy and resilience. It’s entirely up to us.

Though, of course, an (allergy-friendly) cupcake makes just about anything better.

The Day My Son Wore a Dress to School

So, it happened. The big day my sparkly 5-year-old middle son had been excitedly awaiting and the mama worry in my belly had been fretting. The day I would fulfill my son’s request and allow him to wear a dress to school. How would he be received? Would people be kind? Was I doing the right thing?

It was the perfect scenario, actually, in that fortuitous, twist of fate way that life has a way of spinning. My son had asked to wear a dress to school (detailed story here) the week prior and now: PAJAMA DAY!

Who doesn’t love pajama day? Being cuddly cozy all day at school, especially in the chilly winter months. It’s delightful. It also proved to be the perfect opportunity for my son to debut his usual nighttime attire. Not Batman pajama sets or truck-themed footed jammies like my 3-year-old son. Nope. My middle son regularly sports his sister’s outgrown sleepwear: princess nightgowns and pastel hued sleep sets.

So, after all of the carefully examined reasoning I’d conducted just days before which lead me to realize that the only logical, moral, and reasonable answer for the dress question was to allow it, I went about helping my son select his pajama day ensemble. A turquoise hued “mermaid queen” bathrobe over a pink princess nightgown with white sweatpants underneath. The reasons for the sweatpants were threefold: 1) it’s regularly in the 35°F range here this time of year and the kids have outdoor recess, 2) the school requires male students to wear pants, 3) our family has required our daughter to wear pants underneath nightgowns she sported to school pajama days because kids are in school to learn and play not to worry about or have their activities limited by wardrobe malfunctions.

And so, all weekend, the pajama day outfit laid neatly folded on my son’s dresser with the rest of his week’s school outfits. Each day he walked by the colorful pile of sleepwear, touching it wistfully with a gentle smile of anticipation.

On Monday off to school he went in his green button-up shirt, red bowtie, and red pants for “red and green day.” Amidst the holidays activities, he told everyone and anyone who’d feign listening all about his pajama day outfit. He told classmates and teachers, buddies and staff. He was proud. Excited. Fearless.

The next day came. Pajama day! As I sat in the dark pre-dawn of the morning sipping my coffee ahead of my daily home yoga practice, I heard the muffled thud of my kindergartner’s feet hitting the ground, the squeak of his bedroom door yawn open, the whisper of his sleepy footsteps padding into the bathroom. Minutes later he crept downstairs and stood silently, proudly, arms wide, chest lifted, grin broad, entirely dressed in his pajama day ensemble. He was effervescent. Beyond joyful.

“You look beautiful!” I whispered to him from the sofa, setting my near-empty coffee mug down on a coaster. He smiled. I opened my arms and lap, and up he scampered, curling in just right like only he knows how to do. And there we hugged and talked and watched a hairstyling video on YouTube — as per his request — before returning to the morning routine.

He left for school that day awash in excitement, bubbling with unbridled enthusiasm, enveloped in boundless optimism. I convinced myself to follow his lead, but there was a whirring in my belly wondering: “What if?”

“What if,” my inner worry asked, “children are unkind?” “What if,” it haunted, “he cries?” “What if,” it pummeled, “this dims his light and closets him?” “What if,” it persisted, “you were wrong?” Those tears, that pain, that mournful experience would rest on my shoulders, weigh my heart. It would stand — in my mind — as my fault.

I sniffed back tears, shook my head up high and countered my fear, “What if children aren’t unkind? What if he’s happy? What if this brightens his light? What if he’s accepted for exactly who he is? What if I chose right?” And I hushed my fear.

That afternoon at school pick-up I waited. Straining from my shrimpy 5’4″ (on a tall day) vantage point to see my son’s face as soon as he exited the building. My daughter exited first and my 3-year-old and I greeted her with a welcoming hug. Then we saw him, nightgown frills peeking out from underneath his winter coat.

He was beaming! Glowing! Brimming with happiness, still proudly sporting all the pastel layers of his pajama day ensemble.

“How did it go?” I asked him, kneeling before him, searching his blue eyes for truth. “Great!” He said. “Everyone was nice?” I asked, my knees chilled by the asphalt beneath me. “Yep!” He chirped, shimmying the straps of his too-big purple backpack onto his delicate shoulders. “No one said a thing?” I said, trying to muffle my surprise. He shook his coifed head.

I looked at him. Really looked at him. He was smiling wide with eyes sparkling. I deep sighed from the inside out. So off we went to the minivan as if it was any other day.

Because, as much as my worry had told me otherwise, that’s all this day was. It was simply a day, like any other day. Just with mermaid-princess pajamas, and a sparkly boy whose self-acceptance, fearlessness, and optimism proved that unfounded fear is no reason to hide, deny, or change. That concern over the unknown is not worth implying a child should be ashamed of or change who they are. That allowing my son to be who he is unfettered by my fears was the only way to go.

I let my son wear a dress to school, and it was one of the best decisions I have ever made.

The Day My Son Asked to Wear a Dress to School

It had been a long day. Sunday late afternoon after a day of activity, I was putting away laundry in my 5-year-old middle son’s room while mentally reviewing my “new week preparation” to-do list when he asked the question. “Mommy,” he asked, poking his head up from underneath a mound of blankets on his doll-strewn bed, “can I wear a dress to school?”

I stopped arm in midair holding a handful of carefully folded princess nightgowns waiting to be stowed in his top drawer. My mind shuffled for an answer. “I don’t know, Bud. I’m not sure that’ll fly at your school.” I tucked the frilly pajamas into their home and closed the drawer. Grabbing a stack of mermaid printed t-shirts, I paused. I knew my answer was insufficient.

For 5 years this kid had known me and if he didn’t realize within that half a decade that antiquated policies were not going to stand as anything but fuel to my inner fire to tear down harmful, hurtful, double-standard walls so that all children can be better and have better and do better than we are and have and did, then he hardly knew me! But I wasn’t prepared to answer this. I was scared.

“Not that it’s right and not that it’s OK, but kids might say unkind things to you if you wear a dress.” I gently reminded him. “I know.” He said with a cool, unruffled calm I have never personally known. He asked again if he could wear the dress. I paused, trying to think as I sorted socks from skivvies. “I don’t know, Bud. Maybe you should ask your dad.”

Off he went. Ask he did. And he blindsided my husband entirely who, in his own surprise at the bold question, declined the request.

That night at story and circle time, my son brought his book selection to me: Who Are You? (a book about gender and identity.) And that solidified it. This wasn’t just about a dress. This wasn’t just some boundary testing. This was more. More than I knew how to handle.

All night and into the morning my mind spun. What did my mind say? What did my gut say? Why would I say “yes”? Why would I say “no”? I examined it all. And I realized that any inclination to deny the dress was rooted in fear. Fear for my son’s feelings. Fear for my son’s innocence. Fear for what children and adults may say or do. Fear for what this meant. Fear of the unknown.

But was my fear a good reason to deny my son’s request to wear a dress to school? Should my anxieties and insecurities, weaknesses and failings dictate my child’s path? Absolutely not.

Would I allow my daughter the freedom to fulfill such a request? Was I acting from bias? Yes. Shamefully, I noted my own double-standard. If my daughter asked to deny girly garb, would I deny her that? If she asked to cut her hair short, would I force her to keep her long locks? No. Sure, I would miss the dresses, the moments spent braiding her gorgeous golden mane, but this was her body, her life, her identity, her choice. My wants, fears, wishes, and insecurities should never trump her desires for her self. As long as she was not harming anyone and being thoughtfully safe in her choices, I would support her unwaveringly. And so I must do the same for my son.

I felt the anxious quiver of love-based worry fill my heart.

Speaking reason to my fear, I persisted in my internal questioning. Did I want to risk implying that my son should change, hide, or be ashamed of himself? Did I want to risk closeting him and all of the horrific statistics of self-harm that doing so entails? No!

I had supported him thus far, sewing him a mermaid tail costume — despite my complete lack of skill and genetic predisposition to be a horrid seamstress — when he asked to be a mermaid for Halloween. I had hunted for mermaid and unicorn t-shirts and swimsuits to suit his interests. I had pieced together a rainbow flying unicorn costume complete with a fabulous, flowing wig and pink feathered wings for this year’s costume. I’d found him ballet lessons at a wholly supportive dance studio. I’d signed him up for skating lessons when Johnny Weir’s sparkling performances made my son’s eyes widen with joy. My husband had fashioned him a portable hairstyling tray for his doll heads. I’d gone to bat for him, ensuring his school would be a safe, supportive environment in which he could learn, grow, develop, and thrive as an individual. We opened our hearts and home to his daily playroom drag performances. We had supported him wholeheartedly, fiercely, lovingly through it all. This was the next step.

So I realized that I had to say “yes”, whether or not I was ready. Whether or not people judged or balked or refused to understand. Whether or not I was brave enough to do so.

Because I simply had no solid ground, no formidable counter-reasoning to do anything else. Because I loved my son as I loved my daughter and wanted him to grow and thrive and love himself just as I wanted for my daughter. Because I’m a parent and sometimes being a parent means doing what’s right for our kids even if it scares every cell of our being. Because my son deserves to be who he is, whatever that may look like. Because my son deserves an unwavering ally in me. Because this is my child. Because I am his mother.

And this is our next step.

My Major Parenting Struggle

I love my daughter but there is a certain aspect of her beautifully determined and bright personality that utterly torments me as her parent: her fierce competitive spirit.

“Being competitive is a great quality!” Some say. That’s true of most any personality trait, but the problem is me. A drive to compete with others is a mindset that clashes with so much of my own perspective that I’m constantly stumbling when determining how best to parent my daughter as an individual. How do you parent a child who has tendencies that oppose so mightily with your own? How do you support, and guide that child without attempting to change her?

I am a “gardener” parent. Meaning, I don’t impose my life goals on my children. I don’t try to change my children to suit my dreams for them. I don’t insist they participate in certain extracurriculars or feign specific interests. I don’t insist they fit a certain mold. Instead, I revel in their unique goals, skills, struggles, and hobbies while endeavoring to guide them towards a positive, healthy, responsible, kind, resilient life that leads to good decisions and a relatively clear conscience (I say, “relatively” because they’re human and we all make mistakes and make regrettable choices, but hopefully we learn from these pitfalls.) However, I struggle being a “gardener” when it comes to competition.

I am not competitive with others, though I am fiercely competitive with myself. My daughter is competitive with everyone including herself. Whereas I rarely perceive competition between myself and others, and if there is a competition I likely bow out, she views life as a competition and endeavors to win. Always. This means that to her everyone is a possible competitor for some unspoken victory (or defeat) and every situation has a competitive component, of which I am entirely unaware and incapable of truly grasping.

I can’t fathom finding joy in winning so that another may suffer a loss, especially since that individual would — in all likelihood — cherish the win more than I ever would. Conversely, my daughter craves the thrill of winning and laments even the smallest of losses. She comes to me for solace after losing a real or perceived competition and I struggle — I truly struggle — to empathize. I feel guilty for not knowing how to muster deep comfort for her in her competition-based upset. But I can’t. All I can think is, “STOP ALREADY WITH THE COMPETITION!” And then, in hearing my inner voice, I feel guilty.

Competition can certainly bring about good, but it can foster the opposite too. Kind, loving people can become selfish and brutish, trampling those they strive to overtake. Secure, happy people become self-conscious or judgmental towards others in some perceived ongoing worldwide competition. However competition can also drive people to do great things and accomplish astonishing goals. It can inspire and fuel. It can lead to discoveries and growth, in addition to turmoil and callousness. As with most anything, it is simultaneously positive and negative. A true gray area.

And so I can’t in good conscience dismantle or parent away my daughter’s competitive nature, just as I wouldn’t strive to erase my middle son’s sparkly flair for the creative or my youngest son’s fearless athleticism. I can try to help my daughter navigate the world healthfully given her competitive worldview. I can try to give her coping techniques for inevitable losses and graciousness for wins. I can encourage competition with self to balance competition with others and encourage a thoughtful awareness of others to stave off self-centeredness. I can build her self-esteem and self-worth so that the outcomes of her perpetual perceived competitions do not dictate her self-worth. But I cannot make her into what and who she is not. Nor should I.

So I’ll keep struggling and trying and failing and trying again. Because I’m a human parenting humans.

Wish me luck!

Doing Something Right

There are long days that ebb into heavy nights when I fall into bed feeling like a failure, when I crumble under the weight of guilt, when I am pelted by my own perceived inadequacies, when waves of worry drown my reason. Those are the nights that embed themselves into my memory, that mount themselves as sharp obstacles along my mental pathways, peppering the story I tell myself of my life, my parenting journey, and my self with doubt. Those are the nights I war against in my efforts towards positive thinking. But last night was not one of those nights.

Yesterday The Hubs played as a substitute on a teammate’s secondary softball team. So, after a morning playdate, the kids and I headed to the softball field.

Watching adult co-ed slow-pitch softball isn’t necessarily the most enthralling afternoon activity, so I was prepared with packed lunch and a bag of bubbles, balls, and sidewalk chalk to keep my 7-, 5-, and 3-year-olds entertained. Who knew how valuable those items would be?

When we arrived, there were three young children scampering about the metal bleachers. The 6-year-old boy introduced himself, as well as his 5- and 4-year-old sisters. In no time, I was happily herding the playful crew. All six kids interacted beautifully.

As they drew and blew bubbles and played catch, the previously unfamiliar caregiver of the newfound friends had an unexpectedly candid conversation with me. She relayed the challenges these children — who were temporarily in her custody due to their parents’ unfortunate life choices — had faced. She noted each child’s strengths and struggles. Then, she stopped. She marveled at how well her wards played with my children. Her three were previously accustomed to only interacting with one another as they — in their parents’ care — hopped from one dodgy hotel room to the next and, as a result, often struggled when attempting to socialize with other children.

For two hours the six played. They ended the unexpected playdate with warm hugs and wishes for more time together.

I drove home realizing how proud I was of my children. They welcomed those struggling kids into their hearts and games, navigating their limitations and strengths with ease. For two hours those children got to really play, to be kids, to be genuinely accepted without reservation.

Though I actively strive to help my children be kind, inclusive, genuine individuals, no amount of training or discussion can truly shape a person fully. There is a certain spark that must come from within to allow for such an open heart. It is either there or it is not. And yesterday I bore witness to that spark in each of my three children.

What honor, pride, and joy I felt seeing how beautiful my children are in their innermost selves. My heart bowed to the potential of their gorgeous gifts.

My children aren’t perfect. They tantrum and misbehave. They get rowdy and quarrelsome. They don’t always listen and some days I wonder if they have forgotten their names entirely. But still they are good in that inner truest sense beyond social mores and rule following, beyond the external that is so easily and often judged. They are good humans.

So often we parents tell ourselves all we have done wrong, all we have failed to do, all we should do and be. But rarely do we take note of all we do right, all we accomplish, all we are helping our children become. Rarely do we take note of who and what our children are in that innate, inner way.

Yesterday I did that. Yesterday I changed my inner narrative. Yesterday I realized that, though I am an innately flawed human parenting innately flawed humans, my three children are truly beautiful individuals. Yesterday I realized that I am somehow in some way doing something right.

3 Must-Read Books for a Sparkly Boy (or for caregivers seeking to teach children acceptance)

Whether you have a young boy in your life who is defying gender norms, you are striving to teach your child(ren) acceptance, or you are building a diverse library for children of various backgrounds, these are our top three must-read books.

1) Sparkle Boy

This is our absolute favorite book of all time. My 7-, 5-, and 3-year-old children reach for it time and again. It is the closest depiction of our own family experience we have encountered. It teaches resilience and acceptance all in a multicultural setting. After countless reads, this book still brings tears to this mama’s eyes.

2) My Princess Boy

The last page is a tearjerker but in the best possible way. This simple, easily relatable, positive book shows the “why” behind acceptance. It humanizes what may be a foreign concept to some. Simply worded and kindly written, it is a great conversation starter.

3) Julian is a Mermaid

You’ll want to do a standing ovation for Julian’s Abuela after reading this beautifully illustrated, interpretational, whimsical book. This story delicately nods to numerous family-related topics with a clear message of loving acceptance.

If you’re just beginning the conversation of gender norms or are fostering an ongoing discussion regarding identity, these are a few other helpful reads.

1) Pink is for Boys this quick, inoffensive, easy read is perfect for preschool through early elementary ages. It addresses the idea that colors are not engendered. This book would serve well as an opener for discussions of acceptance (not soley in terms of gender identity or nonconformity, but in general) and would allow for future gender-related talks if desired.

2) Who Are You? The Kid’s Guide to Gender Identity This simply written book makes a complex topic easily digestible. It is a great addition to a LGBTQA-friendly/acceptance-oriented library. This book would be ideal for a continuing conversation regarding varying identities and LGBTQA acceptance.

3) Love is Love If you’re already discussing various LGBTQA topics or are broaching a related conversation, this is a useful tool. Clearly written, humanizing, and positive in nature, this is a great addition to a liberal library.

With all of these reads, I suggest closing the book with a thoughtful sigh or pause then asking the listener’s thoughts on the story. Tuck away any inhibitions and welcome any questions with an open heart and welcoming ease. Tear down those walls and make gender, identity, and acceptance an ongoing discussion in your home. This is only a dreaded discussion if we — the adults– make it so.

What are some children’s books within this genre that you have enjoyed and would recommend?

A Place Where He Can Sparkle

“Mommy, I want to do ballet,” my 5-year-old son requested, “in an all boys class.” The ballet request was not unconventional for my sparkly middle child, but I was surprised that he requested an all-boys class. He often played with girls and shared many of their common interests, so what would the gender of his classmates matter? Then I took him to his first class and I understood.

That first evening — after circling the parking lot three times trying to find the studio, vulturing for a parking space, then herding three kids across a busy parking lot — we arrived at dance class a bit discombobulated. My son’s excitement was untarnished by the bumbling entry. He skipped into class with the other graceful young boys and focused every ounce of his attention on the instructor. He twirled and jumped and leapt. His enthusiastic grace was unmistakable; he was safe to be wholly and entirely himself without reservation.

He knew what I had not. He was among his people.

This delicately proportioned, unicorn-loving, mermaid-adoring, hairdressing-enthralled, aspiring figure skater knew that in an all-boys dance class he would be among other boys just like him. The same sparkly attributes that set him in the fray in the outside world placed him firmly within the realm of acceptance here. What society condemned was celebrated here.

A month later my son came to me after class, “Mommy I want to do real ballet.” He’d noticed that his current class was more movement focused than ballet centric. He’d also realized that one of the boys had moved to the Ballet I class. “You’re welcome to talk to your teacher about that,” I said, “but if this is something you want, you need to do it.” He asked me to come with him. I obliged.

As we walked down the hall towards the studio, I looked down at him in amazement. There was NO WAY I would’ve had a wherewithal to do this as a child! Young me would have rather been heartbroken and miss out than approach an adult with such a request. My child astounded me.

His slight palm hugged mine with the gentle firmness of determination, not the sweaty, gripping anxiety I would’ve expressed. At the end of the hallway, he released my hand, walked through the glass door, and strolled directly to his teacher. Moments later the teacher and my son exited the classroom and made their way to the director. After a brief chat, it was settled: he was moving to Pre-Ballet. My son was a disco ball of glittering light.

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The next week we arrived at ballet not knowing if he’d be the only boy in class. He wasn’t. He was thrilled. He twirled. He pranced. He sparkled.

Not long after, it was the week of Halloween. All of the students wore their costumes to class. My son’s costume: rainbow flying unicorn, of course! Every time he wears one of his self-selected costumes we receive some sort of negative commentary, some sort of head tilt or side-eye, some sort of pushback of some degree. So I silently prepared myself for what we’ve been trained to see as the inevitable.

As I pinned the flowing rainbow wig in place, two older boys played in the lobby. “Cool wig!” one commented. A grandmother shuffled up the hallway lead by a pint-size “Elsa”. “I was told there’s a rainbow unicorn that I ‘just have to see.'” The grandmother said smiling. “He’s a rainbow flying unicorn, no less!” I replied, my chest gripping in preparatory fight-or-flight once I realized she might catch the gendered pronoun. “He’s lovely,” the grandmother cooed. And that was it. No cocked heads, no whispers, no stares, no judgment… his costume was finally just a costume!

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I felt a massive weight of protection lift from my chest. I had not realized until it was gone what a heavy, ingrained, bruising burden it was. I realized in that moment how my sparkly son must feel here too.

And so my son had lead me to exactly where he needed to be. To the people who would appreciate him exactly as he was without reservation. To a place where his quirks could twinkle and his gifts could shine. To a place where he could sparkle.