I’m scared. And I’m mad about it.
My middle son is 3.5-years old. He loves Barbies and helicopters, chicken nuggets and bananas, princesses and unicorns, cuddles and story time, barreling down hills on his tricycle and playing trucks in the dirt, styling doll hair and layering on piles of dress-ups. He is himself. He is unique. He is fun and quirky and empathetic and can very often be a gigantic pain in the ass, as any preschool-aged middle child should be.
As my son navigates this world I am increasingly fearful. Not of academic prowess and parent-teacher conferences, but of the outside world squashing him. Of him being judged, bullied, belittled, and being made to feel lesser or wrong for his preferences… whatever they may be.
I fear this push to change will not just be delivered by his peers or by strangers, but by extended family and people he considers friends. I fear him being embarrassed by who he is, feeling inferior or wrong because he may not fit some abstract mold that makes others feel comfortable in their social constructs. I fear he’ll hide himself or worse yet, hate himself.
Do I think his preschooler toy choices are indicative of his gender or sexuality? No. Do I think the outside world does? Yep. Do I care if my son is gay, straight, asexual, pansexual, trans, bi, or whatever else? No but yes. I don’t care because he is my son and I love him unconditionally. Who he loves or how he self-identifies does not impact my love for him. There is nothing I could — or would — do to influence or change his identity. It is a part of him and I love him. It is entirely independent of me. It is entirely intrinsic to him.
Nevertheless, I do care about however he self-identifies because this world is full of both beautifully amazing people and loathsome bigots, as well as those who think they’re holy or helpful but are really just insecure. So, as much as I strive to surround myself and my children with good, accepting, loving people I know the judgmental lot is present. That scares me.
Criticism from even the inner circle creeps through when your son dons a tutu. “That’s too much,” “You shouldn’t allow that,” “He should play with this instead,” “I got him the superheroes because he’s a boy and her the princesses because she’s a girl,” “That’s not for boys.” Little digs that others may not even register burrow deep. One statement or insinuation alone may seem imperceptible but when lumped with the collection, it’s impossible to ignore.
The misunderstanding, the judgment, the desire to change, fix, undo is palpable. This is my son though. He is perfectly imperfect just as he is.
Whether my son loses all interest in princesses by age 5 or decides he wants to be a professional Lady Gaga impersonator, it should be HIS choice. It should be up to him to continue or dismiss his interests. It should never be up to Aunt So-and-So or Bobby from down the street. They can live their own lives as they choose. My son’s life is for HIM to live; he only gets one.
I worry often and greatly about pressure from myopic, insecure, misguided outsiders. I worry they will crush his spirit, make him change himself to fit their expectations — to make them feel better or more comfortable — instead of thriving in his uniqueness. I worry I am not encouraging him to adjust just enough to squeak beneath their radar. I worry that I am implying he should adjust at all.
But, as a mother of a growing son, what can I do? I cannot always shield and protect him. I can bolster him and help him feel secure enough to hopefully withstand some of the battering winds. I can teach him to be resilient and independent. I can encourage his self-esteem and moral fortitude. Eventually, though, he will have to stand alone and decide. Without me.
Whatever he enjoys, however he identifies, I hope he does so for himself. I hope he never thinks I would want him to be any other way than exactly the way he is. I hope he shuts out the naysayers and amplifies his supporters. This is his life. He should live it.