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.

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Scared for My Supergirl Boy

I’m scared. I meditate and it hums in my mind. I sleep and it arises in my dreams. I do yoga and feel the tension festering in my hamstrings, the anxiety sizzling in my chest. I am terrified for my son.

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Supergirl and Batgirl

Recently, I read about a local transgender high school girl being stalked and attacked because her trans identity had been discovered. My brain has rattled and my heart has shuttered since then.

Two days later, still shaken from the story, I read a response in a mommy group claiming that “gender bending” was categorically wrong, that everything from toys to hygiene products should be entirely gender-specific. The mom said anything less than complete adherence to strict gender norms was wrong and that she taught her children to never accept anything different, because skewing gender stereotypes was immoral. I read that and imagined how her children would respond to my gender-bending middle child. I feared for my son’s safety and well-being.

Then, on Mother’s Day, we had yet another playground incident. My middle son was dressed in a red cape and a blue shirt with the iconic read “S” on the front. “I’m Supergirl!” He proclaimed. (Superman and Supergirl wear the same emblem, so this and my son’s outward appearance leads to some understandable confusion.) Most incidents fizzle quickly and everyone goes about scaling playground equipment. No harm, no foul.

This run-in was different though. Two pre-K boys arrived to the relatively uninhabited playground. “Why don’t you play with these new friends here?” I prompted my 4-year-old son. “I’m Supergirl!” He said, striking his proudest superhero pose. The smaller of the two boys pointed to the red “S” on my son’s shirt, “You’re SuperMAN.” “No, I’m SuperGIRL.” My son retorted. “Go play!” I tell my son, trying to end the dispute.

No one moved. The taller boy chimed in, “No. You’re a boy. You’re Superman.” My daughter stepped between the boys and her brother, hands on her hips, and a couple of inches taller than her male counterparts, she looked in their eyes and matter-of-factly said, “He says he’s Supergirl. He’s Supergirl.” “Go play!” I tell them, shoo’ing them with my hands.

“No he’s not! He’s a boy. He’s Superman. He’s not a girl.” The boy argued. My son leaned in, defiant: “I. Am. SuperGIRL.” “Are you here to play?” The boys’ caretaker asked her charges, “If you’re here to play, go play. Otherwise, we’re leaving.” No one moves.

Desperate to end the exchange, I turn to my son, “Do you think you can climb up that twisty slide?” He looked at the slide and bolted towards it. “I can!” Exclaimed the two boys. Not the outcome I was intending, but at least they weren’t debating gender-appropriate superhero play.

A few minutes later, I was helping my daughter on the monkey bars as my son waited his turn. One of the boys sidled up to him and said, “You’re Superman.” Then ran off. Later, my son climbed the curved ladder and, as if they were crows attacking a flying hawk over scraps, the boys pecked at him: “You’re a boy.” “You’re SuperMAN.” My son would simply reply, “I’m Supergirl.” And continue on.

Not one scream. No red face. Not a single tear. My son handled the interaction better than I could. I stayed back letting him fend for himself under my watch in the controlled environment. I looked on as he held his own. He did not kowtow, never once physically fought back, and never cried for my involvement. He simply clarified his purpose and kept on.

I am proud of my son. He is who he is without question, without shame, without fear. I am the one who is afraid.

I am afraid of a world that refuses to let him be himself, refuses to accept him for him, refuses to keep him safe. All I can do is love him, support him, and hope against hope that he will remain unscathed… whoever it is he becomes.

“Mommy, Can I Wear Girl Clothes?”

My 3.5-year-old son wants to wear “girl” clothes. Why? Because they make him happy, and he doesn’t give a hoot what outsiders say. As a parent, what do you say to that?

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Part of me wants to convince him to dress in accordance with social constructs, purely to protect him. Because, let’s be honest, some people are real assholes and no one wants their kid to be targeted by bubble-busters. Then, there’s the proud liberal mama part of me that wants to cheer him on, wave a big foam middle finger at naysayers, rally vehemently for his happiness, and celebrate his bravery to unabashedly seek his own contentment in a way that in no way harms others. Seriously, now, my preschooler has more self-direction and more internal fortitude than I do at 33!

Here’s the background story on our light-shedding conversation. We were driving back from a morning at my parents’ house and I asked my 3.5-year-old what he wanted to be when he grew up. “A teacher,” he replied. I asked if he’d teach little kids or big kids. He said he’d teach big kids and, “wear a long, long wig and a beautiful dress.” I asked him why he’d wear a wig and dress to teach, to which he simply answered: “Because girl clothes make me happy.”

Seeing as he was, at that moment, wearing the outfit I’d laid out for him — overalls, a long-sleeve shirt, rain boots, and a rain coat — I asked how he felt in his present ensemble. He looked down at his denim overalls, “Not happy,” he said, “I’m not beautiful in boy clothes. Girl clothes are pretty.” Fair point. Dresses, tutus, and gowns are pretty spectacular. Traditionally male attire just doesn’t carry the same pizzazz.

“How about your pink and blue button-up shirts,” I asked, “do you feel handsome in those?” He thought for a moment. “I’m not pretty in those shirts. I want to look pretty.” I asked how being pretty made him feel. “Happy!” He grinned.

My internal dueling parts battled within me as I drove down the highway. If I discourage this desire now maybe I’ll be able to protect him. Or maybe I’ll simply make him feel as if it’s wrong… as if he’s wrong. I can’t risk that. But people are assholes, I lamented. People are also wonderful, supportive, and open-minded, I countered. I took a deep breath.

“You know,” I said, “Mommy loves you no matter what you wear. However, some people only like others to dress a certain way. Those people can sometimes be mean if they see someone dressed in a way that’s different from what they think is right because the difference scares them. What would you do if someone like that was unfriendly to you.” He thought silently. “I’d say, ‘I’m sorry!'” “You apologize? Why?” I asked him in shock. “I’d say, ‘I’m sorry I scare you.’ Then I’d ask them if I can wear the dress because it makes me happy and they’d say, ‘ok. You can wear that.’ And I would. And I’d be so, so happy.” I praised the thoughtfulness of his answer.

“Your boy friends,” I continued, “wear clothes boys usually wear and your girl friends wear clothes girls usually wear. What if one of your friends asks why you’re wearing a dress?” “I’d tell my friend the dress makes me happy.” “What if someone makes fun of you?” I asked. “They should say, ‘I’m sorry.'” He replied. I asked if being teased about wearing a dress would hurt his feelings. He thought. “I’d be happy I’m wearing a dress. I’d be pretty.”

I told him that in first grade, if he attends his sister’s school, that he’d need to wear the boy uniform. I asked if he’d be ok with that. He said he would because he would wear girl clothes at home. “I can wear girl pajamas!” He exclaimed. “Please you get me girl pajamas? Today?!” I laughed with amusement at his problem-solving and excitement. “Let’s look for your sister’s old nightgowns. She has ones she’s outgrown.” “Ok !” He said as he kicked happily in his car seat, grinning wide. “We have to ask Daddy first though. If he’s ok with it, then it’s fine.”

The moment The Hubs walked through the door, our 3.5-year-old hurled the question: “Daddy, please may I wear girl pajamas?” And so tonight our middle son will be donning an Ariel nightgown to bed.

Because it makes him happy.

 

My Son Wants to be a Princess

“What do you want to be for Halloween?” I ask nearly-5-year-old #1. “Hmmm…” she thinks carefully before landing upon her decision, “Aurora from ‘Sleeping Beauty.'” She is concrete in her choice.

“My want to be Rock Star Barbie!” Quips 3-year-old #2. I think of all of the xenophobic, homophobic, transphobic, sexist, hateful ramblings I’ve encountered online. “Are you sure you want to be Rock Star Barbie? People may not know who she is. Maybe a Rockstar would be more recognizable?” “No. Rockstar BARBIE,” he clarifies in his marble-mouth preschooler accent.

“Didn’t you say you wanted to be Ariel?” #1 interjects. “Oh yeah! My want to be Ariel. Toddler Ariel, like in the movie.” “We already have the costume, Mommy. It’s perfect” #1 negotiates. Yep, perfect.

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Do I have a problem with my son dressing as a mermaid and singing Disney princess songs while twirling about the playroom? Not a bit. Do I care that he readily announces his adoration for Rapunzel in public or carries a doll with him on errands? Not in the least. Do I buy him a truck instead of a Barbie when he requests the doll? Nope, Barbie it is. Do I worry about what others may say to him — not to me — about his sequin-bedecked costume choice? Yes. However, I don’t want him to know that.

I don’t want him to think he needs to or should change himself to defend himself against potential negative backlash. Why should any grown adult care what my child chooses to wear as a Halloween costume? He’s not carrying a weapon or scaring anyone. His costume isn’t age-inappropriate, sexist, racist, or violent. He’s simply dressing up as the lead character from a famous movie. So what, the character wears a seashell bikini top instead of body armor? So what if she has a glimmering mermaid tail instead of metal knuckle-claws, bulging green muscles, or a red cape? C’mon, who doesn’t want to be a mermaid?!

Even though I believe #2 should be able to choose his costume with the same freedom as #1, I worry. I worry because some people are judgmental and cruel. Some people are threatened by that which they don’t, can’t, or refuse to understand. Some people are so set on making things rigid and divided that they become threatened by anything or anyone that exists within the gray areas. They make assumptions — right, wrong, and downright ridiculous — about strangers whose lives they know nothing about.

Still, there are kind people, loving people, supportive people. People who welcome others, who treasure differences, who honor the black, white, and gray areas of life. These are the people I celebrate in our lives. These are the people whose opinions carry any shred of value to me because love (not hate), kindness (not bullying), acceptance (not exclusion) is what I teach my children.

Should I encourage my son to change for fear of the unkind people and what they might say to him, or should I allow him to be a child, to be innocent, to be genuinely himself despite what others may say? Should I imply his preferences are somehow “wrong”, because some individual with whom I in no way agree, believes in sacred social constructs designed to categorize and divide humans into neat, easily digestible boxes? Should I teach him that, instead of being true to himself, that he should acquiesce for the phobic comfort of others? Should I make a 3-year-old’s Halloween costume out to be a life-defining decision?

No. It’s just a Halloween costume. I certainly don’t remember what costume I chose at 3-years-old.  That decision had no lasting impact on my life, why should his be so controversial?

I better get to stitching those loose sequins back on that mermaid tail. #2 will run that costume ragged!