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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Mommy, Why Can’t We Be Who We Want To Be?

“You can be anything you want to be!” We tell our children. We’re liars. And I just got called out on that lie… by my 5-year-old.

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Driving back from figure skating lessons, minivan smelling of stale snack crumbs and indescribable child funk, my 5-year old middle child sat in his car seat stroking the fluffy aqua mane on his rainbow unicorn bike helmet cradled in his spindly lap. He wished for this helmet, a replacement for his old toddler-size fireman-printed helmet, and happily sported it immediately after opening it on his birthday morning just the week before. Rainbows, unicorns, mermaids, princesses, fairies… those are his jam. Firemen, though cool, carry no spark for him.

“Do you want to keep doing figure skating?” I ask him, knowing the new class session sign-up starts soon. “Uh-huh.” He replied with that distant hint of unsaid words. “What’s up? Do you still like it?” I asked him. “No, I do,” he answered, “but I want to do ballet too.” “OK,” I respond, wondering how I’d fit yet another extracurricular into our packed schedule and tight budget, “that could actually help your ice skating, just like your sister’s yoga practice helps her Tae Kwon Do.” He smiled.

“I want to be in the ‘Nutcracker’!” He exclaimed. I tell him that one of the benefits of being a boy ballet dancer is that there are fewer boys than girls who do ballet, so there’s less competition for male parts. “When you try out,” I said, “you’re way more likely to get the part of the Nutcracker than a girl dancer would be to get the part of Clara.” He sighed like a deflating hot air balloon. I glanced in the rearview mirror. He. Was. Gutted.

“What’s wrong?” I asked. He looked up teary-eyed, “I don’t WANT to be the Nutcracker.” That’s when I realized the problem. He didn’t just want to do ballet, he wanted to wear the tutus and the pointe shoes and the pink. He wanted to be Clara, the Sugarplum Fairy, anyone but a dull, masculine Nutcracker. Crap.

“Well, when you try out for parts you dance in front of judges and they tell you what part you’ll play, if any. You don’t really have a say,” I told him, his wide blue eyes looking at my reflection in the rearview mirror. “They usually have the boys play boy parts and girls play girl parts,” I explained. He sighed.

Then, in exasperated disappointment, he unknowingly shot a verbal bullet: “But, Mommy, why can’t we be who we want to be?” Gut punch. Knife stab-and-turn right there. Ugh! I’m done. Can I tap out? Please? Can someone else handle this conversation, ’cause the only thing getting me through it is that we’re doing this in the car and not face-to-face.

Mama tears welled hot in my eyes and stung as I sniffed and shook them into submission. “I’m sorry,” I said, “it’s not fair. It’s just kind of how the world is right now. Maybe it’ll get better in time.” And that’s all I could promise him. A “maybe”, “in time.” How f’ing lame is that?!

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Can a mother’s love fix a broken heart? Can a father’s support mend a wounded spirit? Can a big sister’s protection shield from bullies? Can a little brother’s admiration eradicate the closet? Can family acceptance ward against self-loathing, self-harm… or worse? Can a few supportive friends enable you to except you as you?

I don’t know. But it’s all we’ve got in this world that won’t let us be who we want to be. Yet.

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.