“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.
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?!
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.