Thursday, March 12, 2015

Raising a gender non-conforming child

A few weeks ago, I called our pediatrician here in Austin to finally set up an appointment for the kids. As I gave their stats and our personal information, in the middle of the conversation Atticus looked up from the picture he was painting and corrected me. After his date of birth, I had said "yes, he's a boy." He nonchalantly looked up and said "wrong, Mom, girl." The receptionist heard him and giggled, so I followed Atticus's cue and told her "biologically male, identifies as a girl."

Then, Tim took Atticus to the dentist. He was wearing his favorite purple coat and pajamas that at the time I thought were gender-neutral but then realized the reindeer have tiny bows on their antlers. According to Tim's account, for the first part of the appointment, the dentist and hygienists assumed he was a girl. And called him such. Tim said Atticus whispered in his ear to please not correct them, that he wanted them to think he was a girl. Tim also noted the interesting shift when they figured out halfway that he was a boy: instead of telling him "you're so sweet, this will all be over soon" and "she's so precious," it became "what a tough boy" and "wow you're so strong." Gender characteristics are so entrenched we cannot even talk to children without exhibiting our biases so blatantly.

I brought home this nail polish, and he was so upset I didn't pick out pink.
Which is why when your child is gender non-conforming, everything starts to feel fuzzy and unsure. I have taken my fair share of gender studies classes, and I still have trouble navigating the path of raising my children without these stereotypes hindering their development and holding them back from their true selves. Occasionally we'll have one of those AH-HA moments like when I told Tallulah to drink her milk so she'd grow big and strong and she said so matter-of-factly: "I already are strong!" But so often it's catching myself encouraging Tallulah to lay down with her dolly and Atticus to pick up his Legos. A successful parenting day this week for me was when Tallulah picked out the bug jammies over the princess ones, and Atticus grabbed the ballerina book instead of the Star Wars one.

Even with all of these gendered outlines for how children should look, behave, play... Atticus still has decided to break free from the mold. At around 3 or 4, he started telling us he "was a boy, but he wished he was a girl" or "sometimes I'm a boy, sometimes I'm a girl." We went with it, never really encouraging it outright by changing pronouns or buying him dresses, but just acknowledging it's ok to explore and pretend to be different things. Around this time, I brought home some dresses and tights from a garage sale for future Tallulah and stashed them away in the too-big bin for a later date. A few months later, Atticus discovered them as I pulled out the winter gear and demanded to wear them. He wanted to wear this one skirt I got at a clothing exchange every chance he could. He would look in his closet where 95% of things were grey, blue, green shirts and jeans, and would grab the one pair of pink tights and skirt to wear.

Two years later, he actively asks us to say he's a girl on a regular basis, and sometimes gets upset when we correct people when we're out who call him a girl. It's amazing how upset other people get too when they realize they make the mistake, we laugh it off but it horrifies people when I call him Atticus and they come to the conclusion he's not a girl. Tim and I have stopped correcting. I am not sure when, if ever, it will be necessary to start using female pronouns and calling Atticus our daughter. We asked if he'd like to go by a different name and he looked at us like we were ignorant: "I like Atticus, and it can be a girl's name too!"

Several days ago, we were playing at Central Market and there was a group of little girls forming a club. Atticus wanted to join up, and they said "no, you can't, you're a BOY!" And Atticus was so upset.... "no, I'm not! I'm a girl!" And they told him "you're a boy! go ask your mom!" Atticus came up to me in distress that his new "boy" haircut made it so he couldn't pass as a girl. We already spent many minutes looking at little girl pixie haircuts post-cutting to show him that just because his hair was short didn't mean now he was a boy, which was really frustrating for him after I cut it. And now this.

I know many people will read this and roll their eyes. They will think thoughts or say words about how we are brain-washing him. How our liberal-minded ways are corrupting our child. How could we ever wish this upon him, and encourage him to think these things. That is is just a "phase" and we should be re-directing him. That we never should have let him leave the house in a skirt. Or ever think that gender was fluid. Because as my dad reminded me over and over again when he was visiting, it's not, right? Men are men and women are women, and God made us this way and it's impossible to change. Except some individuals are not comfortable in their biological bodies. They are not comfortable with their genitals dictating their identification. I have no clue what this feels like; I have a vagina and a uterus and ovaries and feel about as feminine as can be (despite my lack of attention to society's expectations like shaving my armpits and wearing make-up!) But the fact is, there are people, lots of people, children even, who experience this in their lives, and who are we to dictate their experiences for them? Because when we don't allow them to live their own experiences, tragedy can ensue.

Why would I wish this upon my child? To feel uncomfortable in his own body and discriminated in society? I, in no way, want Atticus to permanently decide he is a girl. I mean, look at my use of male-gendered pronouns. He is still, right now, very much still my son, and we are still navigating this together. Despite what people think, I actually still feel uncomfortable with him wearing dresses and picking out purple coats. When I buy him clothes or toys, I buy him male- or neutral-gendered things unless he actively asks for something different. I am still trying to untrain myself to abide by these same narrow definitions of what it means to be a gendered human, to walk through society as a "he" or a "she" and how much that dictates what our life looks like. How guilty we feel when we leave our kids to go to work, or how freely we can cry at a funeral. What jobs we have. What toys we play with. What colors we like.

But I love who he (or she) is and who they will become in all of the myriad and undefinable ways a parent should love their child for exactly who they are, despite personality or ability or gender identity or sexual orientation. He is still only 5, which is why we are hesitant to move forward with really proclaiming him transgendered and embracing his self-identification. He has a lot of learning and growing and discovering to do. Maybe in two years, this will all be a thing of the past and he will be very much the boy he was born as. But if he's not, we will briefly mourn the little boy that once was and embrace whatever person they decide to become and however this kid decides to self-identify.