When my boy was an infant, smelling of sweet milk and sleeping tiny and warm on my shoulder, I first read Real Boys by William Pollack. Dr. Pollack’s book confronts many closely held beliefs we have in America about what it means to be a boy, or a man. As a feminist, I hoped for some unique options that might help craft a different relationship with masculinity for me and my new son in the world.
While pregnant, I had combed rack after rack of baby boys’ clothing in the same predictable themes: baseball, football and the ever-present dread military. Flush with confidence and relieved of gender angst after some reading, I quickly warmed to a new idea: this would be like no other relationship I have shared with a male of the species. We could be un-tethered by societal expectations. We could make up our own rules as I had felt so confident in doing with my girl.
As a baby and toddler, my boy often sported outfits of his big sister’s selection. They were replete with rainbows or mismatched colorful stripes. More often than not his sister owned a matching set. Every year on our Christmas tree, tied with a small piece of rope, are the tiny pink kitty moccasins he wore the first months of his life. A lifelong lover of vintage clothing, I also found some funky options for him in thrift stores — the iron-strong, built-to-last department store brands my brother and I had worn as children in the 1970s, in bold plaid, dots and wavy patterns.
My son could be whatever type of boy his heart leads him to, and why not? Years earlier I had proudly dressed my girl in trucks, tractors, aliens, planets, insects and the Buzz Lightyear boy briefs for which she begged when first potty trained. As my boy grew older, he seemed to embrace the family penchant for costume – choosing interesting patterns and putting them together with flair.
A reserved and somewhat dreamy child, my son loves comic superheroes but doesn’t show much interest in police, fire, or military. As he nears five, he is more concerned with the tactile nature of clothing. Items must meet simple utilitarian criteria: “soft and thin.” Last year’s wardrobe was mismatched pajamas worn daily for many months. Way back in those early-four-year-old days, we had a rotation of turtle pajamas, hero pajamas, striped pajamas and various animal pajamas which were worn day and night.
Last month while on clothing expedition, he selected from a shelf a pair of bold, pink flower-covered cotton pants and asked me to buy them for him. I heard a disembodied voice that could only be mine reply stiffly, “Let’s take a look at these pants. Do these look like boy pants, or girl pants?” He became very thoughtful for a few seconds and said “But I like flowers.” “OK,” I said, “You can have the flower pants if you want, or maybe you can choose a different pair.” He took a few moments to look at other pants nearby and finally selected some plain blue ones.
Parenting always provides a fresh opportunity to wish for a do-over. In my inner-world slow motion replay of this interaction I chirp, “Sure, buddy! Throw them in the cart” without reservation. It didn’t happen that way in the moment. What the hell happened to Sally McGender-Carefree?
My son is approaching grade school age and his world is expanding rapidly. I see his peer relationships becoming deeper and more complicated. In the moment he asked for the pants, I had a sudden vision of the inevitable teasing of a boy in floral pants.
As the weeks have passed since that day, I also recognize a connection between my fearful behavior and letting go of my boy a little to make his own way. As together we leave my son’s toddler hood behind, I say goodbye forever to being Mommy of a little one.
My daily companion recently has been a sharp-edged grief at this inevitable change in my life. My children are nearly five years apart and I have had a very small child in my life for ten years. My days for so long have been about cuddly reading, dress-up games, oddball birthday cakes, scary nightmares, vivid fears, overwhelming joys, and the steepest of human learning curves. I have cherished being grounded into the physical dirt, fur, and bright color of the world, riding the ups and downs of daily life with an under-fiver.
Today, my boy still occasionally takes delight in wearing pajamas all day or announcing that he is Wolverine. He still wears his “Cheetah” coat a few times per week: a Mod-Squad era, faux-fur, animal print coat he found at Goodwill that will forever define for me this very moment in time with my only son. As his 5th birthday approaches, I see him slowly becoming more like a school aged boy.
Because I also have a much older child, I know that each and every age comes with gifts. Wrapped in the trappings of my sadness is the sparkly silver lining of the six-year old boy and the eleven-year-old girl I will get to know in the next couple of years. I love those two already and I know they will bring wonder and new brands of craziness into my life that I cannot imagine.
Still, my reticence about the pink flower-covered pants sits quietly with me. It whispers in my ear that I have to keep letting go of my own fears so he can blossom into a widening world. He is moving forward each day with the open, gentle and creative spirit he came into the world with, developing his own style along the way.
In the dark of our hotel room during a recent trip to Disneyland, he whispered, “Mommy, are you awake? …Do you think Tigger is real?” Earlier in the day, we had discovered Tigger in the park and posed for a photograph with him. “Because Mommy? I think I saw a zipper on his back.”
I began to explain how sometimes the power of our love and belief is what makes things real and sometimes those are the best things. He was silent for a few seconds, and I realized he had fallen asleep long before I finished crafting an elaborate answer, snuggled next to his sister in his soft, thin pajamas.