This post is both confession and discussion. It’s about learning to be a mommy and learning who my child is. It’s embarrassing and important.
When I was pregnant with baby #1, Hubby Pants and I decided we weren’t going to find out the gender of the baby before birth. In my household growing up, gender identity was something that individuals developed through their childhood and adolescence. Body parts present at birth often correlated with that identity, but sometimes did not. I felt strongly that I wanted to provide equal opportunity for our child to declare their own identity and not have it foisted upon them.
I decided early on that I loved lipstick, ruffles and sequins and could do cartwheels in high heels by age 7… but I also loved playing in the barn, catching snakes and playing sports. It was a little of everything.
Kids should be able to be whoever they want to be.
The moment came for that baby to come into the world. H.P. had the honor of announcing the body parts, “It’s a girl!”. Her name came to me instantly the moment I looked at her tiny, sweet face. We dressed her in mostly gender neutral clothes (gifted clothes were mostly gender-specific and we had to use what we had), avoided pink or frilly baby gear and sticking bows on her head. Our baby toys were all mechanical – trucks, blocks, etc… No baby dolls. No dress up.
Fast forward to 15 months old. Little Rosie had a play date for the first time with an older girl who had a baby doll and play stroller. The look on her face when she beheld this item was like Christmas-Candy-Store-Seeing-a-Unicorn all rolled into one. She was obsessed.
From there, her love of all things “girly” just exploded. This girl wanted all things pink, sparkly, frilly, and fancy. H.P. and I tried to encourage more balanced choices, “Pants are nice too!”, “OOh! Fun cars!”, “Let’s play in the mud!”. Left to her own devices, though, she would be in a floor-length sparkly gown, high heels, putting on make up and prancing around.
It hit me at one point that my feelings about this were not about ‘accepting who she expressed herself to be’, but of embarrassment that she was a cliche of girlishness. I was the open-minded mom who was supposed to let her be who she wanted to be, but I found myself resisting in the same ways parents of a boy who wanted to wear dresses might. I blamed myself for setting an example of dressing up for dates with her daddy, wearing make up most days and ‘giving in’ to her desire to wear only fancy dresses and put on my lipstick.
I finally realized I had to let go of allllll my ideas about her gender identity and let her actually be herself.
The part that I struggle with the most is how to let her be her fancy self while still emphasizing that those outer trappings of appearance do not in any indicate a person’s value. She already has ideas about who is ‘pretty’ and who is not. Society actively teaches this. There are not any un-gorgeous Disney heroines. Even Moana is conventionally beautiful.
We talk constantly about how anyone can have long hair, wear make up or dress in fancy dresses regardless of whether they want to be called a boy or a girl. We are trying to balance the scales a little bit, but the truth is, we are a cis-gendered couple with mostly stereotypical peer families that we spend time with. Examples of this diversity are harder to come by in our life right now.
I have had to search far and wide for books like Your Body Is Awesome and Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls with more positive and meaningful messages. We constantly reinforce that what’s on the outside doesn’t indicate real value that’s on the inside. I see a sea change coming in this regard compared to when we were children, but right now it’s still just a glimmer on the horizon. We also have been given the Little Mommy and Barbie Golden Books which are awful and she found where I hid them and wants them read (so I change all the words to a more empowering narrative because she can’t read yet… I’ll need a new strategy eventually).
I’m sharing this because other parents out there might be struggling with whatever identity their child is expressing and I want them to know they are not alone. We have a never ending debate about Nature vs Nurture going on in our society. I don’t think we’ll ever have an answer. I think we need to respect our children’s nature – it is present and it is strong and it is undeniable. I think we need to nurture the better thoughts and behaviors that they express to the world. It’s a balance. It’s a challenge. It’s f-ing hard sometimes.
Take the moments you can to just revel in the incredible, unique, fantastic human(s) you have brought into this world.
The universe decided to go easier on me for baby #2. Mimi is a fluid mix of having fun with a little girliness but also loving to build and play in the dirt. She, if anything, was raised with a lot more feminine clothes and toys around just by the nature of hand-me-downs. This helped me let go of some of the self-blame. They are who they are. We can help guide them but we also have to let them be themselves.
My hope is that they know they can dress like a princess and still be strong, be capable, be the boss of the world. Just like mom 😉 In what ways are your kids how you expected or not? Anyone else have a hard time with this? Would love your comments!
Dr. Annie is a married mom of 2 and family doctor in the Sacramento area.