Because our family recently moved to a new city, we’re meeting all kinds of new people on the daily. And most people—from teachers to neighbors to strangers at the grocery store—think my nine-year-old son is a girl. While this issue came up from time to time before, now, in our new community, it’s front and center.
The thing is, my son dresses the way a boy is expected to dress, and his interests lean toward the “typically boy” side of the spectrum. So, wondering what gives? It’s the blond hair that cascades halfway down his back in perfect, swishy curls.
I love his hair. I’m not pressuring him to cut it. But when his grandma recently suggested he get a more conventional boy cut so that he’ll no longer be mistaken for a girl, he replied, “I’m not cutting it. Ever.” It’s his boldest fashion statement, and I’m genuinely proud that he’s owning it.
And yet, I’ve noticed that I am bothered when well-meaning people call him a girl. I find myself feeling annoyed or awkward—multiple times a day—and internally debating whether it’s the right moment to explain to a stranger that my son is indeed a boy. If I decide to correct the person, they usually get embarrassed, then apologize profusely. “It’s the hair, it happens a lot,” I say reassuringly, trying to smooth over their—and my own—strangeness around the subject. Or if I’m too tired to deal with it, I’ll just fake smile and hurry my family on our way, but feeling somehow untruthful, or at least like an opportunity has been missed.
You’d think I wouldn’t feel so uncomfortable with a little gender ambiguity. I was a Women’s Studies major in college, and I’m well aware that we all perform our gender in obvious and not-so-obvious ways. More recently, the trans and non-binary movements have raised my awareness further about the complex interplays between gender and sex, and how malleable all that can be.
So I’ve asked myself: Why am I so bothered by all this? I think that part of my discomfort is really about me. It’s a matter of street cred, of being recognized, really. I want credit for having spent hundreds of hours of my life constructing Thomas the Train sets when my son was a vehicle-obsessed toddler. I want acknowledgment of my tears the first time my son offered a half-hug and a “see ya” when I dropped him off at school. Raising a boy isn’t easy, darn it, and I kinda want everyone to know that I’m crushing it. Or doing my best, at least.
Maybe I also fear my son will be judged, misunderstood, or simply that he’ll miss out on certain opportunities to do boy stuff if people think he’s a girl. But then: what is “boy stuff” anyway? We all know the tropes—trucks, blocks, toy guns and their ilk. My son likes those things (see above re: former obsession with vehicles), but he’s also quite fond of stuffies and pretend play.
The experience of my son’s gender being misinterpreted by strangers has made me hyper-aware of how differently adults still treat kids based on their assumptions. When they think he’s a girl, they’re likely to crouch by his side and speak in a sweet voice. When they know he’s a boy, fist bumps and exclamations of, “hey buddy!” seem to prevail. Why do adults do this?
I would never do such a thing.
Except that if I’m being honest, I do treat my son and daughter differently. I’m more willing to let my son experiment with independence and autonomy. I turn to him for help with electronics and wall mounts. I fear for him out in the world without me, but not nearly as much as I fear for my daughter. He’s a bit older than her, but still.
Despite my intentions to dismantle the patriarchy we all grew up with, I’ve internalized, on some less-than-conscious level, the idea that female is a more fragile category than male. I think I’m actually afraid my son will be offended when people think he’s a girl, that he’ll feel like a different—a diminished—order of human. And I thought I was a socially aware person, a proud feminist, someone who knows how much strength and resilience comes along with being female. Crap. Something for me to work on.
But here’s the thing: none of this actually bothers my son at all. He smiles and goes about his business when someone says to him and his sister, “have a good day, girls,” or when a new friend initially thinks he’s female. He knows he’s a boy. Everyone close to him knows he’s a boy. He suffers no stigma or shame at being mistaken for a girl, and I’m proud of him for that.
What’s more, when kids mistake my son’s gender—as opposed to when adults do it—they don’t get hung up about it. They tend to shrug, change the pronoun from “she” to “he” and get on with the Nerf battle. Easy peasy. Interestingly, it’s the grownups who wring their hands.
I’m fiercely proud of my son and all the other kids who seem comfortable letting people be who they are, even when it looks different. Maybe the adults in his life—like me—can learn a thing or two from them.