After four different people called her ‘Son’ or ‘Little Mister’ in less than an hour, Grace was genuinely baffled.
GRACE: Am I a boy or a girl?
I paused, which is what I like to do when I don’t know what to say (and I don’t do it often enough).
ME: Who do you feel like?
GRACE: Like I’m a girl.
And what did I say because I didn’t know what to say but didn’t know enough to pause?
ME: Okay. And that might change... which is okay, too.
Grace was two when Frozen unleashed it’s icy agenda on our warming globe. Overnight, all Grace’s girlfriends became full blown glitter queens, sporting blue flammable gowns and blond braids 24/7 while ‘Let It Go’ bleated on repeat.
Stunned progressive parents of sudden princesses were mortified when their girls dove into politically incorrect girly-girlhood. We braced ourselves for Grace’s Princess Phase but she had zero interest in Elsa, her sister (the princess no one wants to be) or any of the wasp-waisted heroines in Disney’s mostly white princess quiver. Because Cars was our Frozen. In an attempt to isolate the Princess Phase cooties, we researched Disney animated movies with no technical ‘Princess’ protagonist. The Little Mermaid was it.
While other girls loved Ariel’s flame-hued wash ‘n wear locks and glittery fish tail, Grace was terrorized by Ursula, the drag queen-esque Octopus villainess, the Cruella deVille of the Sea. So, in my attempts to avoid parenting a Princess, I unleashed two weeks of screaming night terrors. To this day Grace won’t enter a store, restaurant, beach or movie theater without first asking if there will be octopi present.
What I should have done was take Grace to an aquarium to see how harmless octopi truly are without eyeliner, heaving purple bosoms and a skunk stripe. But what I did was research movies with no villain at all. Cars was it.
Because the Ursula-induced night terrors stopped, we let Grace go full-on NASCAR. We watched Cars & Mater's Tall Tales more than anyone not trapped in a North Korea prison should ever have to.
Since most commercial Cars clothing is made for boys and because Grace’s Black hair was short, (also my fault) everyone assumed Grace was a dude. Not helping matters, I diligently hunted down shops making Mater dresses and Lightning McQueen underpants for girls. Here’s my super proud blog page extolling gender neutrality in clothing and toys. Grace only wears boy clothes, male-specific superhero costumes and watches Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. She eschews pink. And everyone thinks she’s a boy.
So, is she?
Truth is, gender stereotyping cuts both ways. We progressive moms recoil in horror from jam-covered princesses, clip-clopping around like drunk ponies in porn-pink plastic kitten heels-- and some moms even try to shame their girls into not being SUCH a girl— but if our sons are even remotely glitter-curious, we festoon them in tutus or tiaras, and proudly Instagram our gender-fluid offspring living outside the gender-typical box.
In our attempts to avoid the Princess Phase, we drop-kicked our child into the Penis Phase.
So, why were we surprised when the world called Grace “Son”? We can ask why anyone feels the need to slap gender on a three year old and wish that the world would just call them Kiddo or Squirt and be done with it. But the world is too busy not listening to us to listen to us.
Why do people need to slap gender on a 3 year old?
Outwardly proud of my anti-princess girl, and secretly exhausted from begging her to not dress like a Eurotrash soccer hooligan, Grace showed up for a Frozen-themed party looking like a miniature Trader Joe’s manager in a Hawaiian shirt and cargo shorts. Other moms applauded me as if I was in charge of anything.
MOM: Wow. She's just GREAT. Good for YOU. Never been a better time to be... whoever she wants to be.
Later that day Grace grinned conspiratorially.
GRACE: I decided I'm a boy. So let’s pretend I have peanuts.
Striving for non-reaction I watched her point to her vagina.
GRACE: This is where my peanuts should go. Okay, Mom?
ME: There is nothing you can do as a boy that you can’t do as a girl.
GRACE: But boys only have to wipe once.
Is she really a boy or just looking to spend less time at the toilet? Or is she assuming who she is because everyone else assumes who she is?
I dimly remembered that when I was little I had short hair and a deep voice and the world at large assumed I was a boy. And my mom felt it wasn’t polite to correct the assumptions of strangers.
I realized I was doing the exact same thing because (I feel a list coming on):
Should I Correct the Assumptions of Others?
1. They're just people. Doing their fucking jobs. Do they really need me correcting them while they're trying to not hate themselves for working in retail or the food service industry?
2. If I correct strangers, then do I have to then take care of them when they feel terrible?
3. Grace won't remember anything before age 5, so... let it ride!
5. I eschew confrontation especially when food is being handled.
6. Conversation with strangers is okay as long as it's one-sided.
7. Why start an ethical debate when all I really want is correct change and no parking ticket?
8. If I have zero problem correcting my husband over everything he says, does and thinks, why let the Goodwill Donation guy slide when he calls Grace ‘Little Fella’?
9. If my kid's sense of who she is is confused by strangers then maybe she doesn't know who she is because I don't speak up.
10. I hated being called a boy by strangers when I was a kid. I hated more that my mom didn’t correct strangers who called me a boy.
After much internal struggle the only conclusion was that I was going to be even more uncomfortable with strangers. Since I already correct others when they ask if I’m Grace’s grandmother by replying “ Nah, I’m just her really Old Mom” (because it reinforces my brand and dampens curiosity), I ovary-ed up, and became Grace’s gender defender. When the waitress asked what “my Little Mister” was having, I strove to sound as neutral as Condoleeza Rice on Novocaine.
ME: She will have the Mac n' Cheese, please.
After she blushed and apologized, I followed our Waitress to the kitchen and burst into tears as I apologized for making her apologize. After enduring an unsolicited, warm, deep hug, at least our Waitress felt better. The second time I corrected someone, I still apologized and endured another meaningful hug, but this time a tray modestly blocked our nether regions from connecting.
After consistent defense of Grace’s gender, the other day a kiddo asked:
KIDDO: You're a girl but mostly boy, right?
GRACE: No. I'm all of a girl.
Teachable moments suck because they are always for me. I’m ashamed it's taken me so long to figure out who gets to be uncomfortable in this equation. Answer: Anyone who isn't my kid. While awaiting further instruction from Grace, I moisturize her twists, fold her baggy T shirts, basketball shorts, and defend her fashion icon being Ice Cube from Boyz In the Hood.
If you care to explore more of This Old Momhood, you are welcome to visit my website... thisoldmom.com. Thank you.