"Mommy, can I have those sneakers when you're finished with them?"
I'm splayed on the basement floor after a workout. Nothing on my body is dry, and I'm 100 percent certain that these purple sneakers I wear without socks because they're more comfortable that way will have to be bagged as hazardous waste by the time I'm finished with them.
"They'll be too gross, buddy."
"I'll probably have to get sneakers from the girls' section next time," he adds.
"Oh, yeah. Why?"
"I really want pink sneakers."
"Maybe you can put them on your Christmas list," I answer, still out of breath and staring at the unfinished ceiling.
"Do you think elves make pink sneakers for boys?"
That conversation happened in October. I anticipated two things happening between October and December 25th, when Santa would be expected to deliver on the pink sneaks: 1) My boy would abandon his penchant for all things pink, 2) He'd forget.
Neither of those things happened, of course. Instead, he declared pink his favorite color and asked for hot pink loom bands and a hot pink wall in his bedroom. He put pink laces in his hockey skates. He tried with all the persuasive skill he could muster to convince his friends that pink is for boys. To which his friends said, "Ewwww, no way," and other first grade equivalents of the same.
So this Christmas, pink sneakers were on the list.
They were not easy to find. I stood before many many sales associates with vacant expressions while I said things like, "I'm looking for pink sneakers for my son." And then, as though I had to explain, I'd add, "But not 'girly' sneakers. Just pink."
And to random shoppers, I'd hold up a pair of girls' sneakers and say, "Do these look like girls' shoes to you?" They would say, "Yeah." And I would keep looking.
Finally, a helpful sales person directed me to a display of sneakers in various shades of pink. I held up a pair and asked, "Are these for boys?"
"Yep. Boys or girls."
Suddenly I wanted to punch myself squarely in the jaw.
I grew up wearing baseball caps and jeans. I rode bikes and played basketball with the boys in my neighborhood. I preferred pants over dresses. I didn't like lace or bows, fanciness or frills. Tights and stockings made me itch.
In elementary school I hated that boys and girls were divided in gym class. I audaciously stood in line for the boys' activities. I wasn't going to be defined or limited by my body parts. Not then. Not ever.
Fast forward 25+ years. I lost my way.
For some reason I found myself protecting my son from judgment and ridicule he hadn't even received yet... and for what? Pink sneakers? Why? Because pink is for girls?
Because girls are this. And boys are that.
And here, kids, don't mind the pinch, but I need to squeeze you into this mold. Hold still now.
We don't have a genderless household. I wouldn't care to. But when I assure my kids they can be anything they want to be and do anything they want to do, I intend to mean it... not just for my girls, but for my boy, too. Why is it easier to encourage my girls to break through stereotypical walls that confine and define them than it is my son?
Shame on me.
Last summer, my girls were painting their toenails. Noah wanted to paint his, too. Why wouldn't he? Paint is fun. Chlo made quick work of painting his toenails blue. His nails stayed that way for several days. In and out of the pool, nails still blue. We forgot until a little girl in Subway pointed to Noah and asked her mom in a loud whisper, "Why does he have painted toes?"
I tousled my boy's hair and winked at him.
I listened while the mother explained that Noah was "a good big brother to his little sisters."
Noah is a good big brother. She was right. But the truth is, he just wanted to play with color. He was 6.
As a mom, I want to protect my kids from embarrassment. It feels like part of my job description -- but not always, not when they're defining themselves or embracing something that inspires them (or, in the case of sneakers, choosing something that looks fly with their jeans).
Noah got pink sneakers for Christmas. He loves them and was absolutely floored when he opened them on Christmas morning.
When school got back in session, his dad asked him how his friends liked his new kicks.
He answered with a shrug: "They laughed."
"How do you like your sneakers?" I asked.
"Me? I love them."
Pink is my boy's favorite color. While I draw the line at hot pink walls in his bedroom, I can identify him on the ice by the pink laces in his hockey skates. Ask Noah, and he'll do his best to convince you that pink is for boys.
And if you think like most of his buddies do: "Ewwww, no way"...
He won't care. At all.
So neither will I, because he's my boy, and he's teaching me a thing or two about raising a mom.