Walking home from the subway last week, I spotted a child dressed in a multi-colored tie-dye tee, jean shorts and bright turquoise Minnie Mouse knee-highs. I couldn't help but smile. The outfit could easily have come from my grown offspring Harry's childhood closet. As I got closer I could see that the hem of the t-shirt was trimmed with patches of Mickey Mouse, each with a small rhinestone bedazzled in the upper right corner.
"Wow," I said, stopping. "That's such a fantastic shirt you're wearing."
"It is amazing, isn't it," remarked the mom, who sat on their stoop between two planters of yellow mums. "His aunt made it. He'd wear it everyday if he could, isn't that right, Charlie?"
Blond curly-haired Charlie, who was playing with the latch of the iron fence gate, grinned. I saw he was missing one of his upper teeth. He seemed too young to have lost one of his front teeth, but I couldn't get over how much he looked like Harry.
"Josh!" Charlie shouted, before running off to meet his friend walking up the sidewalk.
"My son used to have a pair of socks just like that," I told Charlie's mom. "Only his were lavender."
"Really?" she asked. "I don't want to discourage Charlie from wearing whatever he wants, but sometimes I worry about him fitting in with other boys."
I wanted to tell her not to worry. I wanted to say her son's unique gender expression demonstrated he was creative and happy, and those traits were all that mattered. I wanted to assure her he'd be just fine in the world. But before I could speak, Charlie came bounding back. He reached up to hold onto my arm as he slid a foot into the bottom rung of the gate.
As soon as he touched me, I heard the gentle twinkling sound of my iPhone alarm. I opened my eyes and was startled to be lying in bed. I'd been so sure a moment before that I was outside on a sunny 73-degree afternoon. I could still feel the pressure of Charlie's hand on my forearm. But my encounter with Charlie and his mom had been nothing more than a dream.
I thought about that dream all day. I wondered if the little boy represented Harry. I hadn't dreamed about Harry as a child since Harry was a child. It bothered me that I couldn't remember the mother's face, because I'd been talking right to her. Was she supposed to be any mom, or was she maybe a stand-in for me?
Then I remembered an interview I'd done on Monday with the LGBTQ editor for an online community of single moms. "Given what you know now," she began, "what advice would you give to yourself earlier in your life of parenting a gender creative child?" Fears about how my boldly dressed, expressive little Harry would fit in with other boys had come back to be me quite clearly at the time. And I realized that I'd dreamed about wanting to give advice to my former self.
I have long since learned that fitting in for a kid (or adult) doesn't mean being the same as everyone else. It means being accepted for who you are.
Fitting in means belonging, being with classmates or neighborhood kids who like you and want to be with you simply because you're you. And as parents and family I think it's important we remember to teach our children how no two of us are alike. It's our differences -- our individuality -- that need to be encouraged and celebrated. Because in this old parent's view, children being their true selves is where dreams of the heart begin.