Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Gender-Neutral Parenting

I'm a cross-dresser from the ankles down.  My black work boots are a men's size 8WW.  It's difficult for me to find affordable women's shoes that are wide enough to fit me, so now I buy men's shoes.  My husband thinks my men's work boots are sexy on me.  Especially when I wear them with a dress, tights, and a push-up bra.

I like that look.  Not all matchy-matchy.  I would not have done well living in the era when middle-class women were expected to wear a matching hat, gloves, purse, and shoes.  Barf.  I like my fashion more mixed up and complicated.  I prefer incongruity when it comes to most things.

I like it when I see old ladies at the grocery store wearing expensive looking wool coats over their nighties, or a beautiful silk scarf covering the rollers in their hair.  I like young guys who walk out of the convenience store wearing a wife beater, a hoodie, jams, dirty white tube socks, and plether velcro sneakers with holes in both toes, while putting on their $200 yuppified sunglasses.  I like it when I'm at church and I see a beautiful mom who somehow managed to put on her best dress, heels, and even makeup while rushing around helping her kids get ready, only to have obviously forgotten to brush the back of her hair.

I like it when I see men in unwrinkled khakis and a button-up shirt wearing sandals exposing their hairy toes.  I've noticed that look especially from men in my community who immigrated here from places such as India and Pakistan.  It can be thirty degrees outside and a dark-skinned, straight-haired man with an Indian accent will approach me at the library where I work, asking for help with the printer or whatever, and nine times out of ten when I stand up and walk behind him to the printer, I notice his nearly bare feet.  I love it.  I love that my community as a whole has become much less matchy-matchy over time.

Whatever's comfortable.

I myself am a big fan of feet being able to breathe.  I love sandals, wool boots you don't have to wear socks with (some might call those slippers, but if you wear them out of the house, like I do, they're called boots, and any type of footwear that doesn't make my giant feet feel smashed.  I take my socks off in bed at night no matter how cold it is so my toes can wiggle around.

When I was a kid I often had to wait in the car while Mom ran into the store because when Mom had come outside where I was playing and announced we were going to get groceries, I'd inevitably be shoeless and forget to run inside and grab my flip flops.  It was better if we went to Kmart because then Mom would just go in and buy me another pair of flip flops so I could come into the store too.  I owned approximately 1001 pairs of flip flops when I was a child.

I mostly wear my men's workboots now.  I don't feel ashamed admitting my feet are cross-dressers.  In our culture, it's no longer expected of women to always wear heels when they leave the house.  Grandmas wear sneakers now, but when they were little girls they owned only white oxfords or black Mary Janes.  Girls didn't play sports so why would they own sneakers?  My sisters are not that much older than me, but when they were in elementary school it was against the rules for them to show up wearing pants.  My sister Kit says she remembers the day the rule changed.  She had been so excited about the day approaching, but on the morning the rule changed, when she had every right to wear pants to school, she forgot and showed up in a skirt.

I tell this story to my seven-year-old daughter Katie as she's pulling up her pants in the morning while getting ready for school and she looks at me like she wants to say, "What the hell?"  But for some reason, this child being raised by two potty mouths has decided to go full pious on us and refuses to say any swear words even though we've informed her it's OK at home, just not out in public, and especially not at school.  She won't even say the word "stupid".  Or "deviled eggs".  The other day my mom said something about making deviled eggs and Katie announced: "I'm not eating those!"

When asked why not, she refused to say the word and just wiggled around the living room like Linda Blair.  I thought I was going to have to grab my mom's crucifix from the wall and do an exorcism, but then I figured out what was wrong with her.  "Oh.  You don't want to eat them because they have the word 'devil' in them?"

She nodded her head dramatically.

"The eggs are not from the Devil.  That's just what they're called," I said.

"Why?" Katie asked.

"I have no idea," I said.  Might as well be honest with her.

"You're not going to burn in Hell for eating deviled eggs," I said.

Katie said nothing but she looked like she had little faith in her mother's assessment of the situation.  She looked like she has a mind of her own and she was using it.

Why is she so interested in morality lately?  I have done my best trying to infuse my parenting with ethical relativism, and yet my child insists on black and white answers to her questions.  She wants to know what's the right way to do everything.  This morning she asked if the right way to pray is to put your hands together and hold them to your lips and close your eyes.

I said, "That's one right way.  But there are many right ways.  You pray the way you feel it's right.  You can even just talk to God inside your head while you go about your day and no one has to know you're talking to God.  It can be just between you and God.  Or you can make a big production out of it by kneeling and doing all sorts of gestures with your hands, but you don't have to do those things to talk to God."

It feels odd for me to be giving another person advice about such big things as God.  Neither Will nor I have ever put a lot of emphasis on religion, and yet our daughter is interested in it.  I feel the same way about math.  I'm not a fan of math myself, but I don't want to turn my kid off of something that's sparked her curiousity.  I'd hate to stifle her interests just because it's "not my thing".  Just because I can find God by walking in the woods at the dog park doesn't mean I should keep my daughter from finding God inside a building full of other kids her age.

It seems like no matter how you raise a person, they end up doing what they want to do in the end anyway.  You might as well just love them and let them be who they are.

Last week while I was washing dishes I listened to a fascinating program on KCUR's "Central Standard".  It's called "The Practice of Gender-Conscious Parenting."  You can listen to it here.  Guests include:

Lori Duron, author of the blog Raising My Rainbow

Sarah Manley, author of the blog http://nerdyapple.com/

Dr. Diane Ehrensaft, Clinical Psychologist with the Child and Adolescent Gender Center in San Francisco  and author of Gender Born, Gender Made: Raising Healthy Gender-Nonconforming Children

The guests talked to host Brian Ellison about raising gender-nonconforming kids.  In a nutshell, what the parents and the psychologist said is that if we love our kids unconditionally and let them be who they are, it will help them grow to be their healthiest, strongest selves.

Here are my two favorite quotes:

"If you can't tell if my son is a boy or a girl, just treat him like a person." --Lori Duron

"The children are shaping us.  We are not shaping them."

I'm not sure which of the three guests said the second quote.  I believe  it was Dr. Ehrensaft, but in my rush to dry my soapy hands, grab a pen and write down the quote I couldn't hear who actually said it.  I'd listen to it again, but I'm behind on my list of other things to listen to while I wash dishes, so I'll leave that mystery up to you, my friend.

As a kid, if I wanted to play Barbies with my best friend, who happened to be a boy, he agreed as long as we closed the blinds in my bedroom so no one outside could see us.  It was perfectly fine for me to play kickball and ride bikes and look at his dad's porno stash with him--normal, healthy, curious kid-type stuff, but if he was caught playing Barbies with me, his dad would have called him a sissy and his mom would have told him he couldn't come over to my house anymore.  It was bad enough that our parents stopped letting us have sleepovers at each other's houses by the time I was in third grade.

"Why?" I asked my mom.

"Because boys and girls aren't supposed to sleep together until they're grownups and married," my mom explained.

It seemed unfair to me.  Like when she made me start wearing a shirt outside.  No matter how hot it was.  Even if the boys weren't wearing their shirts.  No fair!

But mostly Mom was accepting of my androgyny.  She called me a tomboy.  I liked to play outside and get dirty and shoot baskets and fish for crawdads at the creek.  I did not like to take a bath or brush my hair or floss my teeth.  I didn't play with baby dolls in a caretaker-y way.  I might have burped and bottled one once in a while, but for the most part I thought baby dolls were pretty boring.

Now Barbie dolls were another story, because I used them to create my own stories.  Complex, ridiculous, soap-operaesque stories.  About things that concerned a ten to twelve year old girl.  People were always getting their period at the most inopportune times: at the bus stop, at the grocery store, and God forbid, on a date.  Kids (played by other Barbies and explained as just being really tall for their age, or an occasional Skipper doll) were always fighting, always falling off cliffs and wrecking their bikes and throwing up and all kinds of horrible stuff.  It was great.  I'd have a bad day at school and I'd come home and reenact the scene with my Barbies.

Basketball and Barbies were both "my thing".  No one said anything when I wore a vinyl Chewbacca Halloween costume in second grade instead of going as Princess Leia.  And no one said anything about my wanting to wear my pink flip flops with my costume.  It just wasn't an issue.  Except for my mom.  I think she made me put on socks and my winter boots so I wouldn't catch a cold.  

I'm lucky to have had an understanding Mom.  She herself in many ways was a "tomboy" compared to other girls.  She was always the catcher when they played softball during gym class, which was segregated by sex, because none of the other girls knew how to catch a ball.  Mom grew up with an older brother, so it was easy for her.  I've noticed most kids will play with about anything if that's what they have the opportunity to play with.

I don't recall caring one way or the other if someone I was playing with was a boy or a girl, just that they were around my age.  As the youngest child in a big family of much older siblings and no cousins around my age, I craved time spent with people my own age.  I loved school, not for the education, but for the socializing.  Recess was always my favorite time.

Before I started elementary school, about the only time I got to play with other kids was at the library before or after storytime.  That's where I met my friend Courtney.  We were about four.  We were waiting around for storytime to begin.  I saw her standing there, looking at a book.  She had short, dark hair cut like someone traced a bowl around her head with a pair of scissors.  She was wearing brown corduroy pants and an orange t shirt with a tiger on it.  I remember distinctly walking up to her and saying, "Are you a boy or a girl?"  She said, "a girl" matter-of-factly, and we went on to play.  I would have played with her had she been a boy too, I was just curious.  Like asking someone what their favorite color is.  If it's not yellow like mine, I'm not gonna stop coloring with them.

In ninth grade I gave a speech I wrote called "Human's Lib" in which I argued that boys are treated more unfairly than girls in our culture because girls can be girly or a tomboy, but boys are discouraged from expressing their feminine side.  After class, a jock boy who had never spoken to me before came up and thanked me for what I said.  My heart was pounding like Allison Reynolds' must have been when Andy Clark first spoke to her.  I couldn't believe he noticed me.  The next day I noticed his hair was kinda poofed up and shiny like he had put mousse in it that morning. 

At Katie's school last year, one of the boys in her grade wore a Princess Merida costume from the movie "Brave".  Giant curly red wig and all.  And you know what?  During the parade of all the kids in their costumes, he was hands down the kid with the most beaming face there.  Doing his own thing.