When our first child, a daughter, was born nearly 31 years ago, I had egalitarian ideas about raising our kids with fewer stereotypical gender roles attached.
I dressed her in overalls and unisex sneakers, avoiding pink and bows when possible. It wasn’t completely neutral; flowers blossomed across her flannel shirt and her pants were aqua and lilac, but I did offer a variety of toys like blocks, puzzles, books, dolls and cars. It soon became evident that she preferred the dolls and ignored the trucks. I soon realized that while it was a fine idea to offer unisex apparel and gender non-specific activities, every child is an individual, and will have individual preferences, regardless of gender.
We let our children reveal to us who they were, at least as much as we knew how. That’s why it didn’t really faze me when our daughter immersed herself in every possible musical experience, our son wanted to play competitive chess, another wanted to build computers, and another child made art from morning ‘til night.
Mary*, our fourth child, wanted to rollerblade, bike, climb, jump, shoot hoops, ride horses, learn to fly and play football. Girls are as human as boys. Some humans like athletic endeavors. No big deal. Besides, I thought he was emulating his older brothers. That would have been totally natural. What did it matter if he wore “boy” clothes? I also let one older brother wear a Mohawk, and the other dye his hair cobalt blue.
We encouraged each kid to pursue his or her interests and be their own person. Music, chess, technology, football, art – all were encouraged. When Mary wanted to do typically guy stuff, we didn’t bat an eye. I had no idea there was anything more to it than his interests and self-expression. I didn’t know Mary had trouble identifying as a girl.
We hit a snag when it came time for Mary’s First Communion at age seven. Traditionally, boys wear suits and ties, and girls wear white dresses and a veil, flowers or bow in their hair, for this most special of Catholic rites of passage. My mom had made a pintucked and ruffled cotton dress for his oldest sister, but Mary was having none of it. He adamantly refused to wear the dress. It took some gentle but insistent cajoling on our part over time to get him to comply. He wore it, but not with the usual giddy anticipation of the girls.
Oh, I wish I’d known then what I do now! Parenting is full of moments where we must decide between respecting our children’s wishes and imposing our own. It is a constant balancing act. I thought this was a time that merited compliance.
Mary had been interested in model airplanes, real airplanes, aviators and aviation for a long time. I once helped him make an Amelia Earhart type of costume for a school project. For his eleventh birthday, we gave him a flight at the controls of a two-seater Cessna. He was ecstatic! As I look back on it, I see that it is a rather atypical gift for an 11-year-old girl. For us, it just naturally went along with who he was and what he was interested in. Girl or boy, it just didn’t matter.
As Mary entered middle school and puberty, however, life got more and more challenging. He’d spend hours in the basement, doing homework. I thought it took extra long because he took advanced classes, but only later did I learn it was because he was anxious, depressed and couldn’t concentrate. His menstrual cycle really knocked him for a loop. He would become extremely irritable and full of rage, then debilitating cramps would put him out of commission for a few days every month. He grew more and more miserable.
Ken later likened it to the fate of a werewolf: every month tragically condemned to painfully morph into a creature that he really wasn’t, with agonizingly little control. He was trapped in a tormented, endlessly repeating cycle of physical and mental pain. I had no idea how close he came to ending it all right then.
Somehow through all that, he continued to excel in school. He was active in band and jazz band. I was glad to see that he again joined a church basketball league. It did break my heart, a little, though, to hear him say it was the first time he’d actually felt like he belonged.
That’s 12, 13 years of feeling left out, odd-one-out, other. I am so sad, even today, when I think about that. So many wasted years. Well, no. I don’t really believe any experiences are wasted. They help shape and form us as we live. Even so called “bad” experiences are just experiences. If we bring some awareness and consciousness to them, and love and tenderness when processing them, they can be catalysts for huge growth, maturity and wisdom.
It is all good. As a human, though, and a mom, I just wish he could have found camaraderie earlier in life. We all want our kids to be happy, and we suffer when they are not.
Mary loved his basketball games. He played quite assertively, even ferociously. “Small, but scrappy!” we called him. We tried to get him to ease up a bit, but that was not in his nature. He was “all in” all the time. It wasn’t until he sustained a couple of concussions diving after loose balls that he slowed down.
In the fall, he played on the township co-ed flag football team. It was unusual but not unheard of to have a girl on the team. As much as he enjoyed basketball, I think he loved football even more. He was a little shy personally, but get him on the field and you could just about see a vapor trail behind him. It was as if a switch flipped on, finally given an acceptable release for all his pent up physical energy and psychological frustration and distress! He played every assigned position energetically, and proceeded to relentlessly rush the quarterback, block passes, catch any throws aimed his way and tear up the turf to score or go down trying. It was really fun to watch.
There was some conscious or subconscious sexism on the team, though. By now he had a ponytail to go with his girl name; teammates didn’t quite trust him with too many passes, in spite of his enthusiasm and skills. He still didn’t quite fit in.
As we thought about his going to high school the following year, Mary, Ken and I knew the huge township school his siblings had attended was not going to be right for him. For the first time, we considered smaller, private school options. We hoped we’d find one that offered respite from the roughness in the public school hallways, the fights in the cafeteria, the silent lunches, and the repeated harassment by a classmate. We wanted a safer, more nurturing environment that supported his academic and musical interests, and would help him grow personally and socially.
We were excited when we found an independent Catholic school not far from our home. They exuded values, academic excellence, community, diversity, individual attention and enthusiasm. Their sports teams were many and top-notch. Their band was small but spirited. They even had an aviation club! We couldn’t believe our good fortune!
Here was a chance at a fresh start. High school was finally going to give him the environment he needed to fit in and blossom into the person we knew he could be! Or would it?
*Our son does not want his real name used in public. I call him Mary/William in this article and refer to him with the pronouns he/him/his throughout, per his request.