“This. This is the one.” Tommy tells me, running his finger slowly over the seem of a translucent purple glass bottle he has pulled off the shelf at the craft store. His grandmother had given him some money to spend as a reward for a great start to the school year. There was never any question where he would go to spend it. The craft store.
“Mom, we can put some of the purple cone flowers we still have growing in this one. And then some of the purple bell flowers from the Hostas. Do you think that would be pretty, Mom?”
I was the girl who eventually gave up on understanding what colors matched and just memorized the combinations I saw others wearing. I’m all about solids and neutrals. So, it continues to baffle me how I could have given birth to a child whose world revolves so fully around the aesthetics of design. But, these are the moments when I just sit back and enjoy getting to watch Tommy being Tommy.
He puts the bottle in our basket with the assorted candles and other pretty glass decorations he has decided to purchase.
“Oooohhhh, Mom!” His face lights up with an idea. “Mommy, we have that blue ribbon with the polka dots at home. If we tied that around the bottle it would really look nice with the bell flowers. Do you thinks so, Mommy? Or we could put a white taper candle in the bottle! Would that look nice on the table for dinner?”
Over and over, I will nod and beam the biggest smile I’ve got cause I haven’t got a clue how it will look, but god do I love just getting to breath in the creative energy that oozes from this kid.
All the way home from the craft store he is bubbling with ideas of how he will decorate the house with his new purchases. We pull into the driveway and Charlie is out front playing with the neighbor boy. They rush over to greet us.
“NO!!! MOM, NO!!!!” Tommy screams at me as I grab the bag of crafts from the front seat. “Leave it here, mom!”
I see the look of desperation on his face in the rear view mirror. It’s a familiar one. He doesn’t want the neighbor boy to see his glass decorations and candles. At seven he has drawn a line around what he thinks boys are allowed to enjoy. Many of the things he loves don’t fit into that category.
I hate it. But, I follow his lead. We do what we can to make our home the place where he can feel safest to be fully himself. I have to believe if he can build his confidence here he will start to feel safer bringing his whole self to the rest of the world eventually.
At least I have to hope because his whole self is really something special.
Three years ago.
Tommy and I are walking Charlie to his class at the integrated preschool he attends. We see his OT walking down the hall first as we do every morning. Charlie runs over to her, holding out his hands proudly for her to see the blue, purple, and green sparkle polish covering his finger nails.
“THAT IS AWESOME, DUDE!” She tells him with a high five. Charlie beams at the praise. Tommy buries his similarly painted nails into his shirt and hides his face from her as she passes us. We leave Charlie in his class showing all his admiring classmates and staff his crazy colored finger nails and head to drop Tommy at his preschool.
The boys had always watched me painting my toenails with great excitement. I let them pick out some crazy paint colors of their own one day at Target. We had been making wacky creations on their toes ever since. But, it had finally occurred to them that, even though I didn’t paint my finger nails, they could paint theirs.
So, we did. Because they were four. And it was cute. And really who in their right mind would tell a little kid that there were rules for creative expression based on gender. Or so, I thought.
Tommy started balking as we walked into his school. He started asking me to take him home and take the polish off. I should have done it then. I wish I had respected my son’s wishes. But, this was new to me and I thought telling him to feel proud of himself was the right thing to do.
I pulled the teacher aside. I informed her he had really wanted to wear the polish but suddenly he was feeling nervous that kids would make fun of him. I told her how I had assured him that would not be the case. I told her about all the excitement Charlie had gotten for his nails.
She scrunched up her face at me and told me the kids might make fun of him and was I sure it was such a good idea for my son to go around wearing nail polish.
“He’s four. It’s just nail polish. Are you kidding me?!?!?” I was incredulous, but saw I was getting nowhere. I went to Tommy, took him home, and took the polish off his nails. I told him I was sorry I hadn’t listened to what he wanted.
So, now I follow his lead. He gets to decide his public and private behaviors. Just like the rest of us do.
But, our home will always value acceptance.
I wake from a nap on the couch to the sounds of bird calls. I look around in a sleepy confusion to see Charlie and The Professor hovered over the iPad. They are playing bird calls and imitating them.
“Oooooh, ooooooh, I have one,” I tell them in my still half asleep stupor. “Do that one bird from Botswana!”
“I wasn’t in Botswana with you.” The Professor reminds me patiently.
“Well, yeah, I know that. But, I told you about it. You know the one that sounds like it’s saying something but then I thought it sounded like it was saying something other than what it’s famous for sounding like it is saying? I think it was supposed to sound like it was saying a name or maybe it was a phrase or something.”
The sound of a Cormorant call plays as they try to ignore me babbling on.
“Oh, I remember now! It was the Lilac Breasted Roller!” I say triumphantly.
“No, it wasn’t,” The Professor says between bird calls. “The Lilac Breasted Roller is the national bird of Botswana. That’s why you are thinking of it, but it doesn’t have a distinctive call. It’s known for it’s coloring.”
“Seriously?!?!?! You happen to know the national bird of Botswana? But, you can’t remember that I told you about a bird that sounded like it was saying something, but I thought it was saying something different?”
Charlie and The Professor exchange a look that in non verbal vocabulary loosely translates to It must be really sad to not remember everything you have ever learned EVER in your entire life.
I sat sulking on the couch because yes, it is rather sad sometimes really. I imagine I must have learned some really interesting things over the years. Like the name of that damn bird.
“Okay, Charlie. I think maybe doing bird calls should just be something we do here at home. Okay? I don’t know if the other kids would really like it as much as we do. Okay, Charlie?”
I shoot the Professor a dirty look because I am still sulking and feeling a bit feisty at this point. A look I hope she can translate to say How dare you tell him not to do something around the other kids.
“Charlie, you do what you want.” I tell him. “But, mama is right that some of the kids might think it is a strange thing to do. But, you do what you want. Okay?”
“I know, Mommy. I will.”
I don’t know all the answers when it comes to teaching either of my children how to embrace and accept all the unique and amazing things about themselves that fall outside of what the world expects a seven year old boy to be like. I’d like to follow my gut, which says to tell them to be proud and open with all of themselves. I want to tell them of the shame that living a double life breeds.
But, the truth is there are still times when I take advantage of the fact that I know people will not assume I am gay when they look at me. I certainly correct people’s assumptions most of the time. But, there are times when passing just allows me to more safely maneuver a world that doesn’t always care how much I believe in embracing who I am. I also know this is not an option for many, many LGBT people.
Tommy has learned this trade off. I hate watching it. I’m never sure if I am supporting him in the right way. But, I know he sees the rules much of society functions by. I know when he shares his passions with people it is based on understanding when he might be stepping outside of societal expectations for his behavior. I feel there is power in him making that choice for himself.
One of the things I have loved so much about Charlie is how he is really authentically just who he is at all times. As someone who has struggled to feel comfortable in my own skin for one reason or another all my life, I can’t help but feel inspired when I watch him move so happily through life asserting his right to be himself without a second thought. This is a gift. There is so much for all of us to learn from him.
He is who he is. You are who you are. Why would anyone be any different than who they are? It’s really that simple for him. I want that.
But, I get The Professor’s hesitation. She is also a person who doesn’t always see the rules of expected behavior until she has crossed over them. It’s a very different game to play when you don’t know the rules. She wants to teach Charlie the rules.
We both do.
But, Charlie has something really special in his lack of guile. I have seen how infectious it is for people to be around. We should be moving towards being more like him not trying to take it away.
I wish writing this post had clarified the answers for me. Sometimes I get to the end of writing and I find what I was looking for, but not tonight. Tonight I am left where I started. We are making our home a place where acceptance and celebration of who you are is a must. We are letting our boys take the lead in who they want to be in the world.
After that, we’re just here feeling our way through the best we can.