Friday, January 18, 2013

My kids are growing and changing everyday. It seems they change their mind about something new each time I blink. Some nights Ethan wants to sleep with the lights on. Some nights he prefers a blanket of complete darkness. Some days, he loves mustard. Other days, he loathes it. He's a constantly moving target.

The same goes for Eli. Eli is evolving every day. First, it started with the color pink. He wanted pink cupcakes for his third birthday. Then he asked for a doll. Then a little wig from the dollar store. Then pink pajamas from the girls' section of Target.

I have been happy to buy him pink cupcakes. And little wigs. And dolls and girls' pajamas. We have many, many talks about his preference for "girls'" things and about how when he is out in his wigs and pink sneakers that we should ignore the curious glances of strangers. Now, he will confidently announce "I am a boy who likes girl things." He knows that there are plenty of people in his life who love him for exactly who he is.

So, I thought I was doing a bang up job as a liberal, supportive mama.

Until a couple of months ago...

I picked Eli up from school and he asked to go to bed and take a nap (alarming and odd). When I brought him upstairs, he insisted on changing into his purple kitty pajamas. He crawled under the covers and lay there for about thirty seconds and announced his nap was over but he would just stay in his pajamas.

Sensing something was amiss, I pressed him and prodded him and he finally helped me understand that he only wanted an excuse to put his "girl" pajamas on. My heart broke knowing he was having an inner struggle that I was completely oblivious to. I asked him how it felt to dress as a boy every day and he said "It's hard sometimes."

I asked him how he would feel if he had some girl clothes to wear when he got home from school and his face lit up.  "Really!? We can do that!? Can we go to Target right now!?".

I watched him dash around the girls' section of Target, grabbing things off the shelves, yanking frilly dresses off the hangers, ooh-ing and ahh-ing over the sparkles and sequins and pinks and purples. I realized how contained he had been and realized that though I felt like I had been giving him room to be him, that he had needed so much more. I was sad for denying him that freedom for so long.

Since that day, every afternoon he changes into skirts, dresses or purple or pink tights.  On the weekends, he wears those things too. My husband and I have asked him if he would like to wear his girls' clothes to school, but he has simply said "I think people would have a hard time with it". Maybe. I won't push him to make that transition, but I will support him by exploring the ever-evolving possibilities that exist for his future.

Just like raising any child, raising Eli with his wonderful uniqueness is a constantly changing landscape and requires constant communication and a constant eye on the horizon because new situations are always arising. Just recently, we arranged to have family photos taken. I asked him if he wanted to dress as a boy or a girl and showed him what everyone else in our family was wearing (I was in a simple button down shirt, sweater and jeans) and he chose to "be a boy" (as he put it). He was comfortable and happy during the session and that's all I ever want for him. To be comfortable and happy. He may not always know how to do that, but I won't stop helping him figure it out. Ever.

People may wonder why my husband and I allow Eli to be this way, that we may be opening him to ridicule and bullying. Those are valid concerns. I worry about those things every minute of every day. I don't want that for Eli (what mother does?). But what I REALLY don't want is for him to feel like he is a deep, dark family secret. Our family philosophy is that you don't have to hide who you are or be ashamed of yourself if you do things a little different. Our home should be and will be a safe haven for both of my children.

But it's more than being himself and dressing as a girl at home...he likes to wear those clothes when go out, too. And that's just fine with us. What sort of message would I send if I placed physical boundaries on when and where my children can be themselves? I know the answer. A message of rejection. A message that screams, "You are good enough for me when we are hidden behind the walls of our home, but you are not good enough for the rest of the world to see." And I will be damned if either of my children EVER hear that message from me.

Will Eli face bullies and hear ridicule? It's likely. I can't control that (as much as I wish I could). But what I can control (in this moment, anyway) is building his self-confidence so that he isn't deeply affected by the unkindness and confusion of others. He will know that his family support is steadfast and unwavering. The same goes for my big kiddo and working with Eli has helped me have better communication with Ethan. We've been able to talk about managing his feelings and being able to safely express his emotions. I'm not perfect. Not even close. But I'm striving to be the best mother I can be to each of my wonderfully unique boys.

I am not traveling down this road with blinders of arrogance and self-righteousness. Most days, I feel trepidatious, but I am pushed forward by the complete confidence that I am loving Eli (and Ethan) the very best way that I can. I have been working with several different professionals and reading every book I can get my hands on that addresses gender issues in children. I toss and turn at night worried about doing the right things (as do most mothers). I worry about Ethan, that he is getting the short end of the stick because I'm so focused on helping Eli. But then, I look at Ethan and Eli's smiles, hear their laughter and delighted shrieks in the house and feel their warmth when they hug me goodnight and I permit myself a small break from beating myself up. My little family of four...we are all doing the best we can do. And we are happy and healthy and have each other. And that's really all I need right now.