Find out why Geoff Cochran is okay his sons blurring traditional gender lines by wearing finger nail polish and tights.
Growing up, I was left alone to play and explore in my grandparents house pretty regularly. I went into any room my childish imagination led me. While I mostly camped out in the room with the video games, from time to time I came up with an elaborate game of “pour as many cleaning supplies down the toilet as I can.” There were a handful of times I remember my curiosity leading me into my grandparents bedroom where I invaded my grandma’s makeup and perfume, dousing myself in the perfunctory “old lady” smells that permeate department stores, caking myself in enough makeup to inspire Heath Ledger’s Joker, and maybe even trying on a pair of her heels a time or two. One time, she caught me half way through my self-inflicted makeover, frozen in the doorway by the sight of some pint-sized clown gone horribly wrong. I reimagine myself stopping, slowly turning to her with my head half cocked, and saying, “Why so serious grandma?”
She whisked me away to the bathroom to scrub my face and chisel off the pounds of makeup that I so haphazardly applied. In retrospect I am left with three distinct impressions of that instance. The first is that I looked pretty damn good in all that gear if I do say so myself. Next, I had an inordinate amount of fun dressing up like that. Lastly, I don’t remember her one time saying one negative word about that experience. Not one. Ever.
From an outsider looking in, one may question why someone would allow a small boy the freedom to dress up like a girl, but in my mind, it was more about dressing up like a grownup, imitating the adults around me that I looked up to and loved. It was an act of respect as much as play. I don’t know if my grandma was mindful of this when she swept me away to the bathroom to clean me up, but the fact that she never made me feel bad about that experience, what was left unsaid, shaped me just as much as any other life-experience I’ve had. And did I mention how good I looked?
Fast forward twenty-five years later and you’ll find me married and the father of four. With the youngest of three of those kids boys, I find that early impression even more valuable than ever. My eldest some was only a few years old when we would pick him up from his daycare. Of all the toys at his school, the one he seemed most interested in was the kitchen set. So for Christmas that year my wife and I bought him his own kitchen set for our home. It was by far his favorite present that year. He played with it constantly. For a short time it was his favorite, but in the end he lost interest as kids tend to do when the bright, shiny new toy loses its luster. Ultimately, he looked more like Walter White cooking meth than Betty Crocker baking cupcakes. We have the pictures to prove it.
Five years later he seems to have no lingering interest in cooking. Outside of helping me make milkshakes or his mom bake cookies, the only time he is in the kitchen is when he is scouring our cabinets for something to snack on. But suppose he did maintain an interest or suppose in a few years he realizes he does enjoy cooking. Suppose by being open to buying him that one simple toy, a fifty dollar kitchen set, he becomes the next Bobby Flay. Or suppose the opposite. That by ignoring his interest, by buying into the false fear of the toys with which boys and girls are supposed to play, I rob my kids of living out their dream or that I rob the world of the greatest culinary wizard it has ever known. Now rest assured, my boy is much more interested in obsessively organizing his Pokemon cards than making me some delicious petit-fours to devour while I watch the baseball playoffs, but I refuse to dash his potential at anything even before he has a chance to realize it for himself.
For a couple of years now my middle son, taking a page out of my book perhaps, enjoyed getting manicures from my wife. We now have a full array of vibrant nail polish colors to choose from. Our youngest son, in an effort to be like his big brother now likes getting his nails painted too. About a month ago, my wife dressed to go out for an event we attended and our son was astounded by the tights she was wearing. He wanted a pair. In his active, childish imagination those tights were a force field that protected him from any bad guys that might come along and threaten any non-tight wearing innocent citizens. So of course he wanted a pair. After that explanation, every budding superhero in their right mind should have a pair. And of course our youngest son, in an effort to be like his big brother, wanted force field tights too.
So here I am, the minority in the house, the only one who doesn’t own and regularly wear tights. Now that I think about it, this sounds like a hilarious Monty Python lumberjack sketch. If by that measure allowing my son to wear tights turns him into the next Michael Palin, not only would I be the proudest, happiest father you have ever met, it would be my greatest life accomplishment.
If my experience as a father to this point revealed anything at all, it is that my children already are the people they are always going to be. I believe that it is never my job to make my children into the people I want them to be but to help them realize who it is that they already are. From their first days in life, it was obvious their personalities shown through even in their infancy. If by forcing my perception of the world on them, I inadvertently instill my own fears and prejudices on them. Like every parent, I love my kids but I am painfully aware that my parenthood, my fatherhood is much bigger than me. It goes beyond anything to which I could measure up.
One my boys loved his kitchen set from his earliest days. Maybe he loved the idea of creating, or maybe he just liked the colors of the toys. My other boys like having their nails painted and wearing tights. It helps him feel like a powerful superhero. I don’t know what kind of men they will be. I don’t know what or who they are going to love. I don’t know what kind of career they will want. I don’t pretend that I will ever be able to figure any if it out.
But I do know this: one day all of these boys are going to have something important they are need to tell someone. Maybe they are going to need to tell me one day that they don’t want to go to college but pursue their art instead. Maybe they are going to need to tell me one day that they are gay or they and his girlfriend are pregnant. Maybe they are going to need to tell me that they suffer from depression and they feel trapped and don’t know how to get help. If by being open to them and letting them explore their world, by allowing them the opportunity to have as many experiences as possible, if one day that allows them to feel comfortable enough to come to me with anyone of these things or anything else they need in life then I have done my job as a father. I have extended to them the same open-mindedness, compassionate understanding, and love that the people in my life showed me. Then I paid homage to my grandma who gave me that same gift when I looked amazing in her perfume, makeup, and heels.
Photo: Olaf Gradin/WikiMedia Commons
Altered by JJ Vincent
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