Sandy Roffey thought she knew what boys liked—until she had one.
My son is ten years old, but young for his age, with a firm belief in Santa, mermaids, fairies, and kind dragons. For the first two years of his life, we bought him trucks, dinosaurs, baseball gloves, and sweater vests, and gently discouraged his desire to use everything that belonged to his sister.
One day I found him curled up in a corner, tears streaming down his pixie face, sobs quietly wracking his tiny body. I sat down with him, unnerved by the lack of dramatic noise. “What’s wrong, buddy?” I asked him gently. He turned that tear-stained face up to mine and said, “I wish God had made me a girl so I could wear pretty things like my sister.” My heart crumbled, not because he wanted that, but because we had denied him the chance to be himself, all because we thought we knew what boys like.
I was raised with three older brothers, and for most of my life I lived like a tomboy. When I finally started wearing “girl” clothes my future husband actually thought my breasts had grown two cup sizes. No one had ever questioned my desire to dress that way. I could play pool, drive go-carts, watch football and baseball with “the guys”, climb trees, defend myself, and pay my own way. So when I had my son–who I named after my brother, who had passed two years before, and my father, the year before that–I was ready. I was ready to teach him about all of those things I knew, and to pass on the legacy of those two tough guys.
Imagine my surprise when the dinosaurs collected dust. The trucks went untouched. The Batman and Buzz Lightyear costumes lay dormant in the dress-up box. My boy liked to rock his sister’s Cinderella dress, dance in her ballet tutu, and have meaningful conversations with Barbie and the Bratz. Mindful of the conversation we had when he was two, I let him do all of that, and more. When we went to Disney I let him wear his fairy wings and a blonde wig all around the park. When I painted my nails, I painted his too. When he talked about his fashion I listened and encouraged and supported. My husband played with him and his Barbie dolls, too–even on Super Bowl Sunday. I had question after question from well-meaning friends and family. “Shouldn’t he be wearing boys’ clothes?” “Is that nail polish? He’ll get teased!” “You know he’s going to be gay, right?”
I knew who my boy was. He was going to grow up to take the world by storm, and he was going to do it stylishly. He was kind, and loving. He would be surrounded by girls because they liked the same things. He was the kind of kid who, when asked in the first grade if he wanted to tone down the outfits until other kids got to know him, offered “I don’t care if they tease me when it comes to my fashion!” He was my little happy boy, and I would love him no matter what.
The teasing did come, but we didn’t know it at first. Every day I would ask, “How was school?” and every day he would say, “Great!” He would even tell me that he played with lots of kids. Imagine my heartache when the school psychologist called, concerned that he always played alone on the playground. My boy, the one who spent every hour of preschool chatting up the kids around him, was a loner now. That he had no friends who were boys didn’t shock me–he didn’t really like the same things they did. But the fact that he wasn’t playing with a gaggle of girls around him broke my heart.
When I talked to him about it, I made sure to tell him that we, Mom and Dad, loved him for exactly who he was, and that we knew he was the coolest, bravest little boy ever. He cried, and when I asked him why he replied, “Because I really liked what you said.”
The school was great, and supportive, and he eventually made many friends. And even though there were other teasing incidences over the years, he maintained his sparkling personality throughout. He was who he was, and no one could ever shake that.
And then came fifth grade.
We shopped for school clothes, and he suddenly wanted an Angry Birds t-shirt. We looked for a movie and he passed over the Mermaid movies because he wanted to watch Iron Man. I asked about school, and he confided he had a crush on a girl–and not because he liked her unicorn sweatshirt. I had been ready for the day when he would come to me with something very important to tell me. He would be nervous, and I would show him nothing but support and love. When he told me he liked a girl, I played it cool, but found the phrase “Are you sure?” on the tip of my tongue. I managed to contain myself.
I recently bought him a fancy shirt that I had been sure he would love in the girls’ department, but I found myself wondering if he would still want it. He loved it, but gave me a few reasons why he wouldn’t wear it to school. I wondered, at first, if he was succumbing to peer pressure, and if he was simply worried about “fitting in.” That worry was mostly alleviated later when he wore his Angry Birds t-shirt to school–with his hot pink capris.
He still likes unicorns, and fairies, and sparkles. He also happens to like video games, action movies, and the Ninja Turtles. One way or another, he may still come to us some day with something very important to tell us. The most important thing is that we’ll be ready to listen.
—Photo by D. Sharon Pruitt/Flickr