I’m so angry right now. Angry with parents, angry with myself. Just angry, angry. And hurt. And frustrated. And ashamed.
I took Saoirse to her preschool open house today. She was so excited about it she couldn’t sleep last night, woke up talking about decorating her bucket (which the kids use instead of backpacks to lug their stuff to and fro), and was so anxious to go see her new classroom (“What’s a classroom?” she asked) she burst out of her carseat when we got there, yelled “Yay! Preschool!” and ran for the door. We were one of the first people to arrive (when does that happen?), so she had a full view of the room before she immediately headed for a table filled with cars and trucks and started playing alongside another boy. I met her teachers, stood around uncomfortably, and helped Quinn practice her walking while we waited for the room to fill up.
A half an hour later, I was wishing it hadn’t. I met a lot of the other parents, mostly moms, and we filled the time with a lot of that stilted small talk you make with somebody when you know that the person on the other end of the conversation will be someone you most likely will end up seeing a lot, maybe even become friends with. It’s like speed dating, just with less cleavage on display. As I watched SK bounce back and forth between the car table and a Sit n’ Spin, I thought, wow, there are some nice moms in this class. I started to feel a bit more comfortable.
Then the moms saw Saoirse, in her little ponytail with the pink flower, pushing some cars around a table, and the questions started.
“So she likes cars and trucks? I guess [since you have girl toys] there’s not much at your house for her to play with, then?”
“Oh, then she’s a tomboy? Well, with two girls your husband must be so happy there’s at least a little bit of boy in her.”
“Can you believe how into dress-up these girls are at this age? All of the frills and princesses, can you believe it?…Oh, no? Um, huh…” (The mom them moved her little girl to the other side of the room. I’m not making this up. I am not strange looking, nor oddly hairy in places I shouldn’t be, nor combative or loud. I just said she’s not into dress-up).
I am furious. Not so much with the other moms, because for the most part they were very sweet, and their daughters like what they like, just like mine likes what she does. It’s the assumptions that infuriate me, and the generalizations. And me. I’m angry at me, because I didn’t stick up for SK more, or act more proud of her. I am proud of her. I love that she’s so fascinated with how cars work, and asked me to explain chassis and axles and wheels the other day. I get a kick out of how she insists on picking out her own clothes every day, and invariably chooses a dress or a skirt–the frillier the better–only to get them all wrinkled by lying down to zoom Lightning McQueen around the playroom floor. But I couldn’t say that out loud when talking with the other moms. That tomboy comment? SK heard that. And she didn’t hear me say anything to contradict that mom. Because it was small talk. And I was feeling small.
That word, tomboy. Does no one realize how sexist it is? Why does she have to be a tomboy? My daughter’s favorite color is pink. She pushes a stroller around our kitchen, checking to make sure the doll inside is firmly buckled in. She wants to decorate her preschool bucket with butterflies and glitter. But you know what? Her favorite movie is Toy Story 3. She’s obsessed with Lightning McQueen and Mater. She loves pointing out sports cars on the road and airplanes in the sky, and frequently tells me that she wishes I still had my “little red car.”
And I ask you, why does it have to be one or the other? Why are certain interests “boy” interests and others “girl?” Why can’t it just be cool for a kid to dig objects that move as much as ones that look pretty?
David and I will not push our children one way or the other. If my daughter wants to dress up as Buzz Lightyear for Halloween, she can do so, complete with jet pack and gloves (though she says she wants to be a ladybug). If she asks to wear feather boas to the mall (she doesn’t, but has a friend who does), so be it. We pigeonhole grownups, judge them on their appearances, make assumptions about them based on first impressions. Why can’t we just let children be themselves? Why can’t we just at least give them these blessed first years without pressures, and expectations and preconceived notions of what they must be?
I’m not doing it. David’s not doing it. So don’t put my child in a box. Is it really that strange to see her playing with a car? What are you afraid of, that she’s going to grow up to be a lesbian? (As long as I get to help pick out her outfit for her wedding and her mate is a good person, am I really going to care?). Give me a break. I distinctly remember reading Alice Miller’s The Drama of the Gifted Child in college, because that one phrase–narcissistic cathexis–carved itself into my brain. Our children are not extensions of ourselves. They should not have to do ballet because you always wanted to be a principal dancer, nor be a soccer star at the age of 4 because that’ll help him get into that top-tier school. They’re kids. That’s it. Please, please, at the very least, let mine be a kid. Don’t tell her what she has to like or be or do because she was born a girl. Because I want her to explore who she is for as long as she wants. This is the joy of childhood, and it’s the principle pleasure of watching my own child grow. Don’t rob us of this. I am so excited to see what my daughter does next, of her own choosing.
Oh, I’m so angry. I wish I’d known how to respond to these moms, conversationally, noncombatively. I felt so defensive, though, despite smiling and carrying on the conversation, and didn’t know how to handle it. “How do you pronounce her name again?” each mom would say, understandably fumbling through the syllables. “SEER-sha,” I’d repeat, trying not think about how difficult we may have made the first day of every school year, every interview, every job for our dear daughter. “Oh, that’s pretty. Is it Irish?” Yep, I’d respond, and switch subjects to something more benign, like the brand of toothpaste their kids use. But my mind was still with SK. Her name means freedom, I’d think. And dammit, there’s a reason she has that name.
I was relieved to leave that preschool today. Open house is exhausting. And when we got home, I watched Saoirse playing with some puzzle pieces, then noticed Quinn, standing at the coffee table in her flowered dress and red curls, pushing some Thomas the Tank Engine trains around, saying “vroom vroom vroom” in the best way a 15-month-old knows how. And I laughed.