Wednesday, July 18, 2012

My Son's Toes

Here's a weird one for you - my son wants me to paint his fingers and toes with my nail polish.  Whenever he sees a bottle out, he points to his toes and hands and asks "Gareth's toes? Mommy painting?"  And I do it.  I've painted several of his toes and a couple of his fingers.  He even went to daycare this week with one of his toes on his left foot painted.  He usually wants it right off, but I realized I'm really conflicted about it.

Would this happen if Cliff was here?  Sometimes I worry about raising a boy without a constant male figure around - am I feminizing him?  And then I feel ashamed of those questions because lots of very "masculine" men are raised by single moms or grandmas or lesbian couples and then I run down the rabbit warren of questions of gender identity and parenting and feel frustrated by the lack of answers and my own uncovered prejudices.  Ex: Does a man really need to be "masculine" to be a man?

I guess I'm just going through my own version of the nature vs nurture conflict, but this time its in my own head as Gareth has polished toes and then makes his dinosaurs knock each other over.  I'm not the first mom to deal with the issue of little boys and nail polish - see this article.  And there is a growing conversation about transgender children and their medical treatment (see here, and here, and here) and how parents should respond.  I have no reason to believe Gareth is transgender and likely he is just interested in having painted toes because I have painted toes.  But, as I've learned in the past 2 years, life does not generally go the way you plan it to and people are almost always different than you expect them to be.

Much of my anxiety about Gareth and nail polish comes from the fact that I'm making all of the parenting decisions by myself.  I talk to Cliff about what we do and sometimes I ask for his opinion, but since I'm the one in the trenches (so to speak), the buck stops with me.  And there's just a lot to consider.  I've read enough statistics about the children of incarcerated men to make me sick, I've seen the blather about how we "damage" kids through single parenthood (this article will make you see red) and any blogpost or facebook update that laments the "fatherless" children in the world pierces me right to the heart.  So at times, I feel overwhelmed with the statistical likelihood that I will fail Gareth in some profound way - like I really need that.

I try not to let the borrowed guilt rest on my shoulders.  I try to expunge poisonous internal monologues and I skip over discussions that I know will trigger my grief.  And I paint my sons toe nails, hoping that mostly what we're doing is having a moment of shared discovery rather than a long-term gender choice to be criticized later.  And then, of course, we go play with the trains for as long as possible before Gareth goes to sleep clutching his "Percy" and "Gordon" tightly.

Not every part of parenting is complicated.


Emily Hunter McGowin said...

A few weeks ago, William wanted desperately to dress up in his sister's fairy costume. Yes, a pink, sparkly, winged, flutter-around-the-room fairy costume. Even as an "enlightened" egalitarian couple, we really struggled with that one. Do we let him? Do we counsel against it? Do we tell him that "boys don't do that"?

We ended up letting him play in it without commentary. He's 3, after all. What's the harm, really? Last week, we happened across a set of Batman PJs that he LOVED immediately. So now we've replaced the fairy costume with that. He wants to wear it all the time now. I think the point was less about what he was wearing (and all of it's gender identifying implications) and more about the fun of dressing up. I think our "play it cool" approach was the right one in our case.

As you pointed out, though, what I have that you don't is a present male counterpart who can keep away much of the anxiety over these kinds of things. I don't worry about the same things you do or in the same way. It is easy for me to say, "Don't worry about it, Elizabeth. He'll be fine."

With those differences ever in mind, I still want to encourage you that these early years are mostly about adventure, experimentation, and fun. Gareth is being his normal, growing, adventuring pre-school self. There are many things you will stay up nights worrying over. I wouldn't do that with the nail polish. Enjoy these moments with him as flights of innocent fancy.

P.S. Rock stars wear nail polish, too. :)

Amber Inscore Essick said...

FYI: Olin has a pair of princess shoes (heels) that he occasionally finds and spends the day wearing. They were supposed to go to his cousin, but upon learning she already had some, they remained at our house.

I'm the one who is conflicted occasionally (read: who hides them when my mom comes to visit), and John is the one who thinks worrying about it is ridiculous. We're pretty sure that our 3 year old is heterosexual, but we also realize that if he's not, he probably won't look back to the princess shoes as the source of his sexuality.