I won’t forget when Peter Pan came to my house, took my hand
I said I was a boy; I’m glad he didn’t check.
I learned to fly, I learned to fight
I lived a whole life in one night
We saved each other’s lives out on the pirate’s deck.
Dar Williams, When I Was a Boy
Renee and I are making our way through JoAnne’s Fabrics, pushing our shopping cart amidst the Halloween displays and aisles filled with scrapbook supplies. Griffin is with us, too, giving me that toothy grin from his perch wrapped around my belly in a carrier. Today, we’re on a mission. When the kids start at the preschool, they are issued a blue school bag meant to last through swapping of art projects and important papers, mittens and hats and library notices. The kids are encouraged to make this bag their own by decorating it, also helping kids recognize their blue bag hanging with all the other blue bags in the line of cubbies. Two years ago, when Grant first began school, he picked out patches for me to iron on. Now it’s Renee’s turn.
“I want sparkles!” she has told me, numerous times now. Each time, I’ve smiled and told her we’ll see what we can find. Because, truth is, I’m just not much of a sparkles girl. In fact, I cringe a little at the thought of sparkles that will brush off of the bag, leaving trails of pixie dust in our wake. But this one sitting in my shopping cart, my little girl-smushed-between-two-boys, is a sparkles girl. If it’s shiny and bright, she’ll take it. At my mother’s house she has a special stash of cast-off costume jewelry. She likes the weight of the gold around her neck, the twinkle as it shifts in the sunlight. At her friends’s house, she knows right where to find the plastic high heels, and she won’t take them off until it is time to go home. Sometimes I think she wants to be a princess.
The thing is: I don’t want her to be a princess. Don’t these girls know about queens? Queens, who actually rule the kingdom, and have power – female power. I want her to know the strength of being a queen, not just the fluff of being a princess.
I may not be a sparkles gal, but I never want Renee to think that she can’t be one. I want her to have her own style, find her own skin and be comfortable in it. What I want to do is show her the strength that she has, and the beauty, just for being a women. To show her how softness can be strength. And that starts with me.
Later that evening, I stood over the kitchen table smoothing the iron over the chosen patches. Her name is bold in white letters, bordered with orange flowers and silver stars underneath. There are butterflies on the front of the bag, and flip flops on the side. And the American Flag in heart shape is there, too, for good measure. I smile, because I see her in these decorations, and though secretly I’m glad there is nothing sparkly on this bag, ultimately I know that it was her choice, not mine – I said not a word while she deliberated. Queens can wear sparkles, too, you know.
I’ve inherited much from my mother, and one quirk that runs thick is her knack for editing children’s books while reading aloud. Oh, I’m sure most parents do this on some level, but usually it’s because it’s a bit too long, maybe. But the kind of editing that my mother proliferated had more to do with content, often with a sociological bent. In this house, we like a book from the Little Golden collection “The Good Humor Man,” written in the 1950s. There is a part in the book where the Good Humor man is ringing his bell, calling everyone out for ice cream, and “mothers leave their kitchens, and the daddies leave their lawn mowers” as they run to greet the good humor man. And this is fine, mostly. But about every other time, I switch it up, and stick the daddies in the kitchens and the mommies out there getting some fresh air cutting the grass.
At first, the kids just thought this was funny. Grant, especially, is pretty keen on the memorized words of a book, and doesn’t like the narrative to stray from what he knows is on the page. So he would laugh and correct me. But I continue in my madness, and we’ve had conversations about this: about the daddies and the mommies and all the things that both can do. Because as silly as it is, this one little line of an old book, I want my kids to hear my words loud and clear: you each, boy and girl, can chose to do anything, be anything.
Our family hikes often, and one weekend this summer we were hiking along a trail peppered with signs meant to educate us about the history of the area around this particular trail. It was here that I learned about Rebecca Webb Pennock Lukens. I was surprised to learn that the first female CEO of an industrial company was from our own backyard. Rebecca took the reigns of Lukens Steel, an iron and steel mill in Coatesville, PA, when her husband died in 1825. Though the company was on the brink of bankruptcy when she inherited it, it prospered under Rebecca’s leadership. She ran the company for twenty years before retiring, and was named by the editors of Fortune Magazine into the National Business Hall of Fame in 1994. Rebecca was a queen. I tell you this because I was dumbfounded how this woman – marking such an important milestone – shaped history, mine and yours, a dozen or so miles from where I live, and I have never heard her tale. I wonder about her. What kind of leader was she? How did people regard her in business? What kinds of sacrifices did she have to make – to her work, to her family, to her self? 1825 was such a long time ago, and yet I can only wonder what she might think of where we are now, in the midst of mommy wars, and arguing over our ability to “have it all.” I wonder what Rebecca would tell Renee.
This goes both ways, too. As much as I want to show Renee that she can be a strong girl who doesn’t need to be rescued by any prince, I want Grant to know that he doesn’t have to be a prince. He doesn’t have to fall under any particular constraint of how to be a boy. This summer, as we traded in sneakers for flip flops, Renee asked to paint her toe nails like mine. I said yes, of course, and sat her on the lid of the toilet, cupping her chubby feet in my hands as I carefully stroked out purple to match my toes. It didn’t take long before Grant decided he wanted his toe nails painted, too. How much do I really believe what I’ve been telling these kids? If I am adamant that Renee have every opportunity to try on life, than shouldn’t I offer it equally to her brother?
And so I tell the man I’m with about the other life I lived
And I say, “Now you’re top gun, I have lost and you have won”
And he says, “Oh no, no, can’t you see
When I was a girl, my mom and I we always talked
And I picked flowers everywhere that I walked.
And I could always cry, now even when I’m alone I seldom do
And I have lost some kindness
But I was a girl too.
And you were just like me, and I was just like you.
Dar Williams, When I Was a Boy
Yes, Grant had his toe nails painted. We leveled it out that he could choose from black, or navy blue, or dark green, and that he couldn’t have his fingers painted. He’s four years old. I’m not concerned that he’s going to start wearing make up or wanting to be a girl. I would be concerned if he felt like he was missing out on something just because he is a boy. I want him to know he has choices, too. He is one of only a few boys in his gymnastics class, and his best friend at school is a girl. He sees the manly physicality of his dad wrapped up with the tender love that Mark gives so freely. Mark is a man who is not afraid to declare his love, and speaks these words often. But he shows it, too: in the way that he serves this family, every day working hard out in the world, and then coming home, to wrestle, play catch, to wash the dishes and help with the laundry. Because that’s how it is in this house — girl, boy, man, woman — we all pitch in. We all bring something to the table, and it’s not divided down the gender line.
Sometimes I feel this overwhelming pressure to understand my own sense of being a woman in order to parent through this well. To make peace with the choices I’ve made, and thankful that I have choices. To recognize what it is that I bring to the table, and celebrate it, too. I want them to see me work hard, and to watch me enjoy the benefit of doing just that. My kids are still young. They have years to decide how they want to be, male and female. They will try on different suits, maybe find one that fits better than the others. But I see it as my job to make sure that they are offered all of those suits.
I guess that means that I can’t take the princess dress out of the closet, but I will make sure that the queen is in there, too. I bet Renee will choose the queen, as long as there are some sparkles on it.