Last week was spring break, so I got to spend a lot of time gardening with my four-year-old son, Waylon. He was really excited to capture his first roly poly bug of the season. The poor creature had curled up into a little protective ball, and Waylon was about to shove it in his pocket, but then thought better of it (ahem) with a little parental prodding. He decided instead to free it in a pot where we had just planted a little green succulent called “Mother of Millions.”
“Mom, I put that roly poly in the plant, and he or she—or if it’s a girlboy or a boygirl—is going to dig in the dirt and make it soft.”
Waylon, you had me at “he or she.”
As a feminist parent, I have experienced few greater joys than hearing non-sexist language carefully applied to a pill bug. But although I would love to take credit for Waylon’s refusal to assume the gender of the pill bug, it’s really his own creative adaptation to his context, just as “girlboy” and “boygirl” are categories he created to describe the people around him.
Now, when I was in college, my Child Development professor taught that children begin to consolidate their concepts of gender identity around three years of age, and that the process is often marked by heightened rigidity about gender norms. So I thoroughly expected Waylon to become a little gender cop when he hit three. He did go through a phase when he wanted to categorize everyone. One of his favorite games was a toddler form of people watching, where he would look at people in the park or in the grocery store and yell out “boy!” or “girl!” And while I wanted to support Waylon in whatever developmental thing he was working through, this game could be extremely socially mortifying. I would estimate that he was “right” (in that his attributions matched the gender identities of passersby) about 75% of the time.
Luckily it didn’t take Waylon too long to come up against the inadequacy of his binary categories. Another of his favorite games around this time was to ask, over and over, “Mama, are you a girl?” For me it was easy to answer with a straightforward “yes,” but for Katy things were not so simple. Since he asked this question about ten times a day for at least a month, she had plenty of time to formulate a good answer. “I’m kind of a mix of girl and boy,” she’d say. “I’m a mommy, but I look more like a boy than Mama does.”
Contrary to what child development specialists might predict, Waylon did not skip a beat. Before long, he was asking “Mommy, are you a boygirl?” ten times a day, and Waylon’s four-coordinate gender axis (girl, boy, boygirl, girlboy) was born. It may not be exhaustive (what gender system could be), but it has more descriptive depth than a binary. The first time we really saw this system in action was when our friend Kelly came to visit from San Francisco when Waylon was three. Kelly is a trans-identified butchy queer with blonde, boyish looks. She has tattoos of ships on her arms and endless patience for playing Thomas the Train, so Waylon adores her. One morning Kelly and Katy were taking Waylon and his best friend, Flynn, to the playground. Katy was driving, Kelly was riding shotgun, and Waylon and Flynn were strapped in their car seats in the back. Flynn leaned over to his buddy and said, in an astonished three-year-old stage whisper, “Waylon, is that a boy or a girl?”
“Silly, that’s Kelly,” said Waylon. “She’s a boygirl.”
Around that same time, Time published an editorial in which James Dobson condemned Mary Cheney’s decision to have a baby with her partner. “Love alone is not enough to guarantee healthy growth and development,” Dobson opined. “The two most loving women in the world cannot provide a daddy for a little boy–any more than the two most loving men can be complete role models for a little girl.” This week, as I’ve been pondering Waylon and his pill bug, I’ve been also been contemplating what the four coordinate gender axis does to Dobson’s notion of a “complete” gender role model.
When I was growing up, I had a family, and a father, that at least resembled Dobson’s prescription, but I still grew up only knowing one version of masculinity—my dad’s verbally-fluent, academic, leg-crossing, middle class version of masculinity. I rarely saw my friends’ dads (the 1970s in suburban America were not that different from the 1950s in terms of paternal involvement, as far as I can tell), but when I did, I always thought they must be mad about something, because I was so unaccustomed to their predominantly silent, aggrieved, inexpressive ways. (I distinctly remember seeing my friend Amy’s dad, who had just come back from Vietnam, open the fridge and drink milk from the carton, and it was such a disturbing breach of known fatherly protocol that I almost had to run home.)
The fact is that there have always been multiple masculinities, multiple genders, and queer families probably have even better resources in terms of introducing their children to a range of genders and gender expressions. And, although Dobson might like people to believe it, we’re not raising our kids in a test tube—we have families and communities. For masculine role models, Waylon has his (now openly gay) grandpa, who takes him for rides in his Corvette and lets Waylon throw an endless supply of pebbles in his pool. He has “Uncle Brian,” his donor, an old working class rocker who found his calling as a social worker with mentally retarded people. Most importantly, he has Mommy, who created her own uniquely Texan brand of female masculinity from her cowboy big brothers and her football coach dad.
Our extended family “village” also includes the teachers at Waylon’s school, Habibi’s Hutch. I don’t know if it’s because childcare is so undervalued (and under-compensated) in our society, or if it’s the remnants of the 1980s daycare sexual abuse hysteria, but daycares with male directors and male teachers seem relatively rare. Habibis’ has both a male director and a gender balanced staff of committed teachers, many of whom have been teaching there for more than a decade. Waylon has loved all of his teachers, but the dudes have played a special role in his life.
When Waylon was first potty-trained, his lesbian mothers thought it would be great if he kept sitting down to pee for a long as possible, thus saving our bathroom floors from his errant stream for as long as possible. I’m pretty sure it was the male teachers at Habibis who intervened to save him from parentally-programmed dorkiness, and before long he could hit the bowl like a pro. Several months later, Waylon was peeing at home and I was sitting on the edge of the tub, talking to him. He stopped mid-stream, adjusted his pants a little further down, and resumed his pee. Then he turned to me and said, with casual confidence, “It’s called choking your balls.”
“When your underwear goes up too high while you’re peeing. It’s called ‘choking your balls.’”
I would never have known.
As I write this post, I’m mourning the fact that this will be Waylon’s last spring at Habibi’s. He’ll start kindergarten in the fall, and then his preschool teacher, Mike Esparza, won’t be as much a part of our daily lives. Mike has taught at Habibi’s for fifteen years. He usually sports long hair, a moustache and goatee, tube socks, and black plastic glasses. He looks a bit like a Mexican Jad Fair, but more handsome and coordinated. He rides a BMX bike to work, and he regales the kids with tales of death-defying bike adventures, as well as yarns from his childhood with a rotating cast of characters like his friend “Fat Jason” and his “dumb uncle.” Mike tends to speak in aphorisms that get repeated like the sacred word around our house. I can always tell when I am about to get a dose of Mike wisdom, because of the reverential tones in Waylon’s voice before he enlightens me.
“Mom, if you’re looking for something, and you stop looking for it, then you’ll probably find it.”
“Mom, people who say ‘stupid’ a lot probably are stupid.”
“Mom, the headliner is usually the best one.”
Some of the male teachers at Habibi’s are really warm, fuzzy, nurturing guys. If Waylon is having trouble with the morning transition, then hands-down it is Andrew he wants to go to. Andrew hugs him and tells him, “I’m so glad you’re here,” in the sweetest, most sincere voice imaginable. Mike’s style of nurturing is different, but not indifferent. There’s a little more distance there, but it’s an interested distance, one that lets the kids have their own process and make their own discoveries. I appreciate it, because I want Waylon to grow up comfortable with lots of different styles of masculinity and lots of different versions of “role model.” I know Waylon appreciates it too. When I asked him to describe Mike, the usually loquacious Waylon would only say, “he’s cool.”