At parents’ night at M.’s school last week, a mother of one of her classmates approaches me with a big smile. Apparently her son and M. are great pals. “They’re always playing together when I pick Ethan up from afterschool care.” (I’ve never had a chance to witness this; the combination of a brutally long commute and rush hour traffic means that M. gets picked up at the last possible minute, generally at 5:59.) The smiling mom continues: “Ethan NEVER plays with girls, but he loves M.! They’re pretty rough – wrestling and pushing. At first, I was worried, because she’s a… you know. And she’s so much smaller. But then I saw that M. was having a good time, too. She’s such a strong and feisty girl!”
“Yes, she is,” I say. (M. is not “out” as trans to any of her classmates or their parents; only the teacher “knows.”)
A little later, M.’s teacher presents us parents with a slide show: “Our Day in Kindergarten.” We smile with pride at a series of photos showing our precious children caught in the act of learning: Earnest and intent, they are clutching pencils, hunching over books, arranging Cheerios in neat little rows during something called “Munchy Math.” In one slide, a group of kids sits around a table, using masking tape to combine plastic cups, paper plates, and paper towel tubes into impressive 3-D structures. M. is among them. “That’s the builder table,” the teacher says. “And as you see, it’s all girls!” (Had I seen that?) “It’s so great,” she adds, “having the girls be so into the building activity. Usually it’s mostly boys.”
Later, she makes a point of mentioning that the new P.E. teacher is a woman. Apparently the previous one was a man. “Such a great role model for girls being active!” she says.
A few years ago, all this “grrl power” stuff would have been music to my feminist ears. “Yes!” I’d have said. “Girls can wrestle! Girls can build stuff! Girls can do sports!”
But now that M., my trans daughter, has entered my world, comments like these fall cold at my feet. “What exactly do you think a girl is?” I want to ask them. “And what is a boy? Don’t you know what an elaborate farce this whole gender game is, anyway? Don’t you see that by highlighting the specialness of girls doing ‘boy stuff’ – and by simply making such a to-do about that fact that they ARE girls (how about ‘kids?’ ‘people?’), you’re further reinforcing an arbitrary (and cruelly narrow) binary system that limits and harms all of our children?”
For more than two years now, my trans child has been blowing to smithereens all of my prior assumptions about gender. Most days, gender strikes me as an elaborate game we’re playing – and most of us have no idea we’re even playing it. Yes, there are things about our identities that seem to be innate and hard-wired (M. truly experiences herself as a ‘girl,’ and that matters), but socialization is powerful stuff, and we are all trained aggressively from birth on the rules and requirements of the gender binary. My daughter started sussing out these rules at age two, and by three she knew exactly what she needed in order to qualify for the girl club: Long hair, pretty dresses, and some Barbies. I often pine for a world where the rules aren’t so strict, where she could freely pick and choose from among the whole spectrum of expressions and activities without having to define those choices as “boy” or “girl.”
My shifting perspective on the meaning of gender often leaves me feeling adrift and alienated by conversations that express a surety about gender that I no longer feel in possession of.
I no longer believe that I understand gender, or that anyone really does, or that I ever will. But as long as my daughter is happy being who she is, I guess I’m OK with that. And the reality is that parenting M. is turning out to be a daily lesson in how little I know about anything.
The other night at bedtime, M. was quizzing me about her latest obsession: Extinct birds. The only one I could come up with was the dodo.
M. was annoyed. “C’mon, Mama, you HAVE to know another extinct bird!”
“Sorry, honey, I just don’t. But we could research some tomorrow…”
M. sighed. “If only you knew everything, Mama.”