By Lisen Stromberg
My son is a cross-dresser. Most mornings he gets up, puts on a hand-me-down dress, wraps an old pillowcase around his head with a ribbon (to create his “long blond hair”), and prances around singing, “The hills are alive with the sound of music.” My son is three and a half years old.
At the toy store, he does not want a Batman doll. “I want Batgirl,” he cries. When he begs to play with his friend Margo, it is because she has such an extensive collection of Barbie dolls and outfits in which he can dress them.
He loves preschool for the teachers, but also for the wonderful selection of tutus, party shoes, and costume jewelry. His grandmother received the shock of her life when she went to pick him up one day and he was wearing a blue tutu with beaded gold slippers. His teacher tells us that he is “highly in touch with his feminine side.”
Unfortunately, not everyone is so empathetic. “Boys should be playing baseball not Barbie,” my mother-in-law exclaims. “He keeps taking my daughter’s Cinderella slippers!” my neighbor tells my other neighbor, who tells me. Strangers ask, “So when do you think he will grow out of it?” or “How does your husband feel?”
I’ve tried to explain to these people that my son approaches life with a unique flair. While he loves soccer, he often plays it wearing a silk cape that flutters in the wind when he runs. My husband can’t wait for Little League to start because he sees a little slugger in our son, who can already hit the ball out of our backyard. Our son can’t wait for baseball either, but for a different reason: He says the cleats are “just like tap shoes.”
Interestingly, no one seems to be the least bit disturbed about our friend Gillian. At the age of five, she refuses to wear dresses, plays T-ball and soccer, and is proving quite skilled at climbing trees and collecting bruises. Gillian is a tomboy. “Isn’t she cute?” a friend exclaims to me when we are at Gillian’s house for a Sunday BBQ. But my son, I remind myself, is not cute when he dresses up and reenacts the glass slipper scene from Cinderella.
If Gillian is a tomboy because she likes to do boy-like things, what is my son – a janegirl? As far as I can tell there isn’t an equivalent in the English language. More importantly, there is no acceptable behavioral equivalent either. Watching my son, I have begun to ask myself: What is normal? My son loves trucks, cars, and trains. Last fall, during those terrible twos, he was accused of being a bully because he bit a girl at the playground. How can a child go from bully to sissy in a mere twelve months?
I am coming to realize that while our sex-role stereotypes have expanded for girls, they have contracted for boys. So much research is being done today to ensure that girls will excel in math, overcome the repression of adolescence, and get elected to the Board of Directors of major corporations. I am thrilled. Trust me. I have a one-year-old daughter. But what about my son? It is not just in my house that the days of “boys will be boys” seem to be over. Prescriptions for Ritalin are at an all-time high, and, increasingly, boys are expected to act in a less rambunctious and far more docile manner – that is, be more girl-like. My mind reels: So society is saying that a three-and-a-half-year-old boy should be more like a man, but a 12 year old should be more like a girl?
I have to admit, sometimes even I am embarrassed by my son’s behavior. His recent declaration to my father-in-law that he wants to be a ballet dancer when he grows up almost created a family feud. When the father of one of his preschool classmates unintentionally called him a girl – he was wearing that favorite blue tutu – I cringed just a little. And I am often confused about the messages I’m sending him. I don’t mind if he wants to wear pink lipstick to a birthday party – “Mom, you wear lipstick when you dress up!” he reminds me — but how do I protect him from the inevitable taunting that will occur as he ages?
I come back to my original question: What is normal? My husband and I are learning all too early that the boundaries of normalcy seem to be very narrow. On the other hand, my son, who at the moment is pretending to be Belle from Beauty and the Beast, complete with pearl-drop earrings, doesn’t know this yet. With luck and a little parental intervention, he won’t for a long time. Until then, Beauty, at least in our household, will reign.
Lisen Stromberg is the mother of a janegirl and a tomboy. She is currently writing a book entitled My Son the Janegirl: A Mother’s Journey to Unconditional Love. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Originally appeared in Mothering magazine Issue 93.