16 October 2010

my kid is ... a kid.

(TW for gender issues)
Baby J

So, this post has been in the works in my brainmeat for some time. So. I'm a person. I'm a fairly young person. I'm fat. I'm queer. I'm a mama. I guess a student, a partner -- you get it. Lots of other categories are applicable. But to talk about the mother thing. It's complicated. There are so many choices and decisions you make as a parent that don't seem to be, you know, available to the public for criticism. But they are, really. Any time you parent in public. Especially when you're the female parent. Take, as an example, my decision not to put my male kid in sports-themed clothes because I don't want him to grow to think he needs to entertain other people with his body (likewise, I wouldn't choose to dress a female kid in the kinds of clothes that would encourage her to think of her body as some kind of spectacle).

Anyway, people confuse his sex all the time. I don't take great strides to make Baby J look like a girl, and on some days, I'm pretty sure no one would confuse it. But if he's wearing a green shirt and red shoes it seems like no one can be sure, so they look to other signs. Long hair? Yep, Baby J has long hair. Pretty face? Yep, Baby J, like buttloads of other toddler boys I've seen, has a pretty face. Gender neutral clothing, long hair, and prettiness mean, evidently, girl. On the surface, it doesn't bother me. Most of the time I don't even correct people. It's that people feel the need to know the sex of my kid at all that's actually irritating. Not because I think it needs to be a secret, but because people bootstrap a whole bunch of other assumptions onto male-or-femaleness. They can't tell, for example, upon knowing that Baby J is a boy, that he refers to football as baseball (might as well be to us). Or that he probably thinks a soccer ball is a quaffle. Or that he likes to help me put make up on, and that he /loves/ having one of his toes painted. They can't tell that even though Baby J likes trains and cars, he's usually more interested in talking to them and arranging them than he is in racing them or crashing them. His favorite toy? An old school (and I mean /old/) Fisher Price toy house with the little family and beds and chairs and stuff. He plays with that all the time.

 On a side note, we also don't refer to Baby J as a "boy" very often. We don't praise him for being a "big boy" or a "good boy," nor do we admonish him by calling him a "bad boy." (Categorically calling anybody "bad" is probably not very helpful in general. I think it clouds any real issue toward which a speaker might be trying to refer. Instead of associating undesirability with a certain behavior/action, the child/person is likely, over time, to internalize a feeling of just being a bad person. Thus, ya know, you remove any agency they have to modify their behavior in order to effect more positive results, and help them reach the conclusion that they're simply bad people who are imperviously programmed to make poor decisions.) We've decided because we don't want him to associate being good/grown up/bad/whatever with some kind of intrinsic boyness, to instead tell him that he's a "good kid" or a "big kid." If he's making a bad choice, we tell him, "Hey. Baby J. That [specific behavior] isn't good. And here's why." We call all other children, regardless of sex, "kids." (Well, we used to call almost all kids babies. But he's been calling twelve year-olds babies, so we've adopted kids instead since it causes less confusion.) Now, Baby J does have some idea about being a boy -- he knows what his penis is, and he knows that mama doesn't have one (although he occasionally tells me that my legs are penises). Sometimes, he calls dad a "man" and mama a "lady." (Where the hell did he pick up lady? I can't say for sure. I say it sometimes, but not often outside of written communication. He's super-verbal, and once he makes a connection, it sticks for awhile.)

Anyhow. Back to Baby J in public. So, one afternoon not long ago I was using my parents' backyard for to stage some clothes to shoot for my etsy store, and he kept jumping the yards to go see the neighbor. He loves her. He loves seeing her "tractor" (read: lawnmower) and checking the gas in her car. Her grown son was in her garage with her. She's quite fond of Baby J as well, and throughout my dialogue with her grown son, she persistently complimented Baby J, which I think was her way of attempting to diffuse the situation.

I was there, supervising my kid, and talking to the neighbor, when her son observes, "His hair sure is getting long." Why did he need to tell me this? What point did it serve, and why did he feel so powerfully about the length of my kid's hair that he was compelled to comment on it, when he hasn't--if memory serves me--ever spoken to me before?

"Yep. He doesn't like having his hair messed with. He doesn't want it cut," I answer.

Pause. Grownson notices that Baby J's clothes are dusty. This is, shockingly, from playing in dirt. Dirt, which has the confounding tendency toward becoming, dry conditions permitting, dusty. And this dust transfers quite easily from the ground to clothes, a fact of which many of you may have already been cognizant. "You all been [sic] to a fair or something?" Grownson asks. I'd like to note that I'm not a grammarian, and I am not of the opinion that poor grammar necessarily attests to a poor argument/opinion. It's simply how Grownson phrased his question. Nevermind that there are no fairs going on, to my knowledge, in the immediate area.

At this second question, which was, in my opinion, just a bit past unnecessary, I reply, without an explanation, "No." Some more friendly conversation with the neighbor ensues.

Baby J, wth Neighbor's permission, climbs up onto the lawnmower and sits in the seat. His bare feet come into view. Grownson's brow furrows. "Uh, did he bash his toes?"

I look at my little boy's two pretty red toes (he usually only asks for one painted, but we went wild one night) and answer, as cheerfully as possible, "Nope. They're painted. He asks me to paint them when I paint mine."

How did (how could) any of these things about my child effect Grownson's particular well being? I can't even begin to hazard a guess. Were these comments perhaps made with neutrality, even curiosity? I think I can safely say that Grownson's bodying was, in fact, pretty damn transparent. He rarely bothered to attempt eye contact with me. He rolled his eyes too often, in fact, I believe, for him to remotely guess where my face was, let alone my eyes. His observations weren't outright proclamations of my failures at raising a kid, especially a son, but the way in which he called out my kid's appearance was judgment enough. I will go ahead and say that I doubt he would have made the same comments to my (male, white) partner. My partner, or husband, is not culturally determined to be a primary caregiver in our relationship (regardless of how deeply untrue that assumption would be). Thus, the state of my kid--dusty butt, wild hair, red toes--is my problem more than it is my partner's, because our kid's physical well-being (beyond being "provided for" in the fiscal, public-sphere kind of sense) just isn't my partner's "job."

So, why did Grownson feel that he had the right to comment at all? Well, that one's a little easier, I think. In the U.S., and especially here in the South where fuck-offs just aren't very frequent (at least not while parties involved are sober), rarely does anyone call a white man out on such patriassery (at least in a typical neighborly setting), and tell him to shut the fuck up, sir, because it's none of your business why my kid is dirty, why he has long hair, or why he has has painted toes. It's not your place to police my parenting (or my kid's body), or to make sure I'm aware what you think of me. The color of my kid's toenails, the state of his clothing, and whatever length his hair happens to be has no bearing on how well he treats other people, how much love he has for living, or with what kind/level of morality he will approach his life.


p.s. This week Baby J wanted a green toe.

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