My growing boy and the flowered pants

April 8 | Guest post by Kelli Kirk

When my boy was an infant, smelling of sweet milk and sleeping tiny and warm on my shoulder, I first read Real Boys by William Pollack. Dr. Pollack's book confronts many closely held beliefs we have in America about what it means to be a boy, or a man. As a feminist, I hoped for some unique options that might help craft a different relationship with masculinity for me and my new son in the world.

While pregnant, I had combed rack after rack of baby boys' clothing in the same predictable themes: baseball, football and the ever-present dread military. Flush with confidence and relieved of gender angst after some reading, I quickly warmed to a new idea: this would be like no other relationship I have shared with a male of the species. We could be un-tethered by societal expectations. We could make up our own rules as I had felt so confident in doing with my girl.

As a baby and toddler, my boy often sported outfits of his big sister's selection. They were replete with rainbows or mismatched colorful stripes. More often than not his sister owned a matching set. Every year on our Christmas tree, tied with a small piece of rope, are the tiny pink kitty moccasins he wore the first months of his life. A lifelong lover of vintage clothing, I also found some funky options for him in thrift stores — the iron-strong, built-to-last department store brands my brother and I had worn as children in the 1970s, in bold plaid, dots and wavy patterns.

My son could be whatever type of boy his heart leads him to, and why not? Years earlier I had proudly dressed my girl in trucks, tractors, aliens, planets, insects and the Buzz Lightyear boy briefs for which she begged when first potty trained. As my boy grew older, he seemed to embrace the family penchant for costume – choosing interesting patterns and putting them together with flair.

A reserved and somewhat dreamy child, my son loves comic superheroes but doesn't show much interest in police, fire, or military. As he nears five, he is more concerned with the tactile nature of clothing. Items must meet simple utilitarian criteria: "soft and thin." Last year's wardrobe was mismatched pajamas worn daily for many months. Way back in those early-four-year-old days, we had a rotation of turtle pajamas, hero pajamas, striped pajamas and various animal pajamas which were worn day and night.

Last month while on clothing expedition, he selected from a shelf a pair of bold, pink flower-covered cotton pants and asked me to buy them for him. I heard a disembodied voice that could only be mine reply stiffly, "Let's take a look at these pants. Do these look like boy pants, or girl pants?" He became very thoughtful for a few seconds and said "But I like flowers." "OK," I said, "You can have the flower pants if you want, or maybe you can choose a different pair." He took a few moments to look at other pants nearby and finally selected some plain blue ones.

Parenting always provides a fresh opportunity to wish for a do-over. In my inner-world slow motion replay of this interaction I chirp, "Sure, buddy! Throw them in the cart" without reservation. It didn't happen that way in the moment. What the hell happened to Sally McGender-Carefree?

My son is approaching grade school age and his world is expanding rapidly. I see his peer relationships becoming deeper and more complicated. In the moment he asked for the pants, I had a sudden vision of the inevitable teasing of a boy in floral pants.

As the weeks have passed since that day, I also recognize a connection between my fearful behavior and letting go of my boy a little to make his own way. As together we leave my son's toddler hood behind, I say goodbye forever to being Mommy of a little one.

My daily companion recently has been a sharp-edged grief at this inevitable change in my life. My children are nearly five years apart and I have had a very small child in my life for ten years. My days for so long have been about cuddly reading, dress-up games, oddball birthday cakes, scary nightmares, vivid fears, overwhelming joys, and the steepest of human learning curves. I have cherished being grounded into the physical dirt, fur, and bright color of the world, riding the ups and downs of daily life with an under-fiver.

Today, my boy still occasionally takes delight in wearing pajamas all day or announcing that he is Wolverine. He still wears his "Cheetah" coat a few times per week: a Mod-Squad era, faux-fur, animal print coat he found at Goodwill that will forever define for me this very moment in time with my only son. As his 5th birthday approaches, I see him slowly becoming more like a school aged boy.

Because I also have a much older child, I know that each and every age comes with gifts. Wrapped in the trappings of my sadness is the sparkly silver lining of the six-year old boy and the eleven-year-old girl I will get to know in the next couple of years. I love those two already and I know they will bring wonder and new brands of craziness into my life that I cannot imagine.

Still, my reticence about the pink flower-covered pants sits quietly with me. It whispers in my ear that I have to keep letting go of my own fears so he can blossom into a widening world. He is moving forward each day with the open, gentle and creative spirit he came into the world with, developing his own style along the way.

In the dark of our hotel room during a recent trip to Disneyland, he whispered, "Mommy, are you awake? …Do you think Tigger is real?" Earlier in the day, we had discovered Tigger in the park and posed for a photograph with him. "Because Mommy? I think I saw a zipper on his back."

I began to explain how sometimes the power of our love and belief is what makes things real and sometimes those are the best things. He was silent for a few seconds, and I realized he had fallen asleep long before I finished crafting an elaborate answer, snuggled next to his sister in his soft, thin pajamas.

  1. I'm in tears! Being the mom of an awesome almost-four-year-old boy, this gets me.

  2. I so relate to this…. being the mom of a 5 year old boy, who likes wearing his little sister's necklaces and his favorite color is yellow (and blue, b/c you cant have one fave color!) and has had his toenails painted. It is hard to draw a gender line on what society thinks is ok and stifling who they are… glad to know Im not alone…

    Where did you get the wings?

    • Those are his "Hawk Man" wings. He's a big fan of the DC Comics, we have a DVD of the really cheese-tastic 1960s / 70s ones, with The Atom, and Hawk Man and Green Lantern. We got them at a costume store around Halloween last year – it was hard to find a pair that looked like real bird wings and not fairy wings.

  3. I dont have any biological children. But this makes me want one.

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  4. Beautiful, Thoughtful. Really well written.. I the lesbo-feminist mama to a three year old boy, and I struggle with the same issues… Thanks for writing this.

  5. Thank you for sharing. It's so hard balancing the idealized world we want for our children and the real one. It sounds like you're doing a commendable job.

  6. YES! I totally relate to this, and just loved it.

    We were so gender-free until school. My boys raced around in pink, kittens, flowers and strawberry themed things as much as anything else. It's easier to avoid dark colors and overly sporty or character "boy" clothes when you nab up all the fun colors, stripes and European toddler clothes iin the thrift stores!

    My two boys are 7 1/2 and 10now. They still snuggle in bed and tell me their secrets. They baked me a birthday cake on their own this year. And I also miss them being three. Sometimes.

    Thanks for the great story.

    • I'm so glad to hear the snuggling part. I don't want that part to go away!

  7. my parents never deliberately brought me and my brother and sister up as gender neutral, but it was perfectly normal for us ALL to play with cars, or dolls, and for years as a pre-teen and young teen i point blank refused to wear pink, and my sister refused to wear dresses, which was all perfectly acceptable :) my nearly 20 month old munchkin LOVES pretty dresses, and has more shoes than me, but how she dresses is generally by her choice. She's also obsessed by cars at the moment, and loves dragons and castles and knights (but not princesses!) I'm looking forward to her being a 4/5 year old more than anything having watched her big personality grow from day 0! (but i'm not wishing any time away, it goes too fast as it is!)

  8. *sniffle* Beautiful post. As a first-time, bisexual, amazonian mama whose about to have a boy, gender is a touchy subject for me. So, the sight of your son in blue wings gave me hope that there ARE ways to let them be who they wish to be without restriction.

  9. Love this story…Ive been wondering to myself if i should give in to my son as he wants me to put nail polish and make up on him (hes 2) but my partner keeps saying "no hes a boy" but my son goes "no, i girl"…

    i need to find a medium where they can both be happy

    • i think its ok to let ur son explore who he is….BUT if he is saying at this age that he is a girl, he might be transgendered. Dont laugh at me or anything. look it up. at this age a child knows what gender they "feel" like. its just a mix up btwn body and brain. i would explore that option, especially if he doesnt grow out of thinking of himself as a girl. its ok if he is, but he needs to live the way he feels is right. if u force him to be the boy he's not it could hurt him in the end.

      • It's also possible that he's thinking, "I like nail polish, and nail polish is for girls, therefore I must be a girl." I've seen little kids declare themselves cats when told cat food is for cats, not people.

        (Disclaimer: Not trying to be flippant about transgender issues, just offering another theory.)

        • I have thought about…what if hes transgendered… but yer i think he just wants to have what mummy and his auntys (who are only 15 and 16) have on but his dad says nail polish is for girls…and he LOVES his cars and his toy mower and animals of all kinds….

          i asked my partner if i should dress him in dresses or pink clothes (if my son wants to ofcorse) and give him nail polish but my partner isnt too impressed…. and my sister inlaw laughed and said "what if he turns gay" and my responce was …you dont "turn gay" and if he was i wouldnt care as long as hes happy….

          i might just have to wait and see

      • Most kids don't have a stable gender identity until age 3 or more. They don't realize the permanence of certain characteristics until then. Give him time.

      • Kids don't have a fixed sense of gender identity until age 3 or so. Sometimes even later. So he might be transgendered, but it's too early to put any eggs in that basket : )

      • It's always good to bear that kind of thing in mind, but then again a lot of kids at that sort of age don't really think in the same way we do about gender, so it's best not to jump to any conclusions!!

        I had very little concept of the fact that I was female until I was at least 8 or 9 (around the same time that I started having feelings for boys!). My career ambition as a young child was to be a "mad scientist" and my stereotypical idea of one was the Einstein look – male, with crazy white hair – and I genuinely didn't see any reason why I wouldn't grow up to look like that! I was also quite a tomboy (in a kind of geeky boy way – I liked computers, tree climbing, finding out how stuff works etc) and hated pink girly stuff, yet I've grown up to be a straight woman with no particular "gender issues". I'm not exactly the most stereotypical female in the world, and I do think perhaps that my brain is a little more "male" than the average female brain (no matter how much my feminist side might hate it, my scientist side can't help but concede there really are *some* broad gender differences in brain function, although these are only averages, and the sheer complexity of the brain and the influences on it tends to cancel some of these out) but I am very definitely female and have no doubt I was born in the right body!

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  10. Right on! I've got a 16 month old boy, and we mostly dress him in stripes and solids and the occasional animal print. It's surprizingly hard to avoid all that genderizing clothing, it drives me nuts that butterflies are for girls and frogs are for boys. So I ignore the gender-preconceptions and simply decide if I think a particular item of clothing is cute or not. If it is, he wears it – if not, he doesn't. We give and get hand-me-downs from both girls and boys, so that helps mix it up too.

  11. I really enjoyed reading this – beautiful story about having a son and letting him be himself. Thanks for sharing

  12. This reminds me of when my twin nieces were small, two or three. Whenever they wore pretty dresses, they had to take a third to daycare for their friend Ian, who wanted to be a twin too. I remember his mother surprising some people when referring to the small child in a flowery dress and pink nails as her son.

    They're teenagers now. Where did the time go? I wonder what Ian is like today. I believe they've lost touch.

    • thats cute…. its good that they let him join in

  13. I sometimes wonder if I am going to be a horrible Mom because I do this both ways! For example, when my niece picks out something super girly (think pink and sparkly) I ALWAYS hesitate first. I don't mean to… it just happens! I am sure I would be the same way if my nephew wanted pants with flowers all over them.

    I know parents are supposed to encourage their children in whatever paths they take (assuming that path doesn't harm them) but the fashion-that-is-not-my-taste path can be tough sometimes!

    • "the fashion-that-is-not-my-taste path can be tough sometimes! "
      Truer words were never spoken. !

  14. WOW! thank you so much for posting this! I'm about to have a girl, and I'm dealing with a lot of gendering issues. I guess it's easier though, in ways that I never thought of, because boy clothes are typically seen as being 'gender neutral'.. We're trying to stick to patterns like stripes or dots and animals, but keep being told by family members who are looking to shop for us that 'there are no gender neutral baby clothes'. Glad to see that it worked for another awesome feminist mother!

    • there are no gender neutral baby clothes at Target or Babies R Us. Tell them to look for baby consignment shops or Hannah Anderson, or online. It takes more effort, but is worth it.

      • I second the reccomendation for Hannah Anderson clothes, they are super soft and they hold up to a lot of wear & tear.

    • i like the idea of not finding out the gender of the baby, or not letting other people find out the gender of the baby until it is born. then they are forced to buy gender neutral stuff (well at least until he/she is born).

  15. It might sound silly, but it annoyed me greatly when people assumed that my girls were boys because of their clothes. My eldest (3) looks gorgeous in blues and green, so those are the colours of clothes I chose for her before she was old enough to indicate a preference. The amount of people that assumed that she was a boy, even though the clothes were feminine, astounded me! It was nice that they were complimenting her but it really, really ticked me off when one said "Oh, what a lovely little boy, he'll be a great mechanic or pilot!" and upon hearing me say "Thanks, I think she can do whatever she puts her mind to." freaked out a little, apologised and said "I'm sure she'll be just wonderful as a hairdresser or secretary!"
    At the moment, she loves pink and is going to be a tattooist and a farmer…

    • People referred to my girl-child in passive language and physical attributes. Like how she looks, what she wears. They referred to my male child in active ways – – what he does, what he thinks. It was subtle but I noticed it.

  16. Yeah it's frustrating trying to be gender neutral. My son is a lovely mix of "all boy" and girly. He became fascinated with big rig trucks when we took a road trip when he was 5 months old. He stared at the trucks at the rest stops, utterly fascinated. He loves his police helicopter and dinosaurs, but he also loves wearing mardi gras bead necklaces and putting on "makeup" with me in the morning. This morning he grabbed a brush and a hair dryer part and did his hair while I dried mine. :) He also loves his ladybug shirt. :)

  17. i want some of those hawkman wings for myself!

    My six year old daughter has quite a few pairs of batman/spiderman/lightning mcqueen underpants (when she's got anything on at all), because a) she happens to seriously love superheroes and fast things, and b) the elastic on 'boys' underwear is far more comfortable than the scratchy girly type. She came home from school a few weeks ago confused because someone told her she was wearing 'boy' pants and it broke my heart a little.

    We all jumped on the comment and reassured her that they were wrong – her underwear was just underwear – batman saves men and women, right? but it was hard to see society and its rules creeping into her world view and making her doubt her choices.

    At the moment, she wants to grow up to be a 'babycatcher' (midwife), tea and coffee maker, surf lifesaver and a matador – all at once – when she's not being a velocoraptor that is, and i hope she always will…

  18. This post really strikes home for me. Now that I have a boy, I'm fascinated by the gendering of color … yes we all know about pink for girls and blue for boys, but it's to the point where it almost feels like bright colors in general are gendered as feminine — boy's clothes are so frequently in shades of brown, grey, blue, evergreen, maroon, etc. Girl clothes are yellow and pink and red and bright green. It's super frustrating for a color junkie like me.

    For now, I dress Tavi in ridiculously bright colors, but I'm convinced that before long he'll be rolling his eyes at me and asking for some nice navy cargo pants and a brown shirt.

  19. This post really strikes home for me. Now that I have a boy, I'm fascinated by the gendering of color … yes we all know about pink for girls and blue for boys, but it's to the point where it almost feels like bright colors in general are gendered as feminine — boy's clothes are so frequently in shades of brown, grey, blue, evergreen, maroon, etc. Girl clothes are yellow and pink and red and bright green. It's super frustrating for a color junkie like me.

    For now, I dress Tavi in ridiculously bright colors, but I'm convinced that before long he'll be rolling his eyes at me and asking for some nice navy cargo pants and a brown shirt.

    • Yeah, the color in boy's clothing is kinda drab. Hannah Anderson clothing has brightly colored boy's clothes. I think the color selection gets a little better when they hit toddler sizes. My son has an adorable orange shirt with a ladybug drawing a large green bug and it says "doodlebug" across the bottom. :)

      • We love Hannas. Of course, they are super expensive but the stuff wears forever – I mean forever! There is an outlet near Seattle where I live, and last year I happened into "all stripey pants $5" and bought in sizes up to high school I think for them! When I was pregnant my friend in NY gave me a huge box of Hanna. My girl wore them, then we shipped them to my cousin, and her two girls both wore them, and then years later I had my boy and she gathered them all and sent them back. He wore them and most were still in good enough shape to consign or thrift. Also, the stuff is often at Goodwill.

  20. this is amazing…. i'm expecting a boy… and its hard to avoid all the "boy" things while shopping…. (and i'm kind of afraid of what my baby shower will bring!!) EVERYTHING is either very boy or very girl… i tried to mix it up…. getting lots of gender neutral with a touch of truck here sport there… honestly the norm gets old after a while.. i have a very open mind when it comes to gender and likes and dislikes… i had a '72 chevelle big badass orange and black muscle car when i was 18… and that is VERY guy thing around these parts lol… and i hate flower prints.. lol… and i like to get dirty haha… but i say let the kid kid choose what he or she likes…. forcing will only screw them up… we actually had this discussion yesterday at work… talking about what if our "son" (my real son and their make believe sons) were gay…. i flat out said i would embrace him either way…. everyone else had a reason for being upset or disappointed… i mean honestly.. if you can't be yourself around your family.. who CAN you be yourself around?? i thought it was a dumb question.. and i thought at this day and age people just excepted children to grow up to be whoever they were meant to be… but i guess not everyone had the same options as i did growing up… thanks mom and dad!!

  21. When I was pregnant, I made a 'vow' to NEVER dress my daughter in pink. It helped that all her clothes for the first few months were hand-me-downs from a friend who had boys. But then the fact that nobody could tell that she was a girl reminded me how much I loathed being mistaken as a boy when I was little. It also turns out that she looks stunning in shades of bright pink. So, pink it was. Raspberry overalls, fuchsia hoodies… but never pastel pink dresses. And never all pink. It turns out that boy/girl didn't matter all that much anyway… because until she was about four, she thought she was a dog. And so did the dogs. (I actually 'caught' her peeing on a car tire once. lol) Since then she's also been a cowgirl, an elf, a scientist, a dragon-tamer, an explorer, a pirate, and a few other things besides. Now she's a fourteen-year-old purple-haired amazon (5'7" and still growing) with a tendency towards goth/fantasy/punk who refuses to wear pink or anything she considers "girly".
    It's not what you wear that counts, it's the attitude you wear it with. She figured it out before I did.

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  22. After reading many gender-posts and comments on OBM for a while now, I feel I would like to chime in with my own experience of being raised 'genderless/ do what you want'. When I was young I sure thrived AT HOME where I could just be myself, short hair, no dolls , no dresses thank you. However, much as some of you might have horrible memories of being forced into a gender stereotype, I still 'suffer' daily from the after -effects of NOT being forced into one. Not being overly curvy or obviously feminine to begin with, but with a strong attraction to masculine men, I have faced endless rejection untill I 'learned to dress up & behave like a girl'. I still cringe when I comparer my childhood pictures to those of my peers, and love to know what it would be like to be a girly girly princess girl instead of a rather neutral brainiac who tried to opt out of gender altogether.____I am not saying this is going to happen to your child, but beware that each decision, whether to let them be free from gender-pressure or whether to try to at least 'sensitise' them to the need to conform to society, is going to have positive and negative effects.

    • Eliza, I totally appreciate your perspective here. This is something I think about a LOT, actually … how ultimately, as offbeat as you may be, you're raising a child that needs to function within the larger society. You can work to imbue your kids with a sense of questioning the status quo and hearty independence, but above all you need to equip them with the tools they need to find their place in the culture around them.

      Also, there's a big issue of CHOICE here. In my comment, I noted that while I love dressing Tavi is bright colors now, at some point he may want to blend in with the other little drab-dressed boys at school, in which case I'll buy him a little brown hoodie and olive cargo pants. Ultimately, it's his life and gender identity, and while I can work to give him a level playing field where flowered pants are as viable an option as olive cargos, it's his decision which he wants to wear.

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    • I struggle with these issues about how much to bring my kids up to "conform" to societies norms and how much to fight them. I also have found that being a parent has made me feel more pressure from society than I ever did before. I suppose I worry that they will be bullied or judged harshly. I was thought of as kind of weird as a child, and whilst I was quite lucky that I didn't suffer anything too horrible as a consequence, I definitely always had a sense that I didn't fit in, and was often the butt of jokes etc.

      I ended up dressing my kids in a more gendered way than I thought I would, partly because I was on a low income and was given lots of clothes by other people, so I just dressed them in those, and partly because I found myself surprisingly bothered by people mistaking their gender. I have no idea why I found it troubling to have someone think my son was a girl or my daughter was a boy, but I did. Perhaps it was childhood memories of being mistaken for a boy as a child (even though I chose to be a tomboy)? I fought the gendering more with my daughter (possibly because it's more socially acceptable for a girl to wear "boys clothes" than it is for a boy to wear "girls clothes", and partly because she had her brother's hand-me-downs) but I think it actually backfired on me as my daughter absolutely loves hideously pink girly clothes! She doesn't even like wearing trousers. Strangely, my son is the one with a more fluid sense of gender identity, despite the fact that he dressed in more "boyish" clothes as a young child. Perhaps there's something in the idea of reverse psychology after all – my friend did it on purpose with her daughter (told her she *had* to wear pink!) and now her daughter loves turquoise and doesn't particularly like pink.

  23. This is awesome. If the baby I'm carrying now is a boy, I hope I'm as self-aware as you have been about gender typification. I have worked very hard with my daughter – now three – to avoid forcing her into stereotypes. She'll dress up like a princess one minute and play with tractors in the mud the next. If I have a son, I hope I'll have the guts to make him feel free to do the same.

  24. This reminds me of my favorite family to babysit for. Three girls and a boy the youngest. One night I was painting the girls fingernails and Will asked if he could have his painted too. I said sure, then he told me that he wanted blue on his left hand and red on his right. That way he would have water and fire powers.

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  25. my boy at 8 weeks is wearing some ratheer girly crocheted slippers and hat along with his manly stripes.

    we've been given tons of hand-me-downs and new clothes of the Carter's/we're friends of grandma variety. i was surprised by the gender aggressiveness. blue! trucks! sports! dogs! bears! even loggers!*

    what pisses me off is that as he gets older,

    * i freakin' love the lumberjack shirt because i grew up in Oregon & the irony will not go unnoticed here… but i digress.

  26. "I began to explain how sometimes the power of our love and belief is what makes things real and sometimes those are the best things"

    I ADORE THIS QUOTE i am writing it down right now

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