Ma Vie en Rose
In a flurry of yellow leaves, my four year-old son speeds happily by on his big wheel, the rear tires crunching against the asphalt. On the other side of the path, a middle-aged couple approaches. They smile, but there is an uncomfortable uncertainty in their faces. I meet their smiles with a polite one of my own, feeling their stares as we pass. My son is oblivious, but I am not. Their discomfort results from a conscious decision I have just made – another destination on a path which I have been travelling since my son was less than eighteen months-old.
Two hours before, I bought him a new bike helmet. Though there were helmets with spiders, and others with red flames, he didn’t want them. I looked at the one he did want, and took a deep breath. “It’s not okay, is it?” he asked, reading my discomfort. “Well, Mommy, you can pick one out for me,” he said, and wandered off to investigate the weight benches. Deep inside, something coalesced. “You want this one?” I called after him. His expression as he approached me was cautious. “Yes, but…” he hesitated. “It’s not just for girls?”
In almost all respects, my son is a culturally acceptable American boy. He loves fire trucks. He’d like to be a train engineer when he grows up, preferably on a Shinkansen, the Japanese high-speed trains whose aerodynamic nature thrills his soul. He has a fierce crush on one of the girls in his pre-k class, and will breathily explain how she makes him feel “special inside” when she sits next to him. However, I began to realize something was different about him when he was about fifteen months old, and I was filling boxes for children affected by Hurricane Katrina. As I chose small toys, he pointed to the basket of animals and absolutely screamed with desire. I plucked one animal after another for him, asking: “the kitty?” Scream. “The doggy?” Scream. “The giraffe?” Scream. Finally, I selected the last animal possible: a pink frog. The screaming stopped.
As soon as he could, my son made it perfectly clear for me and everyone else: in his ideal world, everything would be pink. His first teacher told us when he was two, that in ten years of working with small children, she had never seen a child so devoted to a single color. Every piece of artwork he created was pink. He slept with an entire phalanx of pink Beanie Babies provided by his grandmothers, lined up as sentinels along the open side of his crib. He owns a pink airplane, wears pink furry slippers, carries around a pink kitty wearing a pink hair band, and collects the pink plastic bags the local paper arrives in each Sunday. This last event even inspired his most famous pink moment: a spontaneous happy dance he labeled the “Pink Marshmallow Dance,” which I captured on video and posted on YouTube for the grandparents and my delighted high school students.
All this became a real battle for his father, who has always considered himself staunchly liberal and whose own mother is gay. When my little boy wanted a pink castle for his third birthday, his dad drew the line. “You can’t get him any more pink things,” he declared. “Someone is going to say something, and he’s going to end up hating all his toys.” The next day, wielding a loaded gift card, I stood at Toys-R-Us, trying to explain to my son why, despite the card with the money on it, he couldn’t get the one thing he wanted. “It’s for girls,” I said, for what wouldn’t be the first time. He sobbed. We bought nothing.
That night, in bed, I ranted. I was not really angry at my husband, but at something bigger. “Why can’t he have the damned pink castle?” I shouted at the ceiling. “Why should he have to cry because he likes a certain color? Who made that stupid rule?” My husband was silent. But the next day, as I drove my son home from day care, he announced: “Daddy said this morning that I can have any castle I want!”
Over the years, I developed a stock response to the inevitable question: “Doesn’t it bother you?” I would reply: “Other people’s homophobia is not my child’s problem.” Still, I found myself trying to balance his desire for pink with what was culturally “normal.” He could have the pink polo shirt (preppy-chic) or the pink pj’s (only seen at home), but not the pink hiking boots. My now ex-husband chided me for “spoiling” my boy with pink, and though I thought I had come to terms with the many questions this obsession forced me to examine, I was cautious in buying more pink things. It was a strange place to be in; as a liberated, tolerant, progressive woman, I’d always mouthed those classic platitudes about not caring whether my child was straight or gay, effeminate or masculine, girly or tomboyish, as long as that child were happy. Well, that was all very well, in theory. But faced with the reality of a society that demanded I personally justify my toddler’s color preference and express, again and again, whether or not I was “concerned” about the mere possibility of his questioning socio-sexual norms, I caved. Despite self-righteously reminding my ex that my indulgence of his son’s love of pink would not make, or erase, a sexual preference we both believed was ingrained genetically, I cringed each time someone said: “He likes pink, huh? Don’t you worry about that?”
I believe whole-heartedly in tackling my own stupidity, and I knew this was stupid. Color-preference doesn’t determine sexuality, and even if it did, so what? Our culture is so strange about gender, and so paranoid about sex. I am trying to raise a child who is relaxed about his body and about love. How could I possibly help him grow to a healthy adulthood, if I were obsessing over his interest in pink as a small child? I decided that no matter what he eventually declared to be his sexual preference, I would probably deal with it, as would everybody else. In the end, the question I kept asking myself was this: who really has the problem here? It certainly wasn’t the funny, smart, kind little guy wearing the Pepto Bismal-pink polo shirt.
Perspective is a strange thing, and often I’ll realize something intellectually for a long time before it’s actually realized in what I do. Standing in front of a wall of gender-distinct bicycle helmets, I suddenly knew that I had met my cultural Waterloo. I bought the helmet, stuck it on my son’s head, and sent him down the path on his blue-and-green socially acceptable bike, blissfully wearing his socially unacceptable pink helmet. Maybe I’m just acting out, but this time I hope it’s out of love, not just a general need to stick it to The Man.
Because he likes pink so much, my son and I have had some great discussions, at an age where most children have never even considered what it means to break unspoken rules. I have pondered the nature of gender and sexuality, and have been forced to put my money, so to speak, where my mouth is in terms of accepting people for who they are. I’m not really in a place where the pink hiking boots work for me, but that’s okay: he really isn’t either. He’s not trying to look like a girl, which would be a different journey. He’s just trying to be a boy who likes pink. If it were any other color, I wouldn’t be writing this. I also wouldn’t have to constantly remind myself that what really defines masculinity is strength of character, not love of navy blue. I always knew this, but seeing the world through a little boy’s rose-colored glasses has forced me to make sure my son knows it, too.