The other day, I was putting on lip balm and asked Ethan if he wanted some. "Mommy," he said shyly, "I don't think boys wear lipstick." He looked at me nervously and longingly, wanting so very much to let me apply some lip balm on his lips like we usually do in the mornings when we're getting dressed and ready for the day. Sometimes I pretend to powder his face with my make-up brush and that, hands down, is his favorite part of our mornings. I tried to remain calm and asked him where he heard that, letting him know that was so very untrue. Boys, I told him, do anything that boys want to do. If Ethan does something, and Ethan is a boy -- well, then, boys obviously do it. In the end, he smiled as he smeared the lip balm onto his lips (and cheeks and chin) and we went about our day. He forgot about the incident, grateful for the clarification from the adult he trusts the most. On the other hand, I felt uneasy. And sad. I felt pretty sad for a long time, to be honest.
This isn't the first time that society -- other parents, mostly -- worked diligently at erasing the foundation that I've tirelessly tried laying for our children. In fact, here are some other things that Ethan ran by me shortly after he heard them at some point over the last few months:
- He's too heavy.
- He shouldn't eat too much if he doesn't want to get too heavy.
- He shouldn't paint his toenails because that's for girls.
- He should like dogs instead of cats because dogs are for boys.
- Boys don't cry and especially not big boys. They really don't cry.
So, world, please? Can you cut it out? Can you stop trying to desperately screw up my sweet child? Can you stop trying to limit him or label him or shove him into a tiny corner based on the limitations you see fit? Can you stop trying to give him body issues or an eating disorder before he even turns four years old?
Since these incidents, I've been able to stop them as they're happening. I jump into Mom Ninja mode and shut down the statements as they're coming out of the mouths of the other parents at the playground or relatives who think they're being funny by telling Ethan how big ("fat," the term they've used) his belly is. It's exhausting. It's exhausting now so I can only imagine how much worse it gets the older he gets, the less I'm able to be around him to step in and extinguish a situation before his heart catches on fire and his spirit breaks.
Stop screwing up my kid. Stop limiting him. Stop harming him with your words and silly, antiquated ideals. Stop telling him that you know what he does and doesn't like more than he does.
People will comment on Ethan's size and shape and make some silly comment about how he's going to play football one day. "I don't like sports," Ethan will say. "Yes you do, you're a boy," they'll say. "I don't like sports," Ethan will tell me in secrecy later. "I don't either, buddy. You don't have to like sports. Not everyone likes sports." He snuggles up onto my lap in relief.
Or he'll fall on the playground and another parent will say "you're fine" or "you're okay" and he'll stand up with tears in his eyes but holding them back. "I'm fine," he'll choke out. "Baby, you can cry. It's okay to cry. It's so, so, so strong to cry and show the world your emotions," I'll say as I pull him into my arms. The sobs will be freed, the tears will dampen my shoulder. "I love you, mommy," he'll say and skip off for another turn down the twisty slide. I'm fine, I'll tell myself but only half believing it.
I've survived so many years as a sensitive person, enough to understand that society sees sensitivity as weakness. There were years where my tears, where my heart, where my sentimentality felt like they were pulling me under but now, as an adult, I see it all as a gift. As an adult, I see it as a gift that I so very much want to give to my child if only the world would stop intercepting and pulling off the wrapping paper before he can get to it.
How beautiful the world would be, could be, if only it had one tenth of the compassion and sweetness that Ethan possesses in his heart.