By Kimberley Moran
This year when my son, Felix, tells me some girls in his seventh-grade class want him to try out for the cheer squad, I immediately say, “That’s a bad idea.” My response surprises him, but it bewilders my supposedly progressive self even more.
“Why? Because I’m a boy?” he says.
“Yes!” I think, loathing myself a little bit more.
But instead I say, “No. I’ve just never liked cheering.” He shakes his head and texts a girl named Tiffany: What time are tryouts?
These moments shouldn’t take me by surprise anymore, but they still do. I have to check in with myself each time and wonder why it feels uncomfortable when my kids do something that defies gender norms.
When Felix was six, he spent one morning waffling between the blue and the pink nail polish that I had bought for his younger sister. He asked me what I thought. “Well, first of all, just so you know, people out in the world think women and girls are the ones who wear nail polish. But, if you want it on, maybe go with blue…so it’s more boyish.”
I cringed even as I told him this. I swore when I was pregnant that I wouldn’t call anything a boy thing or a girl thing. I knew that gender stereotyping can stop a person from engaging in the full range of activities that make life worthwhile. It turns out, though, that being an advocate for a cause in general is quite a separate thing from letting your own child be different. I worried for Felix and what his first-grade friends would think about his nail polish. I sent blue vibes to him through the airwaves.
“I want both,” he said. “I want one hand to be pink and the other blue.” I took his little hand in mine and carefully painted each smooth fingernail. When the polish was dry, he went outside to ride his bike around the slalom course he made in the driveway.
Now eleven, Felix tries out for cheerleading and gets invited onto the B Team. “I guess I needed to know how to tumble to be on the A team,” he says without any dismay whatsoever. “Maybe I could take a tumbling class for next year.” Next year??
Felix is my explorer without boundaries. There’s nothing he views as not okay for him to try. I never see him question if something is “right” for him to do, either as a boy or an 11-year-old.
Once my husband came home from work to find Felix wearing my high heels with his regular outfit of sweats and t-shirt. “Boys don’t wear shoes like those,” my husband told him.
“But they’re fun!” Felix said, as he teetered back into the playroom to finish his game of Minecraft.
I knew what my husband was getting at, and I didn’t want it to bother me. But it did, despite knowing that sexual orientation is not determined by what an eight-year-old chooses to wear.
“If you don’t want to wear heels,” I told my husband, “don’t.” I was trying to support Felix. But I also felt kind of fake, because while I have always said I’d be okay with however my children turn out, I’m left wondering if I really am.
The night after Felix gets on the cheering squad, my husband and I speak in hushed tones about whether or not this is going to be an issue for our son in a small Maine town where football is king. Will people say things? Will he run into trouble with any of his peers? We feel panicky, but we also agree that our kid is in a good place. Here is someone who knows who he is and what he’s going to do about it.
I consider myself. I am louder than some women and my husband is more sensitive than some men, but I think for the most part we are gender stereotypical. So we worried about our son, who was unabashedly heading into uncharted territories. No boy had ever been on the middle school cheer team before.
I always thought I wanted children who were revolutionary. But when I got one, it made me nervous to observe it unfold.
I watched my son raise his hand in front of all the parents and teachers at the first cheer squad meeting. He asked the coach what he should wear, since they only issued skirts and turtleneck bodysuits.
I watched him as he eagerly marched into the sports store to purchase royal blue shorts and bright white cheering sneakers. “I’m on the cheer team this year,” he said showing no awareness of the barrier he’s breaking.
I’d love to say that I got it together and became the super mom who lets her children be exactly who they need to be, but I didn’t. I found myself sitting in the stands explaining why it was okay that he was cheering. I couldn’t stop. I heard myself tell people who hadn’t asked, “He just wants to try this out. He’s not really a cheerleader.”
But then I watch the basketball players high five my son and tell him how awesome he did. He tells them they were great too. It’s kind of anticlimactic really.
After that game, one day as Felix is getting out of the car, he says, “I like cheering.”
“Is anyone ever mean to you about it?” I ask.
“Once,” he says. “Once some kid asked me if I was gay.” I suck in my breath. “But I told him, um, actually being gay would be if I wanted a boyfriend, I just want to cheer.” Then he gently punches my shoulder, closes the car door, and walks into the school carrying his royal blue backpack.
Kimberley Moran is a Senior Editor for WeAreTeachers. She spends her days wondering what her two children will teach her next. Her book Hacking Parenthood: 10 Mantras You Can Use Daily to Reduce the Stress of Parenting is coming out in 2017. You can find her at @parentmantras.