Accepting my friend’s son when she can’t

Little boy wearing stripped shirt hugging doll wearing colorful sweater

By Ann Wainwright

Ryan holds up his new toy proudly. “It’s King Bee,” he says. “They have boy dolls now.” Behind the black and gold doll, Ryan’s eyes linger.

The first time I noticed just how blue they are was when he entered my kitchen wearing my daughter’s figure skating costume. His eyes are round, almost like an owl’s, except they turn down ever so slightly at the corners. Against the aqua-sequined bodice of the costume, they sang.

Ryan was five or six at the time. With his hand on his hip, he smiled. I didn’t know his mother well then. Though we’d been neighbors for a few years, our friendship was just beginning. So when she sat at my kitchen table and told him to take off the costume because it was for a girl, I stayed silent. No matter my opinion, which was gray and unformed, it wasn’t my place to speak up.

I look at the doll, his glittered shorts atop black knee socks, and smile at Ryan. I’ve known him for years now. He plays with my daughter twice a week and calls me by my first name.

I know his mother well now too. She ran to my house at midnight when I was sick and needed a nurse’s opinion. She takes in my mail while I’m away; she invites me for lunch and talks over coffee. She is a good friend and a good mother.

But I have watched her time and again scold Ryan for acting “like a girl.” She tells him to put down the dolls, be a boy. She tells him not to like the things he likes or do the things he likes to do.

The first time I said something, we were probably in my kitchen. Maybe she stood leaning on the island, a cup of dark roast coffee in her hand, as she told Ryan to forget the Barbie Dreamhouse, the one that made him squeal with delight when he saw it in our house a few days after Christmas.

“You need to let him be himself,” I said.

“But I can’t,” she said. “What will happen at school?”

Ryan’s doll has golden hair like Ryan does, but the doll’s glistens with glitter. With shiny headphones stretched from ear to ear, it looks like a DJ, pumping out tunes on a turntable while others move their bodies to the music.

Ryan loves to dance too. He loves Rihanna and tries to whip his body like her. In the first grade, the other boys laughed at Ryan when he danced, making fun of his shaking hips and rolling shoulders.

“Don’t dance that way if you don’t want to be made fun of,” his teacher said.

“You have to say something,” I told my friend. “She can’t say that those things to him.”

She said she’d email but needed help, so I wrote the email for her. But because it was May, and the school year was almost done, she never sent it.

The next year, though, when the trouble started, she scheduled a meeting with the teacher and the principal. She told them about the classmate who seems to study Ryan, to look for any button she can push and push it.

One night, Ryan couldn’t fall asleep. He kept seeing a spider in his mind, the one someone ate in a video this girl had shown him. Ryan sat on his bed crying and gagging until he threw up on himself and his sheets and blanket. The girl knew he hates spiders.

So these days when Ryan asks to bring his My Little Pony for show and tell, his mother says no. When he wants to wear a pink shirt to school, she insists on something else. And I cannot blame her. Her love, you see, is not conditional. She loves him with every piece of herself, but one of those pieces is fear.

The doll’s arms jut out to the sides. His mouth forms a perfect ​o​, and his straight eyebrows sit high on his forehead. Maybe in another light, stripped of the glitter, he’d look afraid.

I can’t understand my friend’s fear. I have two daughters. I try to leave space for them to show me who they want to be. When my older one wanted to be Eric for Halloween alongside her cousin’s Ariel, I let her. Despite the tutting tongue of a relative, I combed through an Elvis wig and tied a wide red sash around her waist. When she saw herself in the mirror, she was elated. But the next Halloween, she wanted fairy wings and pixie dust. I don’t know how I’d feel if that Eric costume were a regular occurrence. Maybe I’d do whatever I could, so that when I dropped her off at school each day, I wasn’t forced to wonder if today would be a bad day. Maybe, like my friend, I’d spend wide-eyed nights imagining a future of depression, social anxiety, and suicide.

King Bee has a sister doll. She is a queen, of course, in a black and gold striped dress and black high tops.

“So you like the boy dolls now, Ryan?” I ask.

“Well, yeah, but Mommy and Daddy said I can’t buy the girls anymore. They’re too girly.”

On a winter night, my friend rushed through my front door with excited eyes and flushed cheeks.

“Ryan wants to try baseball. And he doesn’t want to go to hip hop anymore!”

She said this in celebration. In fact, she, her husband, and older son celebrated when Ryan made this announcement. His big brother patted him on the back. His mother whooped and hollered. They were thrilled to see Ryan shed a girly part of himself for a masculine new skin.

I could only frown. I worried that Ryan didn’t want to play baseball at all, but wanted only to savor the tone of his mother’s happy voice, the easy slap of his brother’s hand on his back.

Perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps this is all a phase, and Ryan will grow out of it. But how can we ever see him if he’s been chided into acting a certain way? How can he ever see himself?

I did not mention this thought to my friend. Despite the repeated comments I’d made before, I feared that was too far.

And maybe none of this is my business anyway.

We all parent differently. Usually, my friends and I can laugh at our differences. The silky moms poke fun at the crunchy ones. We laugh when one of us is obsessed with car safety, but rolls her eyes at another’s pool neurosis. But there is a line when it comes to identity. We’ve drawn it with bitten tongues and zipped lips.

Maybe, though, Ryan matters more than social appropriateness, or even more than my friendship with this kind woman.

The doll is still in his hand when Ryan bends down to put on his shoes and walk the short distance to his house next door.

“Ryan,” I say. “If you ever want to play with the girl dolls, we have them. In this house, you can play with whatever you want.”

“Okay.”

He smiles as he turns to leave.

I don’t know who Ryan is. I have no right to figure out if Ryan is nonbinary, transgender, gay, or simply a boy who likes to style Barbie’s hair. This, I know, is not my place.

But research shows that one accepting adult can reduce the risk of a suicide attempt by an LGBTQ youth. If Ryan does fall into this category, shouldn’t I be that adult, even though his mother, my friend, may be against it? Shouldn’t I give him the acceptance he isn’t getting from her although I may understand why she won’t give it?

As a mother, there are times when I glance at my children—at my older daughter’s enthusiastic eyebrows as she explains something so important to her, or my four-year-old holding a block between two delicate fingers and placing it on her tower—and my love for them swells so big, it presses on the walls inside me and hurts. So I do not blame my friend. No matter how much I disagree with her methods, I know they come from love, a love so strong that sometimes just feeling it, feeling it with all of yourself for all of your child, can only be described as pain. 

Ann Wainwright is a writer living in New York with her husband and two children.

Photo by Jenny Cone at Classroom Clicks

This essay is part of a Motherwell original series on Friendship and Parenting.

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