Seeing who my child really is, across the basketball court

By Shelly R. Fredman

On a wintry night, my husband and I sat high in the stands opposite my daughter’s basketball team. Instead of watching the game, I stared across the vast court at Anielle. She was on the bench, dressed like all the others in a black jersey and baggy shorts, her hair newly shorn. She looked like a boy.

My daughter’s transformation had been happening for years, but I had been asleep to it, resistant.

I grew up in the late fifties in the Midwest, in a house where Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals spun. On my sixteenth birthday, I sat in our den and wrote a letter, dreaming an imagined daughter who would be like me, only better.

Yet after I married, I gave birth—in quick succession—to two boys. When I confessed my longing for a girl to my too good-looking gynecologist, he said, “Let’s face it, you only know how to make boys.”

These days, my life consisted of watching the boys tumble and spar. The pink tea set I had purchased—determined to influence the gender gulf—sat in a closet. Untouched.

So I found a book, “How to Choose the Sex of Your Child,” and learned that the vaginal environment and the timing of sex determine gender. Sperm that produce a female swim slower than sperm that create a male, but the female-determining ones are more enduring. Which made perfect sense to me.  

I put myself on the recommended no salt diet and talked my bewildered husband into sex at exactly the time of month the book suggested. Heeding a recommendation from the Talmud, we turned our bed to face Jerusalem.

Anielle was born in March. The joy of her presence, astounding to her father, the gynecologist and me, came with a smidge of triumph. Now I could fulfill that promise I had made to my young self.

I dashed Laura Ashley begonias on the walls of Anielle’s room. I splurged on white rompers and eyelet dresses. But I neglected to take into account the fact that we had already established a home, a world ruled by boys. My sons launched pillows at Anielle’s head.  The constant sound of a basketball bouncing became the music of her childhood.

I told myself I was doing my part to dismantle rigid gender norms. But sometimes I couldn’t help imagining what might have been: Ani had the limbs of Margot Fonteyn. The old pair of toe shoes I had held onto—still stuffed with lamb’s wool—stayed on a closet shelf. She never asked about them.

Ani grew into her teens and became like her father, like her brothers before her—a basketball player.  In the bleachers at high school games, I told myself to let go of whatever residual dreams I’d placed on my daughter, to go with what life provided.

And when one of the mothers from the other team held her hand to her chest as Ani streaked by and whispered, “That one is scary,” a fierce pride rose in me. My daughter had not bought into the binaries. Her choices were more open than mine had ever been. It wasn’t quite happening in the ways I had imagined, but good for her.

Soon, Ani relinquished the clingy tops and high heels of other girls, hiding her newly curved body away—in baggy sweats and tank tops. She didn’t want to go on the shopping trips that had been a ritual of my childhood.

For a while I mostly ignored the sadness, the part of me that longed to delve backwards into territory I knew:  the hope-filled sopranos cooing about romance. I comforted myself with the wisdom of Kahlil Gibran: Your children are not your children, though they are with you, they belong not to you. I told myself: she gets to be whatever she wants to be. 

And then one day, Anielle chopped her waist length hair off. Again, a sense of loss crept in. My daughter’s emerging identity—the fluidity she wanted to embody—seemed to be taking her further and further away from me. We had travelled so far from the world I knew.

In graduate school in the ‘80’s, I read and loved In a Woman’s Voice, by Carol Gilligan. As a young parent, I had set out to disrupt the rigidity of society’s expectations for what it might mean to be a boy or a girl. I knew the inflexibility had damaged all of us. But I hadn’t reckoned with this—a vast basketball court that separated my daughter from me.

At nearly sixty, good therapy and a meditation practice tend to hold me in place. The world continues to leap and turn in ways that astound me.

Towards the end of his poem, Gibran envisions us all—parents and children—as archers and arrows bending in the arms of something greater than ourselves, some larger force. So I am trying to grow faith in my daughter, to believe that she will find her way in a world so much more complicated than Rodgers and Hammerstein ever imagined.

In many ways, Anielle is exactly what I dreamed of: fierce and enduring, strong and vulnerable, a gentle spirit who can sink a hook shot and also cares deeply about others. She is Gibran’s arrow, flying, and I’m standing twenty paces back—in the field—watching her go.  

Shelly R. Fredman is a Midwestern writer transplanted to New York City.  She teaches at Barnard College and her devotions include swimming and leading spiritual writing workshops. Being a mother has been her greatest adventure and challenge.  Read her work and connect with her on her website.

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