I’ve been seeing this post about a daughter’s questions about her mom’s makeup in my news feed recently, and it’s made me think. Christine Burke describes how her daughter’s simple question made her see herself through a 7 year-old’s eyes and examine why she spent so much time and effort contouring, highlighting, plucking, cleansing, and otherwise enhancing her looks.
This has come around WAY too soon for me. It’s May first AGAIN. Another year has passed, and it’s time for me to remember that day that I lay prostrate in a hospital bed, doped up on Morphine, and listened to a high-risk OB/GYN explain with remarkable calmness that 33 weeks or not, this baby was coming today.
Ben-Magoo, I simply refuse to believe that you are now SEVEN. YEARS. OLD. It simply isn’t possible. I forbid it. You must stay my baby forever. I know, I know…you SAY that you’ll always be my teeny baby, and you’ll ALWAYS want mommy cuddles, and you’ll ALWAYS be my same silly Ben-Magoo, but SEVEN? You’re practically a teenager. I mean, just look at your hair! Teenager hair, that is.
And listen to you talk – teenager talk, that…no, scratch that. You talk like a grown-up with a post-graduate degree. Ben-Magoo, you asked me some questions this morning, and I think I did a pretty good job of answering them, so I’m going to write down what I can remember here to make sure you can re-read it any time you want to.
We started out talking about your birthday presents – You got a few presents this morning that I picked up yesterday at the Royal Botanical Gardens – some pretty cool bug books, one from the grown-up section, because most of the kids books were just way too, as Molly put it, “kiddy” for you. You were a little disappointed that you didn’t get any ocean books, but I explained that right now you seem really focused on your Bug Clinic.
Just in case you’re reading this years from now and can’t remember, let me remind you about your Bug Clinic. Last year at daycamp, you and your friends noticed that there were a lot of caterpillars around and you wanted to do something for them, so you created a bug hospital at the base of a tree. You carefully brought any injured caterpillars you found there, and you collected a stockpile of carefully peeled maple seeds for caterpillar food.
I figured the end of the summer would mean the end of the Bug Clinic, but it turned out that friend from daycamp was in your class at your new school and you revived the Bug Clinic at school in the fall. You now have an army of “doctors” on your roster and you run a pretty tight ship, assigning them jobs, scheduling shifts, and of course protecting the clinic from the other team, the Bug Clinic Destroyers. You have quite a lot on your to-do list – literally – but you’re fully committed to it. In fact, when I said that you sure had a lot to do, you explained patiently, “I know, mommy. But that’s what you have to when you’re the boss.”
What’s even cooler, Magoo, and I don’t think you realize that you do this, is how huge your heart is. You don’t just accept everyone who comes along – you find ways to bring people together.
When some of your friends were more interested in playing Minecraft than Bug Clinic, you invited them to make a Minecraft tower on the top floor. When we had that incident a couple of weeks ago where another student made a poor choice and deliberately threw away the special piece of coral you brought to school, and later offered to work at your Bug Clinic to make up for it, you not only accepted her offer, you named her the “First Prize Winner” at your latest Bug Clinic Award Ceremony.
I mean, there’s forgiveness, and then there’s what you did. You have so much goodness in you that you respond to a deliberate injury by simply loving MORE. I think there’s a lesson in there for all of us.
You’ve been telling me that the Bug Clinic is a secret, but this morning you changed your mind and said it was okay for me to talk about it, and I’m really glad because I want to share it with the world. If more six…no, SEVEN year-olds were as dedicated as you are to caring for the very tiniest of creatures on this earth, how amazing would your generation become?
Getting back to the bit about the birthday presents – you loved your bug books, but you did mention in the car, “I wish I had a whole LIBRARY of ocean books!” And then you paused thoughtfully for a minute, and then you asked me, “Mommy? Why am I so different from other kids? Why am I into things like biology and stuff, and not just superheros and toys?”
Magoo, every once in a while you and me have these really profound talks, and this was one of them.
I said that there are a lot of reasons. There’s the ordinary reasons: We tried to expose you to lots of different playthings and experiences, not just superhero toys and sports. Honestly, you never had much interest in any of the sports we tried (“Except skiing! I really like skiing!” you point out), so we weren’t going to force it, as long as you’re active and healthy. And whatever toys you played with, you created your own worlds with them instead of being stuck “in the box” playing with them exactly the way they were intended. Just think about Brio Peak – Your track-building adventures rose (again, literally) to new heights, and led to your first published book!
Likewise, you don’t watch the typical TV shows for your age and gender, and I’m actually pretty happy about that. We’ve talked about this before, but with your innate kindness, and your tendency to be a bit anxious, you don’t like shows or movies with shooting and meanness, even if they do have happy endings. You just don’t enjoy watching them, and that’s okay. You get a little frustrated with your friends sometimes when they tell you the shows you like to watch are babyish, but you never fail to remind them “That’s a STEREOTYPE.” I do get a little sad because I know you censor yourself and don’t talk about those shows at school so you don’t get teased, but that of course is not a problem with you but with the world, and it’s not your job to fix it!
And I think daddy and I are doing an okay job at this parenting gig, because we try pretty hard to encourage you and Molly when you find something that you are interested in, like when you started to be interested in ocean creatures…
You interrupted me here to say, “It was when we were watching the life cycle DVD about the dolphin and the shark and you got the Eugenie Clark book and read it to me! THAT’S when I started loving ocean creatures!” and I’m pretty sure you just wrote the first sentence in your autobiography.
Well, that got me thinking and talking about the not-so-ordinary reasons. Eugenie Clark started being interested in natural science and ichthyology when she was very young, just like you, and I think you’ll find that the same is true of many scientists and leaders in their fields. People who have a passion for something often came to that passion very early in life, and many of them were lucky enough to be encouraged in that passion from early on. So you might be different from the other kids because God has a plan for you to do something really special – like to become a marine biologist or entomologist – or even something else.
One of the things that is really, really cool about you, Magoo, is that you don’t just get excited about things yourself – you have an incredible gift for getting other people excited too. Just look at your Bug Clinic – even though most of your friends are more interested in the usual stuff, you have somehow managed to get them totally excited about the Bug Clinic. When you started drawing ocean creatures, all of your friends did the same thing and for weeks you came home with your backpack stuffed with drawings of sea life – “To Ben, From _____.” Maybe you’re going to wind up using that gift to make a difference by getting people excited about learning or about conservation.
That, of course, led to a conversation about conservation (say that 5 times fast!) and a decision to write a letter to your principal outlining ideas for improving your school’s Enviro Club (“All we ever do is collect the recycling bags from the classrooms and dump them in the bins!”). Oh, and you remembered that you’d better get started with your letter-writing campaign to Marineland. And I promised to tell you about Craig Kielberger later. I guess Free The Children will be next on our reading list.
As we walked from the parking lot into your school, Magoo, you pointed at yourself, grinned at me, and said, “This kid is more like a grown-up than a kid,” and then ran inside to show off your birthday cupcakes.
I’ll have to meet you halfway on that, my baby Ben Magoo.
(did you see what I did there with “part”? heheheh…)
Well, it’s been just over a year. Ben started with a buzz cut, then decided (on hearing that boys could have ponytails) to grow his hair out indefinitely. He has tried out ponytails in various places on his head, french braids, hair bands and bows. Any time over the last year that we have asked him if he wants to cut his hair or when he wants to cut his hair, his answer has been, “Nope, not yet. I’m not done having ponytails yet.” At first I wasn’t a fan but over the year it grew on me (heheheh)..and seriously, can anyone rock a shag and a fedora like Ben?
But this weekend it all came to a head <—- I’m on a serious roll here! Ben complained that he couldn’t sleep because something was tickling his neck. Ian said, “That’s your long hair tickling your neck, bud.” Ben replied, “Oh. Well, I guess it’s time for a haircut then. I will have my haircut on Monday.” When we pointed out that Monday was a holiday he conceded, “Okay, Tuesday then.”
When Ben makes a decision, he sets his mind and that’s it. For a year it wasn’t time to cut it yet, and then all of a sudden it WAS, and rarely has been been as excited about something as he was about this haircut!
As long blonde strands fell to the floor, he watched in the mirror and started chanting, “No more ponytails for Ben! Ben is never going to have a ponytail again!”…
…while I stood by gritting my teeth and waiting for it to all be over. (It all happened too fast! I need more time to prepare!)
And then it was all over and Ben was ecstatic!!
He looks adorable and about 2 years older, and he absolutely loves it. He has informed me that on days when he wants to wear it spiked up, I’m not allowed to pat him on the head, and I’ve told him I’ll try my best.
The other day Ian and I had a conversation that went like this:
“So what colour should I dye my hair next?”
*grinning* “How about jet black?”
“Really? Goth black?”
“Sure. I haven’t seen that yet.”
“You know I’ll do it.”
“Well, do it, then.”
So allow me to present this flashback to 17 year-old Goth me:
Now I just have to figure out if they make PVC corsets in size “Why yes I have had 2 children.”
Let’s be honest – I don’t set a particularly conventional example for my kids when it comes to hair.
Which is how we’ve wound up with pictures like this:
So a little over a year ago when Ben said, “I wish I was a girl so I could have ponytails,” what else could I have said but, “Boy, have I got news for you!”
Around the same time as Ben and I were having this conversation, there was some media coverage of a family who were reported to be raising a genderless baby. The story ignited a “Storm” of controversy with a frankly shocking number of people suggesting that refusing to reveal the child’s biological sex to the world amounted to child abuse and that the children should be apprehended and the parents arrested(!). From the original article and the follow-up by the mother, we learn that the family consists of mom, dad, an older son who keeps his hair long and often wears dresses, a middle son about whom we don’t know very much, and gender-free baby Storm. A year ago I remember thinking, “Oh, look at those non-conformist, ultra-liberal parents encouraging their son to ignore the teasing of his peers and continue to push the gender envelope – what are they going to say when he finally has had too much and wants to cut his hair?”
Well, here I am now on the other side of that fence, and it’s not as easy as I thought! I’m finding myself amazed at what trumps what in this gender game, and Long Hair = Girl seems to top them all – which means that, dressed entirely in sports-type, blue attire (including hat and glasses), wearing dirty Thomas sneakers, and standing beside his pink-dress-bedecked sister with her hair in braids, Ben is now being taken for a girl more often than for a boy.
Fortunately, Ben navigates this world like an anthropologist studying a previously unknown civilization. When the lady at the farmer’s market says, “What a smart little girl you are!” Ben replies neutrally, “I’m not a girl; I’m a boy. Why did she say I was a girl, mommy?” (Field note: The natives frequently attribute the female gender to me. Further study will be required to determine why this is. Consultation with Dr. Mommy could be enlightening.) There was a great moment last year when a repairman (in the true, 1950s sense of the word) came to fix the dishwasher – Ben was playing with a pink toy mixer and the guy said, “What are you doing playing with that? That’s women’s tools! That’s for them to use to cook us dinner with!” Ben shot him a very confused look and said, “But I’m pretending it’s a vacuum.” (Field note: This guy’s a doofus.)
On the other hand, I am really struggling with it, and I can’t really figure out WHY. People aren’t making fun of him; they’re just assuming that he is something that he is not, and I can’t figure out why that bothers me. (Field note: Maybe I need to take a page out of Ben’s book and just chill about it.) I have far more respect for baby Storm’s parents now, having had the smallest taste of what they go through every day with the non-gender-conforming oldest child. On a practical level, the hair is also a real pain in the neck (in this case, literally) because he screams bloody murder when I brush it, so there’s a part of me that really hopes he does get tired of being mistaken for a girl and decides to cut it soon.
Ben, whose opinion is really the one that counts here though, is enjoying his ponytail and will cut his hair when he gets tired of it. And informs me that if people laugh at it, he will just ignore them. And tomorrow would like to wear a hairband like Queenie McBear in The Berenstain Bears book The In-Crowd.
Addendum – July 21, 2012
…and then there are those days when you just can’t blame folks: