I walked into the toy store with my chest puffed and a proud smile on my face. I was there to buy a mermaid for my son.
Yes, my 5-year-old son wanted a mermaid for Christmas.
I found a worker and crowed to her about what I needed the way that other moms brag about their kid being on an elite soccer league or starring in the school play.
“My son wants a mermaid for Christmas,” I boasted. “One that can go in the bathtub, because he already has a cloth one.” I wanted to make sure that she knew he was already the proud owner of one mermaid doll. This was merely an addition to his collection. “Can you please show me where they are?”
“Oh! That’s great,” she exclaimed.
I nodded conspiratorially. “I know, right?”
She led me to the Barbie section so I could choose the best one for my needs, and I began to tell the other moms browsing nearby.
“It’s for my 5-year-old son,” I said, beaming. “It’s the only thing he really wants this year!”
A little crowd formed with all moms nodding in consent. “That is great,” they agreed. I nodded right along with them. “I know, right?”
I was lapping it up. I was proud that my son was sensitive enough to want a mermaid. As a feminist, I felt a little victory that he still wanted to play with dolls and hadn’t been completely taken over by weaponry and superheroes. Plus, as a mom of two boys, I never even visit the pink aisles — much less make a purchase in one!
I loved it.
But then I made a mistake that showed the real truth.
On Christmas morning, the extended family sat down to open gifts. Nate, being the youngest, went first. Eleven smiling and eager faces all focused on him. I was supposed to choose a gift for him to open.
By this time, I had completely forgotten what was what. Every package was as much a mystery to me as it was to everyone else even though I was the one who had wrapped them all a mere three days ago. As many of you know, the few weeks around the holidays are kind of a blur. So, I just grabbed one nearby and handed it to him with a smile on my face and no idea what it contained.
After the first rip gave him a tiny peek at what was inside, he ran off with his gift and began to descend the steps into the basement.
“Some gifts are ones you’re supposed to open in private!” He yelled up to us as he disappeared.
I realized quickly what had happened. It was the mermaid. And he was too embarrassed to open it in front of everyone. Then his brother went to try and coax him back upstairs and we heard yelling and crying.
So, that went well. Merry Christmas, everyone!
I felt like a big, fat failure. It made me so sad to see him ashamed of this part of himself. How did I let this happen? How did I let my son have this gaping hole in his perception of what he should and shouldn’t want to play with? What had I done wrong?
Obviously, a lot of it is the bigger culture at play. We all know that the gender stereotypes start early. But, I know the situation in our house makes it more difficult as well.
We are up to our knees in boy toys around here. We have a few token dolls, but they mostly get carted around in trains or ignored. My mermaid-loving son is also the younger brother, and he is always trying to prove to the bigger kids that he is as tough, or tougher, than they are. From the get-go, he was more of a wrestler than his brother. His potty humor is a near constant attempt to get the big boys in his brother’s room to pay attention to him.
My little guy feels like he has a lot to prove.
I also think that, as a feminist, I would have tried harder to introduce “boy” (for lack of a better term) toys and values to a daughter if I had one. Somewhere along the way, I didn’t push the other side of that coin enough with my boys. I am the first one to remind my sons that girls can do anything they want. Now, I am trying harder to tell them that the same is true for boys.
I think any reminder is a good one, and it is never too late to switch things up and patch up some holes in our parenting framework. I will tell you that my chest is no longer puffed, and some of my feminist swagger has been zapped.
Instead, I will opt for a big breath in and a resolution to try harder to make sure that my sons feel proud of all of the pieces that make them who they are.
Maybe the next time I visit the pink aisle, I’ll bring him with me, and maybe we’ll see another boy there with his mom. They can fist bump each other and that mom and I will puff up our chests and nod conspiratorially at each other.
“It’s so great!” She’ll whisper.
“I know, right?” I’ll reply.