(If you don’t know the song the above title refers to, allow me to introduce you to the Jam. You can thank me later.)
It’s back to school time, dear readers, so you get a quiz: what is the gender of the child in the 44 shirt below?
The August 2013 issue of the Minnesota Women’s Press featured the theme “What She Wore,” which is your big clue that the child in the photograph is yours truly in 1972.
I write about my “Free to Be…You and Me” childhood a lot, not so much to idealize it as to wonder what the hell happened to that period in American culture when gender neutrality was a viable fashion option for people of all ages. I’m not saying that gender neutrality is perfect, but hell, it’s got to be better than today’s compulsory superhero vs. princess gender binary coding–as well as its opposite, the mad ping-ponging from one end of the spectrum to the other. Mommy blogger Katie Vyktoriah knew she would get mileage out of a story called “What Happened When My Son Wore a Pink Headband to Walmart,” including a coveted repost on HuffPo and the sympathy of millions when the story when viral.
Too bad it was fake.
When my first child was born in 2000, I searched high and low for number shirts, naively expecting that such things would be available at Target and other fine purveyors of children’s wear. Instead I found aisles of blue Thomas the Tank Engine onesies and pink Cinderella tops and nothing, I repeat, NOTHING, in between.
It’s hard out here for a mama. Just imagine how hard it is for kids! And when it’s hard for kids, mamas do things they ordinarily wouldn’t. As I write in my column for the aformentioned MWP issue, my own mother shocked the hell out of me when she dragged me (and I mean that literally) into the Southdale Dayton’s in 1984.
My mother steered me toward the juniors department, where she yanked Guess tops off the racks. “These shoulder pads will make you look fantastic,” she announced happily. They didn’t. My mother howled with frustration every time she fished a pair of puffy ovals out of the trash. I didn’t want to disappoint her (or my junior high friends; we were a heavily padded bunch), but the sudden insistence on feminine performance didn’t sit well with me. I was a girl, but I didn’t want to be girly, for girly style was not only fussy and impractical, it was weak. It was wimpy. It was dumb.
Fortunately, as I write in the piece, a li’l book called Whipping Girl helped to straighten (pun very much intended) me out, as did parenting, a job that is too complicated and messy to fit in an either/or box. I remained resentful of my mother for those horrific Dayton’s trips for years until I realized a disturbing truth:
If I knew of a product that would armor my children against social condemnation, I would put it on my Visa card in a hurry.
Speaking of numbers, this time of year always shocks me into realizing that my kids are really and truly growing up. As the saying goes, the years are short but the days are soooooooo looooooong. Every year I snap first day pictures of the dynamic duo on the front stoop, and after the bus pulls away, I load the pictures up and compare them to years past.
Damn. Remember when they were six and one? Eight and three? Twelve and seven? I do.
Parents are routinely cautioned about sleepless nights and dirty diapers, but they aren’t warned about how much crazier things get when we realize that OUR BABIES are going to be vulnerable in the stupidest, most meaningless ways.
And that we will do stupid things as we attempt to protect them.
Elliott and Miriam of the future, if you are reading these words in a Google cache somewhere in the mid-21st century, know this: to me, you are both number one. I love you no matter what. Please forgive me.