Sat 26 Apr 2008
the morning of his second birthday, last week, i trimmed Oscar’s hair.
having spent my twenties fussily tending to my own bangs (when i had bangs), various boyfriends’ hair, and the occasional drunken friend’s plea to “do something with this mop” – the last of which admittedly often turned out rather awkward and regrettable once the gin wore off – i felt reasonably confident taking nail scissors to the back of a toddler’s curly mullet. i was sober, he was sober, and he hadn’t asked for “the Rachel,” or anything fancy…what could go wrong?
in fact, little did, amazingly. Oscar, who was strapped into the long-outgrown Fisher Price recliner in which we still tether him whilst we shower, was engrossed in Richard Scarry’s “What People Do All Day” and mostly uninterested in the brief proceedings. he did protest when i had to bend his head down towards his chest at an unnatural angle thanks to the fact that i’d chosen to cut his hair in a freaking recliner, but other than that Darwin-award-worthy aside, all went smoothly. golden ringlets went cascading into the wastebasket, and mummy got a little sniffy at the sight, but overall it took about one hundred and ten seconds and Oscar emerged slightly trimmed but still with his Richard Simmons-esque baby ‘fro intact, which was what i was aiming for and didn’t trust a barber to do.
i told myself i cut it because it was getting so long that the curls were starting to straighten out. this is true. the back of O’s hair has always grown faster than the front and the top, and the back has a much coarser texture from being slept on and tangled and broken on a regular basis. it had gotten to the point where not only did his mullet stray halfway down his back in the bathtub, but where even when dry it sometimes refused to curl and just frizzed instead, leaving Oscar with a rather misshapen halo of wild fluff. i knew that the trim would remove some weight and help the curls come back, and tidy up the overall madness of his ‘do.
but motivations in mothering never get to be that pure and innocent. a few strangers had told us what a pretty girl we had. my mother had mentioned a few times that really he was due for a trim, in that tone that makes me feel about twelve and very, very tempted to let Oscar’s hair grow until the cows come home and he rivals Celine Dion’s son in hirsute bounty.
except that reaction didn’t feel very mature, somehow.
the truth is, i dislike most ways traditional masculinity is expressed in our society (no real props for a lot of traditional, stereotypical feminity here either) and particularly the way these gender conventions and expectations are imposed on children. i dislike little military haircuts on boys who are still, essentially babies. i mourn the fact that Oscar is quickly growing out of what i perceive as cute little boy clothes and into sizes that seem to leave me with the option of dressing him as a) a drunken frat boy, b) a NASCAR enthusiast, c) a trucker groupie, or d) a member of the military. the prostitot offerings that inundate the little girls’ sections of stores, and the overabundance of pink princess items over on that side of the gender divide mean that neutral, primary-colour items are harder and harder to find these days. but i seek them out. at an end of season sale this February, i bought O a beautiful red wool duffel coat with toggles, which he wore until
the snow disappeared i gave up on the snow disappearing and just moved him to his yellow raincoat in disgust. with the red coat and the curls, everyone seems to assume he’s a girl. i, on the other hand, think he looks quaint, charming – a version of boyhood from Winnie the Pooh rather than the WWE. i’d dress him in sailor suits if i could find ’em.
but this line is a fine one to walk. despite a lifelong longing for a girl, i’ve found having this boy to be all the delight i ever hoped for from parenthood, and more. in the ways O is ‘all boy,’ he is joy unexpected, discovery. i see his gender as a key part of who he is, and embrace it. he is a boy, a wonderful boy. but just as i would with a daughter, i balk at the idea of his sex being the primary factor in how i perceive him, and do not want it to be the sum total of how he perceives himself. he loves trains, it’s true, and his plastic airport with its things that go “wheeee!”. he also loves to paint, and listen to stories, and at the sitters’ with her daughters he runs around in pink sunglasses and thinks they’re beautiful. and i want this freedom in his own skin to last as long as it can.
and yet i want the freedom to be genuinely his, and that’s where i’m struggling. is such a thing really possible, given the power differentials between parent and child, given the way that gender and class biases emerge at every locus of consumer choice and every decision we make about what activities our child participates in? i do not want to use my child as a freak flag to flaunt my own unconventionality, or even my snobbish rejection of North American stereotypes of masculinity. i do not want to wear his hair in pigtails just to thumb my nose at social constraints i consider stupid. i do not want to treat him like a pet poodle. yet every single choice i make regarding what clothes are purchased for him and how his hair is cut and what toys and models and interests he has access to: all these things shape the gender identity he’s developing, and the gender identity people read on to him. like all social beings, he will forever be subject to people’s preconceived notions of what his gender status should mean, and how it should be performed. as his mother, i too will be judged on how i am shaping him to conform or confound with his gender performance, until such point as he is old enough to make such decisions for himself. (and likely long after, if the unflagging currency of pop-Freudian analysis of gay men and their mothers is any indication.)
i do not fear my son being a “sissy” – the feminized male is not a role i devalue, nor one particularly threatening in our family. Oscar will be who he will be, and a Marine would be harder for me to find peace with than a hairdresser, to be honest, but the choice is his. i do fear, though, in this vulnerable period of childhood, him being taken up somehow as overly feminized, having his feelings hurt or confused by some stranger’s ignorant comments, because of choices i make for him while he is still too young to know different.
so i trimmed his hair, taking the easy way out, keeping it long enough to curl, short enough that it doesn’t look like barettes might be in order.
and i feel dirty, and yet in this muddle of raising children in a society that claims gender equality and enacts “equal but different” every time you glance at a toy aisle or a baby layette, i am not sure there is any such thing as clean, anywhere.