Thinking back on this now, I think I was the classic middle-child. I desperately wanted SOME way to stand out from the bunch, and if aspiring to ‘Tomboy’ was going to get me some attention, that is what I was going to do. (Side note: Kyle and I followed American Idol’s final season, and as I watched one of the finalists, Avalon Young, sing Beiber’s “Love Yourself”, I found myself thinking, ‘THAT is the hero of my 15 year old self!” She’s pretty awesome.)
When I was a kid I was fascinated with a girl called Andrea who was on my baseball team. She could hit the ball, run fast, would slide into the bases, would shine during arm-wrestling contests and some of her best friends were boys. She was loud, sporty and confident. I wanted to be just like her.
For a brief season in grade four, I felt my dreams were coming true. One of the boys in my class saw me throw a football during gym period, and all of a sudden, quiet, serious little Stephanie was the coveted team member for recess football games. My classmates (read: Boys) were noticing me! The ‘popular’ girls were jealous of the attention I was getting… it was exhilarating. I decided to switch out ‘loud’ for ‘tough’ as something to aspire to.
Getting praise for being sporty, being admired for being tough, not caring about getting dirty and receiving attention for injuries became little highs I would seek out. At some point I subconsciously decided that all characteristics typically considered ‘feminine’ were synonymous with ‘weak’ and there was something morally wrong with me allowing myself to align with any of them. I didn’t feel particularly pretty or feminine anyway, and receiving snippets of attention by being the opposite was kind of addictive. I sought out many ‘face your fears’ moments over the years, not to rid myself of them, but rather to garner admiration, or at least some sort of attention from my family members or peers.
The summer I was 13 my dad and his buddies built a floating campfire on the flooded shores of Dorcas Bay under a cold clear sky of stars that looked like a glass of spilled milk. They sat on their semi-submerged lawn chairs with their beers cooling in the frigid water, feet toasting on the ply-wood platform, calling to their wives on the higher ground, joking about how the ‘MEN’ weren’t going to let a little flood get in the way of their annual campfire. Seeing my chance at upping my ‘tough’ factor (or at least at getting a little extra attention) I picked up a lawn-chair and dragged it through the water snake, leopard frog, crawfish filled water to join the increasingly tipsy bunch. I was welcomed with cheers and pirate-worthy ‘Arggg’s’ and made an honorary member of the “Studs of the Bruce” club, offered a third of a cold beer and hung out with my dad and his goofy friends for a few hours, pretending to drink my beer, watching the fire slowly burn through the platform and the embers slipping beneath the water.
Then came grade nine, which was awkward (I’m sure all but a lucky few can relate). I was bright and athletic, but not particularly pretty or confident. I was bullied for being a good student and being liked by my teachers. I wanted to be known for being something other than ‘Stephanie the Brown-Noser’. I upped my game. I cut my hair within 1.5 inches of my scalp, threw myself into cross-country, swim-team and soccer. The latter proved to offer the most opportunities for me to shine in all things ‘tough’.
In grade 10, I faced off with Victor, the Spanish exchange student during a soccer game, plowing my way through him, ending his ‘break-away’ and chance at a goal. I proudly displayed my fat lip, bloody nose and hexagon-bruised thigh to anyone who showed the slightest interest.
This trend continued throughout high school and as a young adult: I didn’t wear make-up, I wore large shapeless t-shirts, I insisted ‘Guinness’ was my alcoholic drink of choice. I taught myself to play guitar and started listening to ‘Dashboard Confessional’ to impress the summer camp boys (side note: this totally worked). On one occasion I enthusiastically volunteered at a summer camp to empty a giant blue recycling bin that had been filled with loose garbage (no gloves were available) to convince others I didn’t get grossed out easily. I was lying to myself. Let’s be serious.
It took a terrible season of Tree-Planting in Northern Ontario to cure me of some of this. One day, after falling in a swamp for the 15th time, I stood knee deep in the muck, cold and shivering, covered head to toe in swamp water, dangerous amounts of DEET, and bug bites, I stood for a long moment staring at the trees before announcing to the blackflies, “I do not like to be cold. I do not like to be wet. I do not like to be covered in mud. I’m ok with admitting that.” This was big step for me.
In University I started admitting, at least to myself, that I cared about how I looked. I began wearing jewelry and clothing that fit properly, I bought some perfume, started hanging out with other girls regularly and began dating my future husband. Being this new Stephanie felt strange, but I surprised myself by feeling pretty great about it too.
Seven years later, our beautiful Sophie was born. We wanted her gender to be a surprise; and if I’m being totally honest here, part of that was so we weren’t drowning in pink if our baby was a girl. I was a little militant about being anti-‘pink’ during my pregnancy, which I had kind of forgotten about until Sophie was about six months old. Sophie and I were at a neighbourhood carnival our church was putting on when a sweet Jr. High girl I taught piano lessons to asked me about Sophie’s overalls and blocks.
“I’m sorry Sweetie, I’m not sure what you are talking about …”
“STEPHANIE!! You SAID your kid, boy or girl was going to just wear overalls and play with blocks, not barbies!”
She looked at Sophie (who was wearing a hand-knitted sweater with pink buttons, faux-denim pants with a pink belt and pink shoes.), then at me and started giggling. I had to laugh at myself as well; this kid very seldom was an overall-wearing block stacking gender-neutral baby.
Like all parents, I had lots of ideas about how I was going to parent my kids and the kind of kids I was going to raise. I’ve had to loosen up over the years. When we couldn’t afford all new clothes for our babies and our generous friends dropped off boxes and boxes of clothing for us to use, I had to lose some of my ‘anti-pink’ attitude.
The summer Sophie was two, she was wading in the Ottawa river with her friend Hope, who flashed her newly painted hot-pink toenails at Sophie. Sophie decided right then that pink was her favourite colour. Whenever she was asked, “Why is that, Sophie?” She would respond, “Because pink is a HAPPY colour.” And you know… she’s right. It is a happy colour.
That winter Kyle took Sophie shopping for a new snow-suit. A very ecstatic two-year old arrived home a while later calling to me, “Mummy, MUMMY! Come see my new SNOW SUIT!!” “I just want you to know” Kyle told me gently, “This is the LEAST girly one we could find…” Out from around the corner came Sophie, proudly displaying her new hot pink, faux fur hooded, Hello Kitty emblazoned snowsuit. “Mummy!” She yelled, “It’s PINK!!” Yes, yes it was.
Recently a friend was sharing with me about an incident involving her son. “You know,” she told me, “I just really want him to know that there is something wonderful and beautiful about being a boy!” I’ve thought about that a number of times over the past month. I think the flip side of that is what I’ve slowly been convincing myself of since I was a young adult, there is also something really wonderful and beautiful about being a girl.
I admit I still get a weird rush out of doing something somewhat gross or requiring a lot of my strength; when I find myself still standing at the end of it, I’m pretty elated. I still love playing soccer, I love feeling confident and strong and capable, and yes, even ‘tough’ sometimes. There is nothing wrong with all that. But I’ve hit a point where I can embrace the following about myself as well: I really REALLY hate getting my feet or hands in the mud, I like putting effort into my appearance on occasion (make-up is still a somewhat rare occurrence), and wearing clothes that fit properly is important to me. That’s also a part of who I am, and that’s ok.
These days I try to keep 'Joyful Confidence" at the forefront of my mind when I let Sophie choose her clothes and day after day she gravitates towards tutus, or dresses, worn with hot pink dress-up gloves and fairy wands. I’ve started to enjoy that painting our nails together is routine activity. Sophie is dressing as Princess Elsa from ‘Frozen’ for Halloween, which a few years ago, I would not have been ok with. Traditionally Disney Princesses don’t do a whole lot, wait around for their princes to come rescue them and wear pretty clothes. Not cool. However, after watching the movie and realizing that Olaf the snowman’s definition of love was one of the best I’ve heard, I’m beginning to embrace Disney Princesses… I know, right? What is this? My 20 year-old self would not recognize me.
I also try encourage both my kids to jump in muddy puddles, I try not to make a big deal about clothes getting dirty, Kyle is teaching Sophie Gracie Jiu Jitsu (she’s slowly becoming a Ninja), and she wears a blue-jays ball cap in the summer.
In the end, what I want is for Sophie (and for myself too) to be confident and embrace who she is. It’s my job to help discover with her discover how she is wired and grow into those things. It’s not that I want her to reject traditionally ‘girly’ things, but rather I don’t want her to be limited in her interests because she was born a girl.
We’re both growing as we go along. I’m learning to embrace tea-parties and tutus, twirling contests, playing dress-up and ‘getting fancy’ (aka putting on dresses and makeup and jewelry), while introducing her to frog-catching, soccer and the wonderful world of insects.
In the end, I’ve decided to scrap my previous ‘tough not-resembling-anything-girl-ish’ agenda with a focus on ‘Joyful Confidence’. And as I work towards that in my parenting with both my kids, I can feel myself changing a bit too. I’m so thankful Sophie has opened my eyes to the joys of twirling skirts and crowns, dress-up gloves, pretending to be princesses, and yes, even to the fact that pink is a happy colour. Slowly this beautiful gift of a child is helping me to discover new things about myself and to learn that there is something beautiful and wonderful about being a girl after all.