It is midnight and Middle has woken up soaking wet. Husband strips the bed and replaces the sheets with the quiet and speed of a parenting ninja. I take Middle, change her pajamas, and then tuck her into our bed while Husband finishes the clean up. I lie next to Middle, rubbing her back just the way she liked when she was a baby. I notice how very small she is – how her shoulders are no bigger than those of her baby sister, how even at four and half her back still isn’t that much bigger than the palm of my hand. She’s all arms and legs on a slender little frame. Suddenly I am hit by a wave of realization; for someone so small she is so incredibly brave.
For the past year and a half, as she has transitioned from a toddler boy in polo shirts and jeans to a little boy in purple pants with a purple streak in his hair to a girl in dresses and headbands, Middle has gotten countless comments about her appearance. Most the world around is accepting (or at least politely quiet) of a boy in a pink shirt or a girl with short hair. Most, but sadly, not all. There are the ladies (and they are always older women – we’ve never had a comment from a man) who came up to us while we were at Target or the grocery store and asked me if he is a boy or a girl or point out to me that my son is wearing pink ballet flats (as if I hadn’t been the one to buy them for him in the first place). There was that mother at the park who came up to Middle and I and asked, “What is it?” Confused as to what she was talking about I responded “What is what?” To which she pointed and stared at Middle, “Is it a boy or a girl?” Dumbfounded I replied simply, “A boy.” “Well hopefully she grows out of it.” she said with derision. “Well hopefully she grows up happy,” I managed to say firmly as I took Middle by the hand and walked away. After her transition to living as a girl there was the student at Older’s school who ran up to Middle and demanded to know why she had short hair. This kindergarten loudmouth simply could not deal with the concept of a girl having short hair and he stood in the sandbox loudly proclaiming that it was wrong for Middle to have short hair. Then there is Middle’s former teacher at school that just can’t seem to get the pronouns right and still, after six months, calls her “he”. And let’s not forget the administrator at her school that declares to me that she doesn’t think Middle’s new name really fits her and calls her a shortened version of the name instead despite the fact that Middle prefers her full name. I could go on about the other incidents at the park, the thoughtless comments from other parents (always in front of Middle – as if she is an object without feelings). The world is not an easy place for children who are different.
Our neighbors’ son had a birthday party this weekend. Our kids and our neighbors’ kids have grown up together; known each other from birth and Middle is totally comfortable around them. They know everything about her and they just don’t care; she plays with their four and a half year old son the same as she always has. After we arrived at the party Middle took in all the new people there that she didn’t know and you could see the anxiety build in her little body. How were these people going to react to a girl with relatively short hair? Would one of the neighbors’ kids slip and out her? Middle simply went into the house, found the toy cars and played by herself for awhile. When the party games started she quietly joined in and by the end of the evening she was relaxed and happy. Well, as relaxed as a four year old high on m and ms, cupcakes, and cookies can be.
Can you imagine if every time you left the house you knew that someone might comment negatively on your appearance? Can you imagine if someone questioned your femininity or your masculinity as you simply went about your daily life: grocery shopping, at school, or at the park? Honestly, I might never leave the house if that were the case.
Middle imagines that every day because that’s what her past experience has shown her. But Middle is naturally a more social creature than I am and she is happiest when she is out on an adventure. And so somehow she musters up her courage and faces new people and new situations head on with maturity and grace.
Her behavior at home has been difficult lately – to say the least. I’ve been thinking that she’s been acting oddly immature for her age. But now I think I’ve figured it out. In the outside world she has to act far more mature than her four and a half years. She knows she can’t smack the rude lady at the store. She knows that bursting into tears at teasing is only going to lead to more teasing. So she comes home from school and she can’t sit still at dinnertime, she is too rough with her sister, she doesn’t listen, and the slightest mishap or correction of her behavior leads to sobs of “Nobody likes me. I am never going to be happy again.” She has to let it out somewhere and that somewhere is home. At least I know that she feels safe enough with us to let go.
Middle’s hair is just past her ears now. She has as extensive wardrobe of cute little girl clothes. While we were out last week a woman commented to me me about my two beautiful daughters; Middle and I both beamed. But no matter how many compliments Middle gets, the earlier comments continue to haunt her. She lives with a fear of being hurt, that no matter what I say I cannot erase. Because she is right, there are those who would not be kind to her. This is a hard realization to live with as a parent. But I have to remember that as hard as it is for me, it is harder for her still. I think at least now I appreciate just how brave she truly is.