“Mama, I have to go PEE-EE-EE!” my son announced at the top of his lungs. He was on the cusp of four, and every trip to the loo was deemed worthy of broadcast with the same volume and intensity as a Boxing Day door-crasher announcement. On this particular occasion, he was visiting Science World with his other mom, and managed to make himself heard even over the formidable, prehistoric roars of the Extreme Dinosaur exhibit. All eyes in the room were suddenly on my wife and small child.
“Okay,” Amanda responded cheerily and took our son’s hand, acutely aware that they now had an audience. “Let’s go to the bathroom.”
Some parents exchanged knowing smiles with her as she led our son out of the exhibit hall. But as she approached the women’s washroom, he tugged suddenly on her hand and pulled her towards the men’s.
“No, Mama, over here.” He had to go so badly he was practically dancing.
“Wait a minute ,” Amanda said, gently stopping him. “We can’t go in there.”
“But it’s for boys.”
“I know, honey. You’re a boy. But you’re too little to go in by yourself.”
“But you can come too.”
“No, I can’t,” she explained. “I’m a girl.” Never mind the countless times she’d endured double-takes from confused patrons in the ladies’ room.
Our son just looked at her wide-eyed for a moment, and then laughed as though this was the funniest thing he’d ever heard. “Nooo!” he squealed. “You’re a boy, just like me.”
“No, I’m not,” she insisted, even though she was once an eight year-old tomboy who stole a pair of her male cousin’s boy briefs and longed to change her name to Paul. “I’m a girl.”
Our son scrambled to process. “You’re not a girl,” he reasoned. “You’re a mama.” As if that clinched it. But as contradictory as this statement might sound in any other context, it actually made a whole lot of sense coming from the mouth of a preschooler talking to his butchy, non-biological lesbian mom.
“Yes, I’m your mama,” Amanda assured him, hurrying him now into the women’s washroom. “And I’m a girl, just like Mommy. Which is why we have to go in here.”
They headed into a stall together and took turns going pee. As our son hiked his pants back up over his Buzz Lightyear underwear, he regarded Amanda carefully: “Mama, you’re not really a girl, are you?” he asked again, half-giggling.
“Yes, I am,” she smiled back.
“No-ooo…” he responded in a sing-song voice.
“Look. You have a penis, and I don’t.”
“But Mama,” he implored, “you are a boy, just like me.”
And there’s the rub – he desperately wants an image of himself reflected back by at least one of his parents. It’s developmental stage that all kids go through, where they want to identify with the same-gendered parent. And that gets a bit tricky when you’re a little boy with two moms.
Amanda told me about the incident later, after they’d come home and our son had breathlessly debriefed about how scary the dinosaurs were, but how he’d kept going back through the exhibit with his mama until he wasn’t afraid anymore.
He went to play trains upstairs, and Amanda and I quietly shared a laugh about the bathroom escapade. We figured this was simply the latest chapter in the “Mama Daddy” saga – that our son had been continuing to try to make sense of himself and how he fits into the bigger world and, like all children his age, wanted to see himself mirrored back by one or both of his caregivers (see Mama Daddy, Papa Bear). He’d become increasingly interested in gender ever since he’d started preschool the previous year. He’d recently gone through a phase where he was categorizing everything into “boys” and “girls.” Our eldest pug, Oliver, was proclaimed a boy, while Finnegan, also male but younger and less boisterous, was deemed a girl: “He’s got a fluffier face than Ollie.”
“But they both have penises,” Amanda had pointed out.
“Finnegan has a girl penis,” he’d explained. (I’m sure the young Amanda/Paul would have coveted one of those.) Gender confusion, wishful thinking, or both? Or perhaps neither: our queer dog walker has strong suspicions that Finnegan is gay (our pug reportedly had a boyfriend at the dog park last summer, a frisky black lab) so perhaps our son was picking up on something else he couldn’t fully articulate yet.
Which brings us back to the bathroom episode. When Amanda relayed the tale to another queer mom, a therapist whose two boys are now in their late teens, the woman shared an immediate laugh of recognition: her youngest went through the exact same thing with his other mom when he was about our son’s age. She suspects a big part of it has do with our kids picking up on their other parent’s butchiness and not knowing how to name or categorize it, rather than simply pining for a male role model and/or equating the parenting role of “other mother” with “daddy.” Kids are smart, and certainly not blind. They can clearly see and sense that something’s different about their butchy moms, both physically and energetically – that strong, butch energy that’s almost male, yet at the same time distinctly female. The same qualities that make it impossible for butches to pass as straight when they walk down the street; the very qualities that cause butch-loving dykes like me to fall head over heels for them. And how does one begin to name that, if you’re not quite four and only given two labels – “boy” and “girl”?
And so, Amanda initiated a chat with our son about tomboys. She explained that some girls, like many of the little girls at his school, like princesses, the colour pink, and wearing pretty dresses. She then pointed out that there are some girls who look and act like boys, and who even dress like boys and like to do a lot of things that boys do, such as climb trees and play with trains (although yes, girly girls can also do boy things, and boys can like princesses and pink and do girl things) – and that these kinds of girls are sometimes called “tomboys.” Just like his Mama. Which is why she’s a girl who still uses the girls’ washroom, but also looks and acts a lot like a boy.
Our son, who’d been listening with rapt attention, nodded quietly. It was a lot to wrap his little head around, but it all seemed to be making sense.
“Mama?” he asked, after a long moment. “Can I be a tomboy too?”