At the park yesterday with G, one of those sparkling autumn days that makes you absolve Sydney of all its sins and renew your love forever. Despite the weather, he had the playground mostly to himself, but on two occasions toddler girls, apparently with their fathers, arrived to play. G loves other kids, and he approached each child in turn, once on the climbing frame and once on the roundabout, wanting to chat and play.
Each time - before Mister G actually did anything, and before I could explain that he's a gentle child used to playing with his younger cousins - the fathers of the little girls swooped in to protect their daughters from the threat.
And I could suddenly see what they saw - not my sweet baby, but an older, school aged, boy. No doubt wild, rough, loud, and a threat to their child.
Not this again.
My ex loves kids. And he's completely natural with them. He likes to play with them, talk to them, think Playschool presenter but with the messy, germy little things actually there*. And I saw, on so many occasions, when he'd be chatting to kids at a party or on a train, playing pen and paper games with them or telling stories, suspicious parents (almost always mothers - our current neighbourhood is a bit different) wondering what this strange man was doing talking to their children. It was up to me to explain that he was a paediatric nurse, and you could see the relief; deep breaths released, tense shoulders relaxed. Because otherwise, a strange man was a danger to their children.
The fear is understandable, after all. I just didn't expect to play out quite so soon. For the rest of his life, when people look at my son, they will see not the smart, sweet person he is, but a boy, then a man, with all that that implies in our society.
For society places men in a box (and women in another), creating the narrative that boys are rough, loud, aggressive, resistant to learning - and they grow into men who suppress their emotions, prefer hanging out with other men, need to sow their wild oats, and will lose their temper if provoked. It reduces them to stereotypes, creates difficulties in education. It's become popular in some circles to blame feminists for demonising men and boys. This is rubbish. A feminist didn't write the rhyme about boys being made of slugs and snails and puppy dogs tails. There are no feminists in the breakfast radio teams who blather stupid "battle of the sexes" tropes about remote controls and shopping and poker nights.
We've always told G he can be whatever he wants, regardless of that he's a boy. He can wear dresses and make up, and that doesn't make him a girl (when he was younger he loved to join me putting my face on; he's lost interest somewhat now but on a shopping trip recently, it was funny to walk into Mecca, have them see G and have looks on their faces that clearly said "great, a young boy, he'll be tearing around breaking things"... and have them look over two minutes later to see me and him comparing eyeshadow swatches). And he's always been gentle, affectionate and considerate - I know I'm his Mum, but consider this: at a party, age two and a half, his Dad poured him a cup of soft drink, a rare treat - and he immediately handed the cup to his cousin because she didn't have one yet. What toddler does that?
Sorry for the digression into proud Mother gushing, but I hate that all that sweetness will now be ignored because it is packaged in a boy's body - and therefore seen as a threat. We pigeonhole from pregnancy. You're having a girl? Cries of "Aww!". You're having a boy? "Ooh, you're in for trouble!". Girls and boys are treated differently from birth - girls are cuddled more, boys are allowed to talk more.
(And one of the saddest things I've ever heard was from one of G's teachers at his nursery, a daycare for under 3s only, back when he was Baby G. The teacher mentioned how cuddly and affectionate G was, "and that a lot of the boys don't cuddle as much any more". These were two year olds, they wouldn't reject hugs on their own - apparently their parents had stopped cuddling as them as much already.)
I'm well aware, of course, that girls have their own schtick (it's why I'm a feminist, after all). Girls are subjected to a lifetime of social conditioning that demands they behave in a ladylike way; quiet, considerate, caring, deferential. Boys are allowed, expected, to be wild, uncouth, rough, noisy. Then they grow up and girls and women are expected to be responsible for their own behaviour and that of the men around them. And boys, well, boys will be boys.
I don't want people to judge and fear G on his maleness - and if it happens here in our lefty bubble, it's much worse elsewhere (G's had long hair over the years, and the number of complete strangers who've told us we should cut it is well into double digits). I worry about the roles and expectations for him and his lovely little friends - and the educational outcomes and suicide rates and road deaths and all the other fears that come built-in with having a boy. The fear for boys, I want to get rid of. The fear of boys I hope will vanish with it.
* Yeah...I'm not into kids. I do quite like my own.