It’s too bad that we can’t all make t-shirts with printed statements and have our kids wear them around town. It would be a great way to get the word out and avoid awkward conversations.
I’ve considered the following slogans for my kids:
My birthmother chose these white people.
My mom isn’t making me dance.
Yes, I know I’m the only girl playing football.
Son of a preacher woman.
Last year, a woman stopped me at a basketball game and said, “I think it’s really great that your family ignores gender. Your girls play on boys’ teams, right?” I felt kind of defensive. She was acting like she admired this about our family, but I could tell that something about us wasn’t sitting right with her. She was definitely fishing for information.
She was correct in stating that two of my daughters had played on teams where they were the only girls. I’m not sure I’d say that we “ignore gender,” but we do seem to be coloring outside of the lines in this area. This woman didn’t even know yet about my son who dances.
When he was three, my son Caleb made up an interpretive dance to “O Christmas Tree.” He closed his eyes and lifted his arms heavenward and then dropped dramatically and rolled across the floor. It was vaguely Druid. The dance became more and more elaborate. By Christmas, he wanted our whole extended family to watch. I was nervous because I wasn’t sure Caleb should be the one to bring modern dance to our family. Although we are not dancers or actors or artists, we are a fiercely loyal and protective tribe. So, I started the CD and turned on the Christmas tree lights as my whole sweet family gathered around the tree. They watched Caleb dance his little heart out. My fantastic sister-in-law Tricia ran to him and told him how amazing it was and how much she loved it. She really meant it. I was a little befuddled by the whole episode.
As he got older, I made the conscious decision to follow his lead in this area. Caleb started taking a musical theater class in first grade. A few years later, he tried hip-hop and he loved it. We added jazz and tap. One of my girlfriends said to me, “Caleb is a natural. He always hits the downbeat.” I had no idea what that meant. “I know,” she said, “and that’s why you should probably turn him over to professionals.”
He joined the dance company of an amazing local studio in sixth grade. While there are other boys in hip-hop and musical theater, he’s the only boy taking ballet, jazz, lyrical, and contemporary. He spends most afternoons at the dance studio. They spend months preparing for dance and musical theater competitions. I love watching him dance.
One advantage of being a boy in dance is that they literally choreograph pieces around you. It really isn’t fair. I remember seeing him in the middle of 20 gorgeous dancing girls and thinking, “Is this wise?” My husband’s friends say that Caleb knows something that none of them were smart enough to figure out: spending your teenage years with beautiful dancers and being the only boy in the room is a pretty sweet deal.
It might be different in a big city, but it’s not easy being a boy who dances where we live. He was teased a lot in middle school. My wonderful husband always emphasizes how athletic dance is and always tells Caleb how proud we are of him. We made the decision to send Caleb to a different high school than his sister because the other school in our county has a stronger fine arts program. It seemed like it would be easier socially to be a drama kid and a dancing boy at a school that had full-time teachers for dance, chorus and drama. He’s in the right place.
Caleb has spent the past two summers at ballet summer intensives, one with Atlanta Ballet and one with the Charlotte Ballet. For several weeks, he practiced for eight hours a day, six days a week. He’s not just dabbling in dance and theater…he’s all in. My son loves to dance.
Caroline loves basketball. This past spring, we really didn’t want to commit to travel basketball. Instead, Bryan found a local competitive league through our rec department that was co-ed. Actually, when I called and asked if girls could play, they responded that while girls were allowed to play, no girls had made it through try-outs. I interpreted this to mean, “This is dangerous. Find another team for your daughter, who is scrappy, but not very big.” Bryan and Caroline heard a challenge and were determined to get her on a team. She ended up with a great coach and held her own. It was really fun to watch her play in what she called her “season of playing with dudes.” I did warn her once when I saw her blatantly pushing a tall boy that they would still call fouls on her even though she was a girl. She responded by saying, “Mom, can we talk about how many of those guys have mustaches?”
Katie loves flag football. She was the only girl in the league this year and was usually the fastest on the field. I can barely watch sometimes as she chases down the boys like a predator and pulls their flags. She is a girl on fire when she runs the whole field for a touchdown. She doesn’t keep a low profile. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard coaches and parents yell to their players, “Watch the girl. Keep your eye on the girl!” She brings her football to school and spends every recess with the boys. The teachers tell me that they love watching her run by and then seeing a pack of boys, yards behind her, trying to catch her.
For some reason, we are busting gender stereotypes over here at the McArthur house. I promise that I did not wake up one day determined to make a point with my children’s hobbies.This is not a crusade or a revolution. I have simply let my kids follow what they love and haven’t made them do activities that they would hate. I could have pulled Caroline from basketball and made her try dance, but she would have been miserable. Caleb tried playing soccer and basketball. He was decent, but he just didn’t have the heart for it. A ball would pass by and he’d look at it like, “Someone will probably get that.” Once he found dance and theater, I couldn’t keep him away.
I’m very grateful that we live in a time and place where these options are available for all of my children. Our girly twin, Elizabeth, is taking dance and cheerleading this year. Those are perfect choices for her. It’s wonderful that she is surrounded by other sparkly and bouncy girls. It’s also wonderful that Katie can choose something totally different from her twin sister. I’m grateful that all of my kids can do what they love and that we can delight in watching them. I’m grateful that my husband doesn’t bat an eye when I say, “Time to load up…we need Katie’s mouthguard and Caleb’s dance bag!”
See…it’s a lot to explain. This is why I think t-shirts are a better idea. I know that we are a strange family in a lot of ways. Where we live is not very diverse or very progressive. I’m sure we are a lot to figure out: a mom who is a clergywoman, adopted African-American twins, a son who dances, and a daughter who plays flag football.
I don’t know why my kids aren’t doing what is expected of them, gender-wise. I do know this: we are somehow raising brave children. I suspect that they get their moxie from my husband. They are willing to be the only boy in a dance performance or the only girl on a football field in order to do something that they love.
I would have never had that kind of confidence as a kid. I spent years trying to be invisible. “Under the radar” is my comfort zone. I’m learning from my kids that standing out won’t kill you. It can even be fun. Now that my kids are showing me how to be brave, I’m not about to get in their way or discourage them just so they won’t stand out.
We aren’t trying to be weird: we just are.
And it’s pretty fantastic.