My feral girl steps across gender lines and has become to me her own species. Out on our farm in summer, she runs shirtless in little boy boxer briefs, climbs to the top of our rusty swing set and, to me, she is just Eliza. But when I see her in a room full of other six-year-old girls, I realize, again, she’s different. This is no news flash to her. Eliza cultivates this difference without meaning to.
A few weeks ago I was sifting through Eliza’s bag of Valentines and came across one that read, “I like you. You are a nice boy.” The child who had written it is a friend of Eliza’s and I knew the sentiment came from a place of kindness but I was still curious about what Eliza thought of it.
“Hey babe,” I said. “What did you think of this valentine from Isa?”
“It’s fine with me mama,” she said. “I’m half, half. Half boy, half girl.”
And it’s true. My daughter lives in a netherworld somewhere between boy and girl. She plays rough, climbs trees and digs in the ditch. She is the prince, the King, the dad, the older brother in any imaginary game. Most days she wears a baggy Star Wars t-shirt, long shorts that hang from her hips to below her knees and a checkerboard pair of Vanns. In summer she wears a baseball cap, backwards. In winter a fleece cap with her hair tucked inside. For the better part of kindergarten she wore camo cargo pants with skull patches on the ripped knees and a black short-sleeved shirt that read “I do my own stunts.” “Boy,” she told her classmates every time and without hesitation when they asked she was a boy or a girl. She signed her name “Cooper” for most of that year and has since preferred the name Gerald and, most recently, Edward.
As soon as Eliza was old enough to have an opinion she traded pigtails for caps, skirts for nylon shorts and sparkly shoes for light-up Spiderman shoes. She’s never been interested in playing fairies with the girls, instead she wants to snowboard, play hockey and learn how to drop in at the skate park. Sometimes the girls look at her a little sideways and sometimes the boys aren’t interested in playing with her because she is actually a girl. They are first graders and these things matter some days.
In our society we call girls like Eliza tomboys. As her mother I can tell you that most days she would simply prefer — boy. Even half, half seems like a compromise.
When Eliza was born, I never knew I could love someone as much as I loved her. I always wanted children. As a child I tended dolls, carried cousins on my hip and helped my neighbor make bottles for her baby on Saturday afternoons. By the time Eliza came along we’d had a few false starts that ended in drives to the emergency room and months of sorting out why. So it was also with deep gratitude that I held my baby close in those early months. This child-raising business keeps us all on the edge of our seats ready to pounce to defend and protect.
It’s strange that I could not have known then that we’d be so deeply tied because I’m sure that’s when those bonds formed. My heartbeat and hers tangled together in the early morning hours to create something beyond either of us and we didn’t even mean to. She’s my first child and sometimes she feels like an extension of me. She has the curve of my face, the color of my eyes. I feel what she feels, for better or worse. This is one part of motherhood I didn’t see coming.
As Eliza has grown up, somehow, everyday objects have suddenly turned into hazards all around me. She saw blocks, I saw sharp corners. She saw a bike, I saw scrapped knees and elbows. She saw a skateboard, I saw a CT scan. It’s no different when I think of her emotional progression.
I know my spying every possible painful moment to come is no different than any other mother’s worry. This child-raising business keeps us all on the edge of our seats ready to pounce to defend to protect.
Recently, at the park I heard another mother talking to Eliza.
“Oh, honey, I didn’t know your name,” she said. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t know you were a girl.”
I was a little shocked to hear that Eliza had corrected the mother who had been calling her buddy and he. Then I felt a little relieved. And then, immediately, I felt terrible for feeling relieved.
I want my daughter to be who she is but I can’t help but want to fold her into soft, downy wings and keep her from a world that might not be kind to a child who moves between genders or a teenager who does. Or a grown up. This world does not expect us to be different but here we are, nonetheless, tender, human, one not like the other.
Gender creative, gender fluid, gender nonconforming I suppose if we were to pick a label, all of these fit. As for other labels – gay, transgender – we can’t speak to these yet because Eliza is a child. She is my child.
Instead of searching for label I prefer to think of it this way: Eliza is who she is. We love who she is. And so far, so does she. My hope is to arrive her whole into adulthood where she might marry a woman, choose to live as a man or live as a traditional gender-conforming girl simply trying to move through the world.
Sometimes, at night, I lie awake trying to sort out exactly how to do this when Eliza makes her way to my bed, crawls into the warm sheets and curls into me. In these quiet, night-lit moments I tell her “you’re amazing, don’t forget that.”
The other night I whispered “You’re amazing,” and before I could say the rest of my mantra she chimed in in a sleepy voice.
“I won’t ever forget that,” she said.
There we lay, soft-bellied, mother and child, until we both asleep.