"If he feels like he identifies with being a girl, that's perfectly fine. For us, the priority is for him to be able to feel comfortable and confident in his own skin."
JOELLE ON RAISING HER SON (4), DAUGHTER (2), + ONE ON THE WAY!
SOUTHERN | MARYLAND
Growing up Haitian : Reality vs Expectations
I'm a first-generation Haitian American. Feminism wasn't discussed in my household, but I had a lot of examples of very strong women. My mother raised all three of us alone, and the same for my aunts. They were all very brave, independent women, doing it on their own. Through the worst struggles, they took care of us and ensured that we were cared for and educated. In them, I had powerful illustrations of what women are able to achieve.
Ironically, I realized growing up, there were still a lot of discrepancies between the expectations for me and my male family members. For instance, growing up, and even to this day, if I were to go to a family gathering, the expectation was for me to make a plate of food for my brother. My brother and I are two years apart. He is capable of making his own plate of food and there was absolutely no reason why I should go make one for him, but it was the expectation. So there was definitely a dichotomy growing up where I had these very powerful women to look up to, but when it came to everyday life, there were still different expectations of me and my sister because we were girls.
I would say my first formal introduction to feminism was at Spelman college where I completed my undergraduate studies. Through the coursework, the amazing faculty, and day to day interactions with my peers, I came to better understand the foundations of the feminist movement, and the intersect between race, class, and gender.
However, it all truly started resonating with me when I became a parent. In that moment, I realized how achieving gender equality was so much bigger than just me. I could now see how it affected my children and the next generation, it just took on a whole new dimension for me. It really was a huge awakening.
Raising a gender-fluid child
My oldest son, who is four years old, is just this amazing little person and we adore him. He has a huge spirit and so much personality. Around the age of two or so, he started associating more with characters and toys that might be perceived as “for girls.” He started toting around a stuffed animal with a huge pink bow on it. Some days he would want to wear his hair in pigtails, wear hearclips or put on dresses and such. As he has gotten older he’s stopped wearing dresses. He still adores the color pink and whenever he can he likes to paint his nails. Currently he’s obsessed with My Little Ponies, but he also plays Transformers and Legos and likes to build. On any given day, he renames himself and decides that he’s either Eleanor or Helen or some other girl character from books or otherwise. He makes it very clear that he's a girl and that he wants to be referred to as “she.” It has progressed over the past two years and we are very accepting of it.
We feel it's a part of him. At this point we are not aware of his gender identity, and it’s not our place to make that decision for him. If he feels like he identifies with being a girl, then that's perfectly fine. When we have asked him, he says that he feels like he's a boy, and believes that he's a boy. In his own words, he “just likes pretending to be a girl.” We've encouraged him to find toys in whichever gender aisle he wants. For us, the priority is for him to be able to feel comfortable and confident in his own skin, to know that whomever he is, whether it is Link or Hellen, that that's the person that we want him to be.
It’s been really interesting, and at times frustrating, seeing how people react to him. He gets a lot of questions about his gender when we go out. Typically, he's very forthcoming and says, “I'm a boy.” And when people ask him, "Then why are you wearing pink?” he says, “Because I like pink,” and he says it with such confidence and authority. It melts my heart because that's how it should be. You shouldn't have to, first of all, answer those types of questions. And at the age of four, the fact that he's able to do so without skipping a beat, it just really moves me.
Our experiences with Link motivated me to write a children’s book. In it, the main character finds out that there are certain things that “boys shouldn’t do” which takes him and his father on a quest to dispel this myth. The relationship between the main character and his father was an aspect of the book that I really wanted to highlight because men have an important role to play in breaking gender stereotypes surrounding masculinity, just as they have an important role to play in the feminist movement.
This is my first project, and one that is very dear to me. It took some time for me to decide to move forward with the book, I had never seen myself as a writer per se. However, I believe in the message of self love, empowerment and diversity that I am trying to promote in this book, and truly hope that it can lead to more conversations about gender stereotypes and how these stifle growth and self esteem.
Being a supportive community
In terms of supporting families like ours, I would say to start talking to your kids at home. Books are such an easy way of initiating these conversations, and they are such a powerful teaching tool, especially when parents might not know where to start. While there are not very many books on the topic, there a few on the market that address the topic of gender fluidity. We as parents have the opportunity to truly mold our children, the next generation, to make them aware of the fact that we are all so different, and help them recognize that being different is what makes us incredible.
Joelle Retener’s book, Free to be Incredible Me, will be available for preorder in February. Official launch will be on Memorial Day weekend.