As we were waiting for my daughter’s swim class to end, a sweet old lady came up to my son’s stroller with a look of adoration in her eyes. Even before seeing him, an abundance of kind thoughts were mapped on her beautifully wrinkled face. Her mind was geared toward feelings of pure joy, befitting for the presence of new life – an event, I must admit, that is only fully savored by those who have lived long enough to understand its splendor. New moms, with their haze of sleeplessness, often miss its subtlety and don’t catch up on this grandeur until they become of the grandmotherly-age themselves.
Babies are almost swallowed whole by the flattery of old women such as these, and my son was no exception. However, as she neared closer to the stroller, her smile delineated from its original beam into something slightly less bright as she exclaimed with confusion, “Isn’t that a sweet baby. What’s its name?”
It?! I took a pause before blinking and then replayed the words in my head. Surely I had been mistaken. Surely I had misunderstood. Did the old woman call my son an “it”? I thought it would be fairly obvious that he was a boy, with his blue and brown striped shirt and pant suit, pieced together ruggedly with a thick and mannish pair of sandals. And not only did his outfit suggest masculinity but his demeanor should have given it away. He sat up strongly, gripping the life out of his favorite toy monkey, gnawing and grunting over it like a wild beast chewing a bone. It? Him? Who did she think she was, mistaking the identity of my baby! I figured I would let her cataracts and her kind smile pass. She was old and didn’t know any better.
Then, a few weeks later, it happened again! At the grocery store checkout line. With a young couple. And they did not get a pass. They gripped their hands in a loving embrace, while peering longingly at my son, and mentioned casually how they were looking so forward to the time when they too would be parents. After their breathy sighs concluded in unison, and the saccharine sweetness of their smiles waned, the woman asked me, “So, how old is it?” How old is what, I thought. The aged cheddar? The Genoa salami? The Triscuits? I was lucky that they were easily distracted by their infatuation and not interested enough in my response to care that I moved ahead in silence. It, indeed!
These particular instances would have been easy enough to write off had they not become my new norm. It seemed, with each passing week, I was finding more and more encounters like these. At restaurants. In waiting rooms. At the post office. In stores. Even at weddings and funerals. Everywhere!
It almost became comical to decipher the ways in which a wide array of people could ask the very same question – all, I might note, in such a colorful and greatly varied manner. Some more polite folks, ever-fearful of a social faux pas, would say things like “What’s the baby’s name?” Sly and crafty, I knew these words were parsed carefully, concealing the fact that they had no clue as to my baby’s gender. Still, other more blunt types, culled from the ever-growing population that is free from the shackles of shame, would just blurt out abrasive phrases like “What the heck did ya have? A ding-dong or a ho-ho?”
Apparently, blue is the new black for girls. And there are no fire-truck or football appliqués big enough to denote boyishness. Nor even do the words “brother” or “little man” seem to conjure a masculine presence anymore. Clues flow freely to those who care to observe, yet at the end of the day gender judgment boils down to one thing – the hair.
My son, just like my daughter, was born with a thick heap of black hair covering his entire scalp. As a result, he never needed hats. He never felt the cool breeze of air atop his noggin. Instead, his fluffy follicles covered him like a thick shag carpet lining the halls of the Brady Bunch home. As the months started to pass, his mess of hair slowly grew to be more of a mountain. Sweet, wispy strands would protrude and wave in an uncommonly gracious way. It started to grow long in all the wrong places – like a reverse mullet or the hair worn by a student of Rabbinical studies. It was uneven, but in the most perfect ways; accentuating his already obvious (to my prejudiced eyes) cuteness.
I loved his hair. I thought it was beyond adorable. And, in addition to that, I considered it to be the only thing (aside from his entire body) that he brought with him during his transition from womb to world. It was like the last vestige of his past during that time, from that place. After his umbilical cord had been cut, the crusty vernix wiped away and downy lanugo shed, his hair was the only thing that remained. A sweet souvenir. And I cherished it so dearly.
However, as time carried us further along life’s journey, I started to realize how his hair was becoming more of an impediment than an asset – getting in his eyes, growing cumbersome; a nuisance which distracted his daily tasks. There were times when I would notice him moving along in pursuit of his favorite toy, only to stop, midway, and brush the locks from his face. That was when I realized we were long overdue for the obvious rite of passage. We had reached a new era and were about to turn over that proverbial leaf.
When we finally took him in for his first haircut, it was a lazy Sunday morning. We had no plans for the day. We hadn’t put a lot of forethought into the moment. It was an off-the-cuff suggestion to fill a lull in our weekend. We figured it would be fun. We thought it was more productive than milling the aisles of Target. But, more importantly, it was something that needed to be done.
In and out, the experience took no more than five minutes. There were no lines and little fanfare. Our son, as expected, cried big tears and screamed his way throughout the entire ordeal. This was, as we were told by the stylist, the typical response. But, after all of the wailing and protesting was made, the experience was finished. Behind us. Another of life’s big milestones checked off our list. And now there would be no more confusion – he had undergone his official transition from an “it” to an “he.” From a baby to a boy.
As we were about to leave, I thanked the stylist for her patience and told her how nice it would be that people’s confusion over his gender would finally cease. She chuckled, with a jovial lilt in her tone, and remarked with something that had never dawned on me before. She said, “If a boy is mistaken for a girl, it just means he’s a pretty baby. But if a girl is mistaken to be a boy, then she’s got a long road of hardship ahead of her!” I don’t know if that’s sage advice or just a kind adage from a person seeking a tip, but I took it at face value. And, judging from the face of my sweet little boy, with his newly trimmed sideburns and evenly shorn hair, I would have to agree that she’s right!