Mar 9, 2007


‘Mommy, Anna says that girls can’t marry girls. But girls can marry girls. Right?’

My daughter asked this yesterday while I was negotiating a six-way intersection. I bought myself a few moments by responding with a ‘what, honey?’

‘In school, I said that a girl can marry a girl but Anna said a girl has to marry a boy.’

‘Umm.’ I said, more spacefiller. I was curious about what my neighbor’s kids in the row behind me were thinking. They’d stopped doing the ‘hunh!’ part of Kung Fu Fighting and were looking at me.

Six year old Sophie jumped in quickly ‘girls can’t marry girls, they have to marry boys.’

Her four year old brother added ‘yeah (giggle) girls have to marry boys.’

‘But Mommy, you said girls can marry girls so they can. Right?’ my daughter pleaded. Being right was a big deal to my four year old, ever since her six year old brother had begun to point out all the things she was wrong about, including the fact that she didn’t know what thirty-two plus thirty-two was.

I turned down the music (there were funky China me-en from funky China-town) and looked in the rearview mirror at four staggered sets of curious eyes. My children in the way back, Bess’s two in the middle row. I’ve had this conversation with my own children several times. But Sophie and Milo aren’t my children.

This carpool thing was tricky. Trickier than playdates where the kids are off out of earshot, or where there are so many toys and gadgets between them that subjects can be changed on a whim.

Back in the first week of school when we had just begun this arrangement, Sophie and Milo noticed that our minivan had a VCR in it. Jumping up and down as much as the nylon car seat straps would allow, they begged for a video. I fished for a video between the seats and found one shoved down in by the parking brake--a Veggietales video. We’d inherited it from a friend. I popped it in. Next thing I knew the whole car was filled with vegetables chattering golly-gee-like about the Bible and what God wants. My kids had seen this video before but have never watched it quietly enough to hear all of this dialogue. They usually only pay attention to the songs--which happen to be pretty catchy. But Bess's kids were glued to it--to every religious word. In my mind, I began to compose the email I’d be sending their mom once I got to work.

‘Dear Bess, I’m not sure what your feelings on the subject are but I think you should know that your kids had a Sunday School class in my car this morning.’

Bess’s laughing response soothed me. They had some Veggietales videos too.

So! Christian cucumbers, ok. Same-sex marriage? Who knows?.

Who knows what they’re being taught in their home? And who am I supposed to be right now? The friendly lefty mom who teaches other people’s kids about tolerance and opens their eyes to new and radical ideas? The play-it-safe diplomat here to reassure each kid that whatever they think is just fine? Or just a chauffeur without a glass partition.

My eyes met Sophie’s freckle-surrounded pair. Her eyebrows were raised like question marks and it was clear they were going to stay that way until I answered. It looked like she was getting ready to memorize my response, to add it in to her mental arsenal. To chisel it in somewhere.


I remember the first time I found myself prattling on to my son about marriage. It was at a time when he was being hotly pursued by ‘the kissing girls’ in his nursery class. An obnoxious girl named Zelda loved him, and got all the Graces to chase him at recess. He was a fast runner, and still now at six is eager to dismiss the whole ‘kissing girl’ episode.

The world was starting to come into focus for him in the way that happens when kids leave the bosom of the family and head out to compare notes with perfect strangers who are three. He heard from these girls about marriage, and that marriage meant that he might have to love a girl someday. This upset him (the kissing girls had not provided him with much faith in boy-girl unions) and he brought some questions to me.

During our otherwise old-style conversation (ours is, after all, a very traditional family--mom, dad, marriage certificate, house, mortgage, kids, minivan) I decided that this was a good opportunity to make sure I was raising a sensitive politically-correct kind of kid so I started to qualify my answers.

‘Who will I get married to?’ he asked.

‘Oh you’ll fall in love with some girl….or…um... some boy [did I just say that?] and then you can get married.’ I felt a sense of exhiliration--what progressive parenting this is! I am so cool. My kids are going to be so cool. He looked at me from under his blonde mop and considered this.

‘So I could marry Mandy, or Sari, or Lila, or….’

‘Or Hank…or Spencer…’ I added, encouragingly. Nodding like an idiot.

He looked at me a little bit weird. I wondered why I was pushing this. He was sort of happy for it to be a boy girl thing. I mean he wasn’t happy with it because he hated girls, but already at three he seemed to get the boy-girl pair bit.

It felt weird. Liberating (what great parenting!), but strange (should I call Hank’s mom and clue her in on this conversation?).

In his class there was a boy named Allan who used to arrive, strip out of his street clothes, and change into all the dress up stuff. Plastic heels, gauzy skirts, satin Disney princess-style bustiers, long dangly necklaces. As unthinkingly as Mister Rogers switching out of his windbreaker and into his yellow cardigan, that’s how matter-of-fact Allan was. He was one of the few kids whose drop-off was not accompanied by a parent eager to linger and make plans for coffee, or afternoon playground hook-ups. So none of us had any idea how his parents felt about his drag-queening around. We thought it was adorable. We were very politically correct. When my son was invited to Allan’s birthday party he knew just what Allan wanted.

‘Let’s get him some dresses,’ Amos announced. I balked.

What would his parents think? What if one of them would be ok with it but one of them wouldn’t be? What if a gift like that would really mess things up? My own democratic brother-in-law had NO sense of humor about his toddler son’s foray into make-up and heels. Even though I loved my son’s sensitivity to Allan’s tastes, I just didn’t feel comfortable getting dresses for a boy I didn’t know well, so I chickened out. I said something evasive like ‘well he gets to play with the ones at school, let’s get him something else.’ But Amos had already clued into what was going on because his second suggestion was this:

‘How ‘bout we get him a crown so he can be a king but if he wants he could be a queen, too?’

On some level Amos picked up a sensitivity to what was perceived as normal and what wasn’t when it came to gender. While the crown was a great idea, we couldn’t find one, so we ended up going slightly girlier than that. We got him a paper doll book with lots of stickers and dresses and fancy hats. Amos chose it for him over the rescue-worker books, and we figured that it would be a nice way for him to explore these ideas without rattling his possibly (but possibly not) stuffy parents. And I got to continue to feel politically correct and modern.

So I planted all of these seeds in Amos when he was three--when he was like our own little science experiment. And then when my daughter asked about marriage I remembered to give her the same ‘boy or girl’ version. And at another point in the past three years I’ve been called upon to tackle the subject of why James and Erin have a mom but no dad. In the same tradition of answering their questions as honestly as possible using age-appropriate language all the while feeling giddy by how matter-of-factly they were absorbing everything, my children now know that there are places called sperm banks where women who want to be mommies can go to get the ingredient for their babies that can only come from daddies.

My husband and I are proud of the messages we’ve given to our kids, and of how we’ve propped their minds open. But here, now, in this carpool I’m being put to the test. Someone else’s kids are curious to see whether or not my rules match the ones they’re being taught at home. I know Bess from lots of energetic playground encounters, but haven’t traipsed into politics or religion with her. Back when we all lived through the presidential election, I sensed that it wouldn’t be fun to compare ideologies with her. And I’m not sure who to be right now with her kids.

So I took the easy way out.

‘Well in some places it’s true that girls can marry girls,’ I said, smiling at my kids. ‘But in other places people don’t think it’s ok.’ My eyes met Sophie’s eyes. Her eyebrows relaxed. All was back to normal in her world. and my daughter could still feel backed up by facts. Thank you red states.

I didn’t lie. But I didn’t say what I would like to have said. I didn’t make the impassioned plea about all kinds of people loving all kinds of people and why it should be ok and whose business is it anyway.

This morning Bess’s kids climbed into the car and told my kids that they pulled the tails off of geckos in Florida over the weekend. Just as I saw my kids start to process this alarming case of animal abuse (yes I know the tails grow back but still...) I took another easy way out. I popped a Disney video into the VCR and listened gratefully as the minivan swelled with the sounds of animated animals preaching to each other about love and responsibility.

But I imagine there’ll be some explaining to do at dinner tonight.


Anonymous said...

Working with children there is always conversations about getting married and boys dressing up in dresses etc. An interesting comment one of the little boys made when all the dress ups were being used, he said to his teacher, " we need to get some more boy dresses". He was quite serious and the teacher agreed. Yes indeed we do.

Anonymous said...

‘How ‘bout we get him a crown so he can be a king but if he wants he could be a queen, too?’

Your sons kindness and compassion actually made me tear up a little! I just came across your blog and am reading my way through your archives. =)