'Raising My Rainbow': Bringing a child up free of gender parameters
In "Raising My Rainbow," blogger Lori Duron recounts her family’s experience of raising a gender-nonconforming son who is neither “all pink” nor “all blue,” but entirely lovable. Here's an excerpt.
By David Burtka and Neil Patrick Harris
We first found out about Raising My Rainbow while discussing our twins and their development with some friends. It was the type of conversation that new parents have all the time. Mostly, these discussions revolve around retelling stories of our toddlers’ silly antics, showing off their latest and very nuanced finger-painting accomplishments (we can’t help but be proud), or if we’re really lucky, unveiling some new development in stroller-folding technology that is guaranteed to free up more trunk space for our double diaper bags. Why are strollers so big?
But, in truth, we scour these seemingly breezy conversations for any sign of parenting expertise we may have missed. It’s our way of soothing the nagging fear that some critical information on child rearing has been overlooked, despite our reading a myriad of books on child raising, scrolling the Internet for product recalls till 2:00 a.m., grilling our parents for the “wisdom of the ages,” and seeking the advice of doctors at the slightest sniffle. Like many, we are parents who want answers for everything.
So, we began reading the Raising My Rainbow blog. Mostly out of curiosity at first. After all, neither of our children had demonstrated any signs of wanting to push gender boundaries.
In fact, quite the opposite was true. Harper loves dresses and hairstyles. Gideon wants to take everything apart to see how it works. Our kids seemed comfortable in this regard and, except that none of Gideon’s cars have wheels on them, we were too. So, we decided to accept our living room as a miniature auto body shop and moved on.
But we kept reading the blog (and later the book you’re sure to pick up and won’t be able to put down). We were struck by the stories about C.J. As far as we know, Raising My Rainbow is the first book published by a parent of a gender nonconforming child. We became enthralled by the challenges he and his parents face, which are so different than ours. We admired their bravery for striking out into uncharted territory and wondered if maybe it was the bravery of little C.J. that gives them that strength. After all, there’s something inherently powerful and beautiful about a child’s natural unobstructed instincts for play and creativity. We see it in our own children every day. But it also takes a lot of consideration to know how to best balance a child’s instincts with the need to guide and protect them. It’s our role as parents. We were fascinated with the daring balance C.J.’s family chose to strike and empathized with their fear of not knowing what the outcome of their parenting choices would be.
But, beyond being fascinated with this family and awed by their level of communication and trust, that nagging blip was still there on our baby radar, searching for that missing kernel of knowledge. . . . What was the takeaway for us?
Then it hit us. Despite how unique this book’s story is, in it we found a commonality that all families share. We all want what’s best for our children. We are all desperate to make the right decisions for them, often in the face of a lot of very serious unknowns. We may not all agree with each other’s choices, but in the end, we share one thing: we would give anything, absolutely anything, to see them grow up happy and healthy.
Parenting is a scary place to be, for all of us. No matter what scope of challenges our little bundles of joy present. It’s certainly the biggest, most challenging role we’ve ever taken on. And one we’re so glad to not have to take on alone.
My five-year-old son, C.J., is ready for school. He’s wearing his favorite pink-and-white striped polo shirt and khaki shorts. His teeth are brushed and so is his short auburn hair.
He’s standing in front of the full-length mirror in my bedroom, where he feels close to me, as I get dressed for work. I brush my brown hair, create a side part, and pull it back into a low ponytail. He pretend-braids his imaginary long blonde hair and ties a bow at the end. I slip on silver hoop earrings and fasten them. He pretends to do the same. I zip up the back of my dress as he slides on a few revolutions of imaginary lipstick. I put on my black high heels and he straightens his imaginary tiara. I give myself a spritz of perfume as he arrives beside me and puffs out his chest. I give him a pretend spray or two. I grab my computer bag, he grabs his Monster High lunch box, and we head out the door— he to kindergarten and I to the office.
As we part ways for the day, I say to him, “I love you no matter what.” It’s the absolute truth. There are no conditions or expectations. I love him no matter what.
Hours later, I load my smiling son into the car. As I drive home, he pulls papers out of his folder to show me. He holds up a worksheet on which he has been practicing writing the letter B. “B is for Bear,” the worksheet says. C.J. colored his bear pink and purple with long blonde hair, hoop earrings, red lipstick, and long pink fingernails.
“Look, Mommy, my bear’s fingernails match my fingernails!” he squeals in giddy delight, kicking his feet, which dangle down from his booster seat, his pink polka- dot Minnie Mouse socks peeking out from his mint green tennis shoes.
“They sure do,” I say as I stop at a traffic light and turn to smile at my special boy. His pink glitter fingernails sparkle in the sun as he holds them next to his bear’s fingernails for me to compare and admire.
“I picked the color special. My teacher said we could color the bear any colors we wanted. I made sure I asked. I didn’t want to color mine brown like real bears. Brown is boring,” he says. I will learn later that all of the other kids colored their bears traditional colors like white, brown, and black. My son has always shied away from the traditional, the “boring.”
When we get home, C.J. dashes up the stairs to his Monster High– themed bedroom to change out of his school clothes and into his pink Hello Kitty skirt and white lace tank top. Every day I can almost hear and feel him exhale when he changes out of his “school clothes” and into his “dress-up clothes.” It’s as if, for the first time all day, he is truly comfortable. He clips on his pink rhinestone butterfly earrings and, as he flits down the stairs holding a Barbie doll, I catch a glimpse of his Superman boxer briefs.
As I cook dinner, he helps himself to a fresh piece of white paper and sketches what looks like a girl with long red hair, full pink lips in the shape of a puffy heart, a blue dress, rainbow tights, red shoes, a purple tiara, hazel green eyes, and a dozen freckles that rest on the bridge of her feminine nose. I don’t have to ask who the girl in the picture is; I know that it is my son. I’d recognize him anywhere.
C.J. is gender nonconforming, gender creative, gender fluid, gender independent, gender variant, has gender identity disorder, or whatever you prefer to call it. For more than half of his life, my son hasn’t conformed to traditional gender norms. As C.J. explains it, he’s “a boy who likes girl stuff and wants to be treated like a girl.”
My firstborn son, Chase, arrives home from flag football practice, bounding through the door, dropping his backpack in the middle of the kitchen floor as he moves toward the fridge for a snack. As I tell him that dinner is almost ready and snacking is not an option, I kiss the top of his head. He is sweaty and smells like elementary school and pigskin practice— a mix of playground, lunch, number-two pencils, leather, and wet grass.
Chase is all boy and always has been. He’s like his dad in that respect. My husband, Matt, is my high-school sweetheart and has been for more than eighteen years. He’s an Irishman with a heart of gold hidden underneath his tough-guy façade and ever-present scowl. He has delicious strawberry blonde hair, light blue eyes, and broad, strong shoulders. He’s a guy’s guy with a motorcycle, over-sized truck, classic car, pool table, dartboard, and kegerator.
Matt and I thought, when we had a second boy, that we would just get more of the same, that when Chase finished a particular phase or stage, C.J. would enter it and we’d do it all over again. We thought wrong.
We thought that our two boys might have slightly different interests. One might like baseball more, while the other preferred soccer. One might like LEGOs, while the other preferred Hot Wheels. We anticipated that their taste in “boy things” might differ slightly. What we didn’t anticipate was that one of our boys might like “girl toys,” “girl clothes,” and hanging out with girls in general. We never, in a million years, thought that we would have a boy who was a girl at heart.
On the gender-variation spectrum of super-macho-masculine on the left all the way to super-girly-feminine on the right, C.J. slides fluidly in the middle; he’s neither all pink nor all blue. He’s a muddled mess or a rainbow creation, depending on how you look at it. Matt and I have decided to see the rainbow, not the muddle. But we didn’t always see it that way.
Initially, the sight of our son playing with girl toys or wearing girl clothes made our chests tighten, forged a lump in our throats, and, at times, made us want to hide him. There was anger, anxiety, and fear. We’ve evolved as parents as our younger son has evolved into a fascinating, vibrant person who is creative with gender. Sometimes, when I think of how we behaved as parents early in C.J.’s gender nonconformity, I’m ashamed and embarrassed.
Excerpted from Raising My Rainbow: Adventures in Raising a Fabulous, Gender Creative by Lori Duron. Copyright © 2013 by Lori Duron. Published by Broadway Books, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company.