by Scout Parker
“Mama, how long is my hair now?” Avery asks excitedly, then squeezes her eyes shut. I pour the yogurt container over her upturned head, watching the water flow through her dark brown hair and into the bath.
It has gotten so long.
“About halfway down your back, but even longer when you’re looking up!” I answer. Her little hand reaches back, pinching the tips of her tresses as she tilts her head up and down, feeling for the difference that makes.
“Do you think it’s as long as Tauriel’s, yet?” she asks, her smile widened.
“It’s close, baby. Close.”
Her hair wasn’t always long, though she has always wanted it to be.
I remember the day I first held her. It was such a breeze of a labor compared to her brother’s two years earlier, and she was born with a peace that everyone in the room felt. I held her and looked into her squinty little eyes, admiring her fuzzy, broad shoulders and plump earlobes for what felt like forever. Eventually we had to shift positions, and just as I breathed a half startled “Oh!” the midwife said, “It’s a boy!”
I don’t know what I was expecting, but I remember feeling surprised.
But it really didn’t matter. I loved my little Buddha baby (as we called her). She was snuggly and serene and deliciously chubby, and she was in someone’s loving arms constantly.
Over months and years she grew, as babies do. My husband and I were determined to give our children the chance to be themselves, free from societal expectations, for as long as possible. When our son, David, was two we gave him his first baby doll (which he looked at, perplexed, for a moment before coming to his senses and driving it along the ground, “vrooooom”) and he had a play kitchen that he thoroughly enjoyed. Once he discovered trains, however, it was all over.
That kid could turn anything into a train, and pretty soon little wooden tracks and blue, anthropomorphized engines took over our house.
Avery liked the trains too, but it was interesting to watch how differently she played with them. While David would drive and crash and haul them, Avery would grab towels from the kitchen, wrap them up, and sing them to sleep.
“Look what a good job we’re doing,” I would think. “Look how free our sons are from imposed gender roles!”
Avery was about to turn three when I had her sister. She had relished every moment of my pregnancy, kissing my belly and talking to the baby. She wanted nothing more than to be right there at the birth and she was, front and center, watching with wonder as I caught her sister.
She talked about it for weeks.
“Do you remember when Isabelle was born? Do you remember when mama was holding her head, and it was still under the water?” She told each kind, attentive grocery clerk every last detail (much to my tired embarrassment).
I remember vividly now, though at the time it seemed so inconsequential, when she sat on the bed watching me nurse her sister. Her eyes were filled with awe and she sighed, “ I can’t wait until I have my baby. I’ll catch her coming out, and nurse her, and love her so much. Just like you, mama.”
I smiled and said, gently, “Oh, no, baby. What a daddy does is different.” I can’t remember the rest of my words, but I do remember her tears. Her sobs. How something inside her seemed to break, but my sleepless mind couldn’t put the pieces together and I could only hold her, confused, while she wept.
In the next year she started to slip away. Her smile began to fade, and even her tears. She seemed numbed, somehow, and I began to feel a vague, unsettled fear looking into her deep brown eyes. “Where is my baby?” I thought.
Avery had continued to be her own person, to always ask for the pink everything and select dresses at the store. Still I thought nothing of it, believing (as I still do) that this was what could be normal for a child allowed to choose what they liked without external pressure.
But the pressure was creeping in, like a slow moving fog. I began to get questions about when I would cut Avery’s hair. “He loves his pigtails!” I would answer with a smile, but the questions didn’t stop. Discomfort wrapped in concern: about hair, clothes, ballet classes, and sparkly shoes. Eventually, when she said, “You can cut my hair, mama,” I did, though I knew she would regret it.
A tipping point came when I was asked to make sure that Avery wore “boy’s clothes” to a formal family event. Hoping I might please everyone, I found a cute fedora, bright red pants and a playful tie. Countless people told Avery how handsome she looked, fawning over her, and I spent the night watching her retreat into herself.
I have one picture of her in that party outfit, and it punches me in the gut to look at. Her blank eyes, her forced smile.
“Where is my baby?”
In the next two weeks it became clear that something was deeply wrong. I cannot express the terrifying powerlessness that comes along with watching a four year old slip into depression. She was fading from the world, and everyone could finally see it.
As a family we developed a plan, and we got help. No longer was anyone to comment on Avery’s choice in clothes or hair or activity, and we would all set aside our own fears so that we could rebuild our connection with her. I cleared my plate and made time to play with just her, every day.
Within two months, in a grocery store parking lot, out of the blue she said, “Mama, I think I’m a girl on the inside.”
My heart stopped. There are few pivotal moments in time when we are aware of their importance as they are happening, but this was one of them. I smiled wide and kissed her forehead, saying, “I’m so glad you told me! I love you for you, on the inside and the outside, and I am so proud to be your mama.”
That feels like a lifetime ago, sitting here next to the tub, but it hasn’t even been two years. Our daughter is happy, passionate, creative, and fierce. Her teachers comment on what a brilliant soul she is, and what a joy it is to know her. Her. Her true self.
She rubs the water from her eyes and looks at me, grinning her wide, missing-toothed grin, and I can’t help but smile with every fiber of my being.
“There’s my baby.”
A California native, Scout Parker lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and their three, home-schooled children.