While pregnant with Raines, I danced ballet as my workout 3-5 times per week.  It was something I had started almost 10 years prior, and by this point it felt necessary, like breathing or drinking water.   Dancing fills me in a way nothing else can – it is at once both meditative and freeing.  I love the exuberance, the emotion and the rigor.  There’s something about that combination of hard work and expressiveness that is hard to replicate elsewhere.  Dancing is, by its nature, a soulful activity.  You speak with your body, pulling from the very depths of your existence.  It is power and light and rage and beauty.  But is it….manly?

After class one day, I was chatting with a few of the other dancers.  We talked about how excited I was for the baby (my first!), and how I hoped (oh how I hoped!!!) that he would like ballet as much as I did.  At this point, we knew I was carrying a boy.   In a room filled with dancers, I received nothing but support.  But later, my friend (let’s call him Joe), also a ballet dancer, confessed that he was troubled.  “Shana, you have to understand what it means for a boy to grow up dancing” he warned.  “I love ballet, I love everything about it.  But growing up as a male ballet dancer in this country is very, very hard.  You might be setting him up for ridicule.”   Joe may-or-may-not have been gay (and truly, even in this context it matters not at all), he simply was a man who loved to dance ballet.

At the time, I didn’t realize how terribly, horribly sad Joe’s words were.  He meant them kindly – we were friends!  And I took them in the warm spirit with which they were intended.  It was only after Raines was born, after I started viewing the world through the lens of mother that’s Joe’s words haunted me; they broke my heart.

I don’t want my son growing up in a world with such a narrow definition of masculinity.  I want him to feel free to experience all that life has to offer – to not just feel his emotions, but to express them, express who he is – in any way he chooses!  If he chooses to express himself through art, through dance, through long soulful conversations, or through pounding it out on the basketball court or racing down the side of a mountain – I don’t care.  I just want him to know himself without the distraction of labels.  I don’t want him worrying about what it means to Be A Man – he IS a man.  He defines it by his very existence.

I would make the exact same case for girls.  There is no label broad enough to define us – we are all complex, multi-faceted individuals.  If you are a girl, anything you happen to like (baking, fashion, medicine, data mining, underwater basketweaving, construction) is YOUR version of what it means to be a girl.  So it’s….girly?  Yup.  By definition.

Of course, looking at labels this way means that they lose all meaning.

PRECISELY.

I want my boys to grow up feeling loved and accepted for who they are.  I want them to be kind and compassionate.  I want them to express themselves – their true selves – in any way they see fit.  I want them to be innovators, disruptors, pioneers.  And I want them to be brave, because the world isn’t always ready for people like this, and I want them to be brave enough to try and change it – change it by their very existence.  And so, despite the often-overwhelming messages of What It Means To Be A Real Man, I quietly fight.  We fight, Mike and I.  We fight by example, by exposure – we fight to show them that there’s another way.  That the definition of Real Man is a broad one, so broad, in fact, that it encompasses all men.  We fight to show them that some Real Men cry and some Real Men love and some Real Men dance.

So tonight, once Mike gets home from work and the scotch is poured and the popcorn is made and we’re all snuggled up on the couch, I’m going to turn on our appletv and play this video, powerfully choreographed and danced by a Real Man.

It is, quite possibly, one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen.

 

 

If any of you are Philly locals, BalletX is our very favorite ballet company to take the boys.  The Wilma Theater is small and intimate (you can hear the dancers breathing, hear their shoes on the floor, see the sweat running down), and the dance is a rigorous combination of ballet and modern, with both men and women playing starring roles.  These performances are so powerful that both of our boys will sit through the entire show (even four-year-old Pax).  Their winter series runs from Feb 18 – 22nd.

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These pictures are from a couple of years ago.  Raines will still dance with wild abandon once in a while, but it’s only at home, with just us, the curtains drawn and the camera put away.  But it’s in there.  It’s in that little heart – the grace and the power and the passion. I just hope that someday, when that soft little boy face is covered in scruff and he’s big enough to pick up his Mama, I just hope when that day comes, he’ll know that his heart – exactly as it is – is the heart of a real man.

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Happy Valentine’s Day.

xo,

S

35 COMMENTS

  1. This is beautiful. I have an 18 month old daughter and when I bought her a wooden train set for Christmas, my husband’s family raised their eyebrow at me (“isn’t that a boy’s toy?”), or I bought a kitchen set for her birthday, and my brother-in-law joked “start her young!” (and he loves to cook so I don’t know why he thinks this is a girls role). I fought back, saying boy or girl, my children will be exposed to cooking, trains, DOLLS (yes, DOLLS, boy or girl), anything they are interested in, I will support. Just sad that I have to defend such small purchases already.

  2. As a mom, it is a fine line to walk between honoring a child’s true spirit and making sure they feel accepted by society. My grown son was very into horses at age 5 and carried a My Little Pony lunchbox to school everyday in kindergarten. To him, it was just horses, not something feminine. He has always marched to a different drummer and I have tried to encourage that. He has always seemed to know his “true” self. It took a little longer with his sisters to figure out their true selves – they followed the crowd a bit. But now they all are incredibly eccentric adults who have landed where they want to be – my son is skiing and mountain climbing in Colorado, my oldest daughter is fighting for women’s reproductive rights in a large city and the youngest is backpacking around SE Asia – all in very different places. I hope you continue to encourage your boys to find their inner voice – it’s not easy to swim upstream in society – some are confident enough to do it and some are crushed by it. But having a family accepting you as you are can make all the difference.

  3. Beautifully written and very timely for me. Thank you for expressing so eloquently what my husband and I strive for while raising our children (girl age 3, boy age 1). Our daughter is the most true-to-herself human being I’ve ever had the pleasure to know. She is unapologetic about her likes and dislikes, which range very widely from Ninja Turtles to Cinderella. She’s worn a clip-on tie to preschool everyday for 2 weeks and thinks she’s quite “fancy” in it. Since she was a newborn, we’ve been careful and intentional not to label/define what girls should do or say or be. She is perfectly and exactly herself. We so often hear about the issues of raising girls, and labeling girls, and putting girls in a certain light. Thank you for expressing the same concerns and intentions for our boys. We plan to expose our son to the same things as our daughter and foster any and everything he dreams of – from ballet to monster trucks (his sister’s monster trucks, of course). Thanks again!

  4. Have people questioned your decision to take your boys to the ballet? I am realizing that I am very fortunate to live in a neighborhood (right in Philly) that is extremely accepting of whatever floats your boat. I thought I would share a moment I had recently that I hope to remember as long as I live. A few weeks ago, my first grade son was at a birthday party for one of his classmates turning seven. The party was comprised entirely of first grade boys at Bounce U (I am sure a lot of people have been there if they have little kids). After the bounce room portion of the party, all the kids go into the eating area, the lights go down, and the music comes on. I sat entranced as I watched a roomful of little boys dancing their hearts out. Not a single one was shy, embarrassed, or the least bit reserved. They were dancing with each other, attempting to break dance, and just having a great time. As I watched, I couldn’t help but wonder how long this could last. Would these same boys dance like this at their 10 year birthday? I sure hope so.

  5. So, this. This is everything! We have so many dance parties at home but I haven’t done a good job of making sure both my son and daughter see enough live dance…new goal for the year! And this video I shared in my FB page yesterday because it is amazing! I will be sharing your post on my wall now too:)

  6. Yes. Yes! YES! I adore ballet generally but that video…I mean the music…the dancer…the light. The LIGHT.

    As a parent of mixed gender twins this topic is near and dear, so thank you for starting this conversation about raising kids with the freedom to experience anything and the courage to withstand everything that may come along with it. And as much as it hurts to know they’ll face it, giving them the foundation to stand against ridicule for themselves and their fellow humans.

  7. This might be one is my most favorite Mom Edit posts. Seriously beautiful and entirely wonderful.

    I have a barely 2 year old daughter and I am really grateful for the struggles my parents went through which allow me the kind of life where I have the energy to be aware of my daughter’s subtle needs and expressions of self. It’s a joy to watch her discover the world without fear and secure in our love.

  8. Thank you for this beautiful post, again. I have two daughters and as (sadly) Number3 does not seem to happen, maybe I won’t be a boy’s mum, ever. But I adore being the mum of two girly girls and one of the biggest things I can hope for them is to have a partner whose mother shares your ideas on Real Men. Fingers crossed.

  9. Wonderful post! My 4 and 6 year old boys are totally into gymnastics, right at that age when they start to become aware of “boy” stuff and “girl” stuff. I hope the lesson that we teach here, “there is no stuff just for boys or just for girls” sticks in the face of some pretty overwhelming social and media messages.

    The photos of your sweet baby dancing his heart out are so, so sweet.

  10. Shana!! I have missed posts like this one since you changed from ANMJ to The Mom Edit. I had am so pleased and feel like I love your blog all over again.

  11. My three year old boy wanted a doll house for Christmas this year. So Santa tracked down a gender neutral one he could and spent over an hour putting a gillion pieces together. The next day my father unwittingly told my son “doll houses are for girls”. !!!!!!! WTF! We had to do some damage control. I told my dad that if my son wants to paint his toe nails, wear a princess dress, or play with a doll house his response should be, “It looks like you’re having fun! Can I play?”
    My Dad felt bad and got on board. I’m happy to say my son has lots of fun with his doll house!

  12. “I just hope that someday, when that soft little boy face is covered in scruff and he’s big enough to pick up his Mama, I just hope when that day comes, he’ll know that his heart – exactly as it is – is the heart of a real man.”

    This is the best post I have read on any blog in a long time. Powerful! I have a little boy, too, and can totally relate. Thank you.

    Nora

    http://www.thehealthyhaus.com

  13. I have 4 kiddos. I daughter and 3 sons. I pray that my kids know that I love them no matter what they like. My middle son loves Barbies, stuffed animals, my little pony, basketball, base ball and more. He has been so carefree about what he likes until this year. It doesn’t bother me but I think he is losing his confidence in being himself. It breaks my heart when he hesitates to say he likes something. I try not to make a big deal about it either way and just love him! Thank you for such a great explanation of how I feel.

  14. When my oldest daughter was very small, she followed her two big brothers in their passion for heavy equipment. From their carseats and boosters in the back of the van, they watched for construction machinery like birdwatchers on patrol. She learned to call out “Dum’chuck!” or “Bl’ozer!” or “Fi’chuck!” But when the talk turned to their own fleets of the future, what vehicles they wanted to own themselves one day, she had a definite ideas of her own: “Me have big dum’chuck, too, but mine be PINK.”

  15. Have you seen the artist’s music video for this song? If not Google it for sure. Also speaks volumes about the concept of what some consider a “real man” and tolerance of those those are different. It’s a very emotional and powerful video. Worth a watch (without kids though due to violence).

  16. Thank you for this as for all your work! It’s funny you should post it, because I was thinking about you earlier today, and this post chimes uncannily with what I happened to be thinking about. I bought a new dress recently (the first in ages) and tried it on for my husband and my two-and-a-half year old son. They were full of compliments, naturally (!) and my son said that he would like a new dress too, please. Well, what was I going to say to that? Of course I told him that in the future, when we’re buying new clothes for him, we’ll keep our eyes open for a nice dress for him.

    The thought stayed with me, and later, partly just for the fun of it, I did a search on google to see if any stylist out there had any advice on what dresses or skirts might look cool on toddler boys. Nobody (that I could see) had any such advice for me. Instead I came up with lots of search results of advice for parents *worrying* because their toddler boys wanted to wear dresses. (What?!?!?)

    So, anyway, that’s why I was half-seriously toying with the idea of emailing you to ask for styling advice for small boys who want to have as much fun with clothes as small girls. I’ve known lots of adult men look incredible – and, indeed, manly! – in dresses or skirts or other feminine attire, without it being ‘drag’. I wonder if there’s some way for a boy-child to do the same, without it becoming a joke about femininity? I don’t really expect you to give me styling advice on this matter, but (having read and loved the above post) I thought you might enjoy the fact that I was considering asking…

  17. Love it. There’s a lot of support for girls to play with masculine toys or wear masculine clothing, but not so much for boys who want to wear pink and purple, or who spend their days dancing and cooking. There’s a sort of quiet absence of support, or in some instances, outright mockery. I let my 3 year old boy wear a girl’s coat this winter because we had it and it fit (and he didn’t care), and I cannot believe the comments I got. Some were not necessarily critical, but they were still sort of like, “oh, that’s okay.” If it had been the reverse, the attitude would’ve been that it was sort of cool for a girl to wear boy’s clothes. It made me want to scream. Really? Does it matter if my 3 year old has purple flowers on his coat? Where’s the unisex children’s clothing, anyway?! Anyway, thanks for the post and the amazing link.

  18. Thanks for mixing in such a heartfelt post like this amongst the fab fashion! I too have a dancers heart and teach children’s dance classes. Hands down the most favorite class I have currently is creative movement for 2-3 year olds because the BOYS.ARE.ALL.IN! It is just such a joy to share the space with them each week. I just wish those fellas continued on in the subsequent ballet and tap classes at this studio (we get a random one every now and again, but they are rare). The good news is that many places offer boys-only classes nowadays, which is a great option. Of course, when I suggested my own dance-loving son give a boys hip-hop class a try, he informed me, “Mom. At classes they like *tell* you what to do. I just want to dance from my heart.” Argument closed. Dance on, my boy!!

  19. Loved this! As mom to one girl and 3 boys, I struggle against reinforcing gender stereotypes subconsciously. I would love nothing more than to have sons and a daughter who are confident and secure in their intrinsic value and who are able to express their giftings without fear of society’s reaction.

  20. Great post ! My husband is a professional dancer and it’s not easy sometimes but he shows our girls a different meaning for what a man could and should be. He loves loves loves going to work, which is not something most of us can say ! And there is nothing sexier than watching a man dance !

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