Guest Post: How I Prepared To Raise Her

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How I Prepared To Raise Her
By Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser of Standing in the Shadows

I think most everyone, before their children arrive, have some ideas about how to raise theoretical children. Before my first was born, I distinctly remember a friend--also very pregnant--and I saying to one another that we would not be breastfeeding babies who could ask for the boob.
Long story short: we both went long enough to have nicknames attached to the act of breastfeeding. For my eldest, it was "na-na."

Seriously, though, I was pretty clear even before I started parenting that I wanted to support my kids in being themselves. Turns out, this can be a trickier endeavor than I'd imagined. My first, a sweet and chatty boy, loved Alice in Wonderland. He loved fairies. He loved the Wizard of Oz in just about every incarnation, Broadway musicals and wearing pretty clothes. He wanted long hair; he wanted a dress--and all before kindergarten.

So, you know what I did? I got him everything Alice and Oz and soundtracks to his favorite musicals and let him grow his hair. And I got him pretty clothes, including a couple of dresses, one of which he wore to my cousin's wedding. To sum this up in a paragraph makes it sound breezy and flip, when the truth of the matter is I thought a great deal about whether--and mostly, how--to respond to a pretty-in-pink boy, with a fierce penchant for many wonderful things, not one of them on wheels.

A few things helped. My husband was right on board. We happen to live in a progressive college town (somewhat famous for being a lesbian haven and with a commercial radio station boasting this tagline: Different is Good). Our extended family--ahem, the grandparents--are pretty easygoing about their grandchildren's passions (and at least a couple of them have big soft spots for Broadway musicals).

And during preschool, his best friend--also a boy--was as into Dorothy as he was to Alice. For two years, they played one extended game of Dorothy/Alice. So, as mama and papa, we enjoyed solidarity with J's mommy and mama.

For all the supportive people in our lives, sure, there were plenty who weren't so supportive. You'll make him gay. You're not helping him get along in the real world. He's going to feel badly when he's the last one picked at dodge ball.

Thing is, I held to this belief: to love my child--doing no harm by adoring Alice and favoring pretty--the best way I knew how I needed to support him in feeling really comfortable in his own skin. He's a self-assured fifteen year-old: smart, funny, able to quote Lewis Carroll and completely into the backstage aspects of theater, the law, Chinese and "nerdy" pop culture. He is doing beautifully. Most of the time, he feels very supported by his parents. I am confident that he feels loved.

Whenever I hear about the kind of teasing--whether we call it bullying or not--that singles kids out for being themselves I feel really fortunate that our initial lessons in parenting individuals making non-conformist choices were so positive. If you read about the boy choosing to be Daphne from Scooby Doo for Halloween, Katie and her Star Wars water bottle, Cheryl Kilodavis' Princess Boy, Sarah Hoffman's son, Accepting Dad's son, or Shiloh Jolie-Pitt rocking the boys' clothing, you see that being "different" from the stereotypic "norm" can evoke pretty strong reactions, negative and positive.

In extreme cases, a word like gay can be used as an assault, and can lead to violence, be it from others--as was the case for Matthew Shephard--or self-inflicted, like Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover. There's never a justification for bullying. That's what we learn from tragedies.

There are plenty of things I thought I'd never do as a parent that I have so done (you don't need a list, but suffice to say sentences like this have been uttered to my toddler: "Here, do you want chocolate chips in the dish before nap?" not once, daily). Supporting my children--there are four, the youngest, just about to turn three--in being themselves, though, that's stuck.

I've thought a lot about how after three long-haired boys--the fairy/Broadway one and two who liked construction and play soccer, now 12 and eight--my girl--long-haired herself, pretty feisty, and completely into shoes--is really lucky. She came into our family with her own "difference" in that she's adopted through an open adoption. For her, what this means is that she has a first mom (she calls her an "auntie" as do her cousins), cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents. Those special relationships ensure there's no room for a big secret. It also means that she's wrapping her mind around the "whose tummy" question.

With different particulars, as a parent I am extremely fortunate because again I find myself surrounded by plenty of support: warm relationships with all this brand-new extended family, peers with similar family constellations, and so many people who love this girl--for her feistiness, for her articulateness, for her agility and her artistic leanings--and in so doing embrace her story as part of the package, modeling to her that her story can just be part of the package.

I'm pretty certain that had I tried to push my ballet dancer boy towards karate in order to contain his him-ness, I'd find this task--facilitating the adoption story simply as Saskia's story--much harder. That said there are things about adoption that are hard; there are losses. Saskia looked sad and told me she wanted to have been in my tummy a few weeks ago and of course, of course, my stomach flipped and my heart felt heavy. Then, I reminded myself that I love her for who she is and I love her fiercely and we will together figure out how to help her be comfortable as a girl who came from one tummy into the arms of a mama and papa, who were, after all waiting for exactly her.

Check out Sarah's blog, Standing in the Shadows:

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  • This is a truly beautiful post, Sarah. All of your heart and soul shines through. Those are four VERY lucky children that you have & I think that they know that. Well done, lady. Loved the piece!

  • I am always struck by how even the most privileged, including myself, can wind up unexpectedly on the margins of what society deems acceptable. You can live a life unperturbed and then realize that the culture is no longer on your side. It is so important to make the connections between these experiences -- having a child who experiments with gender norms, facing the challenges of adoption -- because it not only brings different individuals who struggle together, but allows us to empathize with others who face similar challenges. Thanks for this, Sarah.

  • Lovely post. On the second read, I am struck by how lucky your children are. I certainly would love to be picked last for dodge ball and believe that those who want to be picked first would also be lucky to have you as a parent. Seeing your children and hearing them for who they are and who they evolve to become is a special gift.

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