“I have two girlfriends,” said my 6-year old son, Bryan, between bites of his mac-n-cheese dinner. His 8-year old sister gave him a raised eyebrow look that said, ‘Hmmm, maybe you’re more interesting than I thought.’
“Who are they?” she asked. But Bryan wasn’t finished with his thought. “And I also have a boyfriend,” he said with a happy sigh, naming a first-grader from our neighborhood. Now he had our full attention.
“You can’t have a boyfriend!” protested Karla.
My spouse, Snip, and I shot each other puzzled looks across the table. We had embraced gender-balanced parenting, resisting the “boys will be boys” or the “just like a girl” labels for our kids. When Karla wanted to join the boys at school playing football, we bought her a pigskin to practice her spirals. Yet, she was the same kid who enjoyed playing with her dollhouse and wearing fancy clothes.
While swimming at a local pool, another child told Bryan that his pink swim goggles were for girls. Bryan looked confused. “No they’re not!” he exclaimed. “They’re for me.” Pink may have been his favorite color, but getting dirty, playing with cars and trunks and yelling were also high on his list. We were proud that both our kids seemed willing and able to define and defend their own emerging sense of self despite a world that sometimes operated on gender autopilot.
But Karla’s comment suggested perhaps she saw the world in a more exclusive fashion than we thought. Had our young daughter somehow already been socialized to accept relationships in primarily heterosexual terms? Having adopted the siblings from foster care at ages 5 and 7, had earlier environments influenced her behavior? Where had we gone wrong? Had we allowed her to watch too many Hannah Montana shows? Was she challenging the two-mom dynamic that defined our family?
In her book, Lesbian and Gay Parents and Their Children, Dr. Abbie Goldberg, Associate Professor of Psychology at Clark University, explores assumptions about “the family.” Gay or straight, says Goldberg, “family is the principal context in which human development takes place. (Yet) it is not a static institution but one that is constantly being reworked, reshaped, reimagined, and reenacted in complex and dynamic ways.”
Perhaps Karla’s comment reflected a realignment in our family. We decided to probe her feelings without passing judgment.
“Karla, honey,” I said, “why can’t Bryan have a boyfriend?”
“Because, Mama,” she said her voice rising, “that boy is my boyfriend.” Snip and I relaxed. Competition and diversity were alive and well in our home.