A couple of weeks ago, Eli had his first soccer game. He chose to wear his pink, light-up sneakers. The ones with Disney princesses on them. To me, when I look at Eli, it's perfectly normal for him to be wearing those shoes. In my mind, they're not pink sneakers. They're Eli's sneakers.
We arrived at the soccer field to meet Eli's teammates for the first time. One of his teammates had his big brother and father there with him. The big brother noticed Eli's shoes immediately and said to his father (in a nasty-ish tone) "Why is he wearing pink sneakers?", to which the dad replied (in an equally nasty-ish tone), "Good question".
My initial response was a physical response. It's the same physical response I get every single time I hear someone make fun of Eli when they think no one is listening, or see someone laugh at him when they think no one is watching. It starts with a my heart beating fast. Then my chest tightens. Then I start tingling from my shoulders all the way down to my fingers and my eyes burn with tears.
I waited a few minutes to compose myself and tried to think of a strategy. I decided to give the dad the benefit of the doubt. I walked up to him, smiling, and said in a friendly voice, "Oh, was your son asking about Eli's pink sneakers?".
The dad looked straight ahead and at first, didn't acknowledge me. I wasn't sure if he even heard me or even knew I was standing right next to him. But he cleared his throat, smirked and said, "Yeah," with a sharp exhale.
At this point, I thought his response to me could be interpreted in a couple of different ways. My gut reaction was to assume that he was a giant ass. My second thought was that perhaps there was a chance that he was just embarrassed. After all, haven't all of our children said something in public about someone else that we wish we could take back?
Going with the idea that he was embarrassed, I said, "Oh, you know, we get SO many questions. Kids are always asking about the way he dresses. He just likes pink and purple."
And then the dad changed the game. He said, "Well, I just figured he had an older sister and those were her shoes."
No. No, he does not have an older sister. They are not her shoes. They are Eli's very own shoes that he just loves. Which is the gist of what I said to him. But what I REALLY wanted to say was, "I'd rather raise a son that dresses in girls' clothes than raise a son who's ignorant."
I knew this guy was just a narrow-minded, insensitive jerk. I don't even know his name and his opinion is unimportant to me. I knew all of this, but I still quietly cried tears of frustration. My frustration doesn't lie in the fact that people don't agree with the way we've chosen to raise our son. My frustration doesn't lie in the fact that there are people who are anti-gay or anti-transgender or whatever it is that Eli will turn out to be. My frustration lies with the fact that people give a shit about what color sneakers my son is wearing. Why does it matter enough to someone to keep them from being kind?
Later that same weekend, we took our boys to the state fair. Eli was wearing his signature hair piece...a braided headband with long strands of hair attached to either side that hang in pig tails. While waiting in line for a ride, a man in front of us could not take his eyes off of Eli. His eyes remained glued on Eli and his hair for the entire 12 minutes that we waited in line. I didn't think that Eli noticed. But I did. I was very uncomfortable standing there, feeling his eyes on us. I was irritated that this guy wasn't even embarrassed enough to look away every time I made eye contact with him and caught him looking.
Eli is much more eloquent about his uniqueness than I could ever be. I am humbled, amazed and proud of his eloquence and of his capability, at such a young age, to so simply and perfectly state the obvious and to not feel judged or embarrassed by it and to put it out there just the way that it is, on the rawest of levels. Eli looked up at me and said in a voice loud enough for the man to hear, "I think that man is confused by my hair."
I had to chuckle. I looked at Eli and said "You know what, Eli? I think you might be right!". I continued on and said, "You know what else? I don't care what that man thinks. Do you care what that man thinks?". Eli thought for a second and said, "No," so I told him, "Good! It doesn't matter what anybody else thinks. If you like your hair, you should keep wearing it."
A week later, I took Eli to the playground where a few children were already playing on the equipment. The older of the two children began pointing and laughing at Eli, who (as usual) was wearing his "hair". The same physical response I had experienced a week earlier returned. But I forced myself to sit back and watch how Eli would respond.
He responded by standing tall, putting his hands on his hips and saying, "I'm a boy and I like girl things."
He said it simply. With strength. And pride.
I was floored. And oh, so proud.
It was a beautiful moment for me as Eli's mother, to stand in awe, watching my son be so mature and grounded and listening as he, once again, stated with simple eloquence the core of who he really is without a trace of embarrassment or shame.
I don't know what the rest of Eli's story is going to be. But I do know that I'm sure there are many experiences like this to come. My hope for him is that he will continue his life possessing the self-awareness and self-confidence that he has been able to muster at age four.
Other people may be confused by Eli, but that kid knows exactly who he is.