My 12-year-old son has long hair, and his two best friends are girls. He loves to dance to hip hop music, has been known to paint his nails, and his favorite pastimes are playing piano or losing himself in a book. He likes sports, or at least the idea of sports, but he has never excelled at any. He’s a bit nerdy—as interested in politics, history, and fictional book characters as he is in sports or video games. He hasn’t really clicked with any boys from his class so far.
This is all perfectly fine with me. The problem is, it’s not fine with my son’s dad. His dad thinks he needs to do more “boy stuff.” Whatever that means. My ex loves our son, that much is clear, and my son loves his dad, but this issue is causing a rift to grow between them. And I’m afraid it will get bigger.
My ex says things like, “You need some guy friends” or “Let me take you to get a boy’s haircut” or “Why don’t you play a sport instead of piano?” I’ve tried telling him he needs to lay off the push on gender roles. I tell him his words aren’t going to change how our son feels or behaves. The outcome will be that our son withdraws from his father.
But there is only so much I can say to my ex about any topic before he shuts down, or worse, retaliates passive-aggressively. So, what we’re left with here is a child who is confident being who he is, a mother who accepts him and all his quirks, and a father trying to “mold” him into what he thinks a boy should be.
The ridiculous thing is, my ex’s intentions are—in his misguided mind—good. He doesn’t want his son to get picked on or bullied. He doesn’t want his son to be the “weird” kid who is shunned. I get it. I also don’t want our son to be picked on or bullied.
The irony here though, and what my ex doesn’t see, is that rather than prevent our son from being bullied at school, my ex is treating our son exactly the way he doesn’t want him to be treated. All his advice and nitpicking sends exactly the same message a bully sends: You’re not good enough.
And, I believe, underlying those other more normal fears my ex has is another fear: that our son might be gay. It’s not something he has said aloud, nor is it something he would admit, but I know it’s there. He’s said enough low-key homophobic shit in the time I’ve known him for me to be sure this is something he fears. The last thing my ex would want for our son is for others to think and talk about him the way my ex has talked about gay people.
So he tries to mold our son into something he’s not.
And the rift grows. Because kids are going to be who they’re going to be. I hate that I can’t get my ex to understand this. You can model certain behaviors like kindness and empathy and work ethic, but you can’t force personality traits on a kid. It simply isn’t possible. You can’t force an artsy, deep-thinking, awkward kid to suddenly have hand-eye coordination and want to play baseball or football. My kid loves watching sports but prefers not to play. We tried. For years, we tried. All he did was sit on the bench, annoy the other parents and kids on the team when he was allowed off the bench, and complain to us that he didn’t want to play anymore.
This kid is who he is. And he knows who he is and doesn’t want to change. He likes himself. But I’ve already started to see the shift in how he behaves around his dad. He isn’t all the way himself. He’s quieter. He takes care to keep his hair out of his face so his dad won’t grumble at him to cut it. He holds back on his talk about his (female) friends because he knows he’ll get a lecture about how he needs more guy friends. I’ve seen him try to impress his dad with his piano skills as if to make up for the other areas he knows he’s lacking. My ex does express a lot of pride over my son’s piano playing, but he still grumbles about the other stuff.
It is clear to all of us that in my ex-husband’s eyes, my son is somehow lacking.
This breaks my heart. Not just for my son, but also for my ex. My son is confident, and I will keep bolstering his confidence and affirming him, exactly as he is. My ex will be the one to miss out. My ex will be the one who loses time and connection with his only son. My ex will be the one to lose, big-time, if he cannot get his shit together and unconditionally love, accept, and support our son.
But of course, my son is losing out too. He will get affirmation from me, but, sadly, it’s not the only affirmation he wants. He craves his father’s approval. And though my ex clearly loves our son and expresses it often, the frequent nagging about what our son “should,” in terms of gender roles, do makes that love feel conditional.
I’ll keep pushing this topic with my ex, for my son’s sake. I don’t want this rift to grow so large that it becomes permanent and impassable. Already, I am the one my son comes to when he needs advice or just wants to talk. Already my ex is losing out. At one time, I may have been delighted to be the “favorite” parent. But not like this. Not at the expense of my kid’s relationship with his dad.