Thursday, May 23, 2013

Pink Shoes

My husband and I were at Summit Hut one day when our son was about 10 or 11 months old. We were looking at the baby sunglasses, contraptions that are designed to strap on to a baby's head and babies are supposed to keep on. I have yet to meet a child not photographed in the advertisements for these products (photoshop??) who actually keep them on, but that is another story. My son reached for the pink glasses. I laughed and told my husband he had made his choice and my husband said, no, we weren't going to buy him the pink, he reached randomly. Ok, I consented, besides, he won't allow me to put the sunglasses over his eyes anyway, and they were a really expensive chew toy. At that point I turned to my husband and asked, "If he were older, like three or four, and could express a preference, and he chose the pink, would that be okay with you? "Yeah, that'd be fine, I wouldn't care," he responded, without hesitation.

Flash forward, and my son is now two years old. It turns out kids can express pretty clear opinions by the age of two. We were in a baby/toy store a couple of weeks ago and my little guy skipped all the toys and went straight for the shoes. He loves shoes. My shoes, his dad's shoes, his Auntie Zaza's shoes (he once came out with a pair of my heels and announced they were Zaza's shoes, which lets you know how my young fashionable sister dresses compared to his frumpy Mom). On this occasion he went straight for the girls' shoes and demanded to try them all on. Let's face it, the girls' shoes are way more exciting. They were PINK and SPARKLY and had FLOWERS and BOWS. While the boys' shoes were all brown, navy, gray, and an occasional exciting burst of maroon. So we tried on girls' shoes. He was particularly fond of a pair of white patent leather which no mom in their right mind would buy for a toddler of any gender because they would be black and scuffy and gross in five minutes. Luckily we were just playing and he didn't need shoes that day so I wasn't faced with the dilemma of deciding whether or not to buy the pink ones he clearly preferred or a more gender conforming pair of my choosing. I think you could rightly argue two is too young to be making choices about which shoes to buy anyway, but I give him choices between acceptable options all the time. So would I have let pink shoes be acceptable? Would I have spent the ridiculously high toddler shoe prices on shoes I knew made him stand out and would confuse people?

I shared the story with a friend later that day and the next time I was at her house she handed me a pair of pink Mary Jane-style shoes in a quality toddler brand that were just my son's size and said, here, I got these in a bunch of hand-me-downs, I thought your little guy would like them. He does. He loves them. He quickly abandoned his sandals which he had been demanding to sleep in two weeks before (also a pass on from the same friend--we are enjoying the windfall from her hard to fit and picky little boy the same age) in favor of his pink shoes. When we are getting ready for school or an outing I say, let's find your shoes, and he pipes in "Pink Shoes!" If they are MIA (a common occurrence with a toddler and two not-that-organized parents) he will wear another pair, but not without a fuss. And I think he looks pretty darn cute in them.

He has a short boy hair cut and his clothes look like little boy clothes and then he has pink shoes. He looks like a boy wearing girls' shoes. He is deliciously and, as I am sadly aware, fleetingly, unaware of how his non-conformity looks to others and he has no idea that colors have gender in our culture. One woman stopped me in Target so say how much she loved his shoes, and that her son had also loved pink until another child had told him they were girls' shoes and he had stopped wearing them. She expressed anger at that long ago child and his parents. But I thought, the whole world tells them this, it is definitely not the child's fault. Others have commented that I must have a very open-minded husband. I do, and I am grateful for it. His sense of his own maleness is not caught up in how his child dresses, and he truly didn't care if people commented on "how pretty she is" when our son was a baby.

I ache to think about a moment when my oblivious little man becomes aware enough of others and himself to notice or care that his shoes don't match his genitalia. But I am also curious. What kind of a kid will he be? Will he just slowly notice the divide between boys' and girls' clothes, and toys, and shoes, and lunch boxes, and sippy cups, and tooth brushes, and drift away from his interest in pink to join the other boys around the trucks? Will he notice but continue to like the pink? If he still likes pink will he be the kind of kid who stops wearing it when other kids comment or tease? Will he be the kind of kid who looks at them and asks "says who?" when they say those are "girls shoes?" with that horrid tone of voice that suggests there is nothing worse than girl-ness? Or even better, "so what" and runs off to rejoin the soccer game?

He may look back at pictures of him in pink shoes and say "Mom, how could you have!" and I will say "I loved you no matter what you loved then, and I will love you no matter who or what you love now or in the future." And I will kiss him on the head and know that like his toddler years, his adolescence will pass. This seems to me a far better outcome than him sitting on a therapist's couch at 35 and digging up the oppressed feelings he shoved down inside when his parents shamed him for developmentally typical interest in "girly" things.

In the end, I guess I don't believe that what I say or how much I control what he wears now, while I still have some say over it, will really make a difference on the bigger questions that the color of his shoes are standing in for here. If my son is gay, he will be gay, whether I let him wear pink shoes or not. If my son is transgendered, that will be true even if I only buy him only blue sippy cups. Right now it is just a matter of my comfort, and my own issues. I admit that I find it reassuring that he still is wearing boys' clothes and looks like a boy. Generally, I dress him like a boy. I know it won't be as easy if one day he wants to really dress like a girl, or act like one, or become one. But, that is all to come or not to come and right now, he is pretty damn cute, no matter what color he wears.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

What I Do

At my sister's suggestion I thought I would do a post about my work.  I am an occupational therapist. To those who are unfamiliar with the profession (like I was until well after my graduation from undergrad) this brings up the idea that perhaps I counsel people on the type of job they should get. Maybe I'm trained to administer those personality and aptitude tests with results like "congratulations you should be either a brick layer or an acrobat."

In reality, occupational therapy is a pretty diverse profession in the rehabilitation field. Every occupational therapist you meet may work in vastly different settings. We work with preterm babies in NICU's and with people creating their last memories in hospice. We work with young men and women returning from war without limbs or with traumatic brain injury and we work with individuals with schizophrenia working on reintegrating into their community. We work with children in schools who struggle with handwriting and with workers trying to avoid carpal tunnel syndrome. We help your grandma relearn to put on her socks after a stroke and help children learn to put on their shoes for the first time.

The thing that links us all together is Occupation. We use the word a bit differently than the rest of the world to mean, broadly, any activity that is viewed as having a unique meaning and purpose in a person's life. Sometimes we work to fix whats not working well with a person, so they can get back to what matters to them. Sometimes we work to change the environment so it works better for the person, just how they are. Sometimes we help the person find meaning in a new occupation and that helps them heal. Always we try to use meaningful activity not just a our end goal, but as the means to achieve it as well.

I work with children who are learning to eat. Some are new babies trying to get started despite a heart defect or being born with Downs Syndrome. Others are struggling with the transition to solids. Others are starting to learn to eat with their mouths after spending months or years being fed mainly through a tube in their tummy. Eating and feeding others are central occupations for children, and really, for everyone. I am also called a feeding therapist, or feeding specialist. I was lucky enough to fall into this area of OT thanks to my mentor and boss, Marsha Dunn Klein. She called me back after I made a phone call inquiring more about her practice while I was starting my job search after graduate school. She casually mentioned that I might have used her book in my feeding class. I said, I'm not sure, and moved on, thinking nothing of it. When I later looked her up I felt pretty sheepish to realize I was talking to the author of the book referred to in the field as "the feeding bible". I ended up taking the job with Marsha despite the lack of benefits and pay rate half of what I could have been making at a hospital or in the schools, because in therapy, mentorship matters. Marsha has inspired me to constantly strive to be the best therapist I can and to never stop asking question or learning.

The never ending supply of questions, of unknowns  of challenges, is part of why I love my work. I can's ever imagine getting bored. It also means I always feel a little inadequate and wishing I knew just a little more, but I'd rather feel like I have to keep swimming to keep my head above water than to drown of boredom sitting in the shallow end.

Feeding and eating is fascinating because of how complex it is. Just the physical act of chewing and swallowing takes a ridiculous number of muscles, joints, nerve connections acting in concert. And that can only happen after to you manage to coordinate you hands and eyes to successfully get food from the table to your mouth. Then you layer on top of that the complicated relationship between food and culture,  between mothers and fathers and their children, between the medical community and families. When you are thinking about a child and their eating you have to take into consideration their motor system, gastrointestinal system, respiratory system, sensory processing abilities, cardiac function, their family and cultural context, their individual history with food, and their unique personality (I know I forgot some, but its a start).

I could go on for probably longer than the attention span of any of my four or five readers, so I will pause here. In the future I will probably write more about my work. If you know me, you know I talk about work a lot, probably much to your chagrin. So this is just a quick orientation before I launch into my latest story about my cutest new client or the crazy doctor am working with now.

Let's end with the most important part: I love my job. When I was in college I wrote a list of ten life goals on a post it note on my computer desk top. It included "have a job I love waking up for" check. It also included "fall in love" check, and, "have children" check. So I am not doing too shabby.