Why can’t boys wear dresses?

The other night, as I was tucking her in bed (our usual night time ritual), I had a conversation with my daughter. Somehow, we got on the subject of clothes.

“I love wearing dresses,” she said proudly. Full disclosure–Lily is very girly. She adores dresses the same way that I adored wearing shorts when I was little. At her age, my parents dressed me up in the frilliest dresses that they could possibly find and would parade me around our village. There’s a suspicion that my dad must’ve put me on his shoulder too many times to show me off, and that’s why I developed a fear of heights.

But of course, my daughter isn’t like that. She’s about as girly as they come. And she loves the attention she gets from wearing dresses.

“You know why I love dresses?” she continued. Whenever she begins her sentence with, “You know why...” it usually means that she already has a reason. I follow along anyway.

“Why?” I said.

“Because it’s pretty, and it’s sparkly, and I can twirl around in it!” she exclaimed.

“Oh yeah?”

“Yes, I love wearing dresses to school,” she added.

“Does anybody else in your class like to wear dresses?” I asked her.

“Hmm…” she pondered for a moment, then said, “Victoria,” (one of her friends) and then she rattled off some other names that I can’t remember.

“What about the boys? Do they like to wear dresses?”

“No!” she cried, as if baffled that I would even ask such a question. “Boys don’t wear dresses.”

“Why not?!? Girls wear pants and shorts, like boys do,” I replied. “So why can’t boys wear dresses?”

She paused for a moment to consider. Finally, she said, “Boys can’t wear dresses to school because the other boys and girls would laugh at him!”

Cha ching. She’s right on the money. At least she understands the dynamics of the playground, I thought. But I wanted to make her think even deeper, so I asked, “Would YOU laugh at him?”

She sat up on her bed, pursed her lips, moved her eyes back and forth for a moment, and I can tell she’s pondering her answer. But instead she said nothing. Her face had that look that says, “No comment.”

Smart girl.

I love having these short little conversations with Lily because I can ask her these kind of questions and she always gives me a very intelligent, thoughtful answer. I want her to think deeply about bigger issues that tends to pervade adults’ lives, things that begin its roots at the playground. Societal expectations of gender behavior is one of them.

I also want to teach her to challenge the status quo. Just because something has always been that way it is doesn’t mean that it has to be.

It’s clearly obvious that in our society, if a little boy shows up to school with a dress on, all the little kids would laugh at him. That’s the reason why, if a little boy wants to wear dresses, he does it at home, when no one’s looking. I’m sure there are plenty of boys who raid their mom’s closets and try on their pretty things. But we just don’t talk about it.

Let’s not forget that in ancient times, men wore togas and skirts, things that literally wrap around them. In some cultures today, robes and skirts are still acceptable (Scottish kilts, anyone?). In Vietnam, for example, men wear a type of robe that extends all the way down to their ankles, making it appear like a dress, when really, it’s just another version of the ao dai.

For now, I hope that our conversation helped her see the other side of the coin.

Life with two

I’m sitting here sipping my afternoon cup of coffee after having put my son James down for a nap. Normally, he lays in his crib and babbles on for an eternity, sometimes as long as an hour and a half, before falling asleep. But today, he is surprisingly quiet right after I put him down.

After making my daughter her lunch (PB&J, cut into small cubes, and pretzels), I proceeded to finish the last eight pages of my book. Ten minutes later, I’m done, and I can smell the banana bread that I just put in the oven wafting its lovely aroma into my nose. Outside, I can hear the rain trickling down in small droplets. The house is quiet. This is our normal weekend routine.

As I sit here, my daughter is playing games on her iPad while she eats her lunch; the dishes need to be done and the laundry needs to be folded, but that can wait–I feel accomplished already. After all, I’ve gotten the kids out of the house, even on a rainy day, to the mall’s play area (our default outing location), and I’ve done some baking, took some pictures, and finished a book.

Come here, you
Random hugs

Several years ago, I never thought that I would be able to get this much done in a day, or even a weekend, because weekends meant that I was working nights. Four nights a week for almost a year. I’d get home at midnight and go to bed at 12:15 a.m, then around 5:30, my husband leaves for work, and by 6:15, Lily is up an running. Needless to say, I was very tired.

Perhaps because I was pregnant with James or because I was in the midst of the “terrible twos” I didn’t feel like doing much during the day. It was just my daughter and I, so normally we’d take a walk down to the park nearby. She’d throw rocks into the pond while the ducks glided by while I sat there, counting down the minutes until her nap time.

Back in the old days…

Back then, nap time was everything to me. It consumed my thoughts. Nap time was time for me to recoup, relax and enjoy some peace and quiet. However, at two and a half, Lily became less interested in napping, so much so that the only way I could get her to nap was to take her in the car (sometimes bribing her), and go on a drive until she fell asleep. Usually, this took about 25-30 minutes.

In the summer, it was tough. Back before we bought our current car, we drove an old Mazda that was not only a gas guzzler but had a broken AC. Thus, I rolled down the windows as much as I could. Then, when she finally fell asleep, I’d park the car in a quiet residential corner about five minutes away in my neighborhood and sit there…and wait.

Sometimes I’d marvel at the beautiful tall trees that loomed over the block. Other times, I’d wince at the thought that my bladder was acting up again (pregnancy woes), and I had to figure out how to relieve it without waking my daughter up.

Most of the time, though, I would sit there and read…or try to, anyway. I never finished any books, but finished many articles on my phone. Finally, at around 2:30 p.m, an hour and a half after I parked the car in the shade, Lily would wake up, and we’d drive home to greet daddy, who was usually home by 3:00 p.m.

On days I had to work, I’d leave at 3:15 p.m, and didn’t come home until midnight.

This went on for awhile until I had James. This little boy has surprised me in so many ways as a parent. For one, he is still napping at 2 1/2 years old. Besides his babbling tendencies, he goes down without much of a fight. He is the exact opposite of Lily in terms of napping.

That’s what came into my thoughts today as I’m sitting in the car and driving home with my kids in the back–how different can two kids be? I’m not just saying they’re different because they’re different genders; they’re different in so many ways.

You see, that is a revelation that I had today.

As obvious as it seems, it never occurred to me that the second (or subsequent) kid will be different than the first kid. If and when you have a second child, you should take whatever expectations you had with the first child and throw it out the window, because they will be nothing like each other. James, for example, will kick me in the face as I’m trying to change his diaper. He can be tough sometimes, but he gives me more hugs than I can count in a single day. Lily never kicked me whenever I changed her. She’d lay there quietly and wait until I’m done. I don’t recall any major struggles with getting a diaper on and off her.

Holding hands

Today, he kicked me as I’m trying to change his diaper. He also babbles incoherent words, which I assumed was something to do with the bottle that I promised him. As soon as he finished the said bottle, he grew so angry because I only gave him a 9-ounce bottle, and he was hungry. He screamed at me, asking for more. I managed to calm him for just a minute, then I asked him, “Can I pick you up?”

“Yes,” he said. So I did.

A few minutes later, he’s quiet. His head is resting on my shoulder. I’ve burped him. Finally, I asked him if he’s ready to be put down, and he replied, “Yes.”

And the house is quiet again. For a few hours anyway.

The last time I saw my father

I don’t come from a superstitious background, and certainly do not consider myself a psychic of any kind, but there were several moments in my life where I felt like I could see into the future. One of those instances was the last time I saw my father.

It was early 2003, the year that I graduated from high school, and my father had been diagnosed with lung cancer. He was anything but stoic. Passionate, smart, and gregarious—that’s how I’ve always known him. He was what you would call “The life of the party.” But on that day at the airport in early 2003 (I forgot the month) when I went to say goodbye to him because he was going back to Vietnam for medical treatment, his face was forlorn, and I could sense a level of sadness in his eyes, I knew right then and there that it would be the last time that I would ever see him.

And I was right. He died several months after he left, in late April of 2003.

Now, as I write this 15 years later, in early January, during the month that he would’ve turned 77, I can’t help but feel angry. I’m angry because he told me a lie—that he would be back for my high school graduation. I’m angry that I foolishly believed he would get better. Little did I know that doctors gave him less than six months to live. (He was in the last stages of the cancer).

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Dad and me, when I was about 16

When he was alive, my dad was really good at promises—or rather, breaking them. It was something that truly irked me as a child and is still a pet peeve today. He’d tell me that he would do something for me, and later on, failed to follow through. Like the one time he told me that he would take me on an adventure in the city, only he didn’t have the proper accommodations lined up, so he gave up. Or the many times he said he would get me a gift, but he never did.

The one gift he did give me was love. I felt it in my very first memory. When I was about four years old, I became very ill. To this day, I’m not quite sure how I got so sick or what plagued me, but I do remember that he and my mom made the decision that saved my life—they took me to the hospital, where I stayed for almost two weeks, until I got better. It was during my time at the hospital where I remembered my father visiting me every single day (my mom was working all day), and each time he came he always brought soup. After all, soup is a healing agent, he believed. He also brought toys and candy, which made me very happy.

For all his caring acts aside, he was not a perfect man. He carried with him a history of alcoholism, prison time, infidelity, and the inability to hold down a job. Despite all of that, I didn’t held a grudge against him, because he was truly kind to everyone and committed to his community. He volunteered at our church frequently and always gave money to the less fortunate even though we were pretty poor ourselves.

My father’s grave, circa 2009. What a bunch of grumps we are.

I came into the world to parents who were much older than average. My mom was nearing 40 and they already had two kids. Unlike the relationship he had with his sons, I felt like our relationship was different. My parents wanted a girl, and they got one. Thus, my father was never one to shy away from showing off his little girl. On his shoulder I went, and he’d swing me around our village as often as he pleased, which I’m certain is how I developed my fear of heights—being on his shoulder wasn’t as fun for me as it was for other kids. I was shy, timid, and scared. Mainly, I wanted to be left alone, to play by myself.

Not only that, he had a sense of humor that only exemplified his true comical nature. He was not afraid to play jokes on little kids. One of the jokes he always played on my cousins was calling them over to him with the promise of a “treat” and when they came, he would ask them to extend their hand, and when they did, he would let out an enormous (and often smelly) fart, which made them run to their moms and dads crying.

It sounds like a jerky thing to do, I know–we both knew it, but he and I always rolled over laughing. Deep down, I knew he would never do that to me, because I was his daughter.

I wish I knew more about his earlier life, but I don’t. I only know that he was the first child who survived out of the 15 or so siblings that his mom gave birth to. He had three older sisters who all died in infancy. Later on, he was married to my mom in an arrangement between their parents when he was in his late teens. I feel like his marriage with my mom is still something of a farce. He cheated on her with another woman and didn’t treat her very well when he was drunk, and I’m sure she was not an angel either, but they both learned to love each other over time.

Their love is the kind of strange love that I didn’t quite understand when I was younger. I don’t even know how I was conceived. They always told me it was a “miracle” from God.

It wasn’t until many years later, on the anniversary of his death, when out of the corner of my eye, I saw my mom hold back some tears that I understood the fact that their marriage lasted not because they were madly in love at first, but because they fell in love in the later years. My mom eventually forgave my dad for cheating on her, but she never forgot. She was angry at him for a long time.

Now, when I think back at that time at the airport in 2003, the last time I saw my father, I become angry at myself, as much as my mom was angry with me for not showing any emotion following his death. I’m angry because I didn’t tell him that I love him, and I didn’t hug him. I’m angry because our last exchange was him telling me to do well in school, and that he would be there for my graduation, because that was the last lie he ever told, the last promise he broke. But I wondered if he truly believed that. I think he did.

My mom doesn’t quite understand why I didn’t fall apart and cry over his death. When he left, I knew he would be gone forever so I developed a numbing mechanism, if you will. I pushed all the sad thoughts away and told myself that it is what it is—I couldn’t do anything about it. I was still mad at him for not taking care of himself. After all, if he had gone to the doctor sooner, or smoked less, or did this and that, then he would still be alive for my high school and college graduations.

Still, I don’t want to degrade the dead. I want people to know that he was a good father to me, that he did what he could, and he contributed to society with what he had—his brain. One of his poems still hang around in a frame at my mom’s house, above the makeshift mantel that includes photos of both of my grandparents, all long gone by now. His memory still lives in me no matter what.