Cielo Wants a Car
Despite two gay dads' best efforts to raise their son with gender-neutrality in mind, his fascination with all things wheeled has prompted some soul searching.
Back when I was 9 years old, the “Free to Be You and Me” soundtrack was truly music to my ears. The album, the brainchild of Marlo Thomas and produced in collaboration with the Ms. Foundation for Women, featured celebrities of the day, including Alan Alda, singing songs that questioned stereotypes and advocated for tolerance. One song in particular, titled “William's Doll,” resonated with me.
… A doll, a doll. William wants a doll
Don’t be a sissy said his best friend Ed
Why should a boy want to play with a doll
Dolls are for girls said his cousin Fred …
As a young kid growing up Jewish, suburban and male in the Northeast, I distinctly remember knowing that it wasn’t going to be ok to not want to partake in any of the conventionally masculine pursuits. Nonetheless, sports made me anxious. It wasn’t called toxic masculinity back then, but the roughhousing, no-holds-barred name-calling, don’t-be-a-pussy atmosphere unleashed more of my belly butterflies than can be found in all botanical garden greenhouses combined. I would try my hand at Dungeons and Dragons — the Minecraft or Fortnite of the day — but I could only fake enthusiasm for so long before I rolled those medieval dice for the last time. And forget Transformers, Garbage Pail Kids or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: too loud, too gross and well, too much of a bastardization of the great Renaissance masters. I just could not.
I wanted a doll — lots of them. My parents didn’t forbid them, but when I wanted Barbie-like playmates, I was gifted a singular Ken. In fact, I got a Sun Gold Malibu Ken who came complete with tan lines, a towel and three pairs of sunglasses. If ever there was a toy to reinforce rather than rebuke a kid’s gay “leaning,” it was Malibu Ken. Ariel 1; Patriarchy 0.
Marlo Thomas and friends profoundly spoke to me. Partly because her friends included the fabulous Carol Channing, Roberta Flack and Diana Ross, but mainly because the music saw me. And if it could see me — the kid who had preferred arts and crafts to shirts and skins 10 times out of 10 — then it could see all the other me’s suffering through gendered pastime expectations. The album, I presumed, had to have a larger audience than one. It was cool comfort.
I distinctly recall moments as a kid, and later as an adolescent, when I would pause to be present, and then vow to myself: When you’re an adult, don’t expect, direct, assume or side-eye shame anyone, including your kids, into adhering to what I now call the gender-mandering of toys, games, activities, clothes, et al.
Decades later, when my husband Brandon and I were in the process of creating and selecting embryos to be transferred to our incredible surrogate, our fertility doctor offered us the opportunity to pick the sex. He advised against it, yet felt obliged to offer the option.
“Leave something up to chance,” he recommended.
“We had no intention of selecting sex. I felt strongly that any intended parent that harbored a strong chromosomal preference also entertained a misguided gender fantasy of what a ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ baby would mean.”
We had no intention of selecting sex. I felt strongly that any intended parent who harbored a strong chromosomal preference also entertained a misguided gender fantasy of what a “boy” or “girl” baby would mean. Yes, pick a “girl” embryo so I can frost rainbow unicorn cupcakes and stan my favorite Disney princess. Or, pick a “boy” so I can indulge in Friday Night Lights reverie. Delusional, I thought.
And so we went for the optimal embryo, biological sex non grata. Nine or so months later, we were in the West Palm Beach delivery room when our baby Cielo was born. It’s a boy, we were told immediately. We are all learning that a person’s sex is distinct from gender (one’s social and legal status and the external expectations that usually come with that) and gender identity (how one feels inside along a spectrum and how one express gender through behavior, appearance and sense of self). Still, any parent or caregiver can tell you, the vast majority of family, friends and strangers will do anything they can to reinforce a new baby’s sex-assigned gender identity. Pastel “appropriate” clothes and playthings, sure, but there’s also a lot of loaded language: “What a strong boy,” or “What a beautiful girl.” It’s an asphyxiating avalanche of conformity.
Brandon and I committed to neutralizing where we could: an abstract nursery in black and white; clothing in muted colors such as mustard, clover and Japanese-maple hues; and a chest filled with free-play, non-binary and genderqueer playthings: blocks, plush animals and board books about historical heroines.
And while Cielo will engage with pretty much any new or brightly colored toy in front of him, he leans heavily toward all things … cars. That’s an understatement: Cielo is practically a 2-and-a-half-foot neodymium magnet, compelled to bring himself closer to anything on wheels. His first word was "car," pronounced “cah.” He points to cars outside any window without fatigue. (Trust me.) And he will turn most any non-car toy into a car, pushing baby dolls and fake-food items on the ground with a “vroom” sound and matching velocity. Of all the “Little Feminist” wonders featured in his go-to book set, he awaits the Rosa Parks page … because she is drawn holding a small bus in her hands. “Car” he points excitedly, looking back at the reader and smiling broadly.
Now, of course, it’s my own prejudice at play when I associate man-made machinery with “boy.” I do catch myself thinking, “Who would have thought two gay fathers would have such a ‘butch’ kid, a mini-macho baby destined to grow up liking gym class and the Fast and Furious franchise.” I catch myself because that sort of thinking only reinforces what we are trying to dispel.
Liking cars is not a predestined gateway to one gender or another. It simply means Cielo likes cars, for whatever reasons. I don’t have to wonder, worry or waffle. My job as a dad is simple: unconditionally accept and understand my child, his essence and his wishes. Cielo is already who he is and has been since his arrival. Attempts to program, counterprogram or rebalance will invariably delay and stifle the opening of a parent’s most sumptuous gift: the revelation of your child’s distinct human singularity. We are, after all, free to be you and me. A car, a car. Cielo wants a car. And that’s cool by me.
Ariel Foxman, the former editor in chief of InStyle, is a brand consultant and contributing editor at Vanity Fair. Follow him and his son on Instagram @arielfoxman.