Love Isn’t a Body Part

Today at breakfast, my son Felix sat in his booster seat at the dining room table, mixing banana yogurt into a bowl of Frosted Mini-Wheats.

“I love my hands,” he marveled, holding up his spoon, and admiring his chubby fist. He turned to his big brother. “What’s your favorite body part, Milo?”

Milo, age eight, was slumped over his bagel, his right foot absent-mindedly kicking the leg of the table. “My butt!” he declared loudly and without hesitation, grinning at his brother, and the two of them dissolved into giggles.

Once he’d recovered, Felix looked over at me. “Mama, what’s your favorite part?” Felix asked.

“Sorry…favorite…of what?” I asked, digging through the Tupperware drawer to find the lunchboxes for camp.

“Your favorite part of your body,” Felix repeated, patiently.

“Um…my brain.” I said, distractedly, as I poured coffee into a travel mug.

“Your brain?” He was incredulous. “No, it’s not,” he said, shaking his head with the flat certainty of a someone who has just turned four. “My favorite part of you is your hair and your face. And your love.”

Between the two of them, the kids easily ask fifty questions every day.

I set down my cup and turned to smile at him, really seeing him for the first time all morning. His blond curls were reaching out from his head in every direction, and his green turtle pajamas were flecked with banana yogurt.  “Love isn’t a body part,” I reminded him.

“Well, it’s still my favorite part,” he said, unfazed. “Next time I’ll ask you what you think the best part of your whole self is, not just your body.”

“That is definitely a better question,” I agreed.

Between the two of them, the kids easily ask fifty questions every day. Some are simple. “Is Peru a real place?” “How old is Nana?” “Can you take a train all the way to Africa?”  Some of them have answers that I just need to find for them, “Who invented cream cheese?”  “Do pelicans migrate?” Some questions, they really want to just answer themselves, but with an audience: “Do you know what kind of pickles I like best?” “How strong do you think I am?” Some of them defy reason and reality. “What is the opposite of pink?” “How old do you have to be to get shot into outer space at a birthday party?” Some of the most baffling ones come during the pre-dawn hours, when I am not fit to answer any questions at all: “Has anyone ever brought a horse into a submarine?” “Do we have handcuffs?” and “Which is more dangerous: the fireplace or the grill?”

Our house is full of questions. Some are benign, some are funny, and others are crushing and unanswerable. It baffles me that once you have children, you’re expected to have answers in a way that you never were before. It’s not that you’re automatically smarter or better informed. If anything, you’re exhausted, dulled, and disoriented after becoming a mother. Yet somehow you are being called upon, for arguably the first time in your life, to explain exactly what a cloud is, or to know if lobsters have teeth.

Along with my children, these questions tag along behind me, tugging the hem of my dress, collecting like crumbs in the bottom of my purse, a background din in the soundtrack of my life, and I wonder sometimes if I am really giving my kids any answers at all.

“Why did he say nice legs?” Felix wondered out loud. “That must be his favorite body part.”

That same evening after dinner, I buckled the kids into the car to go return some library books. The sun was setting, and they were in high spirits, glad to be out in the warm summer dusk. As we entered the crosswalk after leaving the library, I noticed a man watching us intently. He stood up from the bench he’d been sitting on, and began to swagger towards us. “Hey!” he yelled belligerently. “You! Nice legs!”

Even from this distance, I could tell he was someone I would loosely describe as “part of the problem.” I was holding Milo’s and Felix’s hands in the crosswalk, and I quickened my stride, gripping their small fingers tighter as I pulled them along. They both looked over at the man, surprised. “That’s rude,” I heard Milo mumble under his breath.

“Check out this MILF!” the man shouted to the empty street, as he lurched around the sidewalk, pointing his arm in our direction. My face went hot with anger and rising panic. There was no one around. I wanted to reach for my phone, but I didn’t want to let go of the kids’ hands. As they trotted along beside me, I sensed the question coming. “What’s a MILF?” they both asked, in unison. “We will talk about it in the car,” I answered in a firm, low voice.

“Why did he say nice legs?” Felix wondered out loud. “That must be his favorite body part.”

Milo sighed, exasperated. “You can’t just talk about other people’s bodies, Felix. Especially strangers. It’s rude. Mama’s body is no one else’s business but her own.” He squeezed my hand tighter, and matched my increasing pace, practically jogging now.

But every once in a while there are these moments of grace, where I can see that what I said somewhere along the way sank into their heads.

Felix was quiet for a few seconds, appearing to consider this, half-tripping as he was pulled along. “He must not be able to see your love, which is your best part,” Felix concluded. “You are rude!” he called over his shoulder in the man’s direction, as we approached our car.

We climbed in, and their question about MILF’s was mercifully forgotten once I turned on some music. I rolled down the windows and turned up the volume, smiling at the sound of the two of them singing and making each other laugh in the backseat.

I met Milo’s brown eyes in the rear view mirror, and marveled how, at eight years old, he seemed so big and so small to me, all at once. As a feminist mother of boys (and in particular, white boys, who will grow up with all the privilege that brings), I know how important it is to teach them how to call out toxic masculinity, actively reject misogyny, and show respect for all human beings. I can’t help but worry that I do this in a way that is inconsistent, clumsy, or confusing to them. But every once in a while there are these moments of grace, where I can see that what I said somewhere along the way sank into their heads. My four-year old attempted to shame cat-calling, after my eight-year old explained to him why it was wrong. They did while I stood in between them, holding their hands, but it still gives me hope that they’ll do it again someday without me, on someone else’s behalf, throughout their lives. Even though I often feel like I don’t have the answers they need—that I let them down or otherwise fall short on a daily basis—they are figuring something out, it seems.  We are figuring it out together.

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