My Butterfly Will Never Become A Caterpillar

  • Often the most innocent events teach us the subtle gender politics of shame. A personal essay that revisits a distinct childhood memory, but with deeper eyes.
7 min read

I am the only girl in my family.

When I say ‘only’ I do not mean that there aren’t any women anywhere else in my bloodline, that would be biologically and spiritually impossible. In fact, the generation before mine was built by an arsenal of women. A strong pantheon of diamond and granite women. Women who earned PhDs while rocking babies and swinging machetes, all at the same time.

When I say only girl, I mean the only set of identical X chromosomes raging in a heterogametic sea of XYs.

Growing up it was me and the boys. My brother and our 8 cousins. My maternal aunt had 4 children and my paternal aunts had 4 between them, ALL BOYS. While there were other children elsewhere in my family these were the 4 that made up the common core. More often than not, we were under the same roof, in the same bed, causing the same mischief and getting beaten with the same red bowed rubber-soled slipper while trying to negotiate our way out of even deeper punishment. There were four before me (Andy, Gilbert, Hans, and Karl) and five after me (the twins, Kevin, Cutis and Marlon).

I always knew I was a ’girl’. After all, that was the water and the gasoline thrown on every match that was ever struck inside me. It seemed to be the root of every ‘no’ ever given. Some of these ‘no’s were in affirmation of my strength and some of them were the cause of it. “No, you can’t because you’re a girl” often solidified my resolve to attempt whatever it was that being this ‘girl’ supposedly made it impossible to do, while “No, Chris, you’re a girl. You have to stand up and say something,” usually stirred a courage in me that was older than my pre-pubescent skin.

Back to me knowing I was a ‘girl’ but not fully knowing why. Besides the hair, the occasional difference in clothes, and being the least likely out of the 10 of us to stick a knife in the electrical socket, pee in the bed or scratch and sniff my own body cavities; I didn’t fully understand what made me different. I was clear on the difference between my mother and father and other adults but I didn’t think that these differences applied to us, we were us and they were the ‘big people’. As far as we were concerned rules of life, living and long-term anatomy were different for them.

I was 5 years old when I FINALLY accepted the physical obvious. My maternal grandmother always bathed the younger kids together. This had nothing to do with water usage or even making sure we were all clean. When I got older I realized she did this because experience had taught her that one child with free time was a danger to the house and 2 or more children with free time were a danger to each other. So, to keep my parents’ house from being burnt down and to keep us from further maiming or actually killing each other, we and all our nakedness climbed into the bathtub and she would ritualistically scrub and douse us with lukewarm water. I always noticed that there was a difference between us, but for the first four years of my life I thought that one day my ‘different’ would catch up to their ‘same’. I thought that one day my ‘butterfly’ would become a caterpillar. The boys never spoke of, or maybe they didn’t even notice, my difference. Most of the time they were too engrossed in playing with their ‘same’.

One day, me and the younger 4 took a break from Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood. The boys wanted to have a contest. They wanted to see who could pee the farthest and the strongest. We all marched into the downstairs bathroom close to the den and arranged ourselves as best as we could around the toilet bowl. Not truly understanding how this was supposed to work, I suggested that we stand sideways so we could have more space, it was at this time that Kevin said that I would be the judge because I was a … “girl”.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t going to work for me. I was the oldest of the youngest and it was my idea to stand sideways, so on that day the ‘because you’re a girl’ rationale had to take a back seat.

I decided not only was I going to compete I was going to go first. I told them that in fact I would be the judge and I was going to go first, AND they needed to step aside so I could sit down. They looked at each other confused, then they negotiated and agreed that I could go first but my participation would only count if I stood up. I was upset because I figured this was just another “because you’re a girl” caveat. I knew we all could pee sitting down so I was certain that they just didn’t want me to compete but it wasn’t going to work. I had a trick for them. If they could pee standing up, I could pee standing up, too!

As often as it is in life, at the end of that day there weren’t any winners. The contest ended abruptly when my grandmother appeared in the doorway of the bathroom, arms folded, red bowed rubber-soled slipper in hand. We don’t know how long she had been standing there. She often moved in stealth. All we remember is throwing each other toward her while we tried to save ourselves from the barrage of rubber slapping against innocent flesh.

In the retelling of the story to my aunts and uncles, my grandmother said she came looking for us because it was too quiet. She never shared that I had organized (remember it was my idea to stand sideways), participated and judged the foiled tournament. Maybe she didn’t know.

And while my aunts were slightly upset that their sons had decorated someone else’s bathroom wall with urine, they laughed it off with shared embarrassment and eased their mutual conscious’ with “boys will be boys”. Before they left they thanked my grandmother for doling out the discipline. That afternoon my grandmother dished out 5 spankings. As she later explained it to me, the boys got theirs for peeing on the bathroom walls, the toilet seat, each other and ultimately for just being down-right nasty. I got mine not so much for peeing on the floor but for being a ‘girl’ nasty enough to judge a peeing contest. She ended her explanation with the age-old question: “What would people have said?”

That day I accepted and understood 2 things.

The first being that my ‘butterfly’ would never become a caterpillar. No matter how closely I leaned into that toilet bowl the forces of anatomy and gravity were against me. What made my cousins and me physically different was biologically permanent and I would never be able to, and in truth nor did I want to, hold ‘stream’ with them.

The second lesson was around shame and gender. As a girl, my shame wasn’t just my own. It was tied to the other women in my family. The boys’ curiosity with the velocity and trajectory of urine did not negatively reflect on my aunts or uncles, but my desire to witness and participate in the ‘experiment’ did. My grandmother knew this and that’s why she did not disclose any level of my involvement. Which also made me feel like she was slightly ashamed, too. In our community I wouldn’t just be ‘nasty’ for judging this contest, I would be a ‘girl’ nasty enough TO judge it. Which might make other people question how I was being raised and what were the women in my family teaching me or allowing me to do. Taken a step further, other women might think twice about letting their daughters hang out with me because, clearly, I might make them judge 4yr old peeing contests as well, and then a whole generation of young women will have been led astray with the women in my family being to blame.

Even now, after this story was lived over 30 years ago and I am nowhere near embarrassed. I am still slightly wondering if I should share it.

How much should I edit?

Should I say I judged but didn’t participate?

Should I change names to protect the innocent?

And most importantly, what will THE PEOPLE say about my upbringing?

But, I guess the fact that I am still willing to share this memory is further indication that in more ways than one my butterfly will never become a caterpillar.

 

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