I’m not okay. You sure you’re okay?

My doctor has me on antibiotics for a tick bite, but I’m not so certain that these muscle aches and fatigue aren’t just the result of maintaining my entire body in a tensed state for a solid week.

Before our recent trip to Virginia, we hadn’t spent any significant time with my husband’s brother’s family in four years. They are, at least in my view, extremely conservative. (My Baptist-upbrung husband might describe them differently.) Despite the fact that we all consider ourselves Christians, we are 180 degrees different when it comes to politics and even religion. My husband knows not to share the political bantering that goes on between himself and his brother with me anymore. I get too riled up.

When it came to G, he clearly and calmly stated, “I remember they don’t understand about boys who like pink stuff. I want to leave my girl stuff home.” I suggested he could bring it for the couple days we’d be traveling to and from his cousins’ house. He not only declined but also asked that I remove the pink jibbitz from his right shoe, which was then oddly plain in comparison to his left, male shoe.

I found myself packing conservatively as well. I brought two books–one for the car, one for next to the pool at their house. I packed extra tank tops for layering under v-neck shirts. I started re-thinking everything down to the wrapping paper (High School Musical) that I used for a couple of belated birthday gifts. I had imaginary conversations with them in my head. What would they say about G in his figure skates? What about O’s Rapunzel doll? How would I respond?

I explained my anxiety to my therapist. She empathized and warned that three days was the maximum time one should spend with family. This is based on Dr. Bowen’s theory of family dynamics. As reflected on The Bowen Center website, “Eventually, one or more members feel overwhelmed, isolated, or out of control.” I felt all three the first day–before we even turned onto the dirt road leading to their house.

Over the week that followed, I was overwhelmed by my sister-in-law’s energy, bounding outside to show me the new chickens, goats and garden she had added since our last visit, and by the Bible quotes that adorned the walls. These were not cross-stiched messages of love, but stark black printer ink on white copy paper warning about sexual immorality, reminding of the importance of discipline.

I felt isolated from the conversations about home school, the reminiscing between my in-laws of all the trips they’d taken to Disney together, the constant references to low-fat foods, stories about their mega-churches, and advice regarding the latest alternative health fad, which my sister-in-law insisted could cure G of Tourettes.

I felt out of control as my children were swallowed up by the enormous house or out running into the endless woods or up into the tree house, or even in the giant van with their five cousins whose parents didn’t share the same views as I did on booster seats.

Worse still, I was tounge-tied. With anyone else in my life I could say, for example, “I disagree. I think it’s pretty clear that the founding fathers intended a separation of church and state,” or “No, actually, I do believe Earth is older than 6,500 years.” Instead, I just sat, running through all the wrong things to say. By the time something appropriate popped into my head, everyone had moved on to the next topic.

Meanwhile, G continued to show no signs of stress. He had fun–a lot of fun. He didn’t want to come home. He asked if we could move there. He asked if he could move there if we died. O was having a wonderful time as well. His played dolls for hours with his female cousin while my in-laws reassured me, “Don’t worry. He’ll grow out of it.”

By the end of the trip I felt seriously confused. G and O were so happy there. Maybe we were missing something. Should my kids be memorizing scripture verses, too? Had I put too much importance on living in a liberal, urban area when what the boys really needed was acres of open space? O ran out of the room during grace one night, covering his ears, yelling, “I don’t want to hear any more of these words!” I berated myself for being a “bad-Christian.”

But, this wasn’t supposed to be about me. G and O were the ones I was supposed to be protecting. It was their inner self I was supposed to be nurturing along on this trip, but instead I was falling apart while they seeming ran about with ease and enjoyed their time with their cousins.

Then, back at home, G promptly asked to cut off his hair, which we did. I prodded a bit. “How was it at the cousins’?” “Fine,” he replied. “We mostly just played stuff.” The pink jibbitz were never put back on his shoe. “I don’t really need them anymore,” he told me. Last night he added, “Clothes are just clothes. It doesn’t matter. I can be who I am no matter what I’m wearing.” Based on the kid I knew before the trip, that doesn’t seem likely.

I’m not berating myself for being a “bad Christian” anymore. I can see that I’m showing my boys a view of God that is much bigger than two genders. I’m more concerned that I didn’t voice my beliefs strong enough. I’m concerned that G’s newfound boyishness is reactionary and it’s my fault, which is ironic because not long ago I worried that his feminine side was my fault.

Either way, this is part of his own gender journey. He still wants to divide his room down the middle–half lavender for all his girl things, half navy for all the boy stuff. He still wears pink socks with his figure skates, so apparently he hasn’t deemed these things bad. Perhaps he has simply found a way to maintain his own inner integrity without compromising his ability to interact with the larger world. If this is indeed the case, and I pray it is, it’s probably a lesson I should get him to teach me before the in-laws show up at Thanksgiving.

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