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Walking Like A Man

I am not a former boy or even a former tomboy. My only brother did not engage in stereotypical little-boy behavior, and my father was the original enlightened husband  -- doing dishes and kissing boo-boos.

So in many ways I was unprepared to be the mother of boys. My three sons certainly have their tender, sweet, cheek-patting, "I love you all the way up to the moon" side. It's their "Hey, let's kill aliens with our light sabers" side that bewilders me.

For how to react, I turn to my husband, the former boy. If I ask, "Look, is this something we ought to civilize out of them?" and Haywood says, "No," I take him at his word. He's a guy. More than that, he's a good guy.

The problem with leaving matters of boyness to Haywood is that he's not always clear about how to respond when something "girlish" comes up. On the one hand, he's a truly liberated man who's at ease changing diapers and who weeps openly at sad movies. Yet there's a part of him that was uncomfortable when I dressed one of the boys in the lovely hand-smocked sunsuit inherited from an older cousin. Even our beautiful christening gown, a family heirloom he wore himself, gives him trouble. "Great. My son is wearing a dress," he has muttered at every baptism.

Which is why he had a minor crisis on our last shoe-shopping expedition. We were at an outlet store, and I was busy with our 7-year-old, Sam, who was attempting to tug on a pair of too-small sneakers. Joe, 1, was gleefully tossing box lids into the air.

Consequently, I wasn't paying attention to our middle child, Henry, who was saying urgently, "I want the red shoes. May I have the red shoes? I want these red shoes. Please can I have these red shoes?" And then, shifting to volume when repetition didn't yield the desired result: "PLEASE MAY I HAVE THE RED SHOES?!" From the back of the store, behind the rows of stacked boxes, a woman said wearily, "I think that kid wants the red shoes."

At which point I heard Haywood say, "No, Henry."

I turned to inspect the shoes Henry wanted with all his 3-year-old heart: shiny red hiking boots with a soft black cuff around the ankle.

"But I want the red shoes. Please can I have the red shoes?"

"Uh-oh," I thought. "Here we go."

And sure enough: "No," my acoustic-guitarÐplaying, literature-teacher husband told his son. "Those shoes are for girls."

"Honey," I said to Haywood, but then Henry began to plead his own case.

"They're not girl shoes," he said. "They're my shoes, and I'm not a girl."

Boys Will Be Boys

"Honey," I said again, but before I could get started on a lengthy explanation of how the standards for little-boy attire are less rigid than those for middle-aged men, Sam chimed in: "Aw, Dad, you should let him have them. They're hiking boots. Look, they even have treads that are shaped like trucks."

Ganged up on, Haywood turned to me defensively. "They're shiny. What do you call that slick stuff anyway?"

There was no getting around the truth. "It's patent leather."

"See my point? And what's that stuff around the ankle? Velvet?"

I had to admit it was. But I thought my sweet, pleading son should have the red shoes.

"Now, honey," said Haywood, "it might not be fair, but a guy doesn't wear black velvet or patent leather. The other guys will laugh at him."

"He's not a 'guy,'" I said. "He's a little boy. And this isn't an identity-forming event. They're just shoes. He'll outgrow them in three months and move on to Nikes."

A Joe-flung box top hit my husband on the nose. Sam and Joe collapsed in a fit of giggles.

By now several interested customers and a checkout clerk were watching the exchange, waiting for Haywood's response. Henry held the coveted shoes close to his heart.

Then, as Haywood stooped to capture our box-topÐtossing baby, he got a close-up look at hopeful little Henry, who stared straight into his eyes and said, "I love these red shoes." Then he added, "Please?"

And just like the Grinch, whose heart grew three sizes at the sound of the Whoville sing-along, my husband went from get-'em-ready-for-the-real-world pragmatist to indulgent dad. "Okay," he said. "If you love these shoes, then you should have them."

In that moment, I was reminded of why being married to Haywood is always an astonishing adventure. The other customers smiled, Sam cheered, and copycat Joe crowed, "Yay!" Henry gave his father a big hug and said, "Thank you, Daddy. Thank you for my beautiful red shoes." Haywood smiled back. "You're welcome, Henry."

Still, I know we'll be having this conversation again. As I paid, I heard Haywood mutter to himself, "But these red shoes are as close as you ever get to pink."


Margaret Renkl is a contributing editor.