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As They Like It

Learning to Follow My Child’s Lead

ISSUE:  Fall 2023


Act I 

I want my students to fall madly in love with Rosalind. She’s my favorite of all Shakespeare’s heroines, I tell them, pressing my hand to my heart, pretending to swoon. They watch me gamely from their desks—the boys with their 2009 Justin Bieber bowl cuts, the girls in their UGGs, all of them the sort of ambitious student who would actually choose a course on Shakespearean comedy for their senior English elective.

It’s my first time teaching As You Like It, a play rarely included on high school syllabi, though I’ve never understood why. There’s no Shakespeare tale more attuned to the restless yearning of the teenage heart than that of Rosalind, who disguises herself as a shepherd named Ganymede and flees her uncle’s oppressive court for the lush and embracing Forest of Arden. There, she and her cousin Celia, posing as Ganymede’s sister, consort with the local rustics and engage in the sorts of activities that high schoolers love: flouting conventions, philosophizing, pursuing their crushes, cracking dirty jokes. Plus, it’s in As You Like It that the famous “All the world’s a stage” speech appears, and who better to contemplate this notion than teenagers, just now realizing that everyone is walking around pretending?

Over the following weeks, I’ll introduce my students to the five-act structure and the themes of pastoral drama and the main divergence between comedy and tragedy (in the former, things go awry and all is mended; in the latter, things go awry and everyone dies). But my true goal—the goal that keeps me awake at night tinkering with lesson plans, the goal that makes me feel the work that I’ve chosen matters—is to use this play to convince these future custodians of the world they must all be feminists. 

I start by passing around a handout: three Elizabethan men of letters extoling the womanly virtues. “There is nothing that becommeth a maid better than soberness, silence, shamefastness, and chastitie,” we’re informed by Thomas Bentley, compiler of a 1,500-page women’s prayer book—and it doesn’t take long for my students to conclude that this line of thinking persists. I take volunteers to act out Rosalind’s first scene: “Look,” I say, “how she shatters this absurd standard with her wit and eloquence!” and then watch with satisfaction as they scribble in their books. I share with them a fact I love, which is that Rosalind speaks more lines than any other Shakespearean heroine—“Quantitative proof,” I nearly shout, “of her refusal to be silent.” 

If this baby turns out to be a girl, I say, resting my palm on my middle, five months round with my first child, then I will name her Rosalind and pray that she grows to be as brilliant and brave as her namesake. 

Teaching is always personal, but now I’m possessed by the personal. What does it mean, I ask my students, that Rosalind can only feel safe in the forest dressed as a boy? (I want no daughter of mine to feel, as I have, the cold-veined terror of walking alone in a female body down a shadowed alley.) What does it mean, I ask, that Rosalind can only voice her romantic needs to her crush, Orlando, when she’s duped him into thinking she’s a boy? (I want no daughter of mine to know, as I have, the cramped, mute pain of censoring herself to please a man.)

One day, I have a terrific idea for a homework assignment. Go home, I say, and write a one-page description of your day: what you did, thought, felt. Then, turn your paper over and describe this same day, but imagining you’re the opposite sex. It isn’t enough for us to traffic in abstractions: I want these girls to feel the daily ways their femaleness constrains them, so that they might be moved to fight these constraints. I want these boys to feel what their female classmates feel, so that they might be moved to become allies in this fight.

There are few greater joys, when you’re a teacher, than discovering the key that unlocks what you’ve been trying to pry open. But in the final minutes of class the next day, as one student, and then another, reads their homework aloud, time slows and the desks tilt and I understand without knowing how to stop it that everything is going wrong. The boys, in the form of girls, giggle and sway their hips and put on lip gloss. The girls, in the form of boys, play football and hit on chicks. Instead of dissolving stereotypes, what we’re doing, in this excruciating semicircle, is reifying them.

And then things get worse.

I move through the room, collecting the homework. When I get to Lucas, he keeps his eyes down, shifts some papers around.

“Did you leave it at home, Lucas?” 

“No,” he says.

“Did you forget to do it?”

“No,” he says.

 Lucas is one of the most diligent students I’ve ever had, and in the best of ways, because his diligence has nothing to do with college applications or compliance but with a deep and driving desire to really get things. He has never, in the two years I’ve been his teacher, failed to turn in work. 

The room has emptied and it’s just the two of us. Silence. Florescent light. Something is wrong. Something raw and beating hangs in the space between us. I do not know what this thing is or how to draw it out so that I can tend to it.

“Can you help me out a little?” I try.

He looks at me. There are freckles on his nose, curtains of hair across his forehead. Behind his glasses, his eyes are two hazel pools. “It was just too hard,” he says, “to write about this topic.” 

I am not understanding. The air is thick with my lack of understanding. 

“Too hard?” 

He looks up at the ceiling, takes a breath. “Too hard,” he goes on, “because I think about it every day of my life. All I want is for my brain to stop fucking thinking about it.”

His words pool in my ears and linger there. And because it is the first decade of the new century—because Caitlyn Jenner is not yet Caitlyn Jenner and public bathrooms are not yet the focus of op-eds and pronouns are only on my radar when I’m planning grammar lessons; because my softness pleases me and my curves please me and the secret sinuous parts of me please me and I’ve had no reason to imagine what my life would be like if they didn’t; and because it has never once occurred to me, inside the tunnel of my own agenda, that Rosalind might yearn for something other than equality when she slips into the clothes of a man—it takes far longer than it should for me to grasp what he is telling me.

“I see, Lucas,” I say. “I see.”

But the truth is, I was only just then beginning to see.

I had no idea how hard it would be to see. 


Act II 

When our daughter is born, my husband, Paul, and I do not name her Rosalind—but she takes after my favorite heroine nonetheless. She announces her needs with muscular cries, grabs onto the world with determined fists. Like Rosalind, she delights in humor, grinning as she bites her toes on the changing table, toppling with laughter when we pretend to drink from her bottle. And she loves, like Rosalind, to talk: in coos, in words, in paragraphs—in romping soliloquies delivered from the back of the car. She is sprightly and clever, can keep up with the quickest of clowns. 

So we’re a little confused, when Leah starts kindergarten, that she seems to have such trouble making friends. She hunkers beside me on the playground bench as her classmates gallop by, grows sullen when I suggest she join a couple of girls on the swings. The scene before her beckons, joyous and wheeling, but something is keeping her watching, trapped in the wings.

When she finally makes a friend, I’m deeply relieved. Zeke loves Han Solo and the Beast Quest fantasy series like her, and when they joust with their homemade lightsabers in our kitchen, their laughs are indistinguishable. Through Zeke, Leah becomes friends with Miles, and then with Daniel and Jinhai, Tobias and Max, and before long, she has a true and proper crew. She looks forward to school, and her face shines, and she is happy. 

I’ve never been a fan of the label tomboy—the way it suggests there’s only one real way to be a girl. And yet, can we ever fully escape the language we’ve been handed to map our world? My daughter becomes, before my eyes, a tomboy, for this is the most familiar way I have to see her. And in truth, I take a little pride in her tomboyishness—have maybe even encouraged it, careful not to read her books like Fancy Nancy and Pinkalicious, careful not to ooh and aah over the way her skirt twirls. Unlike the beribboned Nancy in her dress-up heels, a girl who can run with the boys is slightly renegade, like the gutsy heroines from my favorite children’s classics: Jo March, getting into “scrapes” and sullying her petticoats; Scout in her overalls, rolling in tires. She’s a girl who has dared to cast off the limits imposed on her. 

Rosalind goes a step further than these tomboy heroines when she decides not simply to act like a boy but to impersonate one. By the end of As You Like It’s first act, her ruthless uncle has usurped her father’s throne, sent him into hiding, and banished her from his court: Rosalind, in other words, has been completely undone by patriarchy. Despondent, she speaks in listless monosyllables as she and Celia plan their escape to Arden—until she has an invigorating idea: Wouldn’t it be wonderful, she suggests, her phrases lengthening, her imagery gathering energy, “That I did suit me all points like a man? / A gallant curtle-axe upon my thigh, / A boar-spear in my hand.” No matter how terrified she is on their journey, she proclaims, she’ll project “a swashing and a martial outside, / As many other mannish cowards have / That do outface it with their semblances.” Centuries before Judith Butler, here is Rosalind, surmising in her own whimsical way that gender is a performance.

But once she’s actually in costume, traveling through the forest, something interesting happens: Her emotional landscape shifts to align with her male attire. “I could find it in my heart to disgrace my man’s apparel and to cry like a woman,” she announces to Celia when they arrive, exhausted, in Arden. “But,” she goes on, “I must comfort the weaker vessel, as doublet and hose ought to show itself courageous to petticoat.” Her masculine clothing rouses something in her, and she rises above her own distress to encourage her cousin onward. This might seem like a moment of virtuoso acting on Rosalind’s part—the consummate Butlerian performance. But is it really? The inner strength she summons is, after all, her strength. Freed from the corsets and costumery of womanhood, it isn’t manhood Rosalind steps into, but her truest self. 

This is the version of Rosalind that lives in me as I watch Leah on the playground one fall afternoon in first grade. She and a throng of classmates have organized a chasing game, boys against girls—and she is on the boys’ team. She rockets through leaves, shouting commands to her teammates, shins streaked with dirt, ponytail whipping in the wind. On the boys’ team, my daughter scales slides like mountains and stretches her limbs to her soul’s horizons. On the boys’ team, she’s the powerful girl she is. 

This is the Rosalind I carry in my heart one year later, when Leah comes down to breakfast in her little brother’s clothes: cargo shorts and button-down shirt, shark-tooth necklace and baseball cap. Seconds later, Jacob comes trailing behind in her clothes: a gold headband and dotted leggings and the yellow eyelet skirt my mother bought her for special occasions. He spins and prances, howls with laughter—there isn’t room in his body to contain how hilarious this is. But Leah, in the hallway mirror, does not laugh. She narrows her eyes, turns her hat backward. In boys’ clothes, she is the cool, slick girl she is. 

And when my daughter starts third grade, this is the Rosalind I see her through, like a transparent overlay, as we wander through Target looking for back-to-school clothes. She walks down the bubble-gum pink aisles of the girls’ section, past sequined T-shirts and ruffled sweatshirts—circling and circling, scanning, searching—and then drifts into the rugged outback of the boys’ section, where she pulls item after item from the shelves until her arms are loaded. In the boys’ section, my daughter claims  what hasn’t been offered to her. In the boys’ section, she’s the dissident girl she is. 

I know this plot so well and I’m a sucker for it—the one about the girl who finds, in the trappings of boyhood, her ticket to autonomy. Rosalind is hardly the only fictional maiden who cross-dresses her way to emancipation. She isn’t even the only one conceived by Shakespeare, who also gave us Imogen and Julia, Viola in her servant’s livery and Portia in her lawyer’s robes. Centuries before Rosalind, there was Athena, who appeared in male guise to assist Odysseus, and Ovid’s Iphis, whose mother raised her as a boy to save her from infanticide. And centuries later came her many film successors, like Mulan, who poses as a soldier to save her father from conscription in the army; and Terry from the ’80s teen flick Just One of the Guys, who masquerades as a boy to get an edge in a high school internship competition; and Viola of the Twelfth Night–inspired comedy She’s the Man, who impersonates her brother so she can play college soccer after her team’s been cut. 

This storyline, like the conditions that give rise to it, isn’t just the stuff of fiction. Think of the female authors—the Brontë sisters and George Eliot and George Sand and Isak Dinesen and P. L. Travers and P. D. James—who’ve assumed masculine pen names to get their voices heard. The Victorian surgeon Margaret Ann Bulkley lived for years as Dr. James Barry so she could practice medicine. Kathrine Switzer became the first woman to register and run in the Boston Marathon, using just her first and middle initials to sneak past the ban on female athletes. Rachel Balkovec broke into the male-dominated dugouts of professional baseball by using the name “Rae” on her résumé, eventually becoming the first female manager in the history of the minor leagues.

When we get home from Target, Leah spills her new clothes onto the breakfast table. And then, right there in our kitchen, she tugs and shimmies her way into them one by one: the stovepipe jeans; the pocket T-shirt; the baggy hoodie; the navy parka. As she zips and snaps herself in, her cheeks pinkening, her eyes brightening, I see a girl who is doing what she can to unleash her powers and hold tight to her fate. This is a story that makes sense to me, a story I can get behind. 

And like Switzer, Mulan, Rosalind, and all the other cross-dressing heroines who’ve captured my imagination, my daughter too, I assume, will one day reach the part of the story when her disguise has served its purpose. Her courage revealed, her ambitions realized, she will slough off her costume like a rumpled cocoon. And then, true to the tomboy canon, she will stand, plain and proud, in the truth of who she is—the beautiful, flesh-and-blood girl I birthed into the world.


Act III 

In 1599, the year Shakespeare wrote As You Like It, wearing male clothing was becoming something of a trend among urban English women. Emboldened by the increased social mobility that accompanied the earliest stirrings of capitalism, many appeared in public donning cloaks, doublets, feathered hats, and other mannish trappings—a practice that didn’t go over well with England’s ruling class, who understood how this threatened their patriarchal authority. Ministers, under the order of James I, invoked Deuteronomy as they warned their parishioners that “The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man…for all that do so are an abomination unto the Lord thy God.” Those who violated this command risked being whipped or pilloried by London’s magistrates. 

In fourth grade, my daughter does not abandon her costume. As she enters fifth grade, she does not abandon her costume. At what age, had she lived in early modern England, would she have been old enough to be punished for her transgression? 

I’m grateful to live in a decade and country where we can clothe ourselves as we like with less chance of arrest. But as Leah’s tomboy phase stretches into early adolescence, my pride becomes more measured. I’m unsettled to notice how the “girl” things of this world she’s simply done without have become, over time, the targets of her snarkiest derision. She snorts at her little sister’s hair bows, says “Ewww…” when she ends up with the pink mug at breakfast. Where’s the line, I begin to wonder, between a healthy rejection of female stereotypes and misogyny absorbed and turned inward? This thought nags at me, making me long to see my daughter find strength and vitality inside her girlhood rather than on the lam from it. 

Rosalind, too, is in no rush to give up her masculine presentation, pretending to be Ganymede long after her disguise has served its purpose. She’s made it to Arden unscathed, ingratiated herself with the locals, and settled happily into country living—and still she maintains the ruse. And who could blame her? Not only does her costume unleash her buried courage and powers of expression, but it enables her to do the unthinkable for a woman at the time and acquire her own property, a working farm she buys from a local shepherd.

Rosalind decides to prolong her performance even further when she discovers that the dashing Orlando, whom she recently met at court, is also in the forest, where he’s come to escape his murderous brother. Though she’s spoken with Orlando only once, the encounter was enough to leave her besotted. And she’s thrilled to learn—as she stumbles upon the love poems he’s penned in her honor and strewn from Arden’s trees—that their conversation left him just as smitten. “Alas the day! what shall I do with my doublet and hose?” she exclaims to Celia when she learns Orlando is close by. Resuming their flirtation, she realizes, will mean relinquishing her disguise. 

But when Orlando wanders onto the scene moments later, she makes the split-second decision to stay in character. “I will speak to him like a saucy lackey,” she whispers to Celia, “and under that habit play the knave with him.” As Ganymede, Rosalind can be her most audacious self with Orlando, and her agile mind is on peak display in their verbal jousting that follows. By the time the two part, she’s come up with an idea that will allow her to enjoy both the freedom of her male persona and the romantic energy between her and Orlando. What he must do, Rosalind-as-Ganymede tells him, is submit to her no-fail remedy for lovesickness, which turns out to be a sort of rudimentary form of psychodrama therapy: She can “cure” him, she says, if he agrees to call her Rosalind and visit her daily, pretending to woo her. 

As the pair carry out this plan, we see a near-total reversal of the conventional dynamics of courtship. Orlando may seem, in their role-play, to be the pursuer, but it’s Rosalind who truly holds the power, prescribing for Orlando the moves he should make, the words he should utter. As Ganymede, Rosalind slowly shapes him into the lover she wishes him to be—a little less melodramatic, a little more clear-sighted. Her schooling makes him worthy, by the play’s end, of the restoration of her female identity and her hand in marriage. 

I remember watching a 2008 performance of As You Like It on the Boston Common, pre-motherhood, grinning in the summer dusk as the actress playing Rosalind embodied, superbly, her character’s fiendish thrill at upending the gender norms of romance. But I think if I were to attend this same production now, I might be even more compelled by the brief scene that follows, in which Celia lays into Rosalind for the sexist jokes she’s been making to Orlando “man-to-man.” “You have simply misused our sex in your love-prate,” she exclaims, berating her treasonous cousin for what she’s “done to her own nest.” 

These are the words I would hang on now, from my blanket on the grass, for there would be—if not in the flesh, then in my thoughts—my daughter sitting beside me, with her lanky legs and enormous high tops, her rounding hips and boxy track shorts, leaving me doubting whether freedom based on a double standard is freedom at all. And there would be, underneath this, a far less abstract fear: that in trying to stop the world from turning my daughter into the girl it wants her to be, I’ve sent the message there’s something wrong with being a girl altogether.

If you’ve known the corrosive burden of second-guessing the lessons you’ve imparted as a parent, maybe you’ll understand my relief when, in the fall of fifth grade, Leah makes friends with a group of girls she adores. Maybe you’ll understand how my entire body lightens when these girls come to our house for a sleepover, where they paint squish toys shaped like ice cream cones and stir up brimming bowls of rainbow slime. Maybe you’ll understand the absolution I feel when I open my email, one day, to find a link to a floral romper Leah hopes I will buy her. 

Let me describe what I feel when my daughter appears in my doorway asking, for the first time ever, if I’ll French braid her hair. We sit down on my rug, and I run my hands through her waves, feeling them tumble, thick and silky, between my fingers. I weave one section over another, gathering in more strands, smoothing down my work. And as I do, I am flooded by a memory of sitting in front of my own mother at her dressing table, feeling her slip barrettes into place behind my temples. The air is fragrant from her shower and warm from her rollers and I feel cared for and anointed in a way that is distinctly feminine, that has everything to do with the tending of one female body by another. I have returned, on this rug, to my own lived version of maidenhood, familiar and comforting as my mother’s touch. I take in the pale curve of Leah’s neck, the smooth edge of her shoulder, and am seized by possessive wonder at this miracle of a girl, in whose lineaments I recognize my own. 

I have no idea that, just three months later, Leah will give away her floral romper to her little sister, though Nora is half a decade away from fitting into it. I have no idea that I will sit behind her at the barber shop she has begged me to bring her to, watching her hair drop in long, dark sheafs to the floor.


Act IV 

“All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players,” observes Jaques, the secondary character who utters As You Like It’s most renowned words. The summer of 2021, when Leah crops her hair an inch from her head, is the summer a curtain opens, and she steps out onto the set a different character. The entire theater we inhabit, in fact, has been transformed. It seems to me that the world until this moment followed one set of logic, and now it follows a different logic, as if I’ve been transported in the dark of night to an upside-down realm.

The summer Leah cuts off nearly all her hair is the summer she asks me what my favorite boys’ names are. It’s the summer a friend’s nephew starts to go by she and Cora from around the corner starts to go by he and a classmate of Leah’s starts to go by she some days and he others. It’s the summer I can no longer keep Leah’s friends’ names straight, for Caroline has become Cal and then Cody, and when April arrives at our house for dinner, I learn that he’s Aiden. Our days become a pageant of exits and entrances, everyone coming and going playing different parts. 

It’s during this summer—the one before sixth grade—that Leah teaches me about Bitmojis, the cute digital avatars you can customize. She shows me how they work, scrolling through the selection categories: There are options for gender and options for age, options for skin tone and options for body type, options for pants and skirts and shoes and hats and scarves and belts and gloves and glasses and rings and watches. She helps me make my own Bitmoji, and I get a little window into the fun of it, this limitless choose-your-own adventure of personal identity. “Want to see mine?” Leah asks, and with a touch of a finger here she is: a rakish mop-headed kid in a striped rugby, sneakers planted firmly on the ground. 

The summer of Leah’s haircut marks the start of a perpetual season of mistaken identity. “What can I get for you, buddy?” a Starbucks barista asks her that August. “Morning, sir,” says the friendly crossing guard that fall. One Saturday the following winter, our family walks to a nearby synagogue to attend a bat mitzvah. As Leah climbs the steps in her boots and bulky parka, the security guard gives her a thumbs-up: “You keeping everyone protected, Muscles?” he says. Nothing in her expression helps me understand how she feels about these greetings.

Do I consider, as my daughter’s body reshapes itself under her winter layers into woman form, that perhaps this isn’t a passing phase at all? Do I wonder, when I behold her avatar, what deeper, unspoken longings it might contain? I do—more and more every day, I do—for in 2021, discussions of gender identity are everywhere—in curricula and lectures and PTA meetings and board meetings and broadcasts and podcasts and the pages of celebrity magazines, where Demi Lovato has revealed she’s nonbinary and Elliot Page has opened up about stepping into his male identity.

I think often, during this cultural efflorescence, of my student Lucas—the caged pain in his eyes, the courage it must have taken him to break the silence between us—and how much easier his teen years could have been had he been born just one decade later. I wonder where Lucas is now, and whether he’s found his way to comfort and wholeness. My hopes for Lucas’s happiness are surprisingly strong given how long it’s been since I knew him—and far simpler than the mix of emotions that churns in me as I watch my daughter’s spirit converge with the fervors of her era. 

Leah is my child, yes: It’s natural that my relationship to her identity would be more complicated. But my preoccupations are more specific than this. I can’t stop thinking, for instance, about a particular Slatearticle reporting that, between 2006 and 2013, trans-youth clinics in North America and Europe saw more female-assigned patients seeking treatment than vice versa—a significant change from prior years. Researchers offer various possible explanations for this shift, but one thing I think about as I read, which the piece doesn’t mention, is the difference between what it means to live as a man and to live as a woman—a difference that, since 2016, has only become grimmer for women. “How gender identities are constituted and how specific brands of sexuality are formed,” writes scholar Keith Thomas in a reissued 1994 New York Review of Books essay I come across about queer undercurrents in Renaissance texts, “are issues that are inseparably connected with the structure of power and the working of society in all its dimensions.” Changing gender is never a power-neutral conversion—a truth my friend Mira hinted at, less eloquently, after the reversal of Roe v. Wade, when she said, “I never doubt the depth of trans women’s dysphoria, because why the hell else would someone choose to become a woman in our fucked-up patriarchy?”

I laughed loud and hard at this comment, not only because I found it funny, but also because I understood it to be the sort of thing we aren’t supposed to say as well-meaning liberals in a well-meaning liberal Boston suburb. I’m no longer certain what I can and cannot say, but more and more, I suspect that what I’m thinking falls in the latter category. I should not wonder aloud—as Paul and I have in private—whether the drastic uptick in transgender youth might in part reflect a rising preference for gender-bending as the particular teen reinvention mode du jour, the way I briefly became a goth in 1992, or speculate that all these name changes must be hard for teachers to keep track of. 

When I’m helping a gallery curator friend write a press release for an exhibit of art by mothers—all of whom, including me, are cisgender women—and she sheepishly suggests we omit the word “woman,” I don’t object. Like her, I understand that to claim my native womanhood as something distinguishable from trans-womanhood—and my motherhood as something inseverable from my womanhood—is to risk being branded a “transphobe” or “TERF,” no matter how fully I support trans rights. 

I should not mention to anyone outside my closest circle my discomfort reading the Self magazine story titled “6 Things You Should Know Before Having Top Surgery,” as if it were dishing out tips for a kettlebell workout. 

When the third mother in a two-month span tells me that her own teenage child has had, or will be having, top surgery—which is another way of saying they have had, or will be having, their breasts cut off—I should respond with a gentle head tilt and supportive nod. I must not let on, as I am nodding, the visceral sorrow this image has stirred in me, and how I can’t disentangle it from all the violences perpetrated on the bodies of girls, and which girls, far too often, turn on themselves. Nodding at this mother, I wonder for an instant if I might have cut off my breasts had this option been commonly available when I was in the throes of adolescence, the new and unruly markers of my femaleness filling me with such humiliation that I starved myself down to an amenorrheic androgyny. I knew nothing at all, in those days, of the powers lying dormant in my breasts—the pleasure of them cupped in the hands of a lover, the miracle of them nourishing new life. 

I keep these thoughts silent too—not just now, but always. I keep silent as I watch my daughter out of the corner of my eye, my reservations building in me like a sinister subplot.

I don’t know what to say when Leah is greeted as a boy, for I haven’t figured out what to do with my uncertainty, or what kind of mother to be in this upside-down theater. And so I say nothing as we leave Starbucks, nothing on the far side of the crosswalk, nothing after we’ve passed the temple security guard—because to say something feels like stepping into a thicket I don’t know how to beat a path through. To say something is to name, and to name is to turn the intangible into something real and solid and corporeal that must be reckoned with. 

One day, without warning, Paul steps right into this thicket. Our family has just arrived at a tropical-themed family party at a restaurant, where a smiling waiter distributes leis of orchids to the female guests and cowrie-bead necklaces to the male ones. As Leah pulls over her head the beads that she’s been handed, Paul turns to her: “Do you want us to correct people,” he asks, “when they assume you’re a boy?” My breath catches behind my ribs. From where I stand, ruminating and paralyzed, even this simple question seems reckless. Leah is quiet for a moment, and then she shrugs a little. 

“I guess I don’t really care either way,” she says. 

It makes sense that Paul, a less tentative human than me generally, would be less tentative about entering this territory. But I wonder, sometimes, if his comparative ease when we discuss the changes in Leah behind closed doors has anything to do with the fact that the version of selfhood our daughter is migrating toward is his version of selfhood, original and familiar to him. Every day that passes feels like one more mile she’s drifted from me, her native homeland, to a foreign harbor. There’s pain for me in this parting, a pain it’s difficult for me to give voice to, though I hear it, from time to time, in my barbed attempts at lightness. “If she is going to dress like a guy,” I say to Paul one day after Leah leaves the house in a Hawaiian shirt and chinos, “must it be a middle-aged insurance salesman?” A little gallows humor to temper my grief. 

Maybe, in this way, my story isn’t a new story, though its details are particular to our era. Maybe it’s the story shared by parents everywhere, for time immemorial, who’ve had to accept, as their children grow, that they are not them. Maybe I’ve reached that turning point all parents, in their individual ways, must someday reach, when the world, it feels, has spun out from under our feet, taking our children with it toward a future we can’t catch up to. 

One spring afternoon, I pick up Leah at school, and she slides into the passenger seat beside me. She opens a bag of potato chips and fiddles with the radio buttons, stopping when she gets to KISS FM. Dove Cameron’s “Boyfriend” is on again. I could be a better boyfriend than him, crows Cameron in her sultry soprano to the implied female love interest she’s trying to steal. Leah hums and bops along with her shoulders for a bit, and then pauses: “Just pretend you don’t notice the bad language, Mom,” she says.

“What bad language?” 

“You didn’t hear that?”

I listen closer. “Beyond the boyfriend part I can barely make out the words.”

“Huh,” Leah says. She crunches a potato chip, takes a sip from her water bottle. “Maybe it’s like how there are certain frequencies people can’t hear anymore once they’re old,” she jokes.

Maybe so, I think, as we speed through stands of oak trees thickening with leaves—for I am no longer certain whether my years allow me to see more than my oldest child, or whether they keep me from seeing the things that she sees at all.


Act V 

As far as I know, Rosalind is the only Shakespearean character to be the subject of a biography. On the surface, this concept makes no sense at all, since biographies are about real, not made-up, people. But theater scholar Angela Thirlwell pulls the conceit off beautifully in Rosalind: Shakespeare’s Immortal Heroine, which I discover one afternoon at my town library. From the moment I could read, my favorite characters have often felt more real to me than living people—and here, according to the flap copy, was someone as taken by Rosalind as I was.

In bed that night, I skip ahead to the chapter “Call Me Ganymede—Rosalind Crosses the Border,” hoping, as my daughter drifts into her own borderlands across the hall, it might contain something helpful. As I read, I’m reminded that, in Shakespeare’s time, male actors performed all female roles, since women were barred from the stage. This means that by the middle of As You Like It, Rosalind contains not two or even three but four layers of gender: She’s a man (the actor), who plays a woman (Rosalind), pretending to be a man (Ganymede), who impersonates a woman (Rosalind). You’d think all this switching back and forth would confuse audiences. But as I think back to the productions of the play that I’ve seen—from that outdoor staging on Boston Common, to the BBC film version with Helen Mirren, to the Kenneth Branagh adaptation set in Japan—I can’t remember ever losing grasp of which Rosalind I was watching. Or, more accurately, it didn’t so much matter which Rosalind I was watching, because her layers had melded into a single, cohesive character whose moods and fluctuations made perfect sense. At one moment, this character might be more masculine, and at another, more feminine—but she was always, always Rosalind. 

In my first teaching job, in my twenties, I co-taught eleventh-grade English with another new teacher, who would become one of the most treasured friends of my life. Sara and I pored over Frankenstein and The Bluest Eye together, planned lessons after school together, graded essays over sangria together, becoming, over time, such a constant and mutually adoring unit that another teacher, Brian, took to calling us the Married Couple. In the faculty room one day, he posed to us a very heteronormative and possibly flirtatious question: “So, which one of you is the husband, and which one the wife?”

It was a puzzle that depended entirely on superficial stereotypes—and therefore a puzzle unworthy of being solved. And yet, against our better judgment, we found ourselves thinking about it. I’m demurer than Sara, we decided, but also more practical. Sara is bolder than me, but also more emotional. I’m daintier than Sara, but also more thick-skinned. She’s sturdier than me, but also more porous. No matter how many times we went over it, the traits culturally marked as “male” and “female” seemed to exist in us more or less equally—just as they do in the rational and irrational, sensible and romantic, courageous and cautious Rosalind, whose power lies not, I’ve come to believe, in her assumption of maleness, but in her ability to transcend the categories of gender altogether. 

When I’m with Leah and we run into people we haven’t seen in a while, I can see how they struggle with her in-betweenness. Their eyes stay on her a second too long; their weight shifts. What is she? they seem to be thinking. I’m as susceptible to the urge to classify as anyone, but I’ve begun to notice, in these moments, a protective impulse flare in me. I want to warn them to step back. Leave her be. I cannot tell these people what my daughter is: When I look at her, I see only my child. 

On the last day of sixth grade, I take Leah for lunch to celebrate. The sun shines on our outdoor table, and while I haven’t planned to have with her a Serious Talk About Identity, something about the gentle air of this day prompts me to dip a toe in. I mention a child at Leah’s Hebrew school who has started going by they/them pronouns, marveling aloud at how far the world has come since I was her age, how much more sophisticatedly her generation thinks about gender. Leah’s eyes dance; her whole body seems to buzz to life. And then she begins to talk to me—volubly and gleefully, like an eager scholar—about all she knows and feels and thinks on this subject.

A silence opens up. “Leah,” I say, smoothing out the napkin on my lap, “I’ve been curious how you think about your gender.”

She looks at me, surprised and a little delighted. She smiles a bit. She thinks for a moment. And then she claps her head in her hands in a pantomime of confusion. “I don’t know!” she says. “I never know what to say when teachers ask us to go around and say what our pronouns are.” 

She falls quiet, sips from her glass. I can see she has said all she will.

Before I know it, I am articulating things to my daughter that I haven’t, until this very moment, known I’ve thought. Things about how rapidly the world is moving, and how insistently it seems to want its children to catch up. Things about the beauty and truth that can bloom in the taking of time. Leah listens, almost certainly not fully understanding my ramblings, but happily spooning up her pasta nonetheless, and then after a while we drift to another topic, and she orders another Sprite, and I eat another piece of bread. From the outside, it looks like nothing at this table has changed, but on this dappled patio of the Cheesecake Factory, there’s a lightness between us I haven’t felt in ages. 

As You Like It is very much a play about lightness. When its characters flee the court, they trade rigidity and convention for open-endedness and improvisation: In Arden’s pastures, they can follow their curiosities, test out alternatives, reverse course, live “as they like.” This flexibility is what separates Shakespeare’s comic heroes from his tragic ones—like Lear, or Macbeth, or Othello, whose single-minded need for certainty sends them hurtling toward death, the ultimate final conclusion. I remember being totally fascinated to learn, from my college Shakespeare professor, that the conditional word if appears more often in As You Like It than in any other Shakespeare play—nearly 150 times. Most of these appearances occur while the characters are in Arden, its spirit of possibility alive even at the sentence level. Touchstone, the court jester who’s tagged along with Rosalind and Celia to the forest, delivers a lengthy ode to the swinging-door magic of this little conjunction, which can make anything provisional. “Your If is the only peacemaker,” he proclaims. “Much virtue in If.”

Much virtue in If. I’ve been returning to this phrase lately, revolving it in my mind, holding it up as a sort of mantra. So often, as a mother, I’m either being a gatekeeper, barring my children from going where I feel they shouldn’t, or a cheerleader, speeding them to where I feel they should. But between these poles lies another way—which is to be Arden, a neutral witness to my children’s wanderings, a shaded wood where they can play out their possible selves. It isn’t easy for me to linger in semidarkness. Maybe it’s hard for all of us. We want our clear outlines, our firm contours. We want our drawers and our shelves, our slots and compartments. We want our ten steps, our seven stages, our five acts, our three acts. We want our introductions and conclusions—and here, before I bid adieu, is mine.

That night, before she goes to sleep, Leah calls to me from her room. “You coming, Mom?” I’m certain that, any day now, she’ll decide she’s too old for this ritual, and I’ll be dispatched for good. But for now, I’m still wanted here, on this bed cluttered with stuffed animals, under a poster of Harry Styles—a perfectly composed tableau of human becoming. I curl my arm around my daughter, tucking it under her side. As we lie in the quiet, I think for a second that I should probably seize this opportunity to pick up our conversation from lunch, probe a bit more, help Leah get to the bottom of what it is that she is and how she wants to be seen. 

Is loving the same thing as seeing? In this moment, I feel that it’s not.

I reach out across the chasm of my blindness, taking my child’s hand in the dark. 


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