“Pink or Blue? Which is intended for boys and which for girls? This question comes from one of our readers this month, and the discussion may be of interest to others. There has been a great diversity of opinion on this subject, but the generally accepted rule is pink for the boy and blue for the girl. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.” —Infants’ Department magazine, 1918
At first, there was confusion. This is the part we forget: that endless urge toward definition, and the difficulty in reaching it. Throughout the 1920’s, Marshall Field’s sold pink clothes for boys, and blue ones for girls. Macy’s did the opposite. Across the country, debates wavered on, uncertain and impatient.
Decades later, a child of the 1980s, I was born into a pink world—and hated it. My mother had taught me that early on. Pink stinks! Though other things—all those alluring dolls and dress-ups that my agemates adored—were harder to resist. Often enough, she would find me dressing a pair of Barbies and flush with laughter at those plastic vixens with their shimmering spandex dresses, shoes like tiny ski slopes; and I’d freeze. It wasn’t mean-spirited—she was making fun of them, not me—though in hindsight, I think it left us both unsettled: the shaming of those dolls. The need to shame them.
Lesbian and closeted—even to me—she hadn’t, back then, explained much about how shame works, or womanhood. Growing up in the 1950s, no one had discussed them with her, either. By then, all those details had become implicit: colors, clothes, the correct sets of choices a woman could make. When my turn came, though, she worried, shoving plastic razors—all of them inevitably pink—and coconut-scented shaving cream my way during the months before junior high school began. “If you don’t use these,” her voice flattened, “the kids in gym class will tease you.” How she knew this, she didn’t mention; and I didn’t ask. Instead, I’d sat quietly on the lip of our bathtub, slathering sweet-smelling synthetic cream along my calves, learning how to be a girl.
Make-up, I’d told her next, once school had begun: All my peers seemed to have some.
So we’d gone to the mall, where I’d picked out shades of lip gloss and blush. “You paint it in a line across your cheek,” she’d explained loosely, hands sweeping through the air like erasing some imaginary chalk board; and at school the next day, a dark line ran at rosy odds with my cheek: crooked and overbold. What did I know yet about shades or skin tones, or the deftness of a shadow swept perfectly beneath the bone? So the other girls stared back, lips tight with amusement; and I’d slid a sleeve across my face to smear it all away. Mistakes, it seemed, were easy enough to make.
Early on, as pink shifted from boys to girls, even the Nazis had found a use for it, tying pink-colored triangle patches to the sleeves of homosexual men before forcing them into concentration camps. A terrible thing, people agreed afterward—an atrocity. How could such a thing have happened? After the war, though, pink’s popularity soared, emerging in catalogues and cookware: all that new home décor offered in hushed, feminine tones. Rosie the Riveter may have worn denim and a red bandana, but once men came home from the battlefields, she was ushered back into the kitchen. Decades later, psychologists would study pink’s effect, declaring its calming effect on everyone from criminals to patients of mania: a color capable of keeping people in their place.
This was the world my mother grew up in: frilled skirts and lace at every available cuff or hemline. In her generation, pink was Mrs. Eisenhauer’s inaugural gown and Jayne Mansfield’s heart-shaped bathtub. It was celebrity Cadillacs and Marilyn Monroe’s form-fitted dresses. When, as a teenager, she’d confessed how much she liked it all—not just the frills, but the girls who wore them—her own mother had gone crimson. “Don’t,” she’d warned, “ever speak of that again.” Instead, she should emulate those other girls: primp, marry, procreate.
“Back then,” my mother would explain later, during my own teenaged years, “they taught us what to want, though it turned out not to be very good for us.”
By the time she’d left her marriage, though, I was nearly an adult; and by then, the 1990s had flushed neutral: fewer frills, a sudden affection for the rough-edged and unadorned. Seattle’s Grunge scene made no apology. Things, it seemed, were shifting. Presumably, they would get better: more open and visible. And so, my mother had insisted: “You must have known.”
“That you’re a lesbian?”
But how could I have noticed? A week shy of eighteen, busy filling out college applications.
Still, she was insistent: “You should have known.” Meaning, of course: You should have seen me—someone should have.
After that, she’d tried to make things clearer. Shortly after the divorce, we’d gone to a piercing salon, The Pink Zone, on Seattle’s Capitol Hill, where, beneath that rosy triangle glow, rescued now from its Nazi origin, she’d paid a queer artist to punch a variety of holes along the sides of her ear: both more and less feminine at once. My mother, going punk in her forties, cut her hair short and began wearing men’s button-down shirts to mark herself different now: to make it visibly known.
But was it possible? I wondered, watching her beneath those rosy lights, a string of holes pierced rebellious through her skin. Could we have both? On the cusp of adulthood, what I pined for was home, family, familiarity—all those same things that my mother was finally escaping.
A decade later, my new stepmother didn’t have answers, though she did understand many of the rules. Growing up without a mother at all, she’d rehearsed womanhood carefully, hoping to get it right. “Come,” she’d beckoned me to her car, once again heading to the mall. By then, after all, I’d failed: dating a man throughout my twenties until he’d left—and promptly proposed to a different woman. “Bastard,” my father’s new wife had slapped a palm across the steering wheel. “You don’t need him.” Already, she’d had three husbands; and, once we’d arrived at the cosmetics counter, she’d shown me carefully how to apply each item: the lines, the shades, the perfect shadow. “Don’t worry,” she’d promised. “You’ll find someone else.” And I’d listened attentively, staring back into the mirror: eyes larger and sharper now, cheeks smooth, and lips moistened to a perfect sheen. Both more myself, and less: a public face, as well as something hidden. Now I had a mask; now I could be two people at once.
Before pink learned to seduce, it was a signal of strength. The vibrancy of men’s clothing in the 18th century blushed from regal dusty rose to shades reminiscent of military uniforms. Before it learned how to be soft, pink was a sign of wealth and power: bold colors derived of the most expensive dyes. For centuries, only the elite could wear it, until color finally became synthetic, bleeding into hot pinks and bold magentas, garish neons to seductive skin tones. Shocking and submissive both. But the more of something there is, its value wavers; and so, pink’s power went underground.
Once my mother finally meets a woman to couple with, her favorite color is pink. Their home fills with it: sweet lavender rose, pale peach, and soft crimsons. They don’t worry, any longer, about rules. Even when same sex-marriage becomes legal, they don’t bother. “I’ve already tried that,” my mother shrugs, “and didn’t much like it.” So I stay silent, trying not to care. Still single in my thirties and finishing up the professional studies that my mother had always longed for, this becomes my greatest shame. Despite it all, I still crave marriage, family, some kind of stable life: all those things that had hurt my mother most.
In the 1970s, women’s options remained limited, so my mother had gotten married. “I knew I couldn’t have a career,” she explains to me years later, after I, a university professor, have built mine. “So I had you.”
And what, now, is there left to say? Nearing forty, my body aches from the needles I plunge into my hip week after week. Fertility drugs: my last hope. Still without a mate, and now without time. “That’s understandable,” I agree, as our eyes meet across a table at lunch—the ironic, inverted reflections of each other—and my mother nods.
“I didn’t have much choice back then.”
I was born in 1977. The following year, ultrasound technology first became adapted to determine the gender of a fetus. Children born after me became an idea first—girl, or boy—before they were anything else. In celebration, some parents buy lockets now, or keychains, decorative pillows and holiday ornaments, each etched with fuzzed faces and tiny curved spines full of promise. By the time I try to become a mother, it is possible to know these things within days of conception: The tiniest sample from the shell around my theoretical child could be read gene to gene. This, my doctor tells me, is one advantage of IVF: certain things, you can know ahead of time. Which, for a moment, feels like relief. Without sex or communion or a partner, I crave any known thing. So when the clinic calls with the test results, asking me if I’d like to hear the gender of the embryo, I answer yes.
Down the hallway, my mother lounges in my living room. Visiting the city again that day, she waits through another of her partner’s lengthy medical appointments before they’ll return to their cabin in the countryside. “Any news?” she looks up as I return. When I tell her, though, she looks unconcerned, either about my medical process or her partner’s. “Boys, girls,” she sighs. “Things should be more fluid than they are.” These days, her hair is short and gray. She wears loose pants and boxy shirts. “Though I guess it’s getting better now,” she considers, and in the next breath, wants to know: “Can you still be a feminist?” As though I, working at a university, should know this. “Now that we’re done with gender?”
Done with gender? I look down at the phone, the nurse’s voice still resonant. A son, she’d confirmed: You will have a son. And already, even before joy, what I feel is fear. What, after all, do I know about men? Their interests or passions or needs? And how could I, alone, possibly raise one?
Ever since pink became tied to femininity, it has been used to shame men. Effeminate, punitive pink has been painted over jail cells to subdue inmates, or football locker rooms to incite the players toward victory. As though, to be surrounded by the right reminders, we might control those very things that make us human: vitality, rage, injustice, hope.
As much as she might like a grandchild, though, the rest no longer interests my mother: “I don’t feel like anything—just myself.”
And I nod, even if the details can get difficult to distinguish. After my mother had left our home decades earlier, she became two people: who she was far away, and who she was up close. For years, when I’d see her at a distance on the street, I didn’t recognize her. Or, that is not quite right. I would see other people whom, for an instant, I’d thought were her. Those people were always men. I never mistook another woman for my mother: only middle-aged men with silver hair, angular and passing along the dusky Seattle streets. Each time, it had hit me in a way that I could not explain. The misfires of the mind: what we’ve known, trying so quickly to adjust to what we do not. Up close, my mother does not look like a man, not now, not then. Sometimes, she paints her nails; sometimes, she bites them off. So, I do not ask her—now or then—bisexual, trans, non-binary? She adopts none of these terms, whether because, at seventy, her life predates their popular use, or simply because they don’t fit.
“I just think things should be more fluid,” she says again, and I cannot disagree. Months of IVF treatments leave me estranged from my body: so many hormones designed to shut down my fertility, then reignite it at just the right moment. What kind of woman am I now, pursuing a child through pure science? My son will enter my body through a catheter, will stay there due to drugs: ten more weeks of injections at my hip. And finally, if I am successful, I can imagine already the assumptions that will be made about me, both predictable and ironic: accidental pregnancies and irresponsible behavior. I’ll become both invisible and chastised. The wrong kind of woman.
Decades earlier, as our family was slowly ending, neither my mother nor I had much trusted womanhood. For several years before leaving, she had taken on weight: layer upon layer, hiding herself within, to stave off attention or desire. And, in ironic inversion, I’d done the opposite. Reaching puberty, I’d starved myself, resisting the plumpness of female curves: unwilling to mature, to grow hips or breasts, or to slough off all that generous excess of monthly menstural flow.
So how can we understand things now: me, trying to conceive a child without a man, or my mother—after all those careful months of medical appointments—shocked to lose the woman that she’d given up men for? Or the two of us, after twenty years apart, suddenly living together again? Unexpectedly widowed, my mother moves in with me; and my own plans get placed on hold. Now, IVF will have to wait. Now, we have a burial to plan. So here, on the day that I was finally supposed to be inseminated, and am not, I find myself instead painting lines across my mother’s face: soft shadows and brush strokes. After all this time, my mother wants help: She wants to look pretty for her partner’s funeral. “Though careful,” she reminds me: not too dark, not too much. Of course, I skirt expertly now along the edges of her brow, her lash, the shape of her lip. Afterward, checking herself in the mirror, she nods once to confirm: pretty, but not too much. She still looks like herself.
Before we leave, though, we must wait; throughtout the city, arterials clog and traffic stalls. From my apartment window, we can see it all at a distance: pink flooding past in waves. Once again, it is January 20th. The Women’s March. For a third consecutive year, Seattle swells with signs and bullhorns as rage fills the streets: pink on fire, pink reclaimed. This year, though, I will not join them; this year, once the roads have cleared, I will drive my mother to a funeral; and by the time we return, the neighborhoods, again, are subdued: all that dissent going hushed again, for now.
So what can I do now but wait? As my mother grieves, I wait for my body to clear out all those synthetic hormones, hoping to begin IVF again. But as the next round of medications fails—and the one after that—I continue waiting. Month after month, check-ups at the fertility clinic reveal nothing. Why aren’t things working? No one can say, though the doctor insists: Everything is still possible. “Look,” she points at the ultrasound screen: so many perfect lines and nodes. Ironically, over time, my empty womb becomes more documented than most pregnant woman’s: so many pinpricks of light across that black screen, as though there were stars within me. Each one, the doctor says, could create a life. All that endless possibility. Though by now, I barely dare, any longer, to keep hoping—or to stop. “Don’t worry,” my physician promises. “We’ll keep trying.” But all I can see any longer are constellations: beautiful, and beyond my grasp. Life quiets as I wait: mysterious and unnamed. Somehow, there is a universe inside me. Somehow, I am full of little, any longer, beyond wonder.
On the first anniversary of my mother’s partner’s death, a virus is discovered in China, and life goes quieter still. For a time, we’re not sure what it all means; but gradually, images of the virus, that painted, orb-like crown—sometimes a bright blushing rose, sometimes electric blue—flood through the news. This is what fear is supposed to look like: vibrant and bold. But the truth is, tiny as they are, all viruses, including this one, remain colorless: too small either to absorb or refract light. Beneath the microscope, all we see is gray.
Still, pandemic takes the world. Medical treatments shut down, and my mother cannot clip her hair. As we wait for any kind of sign—some certainty or relief—I place my plans on hold again, and my mother’s hair grows longer, edging gradually, week after week, toward her shoulder; and suddenly, men are paying her attention again. In the retirement community where she now lives, she is a newcomer; people know that she is a widow, though they don’t know from whom—man or woman—or, perhaps they no longer care. The world is lonely now, and my mother is looking enough like a woman. It is strange, she says, at seventy, to have men flirting with her again. But they do. On and on, as the world grows quieter, they approach her, frankly disclosing bank balances and medical prescriptions. “So you’ll know what to expect,” she muses, “if you decide to take one of them on.” What ailments they have, what they can or cannot provide.
But she already knows what to expect—and hadn’t much liked it. So, I tell her I understand, though don’t. Marriage, motherhood. Who knows what I might like, or not? “Oh, don’t worry,” she assures me, even if neither of us really know: “It will all work out.”
Months later, though, my mother has had enough. Taking up a pair of scissors, she trims her own hair in the bathroom mirror and cuts the sleeves from flannel shirts: androgynous and self-sufficient. Summer, after all, is coming on. It is getting warm, and by August, the days begin to steam. All along the western seaboard, heat escalates: lightening strikes, and campfires smoulder. Land, dry enough, will spark at nearly anything. So now, a thousand miles away, California is burning; and, closer at hand, Oregon does, too. Countless western forsests ignite, and strong coastal winds carry all that ash northward, so that even here in Seattle, a stale, stubborn haze takes over the skies. As temperatures climb, our homes are smouldering, but we cannot go outside. “It feels like the end of the world,” my mother says, though we know it isn’t. Not yet.
Still, as the days suffocate from one to the next, we learn that even Riverside, where my mother had spent her girlhood, is blazing now—a thousand acres, then two, then ten. The trouble this time, though, isn’t storms or campfires: nothing innocent or inevitable. “It was one of those gender reveal parties,” my mother calls me, reading off the news. “You know those events where couples set off fireworks to tell people, boy or girl?” Such things, apparently, have happened before. A year earlier, 10,000 acres had burned in Arizona from the same kind of event. In Ohio, the summer before that, a woman, struck by flying explosive debris, had died instantly. And now, the spaces of my mother’s childhood are burning. “But why?” she wonders, breathless. “Does it really make a difference, how you tell people something like that?”
And of course I don’t have answers, though that old craving tugs familiar enough: how aching our will to know things, and how fierce the urge to announce them, if you did. As my son continues waiting on ice, and my own womb remains empty, others celebrate whatever they can. This time, the expectant couple had blasted a tremendous plume of smoke—blue, not pink—across the skies of southern California, and now 20,000 acres are burning, while a thousand miles away, our own skies darken. Cityscapes blur, and we becomes prisoners inside our homes.
“I can’t breathe,” my mother complains. “I can’t go outdoors.”
And I tell her I’m sorry; I tell her it will pass. I hope it does.
“But what does it matter?” she insists: knowing things or not, pretending that we do. “It doesn’t make sense.”
She’s right, of course, though outside my window, shapes keep moving like fog. “No,” I agree. “It doesn’t.” So much imagined certainty: its public face, or private promise.
“What difference,” my mother snaps shut the blinds of her new apartment, “does any of it make?”
All that sulfer and light—that ferious will to name, to know.
And waiting still, I recognize that need, though fail increasingly to trust it. Watching our landscapes go quieter still, air restless now with smoke—pale, insistent, enduring—I turn back from those colorless skies and answer my mother, honestly as I can: “I no longer know.”