To My Child with Sparkling Purple Toenails

An open letter to my son

By Melissa Stefanec

We are going on vacation to Florida this week, so I painted my toenails. As soon as you and your sister caught wind of it, you were in my vanity drawer picking out which color you wanted for your toes. After your bath, you sat next to each other on the ottoman, and I painted your toenails a luminescent purple. I coated that lovely purple in a sparkling pink. When I couldn’t get much polish on your tiny pinky toe’s nail, you reminded me to paint that one. You didn’t want a single one missed. I finished painting 20 little toes and blew gently on them to speed up the drying. For two, young squirming bodies, the amount of time it takes polish to dry seems like an eternity. So, I blew until you both laughed and told me to stop tickling. I got polish on the skin of your toes, but you, having the wonderful perception of a child, only marveled at my work and said, “Thank you, mommy.”

Then you smiled at your toes and strutted off down the hallway to brush your teeth before bed. You were elated to finally have your toes sparkling. When your toes dried, you put on varsity-themed footie pajamas and got into bed. It was a very ordinary night in our household.

Son, there will be times in this world when it’s hard to be yourself. There will be people along the way who will try to persuade you to be anything but. There are people whose minds are so small and fragile, they will want you to be exactly like something you aren’t. Quickly and gently move away from those people. There are others out there with open hearts and minds. Find them and travel through life with them.

I know you wanting painted toenails at 3 years of age is likely a developmental blip. You want to be like your big sister more than almost anything in this world. If she is doing something, you want in on it, and toenail painting is no exception. I also know most children love bright and sparkling things. So, you want your toenails painted.

Mommy and daddy haven’t told you that boys don’t paint their toenails, because that isn’t true. Sometimes, boys paint their nails. And in the circles we travel, and the circles I wish for you to grow into, people don’t care if you paint your nails. They care about the content of your character and how you treat others.

More than likely, one day, social norms will start having just as much influence as Mommy and Daddy. You will hear an adult issue some careless comment about your toes, and this time you will really hear it and it will sink in, you will feel wrongfully ashamed. Or, maybe, it will be a kid on the playground, whose parent repeated the adage that boys don’t paint their nails, who breaks the news to you. Because I can’t protect you forever, there will likely come a day when your sister asks for her toes to be painted and you are nowhere to be found. The “me too” chorus will be gone, and it will be another bittersweet transition that marks the road to your future self. You will still chase toads in the yard and ride your Powerwheel, but this time it will be with all-natural toenails — not necessarily because you don’t want polish, but because you aren’t supposed to have polish.

Or, maybe, you will always want your toenails painted. Maybe you will never be afraid to march to your own beat. Whatever your choice, your parents support you. Mommy and Daddy love you because you are yourself. Whatever that self becomes, as long as it’s kind, Mommy and Daddy will be on your side and support it.

You see, when we signed up to be your parents, there weren’t a lot of conditions in the contract. There weren’t clauses that nullified our love or respect if you didn’t turn out the way we expected or if your lifestyle choices ran counter to outdated norms. However, there were a few things your dad and I agreed to. One of those things was to guide you into adulthood and love you unconditionally. When we brought you into this world, we made a pact to be there for you when the less desirable parts of this world snuck into your life and heart. We promised to stand up for you and teach you to stand up for yourself.

So, as you go through this life, we will love and support whatever you turn into, as long as you aren’t harming yourself or others. When you inevitably make choices that harm someone, we will love you and support you in making better decisions. But, I promise to do my best to not tell you how you are supposed to be. I will let you call those shots. I hope you find friends who love and respect that same you. I hope you find people who want those around them to be real and true.

But, for now, we will go on vacation. I will marvel at your purple toenails and strut beside you in the sand. I will be proud of you.