I was prompted to write to you by a recent letter that you published and by my own need for some advice. The letter was the one from Ruth talking about her need, for financial reasons, to dress her son in his older sister's hand-me-down clothes. My situation is quite similar.
Just a little over a year ago, my family situation changed dramatically. Without warning, my husband left me, running off to Mexico with his much younger secretary. He also cleared out our checking, savings, and investment accounts, leaving me with four children (daughters Andrea, age 16, and Eva, 13, and sons Nicholas, 10, and Ben, 8), the house, a poorly paid job, and very little money. As soon as the shock wore off, I realized I had to develop an austerity program for the family, or else we would be in truly dire straights.
I spent about a week thinking about what to do. Our lives changed a lot. No more restaurant meals. Andrea had to find a part time job for after school. That kind of thing. The part of the plan that relates to this letter was my idea for keeping our clothing budget under strict control. What I told the kids was that we would be making maximum use of all clothes, which meant lots of "hand-me-downs", meaning that Andrea's hand-me-downs would go to Eva, while Ben would get Nick's hand-me-downs. That was pretty much expected I think. Less expected was that I also decided that we couldn't waste Eva's hand-me-downs, and so, those clothes would go to Nick!
When I said that to the kids, it took a minute or two for the meaning to really sink in, and at that point Nick, not surprisingly, started to protest. Intensely. He said he couldn't wear Eva's clothes, that he was a boy not a girl, that he wasn't a sissy and only sissy boys wear girls clothes, that if he wore Eva's old clothes to school everyone would laugh it him. He really went on and on about it, and became quite tearful. I simply let him vent, and I was pleased when what had started out as angry refusals slowly turned to pleadings as he begged me not to make him wear his sister's clothes. And I was even more pleased as his begging started to include elements of deal making, as he said that he'd do anything I needed him to do so long as it meant he would not have to wear girls clothes to school.
At that point, I gave him a kiss and told him that I had no intention of making him go to school in Eva's old clothes, except for panties, which would be OK because no one would be able to see that he was wearing panties anyway. Instead, the idea was that I would store all of Nick's boys underwear and keep it for Ben to wear at some point, and those items would be replaced by Eva's no-longer-being-worn panties. But Nick would not have to wear any other girls clothes to school. Instead, I would save several outfits of boys school clothes from his wardrobe for him to wear to school. But, when he got home from school each day, that was when he would have to change into his sister's hand-me-downs. That way, his school outfits would last as long as possible, while the rest of his clothes could be set aside for Ben to wear as Ben got bigger in a year or two.
The news that I was not going to force him to wear girls hand-me-downs to school calmed Nick down quite a bit, although he was still clearly upset. So I reminded him that we were in a very difficult situation, so I needed everyone to be cooperative, and I also told him that if he wasn't good about changing clothes each day when he got home, that pretty soon it would mean that he would have to wear Eva's clothes to school. That threat seemed to really do the trick in stopping Nick's complaining and pleading. In fact, he then was remarkably obedient in helping me pick out the very limited wardrobe of boys clothes that I let him keep in his dresser and closet, and then helped me move Eva's clothes, including lots of panties, some girls pants, shorts, socks, shoes, skirts, blouses, t-shirts, dresses, and sweaters, into his closet and dresser. We also moved some of Eva's girly pajamas and nightgowns, and when I indicated to Nick that it was time for him to change into a pair of panties and a nightgown before going to sleep, he protested only a little bit, asking me if he "really needed to" and "could I let him wear his own boys pajamas just one more night, please please please". I remained firm, however, and told him that I was putting all of his boys pajamas away for Ben. I told Nick he would have to wear panties and a nightgown starting that very night.
Nick was good about wearing panties underneath his regular boys clothes the next day, and when he got home from school, and saw a skirt and blouse laid out for him on his bed, all he did by way of complaint was to utter a rather perfunctory "do I have to?", and then he changed into the girly hand-me-downs while carefully folding the boys clothes that he took off. And at night, I didn't even have to say anything to him to get him to change into the pair of very girly pink "hello kitty" pajamas that I laid out for him.
Everything went smoothly the rest of the week, including that Nick obediently came straight home from school each day instead of playing roughhousing games with his friends after school. What I had told Nick was that if he played those kinds of games after school and ruined any of his clothes, it might mean wearing a skirt to school. Better to skip those games than face that consequence!
I had assumed that Nick would understand that weekends would be completely "hand-me-downs" times, but to my surprise, when Saturday came, he got up and put on some boys clothes, and told me he was going out to play with his friends, which was something that Ben was doing too. I must admit that I came down fairly hard on Nick for thinking he could go play with his friends, and quite angrily told him that, no, he was not going to go play with his friends, unless he wanted to do it while wearing a dress and pairs of his sister's girly socks and shoes. Instead, he would be staying home and would be wearing one of Eva's hand-me-down dresses. The realization that he would be spending all of every weekend in Eva's hand-me-downs produced another outburst of anger and tears from him, including crying that it wasn't fair that Ben got to go out and play but he didn't.
As I had done that very first night, I let him cry himself out, and as he did so he again changed from angry refusals to pleadings and attempts to make a deal. He said that if I let him play in his boys clothes for just that morning, that he'd be very careful with his clothes, and would come back before lunch and then would immediately change into whatever girly clothes I put out for him to wear. I told him I wished I could do that for him, but I couldn't take the chance, and that anyway, I wanted him to help me with some of the house cleaning. At that point, all of his crying from that morning, combined with the emotional upset from the whole week, seemed to overwhelm him, and he suddenly became very meek and compliant and went upstairs and obediently changed into a pretty dress that was in his closet.
The next event worth mentioning, at least briefly, occurred a week later, when, with Nick's help, I washed and changed all the sheets. That was when Nick learned that my "hand-me-downs" policy was also going to apply to the bed linens, that is, that his boyish linens were going to be put away for the day when Ben would need them, while some older sheets and pillow cases that Eva had used were now being put on his bed. By then, all the protest had been wrung out from him, so that night, without comment or complaint, Nick put on a nightgown over his panties, then climbed into bed in between a pair of pink sheets with little pictures of ballerinas on them, and put his head on a pillow case with the same pink and ballerina pattern.
There were times, of course, on weekends when Nick had to go out of the house. For instance, even though, for obvious reasons, he had to stop participating in sports, his younger brother and both older sisters participated, and that often meant Nick going with me to watch their games and cheer them on. There were also times when Nick went with me to run errands on weekends, and sometimes the whole family went places, such as to visit my sister who lives about an hour away. The very first time that Nick went out in public on a weekend, he begged me to let him wear his boys clothes, and he made the reasonable argument that what we would be doing would not be hard on the clothes. However, I was loathe to make exceptions to my rules about what clothes he wore on weekends. Instead, I sort of compromised, by saying that when we went out on the weekends or evenings, I would let him pick out the least girly of the hand-me-down outfits that he could find in his closet, which usually meant a pair of girls pants or shorts and a fairly plain, even if somewhat frilly, blouse. When we did go out, Nick would almost always stick very close to me, often actually holding my hand the way a much younger child would do while keeping his eyes down in a very shy and demur way.
That policy about what he wore when going out in public did eventually change somewhat however, and to explain that, I need to say something about haircuts. Nick had longer than average hair for a boy even before he began wearing Eva's clothes, and by the time two months had passed, both Nick and Ben were getting pretty shaggy and in need of a haircut. I took them both to the barber, but on the way there I told Nick that we couldn't afford to pay for haircuts for both of them, and since Ben was the one who played sports now, he was the one who would get the haircut. So Nick sat there with me in the barber shop, wearing a blouse and girls pants, and watched his younger brother get a much needed haircut. As more months passed, Nick's hair got quite girlishly long, and though I let him wear it in an unkept style when he went to school, on weekends the rule was that it had to be neatly brushed and put into a ponytail.
With his hair in a pony tail, most people who saw Nick thought he was a girl, no matter which hand-me-down girls clothes he was wearing. At that point I decided that, since he was being mistaken for a girl anyway, if we went to my sister's or somewhere else out of town, there was no reason for him not to wear a dress or skirt and blouse, and no reason not to tell people that he was a girl.
I'll also mention that the first time that "Nicky" was mistaken for a girl it bothered him a lot, but as that happened more and more, he got quite used to it, and it has seemed to me that he has even started to feel good about it when people comment on how cute or pretty he is. Not long ago, in fact, all four kids spent ten days with my sister, and I didn't let Nick take any boys clothes with him at all, and while he was with my sister he was introduced to everyone as a girl and he got along fine and even made friends, as a girl, with some girls in my sister's neighborhood.
Anyway, all of what I've talked about in this letter has taken place during the past year or so. But recently, I was successful in finding a new job, one that will pay way more than the job I have now. It will start in a few months, and the whole family will have to move to a new town about two hours away. The question I have, and the one I'd love to get some advice about, is what to do about Nicky. When we move and I'm working in the new job, I'll have enough money so that Nicky won't necessarily have to wear Eva's hand-me-downs. But the thing is that I've come to prefer having Nicky as a girl. And Eva and Andrea both like having Nicky as their sister instead of as a brother. And I think, if he would be really honest with himself, that even Nicky now feels more like a girl than like a boy. So what do I do? Does Nicky go back to wearing only boys clothes and living as a boy when we move, or do I make this an opportunity to make him start living as a girl full time and basically permanently?
Thank you for your letter Carol. I am very pleased to learn that you found my site informative and I hope, helpful. First let me say how sorry I am that your husband decided to think only of himself leaving you to struggle raising four children and financially destitute. A cruel, selfish man you are better off without and times will get better for you, you are a strong confident woman and will succeed I have no doubt.
Now on to your main points about sharing your daughter's clothes with your son, sometimes we must do what we must and being a mother is rarely easy but your solution is both economical and kind. To your question, searching your heart will provide the answer, but if I might offer an opinion. So far now it has been going well, really well and he is coming to enjoy this direction in his life, seems to me to be best if he were to become a full time girl, allow him to enjoy the experience and with your new financial ability, buy him new clothes. To go back to him being a boy could be traumatic for him, change is difficult for children and he has adjusted to this new, more gentle, way to live, he, from what you've told me, is more shy and demur on occasion, something I assume you enjoy and wish to encourage.