The other day we had a family night out. The street in front of our house was filled with outdoor games and music, familiar faces and some new ones too. A woman I didn’t recognize approached my husband and me, smiling pleasantly.

When she got close she looked at my 3-year-old son next to us and said, “Is this a boy or what?”

I looked down at him, with his long, golden hair and then back at the woman.

Is this a boy or what?

I didn’t say the first thing that came to mind, which was that at 3 years old he was mostly or what these days. Sometimes he’d wake up a puppy dog. Other times a space explorer. There were days he said he had superpowers—super speed and super sneakiness specifically—and other days he said he was fine “just being himself.”

But she didn’t mean that kind of or what did she?

It made me think about my dad. How he was almost 83 years old and a real Walt Whitman type of guy. A writer for most of his life, he lived two states away on a small piece of land on the edge of the sandhills, preferring the company of coyotes and crickets to actual people. We didn’t get to see each other much anymore, except for sporadic facetime calls. But since my son was born I felt more connected to him than ever.

You see, my son bared an uncanny resemblance to his grandfather. It was in how they stood. How they walked. How they sat and considered the world. But most notably, it was in their hair. They both had the same long, wild locks except that one was silver and the other gold.

That was really what her “or what” was about. It was about the curiosity of a boy with long hair.

I remember when I was in labor at the hospital, I was pushing with my legs up in the air. The nurse in the room walked by the edge of the bed and happened to glance over. Almost immediately she exclaimed. “Oh, look at that hair!” She said.

“That what?!” I grunted back, confused.

“Your baby has a full head of blonde hair! It’s a very old fashioned thing. We just don’t see it anymore. Do you want a mirror?”

I looked at my husband and laughed as all the color drained from his face. I was sure it all had to be some sort of birth-induced fever dream.

“No,” I replied, gritting my teeth for the next round of pushing. “No, I’m good.”

It was about an hour later that he was born and I realized it hadn’t been a dream—not at all. The nurse had been right. When she handed him to me and I carefully unwrapped his blankets so his skin was on mine, all I could do was look down and marvel at the beautiful, thick mat of yellow hair on his head.

I wish I could say from that moment on I had some sort of crunchy awareness about how important his hair was, but honestly, I didn’t. When he was about 2 years old, I’d grown weary of the arduous bath time rinse-lather-repeat routine and I scheduled him a haircut.

The day of the appointment, we walked into the brightly colored kid’s themed salon and I sat him on one of the chairs. The stylist put on the cape and as she began to snip, I could see the terror rise in his face. He didn’t want this.

I leaned in close and held onto his shaking body as he screamed, trying desperately to comfort him. It wasn’t the same sort of scream he used when I accidentally brought him the yellow spoon instead of the blue spoon at dinner. Or the scream he used when we shut off cartoons in the afternoon and told him it was nap time. It was a different scream. A primal one. An inexorably sad one.

The appointment only lasted 15 minutes but it broke both of us. He sat in his car seat, slumped over, heartbroken. I tried to hold up a mirror and smile—fain excitement to show that it was all going to be ok but he only shook his head. “It not me, mama.”

At 2 years old, he couldn’t verbalize it, but his hair was part of his identity as much as his legs or arms or eyes. And from that point on I knew that if it was ever going to change, it had to be his own decision.

By the time he had turned three his hair had grown shaggy and long again, dipping down past his shoulders. Sometimes I’d still ask—mostly out of curiosity—if he’d consider getting it trimmed. “Oh no, Mama. I love my hair like this,” was the usual answer.

“Sounds good,” was my only reply.

Was I reading far too much into a simple question? Did this woman standing in the street in front of me—this unfamiliar neighbor—have good intentions and simply want to make small talk? Or was she the kind of person who thought that the world was an easier place to understand if everyone had a little box to fit in? If boys were boys and girls were girls and there were none of the beautiful spectra of individuality that I’d come to recognize and appreciate in my own life.

I thought about all of these things and felt a sudden sadness for her and how small her world must be. Regardless of intention, it was a curious, trivial thing to bring up when there were so many better things to discuss.

Is this a boy or what?

I smiled.

“You know?” I replied. “He is a boy or what.” And with that I kindly nodded and turned, walking hand in hand with my son over to the bubble machine.