Gender and My Baby

The first family I nannied for had a 3 year old son and an 8 month old daughter when I started. The mom and I had a long conversation one day where she explained that there were innate differences between boys and girls. She said she treated both kids the same, yet there were key differences between them based on gender. I was just getting started learning about childhood development at the time, and I’m sure I didn’t offer much argument. I might have even believed her.

The very next day, I was doing the kids’ laundry, sorting their mixed up clothes into lights and darks. And I noticed that the baby girl’s clothes were entirely lights – whites, pale yellows, and pinks. The dark pile was entirely the boy’s clothes – dark blues, greens, and purples. So you don’t treat your kids any differently, huh? Maybe the laundry is a small thing, but at the time  it seemed like a monumentally vivid illustration of a potentially huge problem.

I’ve thought a lot about kids’ clothes since then. The question of strong gendering matters little when I’m the one picking out clothes. I’m unlikely to buy super-frilly dresses or monster truck shirts regardless of the sex of my child. I do like dark blues/green/purples, though, as well as flowery hippie clothes, and I plan to put both on my child. I came up with guidelines for gift items, too, which is, “If you wouldn’t buy it for a girl, please don’t buy it for my boy, or vice versa.” I have at least two friends who dressed their own sons in dresses, so it’s not much of a sticking point in my circle.

The question of toys never seemed too problematic for me, either. I’m unlikely to buy my kid many toys at all until ou is old enough to point and “Want!” I’ve never seen much need for little-kid toys when dirt and rocks and boxes exist. I already own some toddler toys, but they’re pretty universal blocks and puzzle-type stuff.

Years ago when we started trying to conceive, Joshua and I picked out a boy name and a girl name. In the intervening years, we acquired a friend with one of the names, which sent me back to the drawing board. But, an interesting thing happened when I actually stayed pregnant this time. As I contemplated the future-person, it seemed odd to me to choose two different names. There aren’t two potential babies inside me. “If you come out like this, I’ll name you this; if you come out like that, I’ll name you that.” How strange. There’s just the one baby, one person, and planning for such an immediate fork in the road depending on the baby’s genitals seemed really out of place to me. I began to search for one name that suited my idea of this future-person. As I’m sure you can imagine, this narrows the field of possible names considerably, but Joshua and I have found a name that I absolutely adore. (No, you don’t get to hear it yet. I think the baby should be the first one to hear ou’s name.)

Not my baby, of course! Photo credit paparutzi

Thinking over the question of the baby’s name brought a whole new set of ideas to the forefront. Why does everyone immediately ask the sex of a new baby? Why are parents so eager to broadcast the genital status of the child? Why does it matter so much that people urgently seek to discover their baby’s sex months in advance and plan many details of the baby’s new life around the findings? We don’t even know the baby’s sex now, but Joshua and I began to ponder not announcing the sex of our baby to anyone after the birth, either.

This brought up another set of concerns for me. I don’t want to deny the concept of sex and gender, pretending that these things don’t exist. I’m aware that, for example, ignoring race and trying to be “colorblind” helps perpetuate racism, and I wonder if ignoring gender could have unintended consequences as well. I’m aware that children in large groups very rapidly segregate themselves by sex, and while I don’t know to what extent socialization causes this, I know that it’ll come up for my child either way. I’m aware that I live in a highly gender-enforced culture, and I’m afraid to experiment on my child. In other words, I’m just not sure I feel qualified to buck the gender system very much at all. The words “gender-neutral” became a sticking point in my mind, because I know perfectly well that I do not (and my child will not) live in a gender-neutral world. And it’s not even that I want my future baby to be gender-neutral. I just want ou to be whatever ou wants to be.

So I was really glad to run across a post from Arwyn at Raising My Boychick: Raising him purple: a defense of gender neutrality in early childhood (link no longer active). This post expresses so much of my thoughts, that I wish you would read the whole thing (or her whole blog, for that matter). Some of my favorite passages (link and emphasis original):

…While I know my child has a penis and testicles, and apparently lacks a vulva and vagina, I do not know that he is a boy. I may think that he is a boy, it is likely that he is a boy, but just like I do not — and cannot until he informs me — know his sexuality, I do not — and cannot until he informs me — know his gender. He might be a boy. He might be a girl. He might be some variation of genderqueer or otherwise fall midway in the gender spectrum, or outside of it altogether. (And for that matter, he might be a high femme boy or a very butch girl…)

But unless I give him room — psychic and psychological space, if you will — to discover and create these things on his own, I will never know how much of what he does is what he really wants, and how much is what he’s adopted because it’s what he thinks he’s supposed to do and like.

I’m not opposed to gender (which would be about as sensical as being opposed to gravity); I’m just opposed to its imposition on children too young to know better, but not too young to be warped by all the baggage it brings with it. I cannot say it better than this: “Turn down the volume on the gender coding. Respond to the child’s personality. Let your child be who he or she is.” Not gender-free. Just free to be whatever gender they are — whatever that means to them.

That last bit, especially, helps clear up my issue with “gender-neutral”. What I’m looking for is not without gender, but open to gender – this way or that way or something in between or not. Someone in the comments suggests the phrase “gender diverse”, and I was thinking “Yes, yes, yes!” Not gender-neutral, but gender diverse! Ignoring gender seems like it risks narrowing the spectrum of possibilities, when what I’d rather do is embrace a wider range of possibilities.

So what’s the practical application of all of this for me? I really don’t know, of course, until I’m holding that baby in my arms. I’ve chosen a name that’s for my baby, rather than for a gender. Joshua and I don’t really plan to hide our baby’s genitals from other people – others may change ou’s diaper for instance, and we wouldn’t avoid that – but we also don’t plan to come rushing down from the birth with that topic first on our minds. We’re practicing using a non-gendered pronoun so that maybe it’ll be less awkward if we use it for our baby. We might be a little obstinate about revealing the baby’s sex to people who ask. Maybe we’ll give mini-lectures about babies and gender and introduce the new pronoun. Maybe on Tuesdays we’ll say, “She’s a girl,” and on Wednesdays say, “He’s a boy,” and on Saturdays say, “He’s a girl,” and on the other days forget what we said the last time and think it’s all extremely funny.

Maybe I’ll go out and buy some lacy dresses and some race car shirts after all, because the main thing I want to provide for my child is options. Parents sometimes tell their kids, “You can be anything you want to be,” and they mean an astronaut or the president or something like that. I want to say that, too, and mean something much more profound than how my child earns ou’s money.

For children, gender is perhaps the very first fork in the road, and for my child I hope that fork looks like a wide open path.