When I was pregnant with Theo I was, like most expectant parents, very much a blind idealist about what raising children in general and my child in particular were going to be like. Oh, I wasn’t going to be one of those parents, plunking their kids down in front of the television, feeding them sugary food, giving into their tantrums. I was going to be always alert and engaged, loving but firm, and naturally I would feed my child nothing but the homemade goodness that I, Betty Crocker aspirant that I am, would whip up from raw, organic ingredients. My kid would sleep through the night. My kid would never cry on a crowded bus. My kid would be perfect.
My kid would be raised without all of the gender baggage that my peers and I had grown up with.
I had (and continue to have, I suppose) such an incredibly specific hangup about the word gender and the way that it’s tossed around in relation to babies and small children, especially with regards to the mid-pregnancy anatomy ultrasound. This ultrasound, for those of you not in the know, happens at about twenty weeks gestation and is meant to look for any fetal anatomical issues. In reality, most people look forward to it as the first chance that they get to find out their baby’s sex. Except they don’t say sex. They say gender. They speak excitedly about learning what gender their child is, and then plan out cute gender reveal parties to spring on their unsuspecting families. They start picking out pink or blue coming home outfits, and plan their nursery decoration scheme around the idea of either boy or girl. They talk about sex and gender as if the two words are synonymous, and either can somehow be discovered by a cursory look at someone’s naked body.
I seriously cannot emphasize this point enough: sex does not equal gender.
You cannot learn an unborn fetal gender through an ultrasound. Gender is a social construct that has nothing to do with a person’s genitalia and everything to do with certain ideas that are programmed into us about how a person should dress and act based on certain physical characteristics. And for that matter, you can’t even tell fetal sex based on an ultrasound – the only way to know the particular arrangement of X and Y chromosomes of any given person is through a DNA test, which in the case of an unborn baby would typically mean amniocentesis. Ultrasounds cannot reveal gender. So whenever people refer to their anatomy scan as a their “gender scan,” I feel like I want to tear my own hair out.
It was even worse when I was pregnant, probably because I was a member of several online parenting communities and wound up wading through all kinds of baby ridiculousness every time I went online (although, now that I have an actual kid and not just an ideal baby in my head, I may, admittedly, no longer find all of the posts to be so terrible after all). I was part of a small but rabid group of people who felt the need to comment and correct every single time someone conflated sex with gender. We were well-intentioned but oh-so-smug, and for almost all of us the birth of our children proved us to be hypocrites. It’s incredibly easy to talk a good game about raising children without gender; in practice it’s much, much harder.
The gendering of my son began the moment the doctor exclaimed, “it’s a boy!” Though I had no more way of knowing my child’s gender five minutes after his birth than I had five minutes before, I would be lying if I said that I hadn’t felt expectations and anxieties forming around those three little words. Our child, who had been referred to during my pregnancy as Pele or “it,” immediately became a he. My husband and I gave him a traditionally male name (Theodore) and the hospital wrapped him in a blue receiving blanket. Although I’d bought only gender-neutral clothing before Theo was born, I quickly fell into the trap of the (insanely adorable) Baby Boy section at Baby Gap. Soon he was wearing tiny sweater-vests and button down shirts, a mini-version of a corporate executive in a high-stakes job. I thought he looked equal parts adorable and hilarious.
Still, pronouns and pint-sized business-wear aside, I’ve tried to keep Theo’s life pretty gender-free. My mother had given me all the beautiful little caps and sweaters she’d knitted for me when I was a baby, and I often dressed him in those, complete with all the ribbon and rosette detailing. In the summer, I put him in onesies and leg warmers because it was easier to change his diaper that way. My grandmother sent me a pink sleeper with butterflies and kittens on it, and I dressed him in that. People would often stop me on the street to tell me how sweet my daughter looked; I wouldn’t bother to correct them, but if I dropped a “he” or “him” into the conversation they would become confused or sometimes even upset, apologizing profusely for guessing the wrong gender. I would just laugh it off and say that it was basically impossible to tell if a baby was a girl or a boy, but I felt uneasy about the whole thing. Their language and their entire attitude often changed once they realized that Theo was my son and not my daughter. I couldn’t understand why – after all, he was the exact same baby that they’d been cooing over five minutes before.
I guess I’ve spent the last three years trying, in ways big and small, to deconstruct gender for Theo. I’ve given him trucks and trains to play with, yes, but also dolls and a kitchen set. I switch up the pronouns in books so that it’s not just boys doing boy things and girls doing girl things all the time. He still wears sweater vests and cardigans and dress shirts, but he also wears leggings and skinny jeans, and I always try to find him clothing in brighter colours whenever possible. He has long hair because he doesn’t want to get it cut, and I have no real interest in forcing the issue because he should be able to have his hair whatever length makes him happy. What’s funny is that though I’m conscious of how I teach my son about gender, I don’t think of him as a boy, really – I just think of him as Theo, his own individual person with his own likes and dislikes. I mean, yes, I call him a boy, but I try pretty hard not to attach any specific meaning to the word boy. So I was surprised, and a little excited when, after posting his recent birthday letter, a handful of people began leaving comments about what a wonderful relationship I seemed with my daughter, while others mentioned how sweet my son was.
I thought, I might actually be doing something right.
Because when I went back and re-read what I’d written, I realized that, because it was written in the second person, there was no way of telling Theo’s gender. And looking through the list of his likes and dislikes, nothing seemed to especially indicate traditionally male or female interests. That, coupled with the picture of him in a yellow cardigan, long hair and skinny jeans, gave people the idea that he could be anything. Not definitely a boy. Not definitively a girl. His very own person, whoever that is.
I might actually be doing something right.
I recognize that it’s going to be hard-going to keep up even a semblance of this sort of gender neutrality as Theo gets older, especially once he starts school. Eventually he will realize that the world has sorted almost everything into two neat little boxes: boy things and girl things. He may no longer want to play with dolls. He may no longer play at cooking or cleaning. He may ask me to stop switching pronouns in books, may no longer want to wear skinny jeans. Or he may not stop doing any of those things, an act of gender defiance that carries the very real threat of teasing or bullying by his peers. This last fact is why I don’t push too hard to erase all ideas of gender from Theo’s head – because I know that unless I’m willing to stay home full-time, homeschool him, and only allow him to be around like-minded people, he’s going to have to interact with folks who are frightened, and might even become violent, over the idea of someone not fitting neatly into the gender binary.
And it’s not that I want Theo to fit in at all costs; I just want him to be safe.
It’s important for me to remind myself that Theo is a person in his own right, and not just an extension of myself or else some kind of social experiment. I have to weigh the benefits of my idealism and good intentions against the possible real-world consequences that he might face, especially in places like the classroom or the schoolyard or the school bus, places where I am not there to protect or explain. There’s so much that I want to him to understand about gender and how it functions in our society, but I worry that if I explain it too soon or too quickly, he might repeat what I say to his friends and end up ostracized as the weird kid. And while I believe that what I say is the truth, I know that it’s a truth that so many other people don’t believe in. To say that gender is a social construct does not mean that it does not play an oppressive role in society; just because something was invented by people does not mean it can’t be used to hurt others. So I don’t want to make this his fight, at least not until he’s old enough to know that it is a fight, sometimes a dangerous one.
Mostly, though, I just want my kid to be himself. I want him to like whatever he likes, and dress however he wants to dress. I want him to be fully comfortable expressing who he is in whatever way he needs to. I want to be able to mitigate the idea that he can’t do or like certain things because they’re girl things. I want him to know that all toys and all games and all jobs and all clothing are for anyone, no matter what they’ve got between their legs. I want him to know that whether he’s a boy or a girl or anything else that he happens to be, that I will love him just as fiercely as I do now.
Because I love this person so, so much.