Tag Archives: theo

On Motherhood and Losing Myself

7 Sep

I remember the first time it happened – it was shortly after Theo’s birth and I was still in the hospital. My mother and husband were in the room with me when the nurse came in to do something – maybe weigh him or help bathe him or check his vital signs. After she finished, she said, “all right, now I’ll give him back to mom,” and I was momentarily confused. Why was she handing my son off to my mother? Shouldn’t she give him to me or my husband?

And then I realized that she had, in fact, meant to give Theo back to me. Mom meant me. I was mom. My mother, meanwhile, had graduated to “Grandma.” The nurse left before I had the chance to tell her that my name was Anne, although if she’d really wanted to know that she could have just looked at my chart.

I got used to the name Mom, though, and faster than I’d thought I would. I started using it to refer to myself in the third person when I spoke to my son: “Mama loves you so much,” I would say to him. “Mama’s just going to change your diaper, and then you’ll be much more comfortable.” “Mama’s making your dinner, but don’t worry, she’ll be really fast!” “Ma-ma. Can you say ma-ma? Ma-ma. I’m your mama. Ma-ma.” By the time Theo was eight months old, he would howl “Maaaaaaaaa-maaaaaaaaa” every time he wanted me, and I felt a funny sense of triumph whenever I heard him call me. He knew my name. I was Mama.

I wasn’t the only one who referred to myself as “Mom” or “Mama” either. My husband did it whenever he was in front of our son, even when he was talking directly to me – after all, we wanted to keep things consistent and easy to understand for Theo, didn’t we? My mother did it, too. So did my sisters. And as my son got older and we started making the rounds of playgroups and library programs and sing-alongs, the other parents (almost exclusively women) referred to me as “Theo’s mom.” Not that I was any better – I didn’t know any of their names, either. We were all just so-and-so’s mom, as if that were our name or our job title or maybe the most fascinating fact about us. 

Admittedly, there were a lot of things in my life that made me feel as if being a mother was the most fascinating thing about me, or at least the best, most noble thing about me. Strangers smiled at me, and offered me their seat on the bus. People working in customer service were more polite and attentive, whereas before I felt as if I’d often been brushed off. Everyone took me more seriously. It was as if by giving birth I’d somehow gained some strange kind of respectability. I wasn’t just that weird girl who talked too much and cried easily; I wasn’t just another person who had never reached their full potential. I was a mother, and according to a lot of people I’d fulfilled exactly as much of my potential as I needed to. And while on some level that fact was embarrassingly gratifying, mostly because I’d never felt so much societal approval before, underneath that gratification was a restless, howling anxiety. 

I wasn’t the only one in our household to be given a new title, of course. My husband became “Daddy,” a name that also carries some baggage with it. But he didn’t seem to feel as if he was losing himself, the way that I did – and it does seem to bear pointing out that our circumstances were vastly different. Every day, while I stayed at home with our son, my husband went to work. Every day, while I sat on the couch and cried over how fucking hard breastfeeding was, while I took a deep breath and tried not to scream with frustration because my kid was inconsolably exhausted but absolutely would not nap, while I stripped off yet another urine-soaked onesie and brightly-coloured cloth diaper only to watch in horror as my son chose that exact moment to unleash a jet of poop, my husband went back to the Land of the Adults, a country that we both called home but from which I had temporarily been exiled. Every day, while I opened my laptop and tried yet again – through frighteningly hive-minded online parenting communities, frantic status updates on Facebook, and emails to my family – to find the training manual for my overwhelming new job, my husband went back to his same old job, where he could take hour-long lunches and everyone called him by his real name.

No. It wasn’t the same thing at all.

I tried not to feel like I’d somehow lost something, because how could I have lost something? I hadn’t lost anything; I was still the same person, wasn’t I? Even if I felt like I’d lost myself, I was clearly still there. I still existed. On top of that, it seemed unbelievably selfish to frame it in terms of “loss” when, in fact, I’d gained a perfect baby – especially when several of my friends were struggling in various ways to become parents. And I’d wanted this, hadn’t I? Becoming a mother had been my choice. So how could I complain?

Another layer to my unease lay in the fact that if I felt like I’d lost some part of identity, then had my mother experienced the same thing when she’d given birth to me? It seemed impossible that she had ever been anything other than what she was, namely my mother; and yet that selfish feeling of impossibility was almost certainly evidence of the part that I had played in who she had become. For a long time I’d thought that I would never grow up to be my mother, because my mother’s life had always seemed so constrained and limited. Now I saw that I was the one who had limited it. 

Maybe saying that becoming a mother was my choice wasn’t quite the right way to put it. Maybe it’s more accurate to say that I chose to become a parent, and then society gave me the label “mother” with all of its loaded associations. After all, what is there specifically about being a woman that says that you have to lose yourself completely once you have a kid? Isn’t it possible that if we lived in a world that treated motherhood and fatherhood equally – a world where we called it parental leave instead of maternity leave, a world that was just as accepting of stay-at-home fathers as it was of stay-at-home mothers, a world where women couldn’t expect their wage to decrease by 4% for every child they have – then women wouldn’t feel as if having children was a deeply personal sacrifice?

I mean, of course you have to give some stuff up once you have a child. I’m not saying that your life should stay exactly the same. But you shouldn’t have to sacrifice yourself.

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Talking To Small Children About Race

5 Sep

Hey y’all! Here‘s an article I wrote for the Washington Post about being a white parent trying to explain racism and privilege to my white kid. It’s something that I’ve been thinking about for quite a while, but in light of what’s happening in Ferguson it now seems incredibly urgent.

Excerpt:

“Find books, movies, television shows that feature a diverse cast of characters, and make sure that these forms of media aren’t falling into the trap of tokenism, i.e. having mainly white lead characters with a few background characters of different races or ethnicities. If you notice that some of your child’s favorite books or shows involve problematic depictions of race, talk to them about it and try to have a conversation about what you wish was done differently in this particular story.”

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On This Day In History

7 Aug

It’s my birthday, y’all. I’m 32 today.

I had a personal essay go up on Jezebel today (trigger warning for talk of suicide)

I also had a serious scholarly article about Anne Boleyn go up on The Toast.

It’s been a big day.

We drove for three hours to see my grandmother in St-Bruno, then drove three hours back to Kingston, where we’re staying with my mom for the week. I only got to chill with my Nana for about two hours, but it was one hundred percent worth it because I get to see her once or twice a year tops. My Nana is a really rad lady, in case you were wondering.

She hates having her picture taken, but here’s an awesome picture of my grandfather I found while I was there:

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Also this is how big the fucking hedge is in my grandmother’s backyard (Theo pictured for scale), so whenever I’m there I feel like I’m chilling in a fairytale forest, which is obviously something I’m into.

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I love that stupid hedge an unreasonable amount. I used to play hide and seek in there with my cousins when I was a kid. Also we turned part of it into a fort where we did secret things. And by secret things I mean played house.

We made it back to Kingston by early evening, and I paid my yearly tribute to Hiroshima. They hold a Peace Lantern ceremony here in one of the parks downtown, and the ritual of making lanterns, folding cranes and singing Pete Seeger songs has become an important part of my birthday. It’s kind of weird to feel so tied to this horrible event that happened decades before I was born, but I’m also weirdly thankful for the moments of sad remembrance on what is otherwise a happy day. The bombing of Hiroshima feels like a part of who I am, in a way that I can’t really properly articulate.

Anyway.

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Making lanterns with Theo

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The boy beside us, Yuto, made the lantern below. As you can see, there’s Pikachu and also an illustration of the bombing of Hiroshima. He was adorable and a great artist. I think that placing these two scenes side by side really makes a statement.

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Making paper cranes:

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My crane:

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The lantern procession:

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Getting ready to float them out on the water:

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Perfect.

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This birthday was one of the good ones.

On Parenting and Pride and All That Other Good Stuff

30 Jun

When I was eighteen I was pretty sure that my mother was gay.

Not that she’d ever expressed an attraction to women. Actually, she’d never really expressed an attraction to anyone (aside from George Clooney, otherwise known as Thursday Night Dreamboat Doctor Ross, although I was more of a Noah Wyle girl myself), and the idea of my mother as a sexual being seemed completely foreign to me. At that point she’d been divorced for five years, and as far as I was concerned she didn’t have sex. Or want to have sex. Ever. End of story.

But still, I was pretty sure she was gay.

See, I found this book. I was in her room, doing my best impression of an intrepid girl detective and rummaging through her stuff. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, but you never knew what you might find – a nice set of fake pearls, the poncho my grandfather had brought back from Peru when she was a kid, a beat up old copy of Peyton Place. So if I happened to find myself home alone, I would often find myself carefully removing everything from on top of her big wooden chest (mentally cataloguing where everything had been so that I could replace it in exactly the same spot and she would never suspect) and then rifling through its contents. STEALTH.

On this one particular day, as I was moving her small television and our ancient Nintendo system off the chest, I noticed a book that I’d never seen before. It was called Home Truths: Lesbian Mothers Come Out To Their Daughters. Inside the front cover was a hand-written note – “Dear [my mother’s name], don’t forget – always tell the truth. Love, Gloria.”

Truth, by the way, was underlined twice.

I mean.

Come on.

What else was I supposed to take from this other than the fact that my mother had a lesbian lover named Gloria?

Like, seriously.

And I mean of course she was gay; the signs had been there all along. She hadn’t dated anyone since my father had left. She had short hair. She wore sensible shoes. How could I possibly have missed it? The fact that she’d had three kids with a man didn’t mean anything – my friend C____’s mother had come out shortly after divorcing C____’s father and was now dating a woman. They drove to Toronto every year for pride and had matching rainbow lawn chairs. Oh god, were my mother and Gloria going to get matching rainbow lawn chairs and matching Birkenstocks and whatever other matchy-matchy things lesbians have?

And then suddenly I felt really bad, because I realized that she was probably pretty worried about how my sisters and I would react to all of this. I mean, why else would she buy a how-to book? Maybe she was staying up all night thinking about whether or not we’d be cool with her being gay. Maybe she was wondering if her family would disown her. I felt guilty that I came off as someone who might have been judgmental of her sexuality, and I decided that I had to say something.  I figured I would employ my stealth skills and start a super subtle conversation that would lead her to admit that she was in love with a woman, all without me having to admit that I’d been going through her stuff.

I had my chance that evening, as she was driving me to work. Please feel free to picture me in my vile Tim Horton’s uniform, with the maroon polyester pants and the maroon and white striped shirt.

Me: Mom? I just want you to know that I love you no matter what.

My mother: Thanks, Annie.

Me: Like, no matter what. No matter who you are or whatever.

My mother: Great. Thanks.

Me: Like, I don’t care who you love.

My mother: I appreciate that.

Me: I’ll always love you.

My mother (suspicious): What’s all this about?

Me: I just mean that if you’re gay that’s totally fine and I don’t care.

My mother: Why on earth would you think I was gay?

Me: Ok, I was in your room and I wasn’t snooping, I swear to god I wasn’t snooping I was just putting something in the hamper, and I accidentally saw this book next to the tv.

My mother: … what book?

Me: It was about lesbian mothers coming out to their daughters. And your girlfriend wrote you a note in it telling you to always tell the truth. And I don’t care, because I love you even if that is the truth.

My mother: (Dies laughing)

Me: (Sulks, because I hate being laughed at)

My mother: (Dies laughing some more. Like she is crying. Tears running down her face. She has to pull over because she can’t see well enough to drive)

Me: (SUPER SULKY)

My mother: Annie, that is a book my friend Gloria put together. She gave me a free copy and signed it. That’s all.

Me: Because I don’t care if you’re gay! You can just tell me, ok?

My mother: I’m not gay. It was my friend’s book, I swear that’s all. But I appreciate you saying all of this.

Now, looking back ten-plus years later, I’m the one who’s appreciative. I feel lucky that I grew up in a country that is fairly tolerant (although oh god there is still so much room for improvement). I also feel lucky that my parents were pretty laid back and liberal about everything, and worked hard to make sure that there was at least some amount of diversity in my life. When my father moved to Toronto, he rented a place on the edge of the gay village, and I loved visiting him and going off exploring on my own – there was such a weird frisson of excitement walking around in the middle of this culture that was pretty foreign to the rest of my life. I wanted to be like the girls that I saw there, with their half-shaved heads and facial piercings and boy’s clothes. Girls who held hands and kissed in public. I didn’t know any girls like that in Kitchener.

My father took me to my first Toronto Pride Parade when I was fifteen, and I remember being absolutely enchanted by a float of men wearing nothing but tighty whities and sailor hats. They were throwing bottles of water into the crowd. I was really excited when I caught one. I brought it back home with me like it was some kind of prize.

I think a lot about how Theo will view his sexuality as he gets older. I flip-flop from worrying about whether he might be teased or bullied if he deviates from traditional masculine ideas, to panicking over the fact that he might, against my best efforts, buy into those ideas and become a bully himself. The dice seem so loaded any way you roll them – like, I want him to be who he is, and I want him to be brave and stand up for marginalized and oppressed people, but I also want him to always be safe and happy. And I don’t know if I can have it both ways. Not that it’s really up to me – he’ll have to make his own discoveries and choices about himself, and while I can try to pass on my value system to him, I ultimately don’t have any say in who or what he is.

I just want him to know that, as I told my mother, I will love him no matter what his sexuality, no matter what his gender, no matter what, end of sentence, full stop.

I just hope that he always knows that I love him and I’m proud of him.

This. Kid. He just kills me.

This. Kid. He just kills me.

How Do You Mourn The Living?

14 Jun

Tomorrow is Father’s Day.

If you’re a fairly regular reader here, you may have noticed that I don’t often mention my dad, and when I do it’s always in the past tense. He’ll sometimes come up when I write about my childhood, but other than that I almost never talk about him. He’s not dead or anything – in fact, he lives in the same city that I do. He’s just not a part of my life.

A few years ago my father became estranged from my sisters and I. There’s a lot of backstory there, but I’m not going to get into the whole thing here. For one thing, it’s not entirely my story to tell. For another, I don’t want to write anything here that might hurt anyone. So I’ll just say that there was a long, protracted leave-taking that involved a lot of tearful discussions, tentative reconciliations, and a slow, steady breaking of my heart, with the outcome of all that being that he is no longer a presence in my life.

I love my father immensely. We were close when I was a kid, and I have about a billion memories of us being hilarious and fun together. When I was a teenager, he was the cool parent and would buy me beer and drugs when I came to visit him. He taught me about existentialism, and encouraged me to read Camus’ The Outsider (his favourite book) for my big, final high school English paper. We shared a love of music, and from him I learned the deep physical pleasure – the sort of secular reverence – one experiences while placing a record on a turntable and dropping the needle into the groove. He was a great storyteller, and listening to him geek out about our family history was one of my favourite ways to spend an evening. He read to me every night when I was a kid, even once I was old enough to read on my own, and would get grumpy if my mother had to read a chapter to me while he was working late because he always became just as involved in all my favourite books as I did. He would play make-believe games with me for hours on end, something my mother, bless her, didn’t have the patience or imagination for. He was the first person to talk to me like I was a living, breathing person with thoughts and feelings of my own. We shared the same dark sense of humour; maybe we still do.

He loved me. I know he did. I’m sure that if you asked him he would tell you that he loves me still. So how do I reconcile that with the fact that he’s hurt me, badly, and has hurt many other people that he cares about? It seems impossible.

You always read about little kids who blame themselves for their parents’ divorce. I was thirteen when my dad left, and was sure that I was old enough to know that sometimes grownups just fall out of love and that’s how life is. I knew that it had nothing to do with me, or my sisters. People change, and my parents had changed in ways that made them incompatible with each other. Case closed. Time to move on.

But lately I’ve been wondering if that’s really what I believe; I wonder if I’ve ever felt entirely blameless. Because, honestly, couldn’t we have done something more? Couldn’t we have charmed him into staying somehow? If only we had figured out the perfect way to be, the way that always made him happy, then he wouldn’t have left, would he? But we could never quite suss out the secret of making my father happy. Or maybe we just didn’t try hard enough, because we didn’t know exactly what was at stake. We never imagined that he’d leave.

And then, years later, he somehow managed to leave again. And I’m left sitting here trying to pick up the pieces, trying to figure out how to live my life without him. And it’s hard.

I told my therapist that it would, in some ways, be easier if he was dead. Not that I wish that he would die or anything, just that I would know the right procedure to go through. I would wear black. I would mourn. I would recall only the happy times. I would keep a picture of him on the wall, and my eyes would well up with tears whenever I saw it. I would love him, perfectly and unconditionally, the way you’re supposed to love a parent. I would know that he’d loved me.

But how do you mourn someone who’s still alive? How do you grieve the fact that they’ve left you, when at any moment they could walk back into your life? How is it possible to feel so angry and so hurt and yet also so hopeful that things might get better? It seems totally self-contradictory. And yet, here we are.

On a more basic level, I struggle to know how to talk about him to people who don’t know what’s happened. When they ask questions about him, am I supposed to answer as if we’re still close? Or do I straight-up tell them that we’re estranged? I don’t want to lie, but I also don’t want to make anyone else feel uncomfortable. Because it is uncomfortable for other people, isn’t it? Whenever I tell someone that my father and I don’t actually talk, I always feel like I immediately have to reassure them. I’ll smile big and say brightly, “It’s fine, though! We’ll figure it out!”

But the truth is that I don’t know how we could ever figure it all out. Not at this point. We might reconcile someday, but our relationship will never be what it was. How do you grieve a relationship that can’t ever be properly resuscitated?

My father has met my son twice. The first time was on a rainy day when Theo was about four months old, we ran into my father on the street corner. He peered through the stroller’s rain shield at my fat, sleeping baby and said that he was cute. He shook his head and said that he couldn’t believe he was a grandfather. He promised to call me. He didn’t.

The second time was when Theo was two. My sister and I had agreed to have coffee with our father, and then out of the blue I asked if he wanted to meet Theo. We all went to the museum together. Theo and my father had a great old time together, drumming out rhythms in the second floor gallery, choosing favourite fish in the aquarium. Afterwards, we promised to keep in touch, to try to set up another meeting. It never happened.

These days Theo is very interested in familial relationships. He’ll sometimes refer to me as “your wife” when speaking to Matt, and he’ll call his grandmother “Anne’s mother” instead of Gran. So the following conversation was bound to happen sooner rather than later.

Theo: Who’s your dad?

Me: His name is F____.

Theo: Where is he?

Me: Well, he lives here in Toronto, but we don’t get to see him very often for a variety of reasons. But I know that he loves you very much!

Theo: … Is he not a nice guy?

Me: He’s a nice guy. We – well, we just don’t get to see him very much. But he does love you.

Because I’m sure that, in some way, he does.

At the end of the day, I’m left wondering which father is my real father – the one who sat on the floor and played dolls with me for hours and hours, or the one who didn’t just flat out didn’t respond to the email announcing my pregnancy? The answer is both, I guess, but that truth is a lot to wrap my head around.

I miss my dad.

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Breastfeeding Revisited: Now You Are Three

10 Jun

When my son was a few weeks old, we did he requisite Extended Family Tour. We drove to Montreal to see my grandmother and assorted aunts and uncles, and then we went to Kingston to chill out at my mom’s and see even more aunts and uncles. During these visits I felt like a queen receiving supplicants – I would sit enthroned in a big, comfortable chair, my breastfeeding pillow on my lap and my son nestled against my chest. Breastfeeding back then was a bit of an ordeal – we were still using the nipple shield, which meant that in order to get Theo to nurse I had to expose my breast, fiddle around with the little silicone shield, get it firmly in place and make sure that it was airtight, and then try to get Theo latched (not always an entirely successful endeavour).

This trip marked the first time that I’d ever breastfed in public. I hadn’t planned on it, but halfway to Montreal the baby was doing that whole enraged purple-faced screaming, and it didn’t seem like the soothing bumpiness of the drive was going to lull him back to sleep anytime soon. So we stopped at a rest station, and I proceeded to the furthest, dimmest corner table to set up my boobtacular operation.

I couldn’t do it, though. I couldn’t pull out my breast, engorged and leaking milk everywhere. I couldn’t expose my nipple, red and inflamed and a little cracked. I just couldn’t.

Meanwhile, my son screamed beside me, guaranteeing that everyone in the place was now staring at us.

My mother came up behind me and said, “Just do it, Annie. Just do it. No one is looking. Just do it.”

And, clumsily, fumbling with that goddamn nipple shield, I did.

I scrunched down in my seat, waiting for one of those rent-a-cops to come over and tell me that someone had complained, that I needed to cover up, that I needed to go somewhere else. But nothing like that happened. Instead, my son finished, I packed my gear up, and we hit the road.

I had to nurse him again at my grandmother’s house (god, what is with these babies, always wanting to eat? it’s almost like they’re growing or something), and whenever I did, all my uncles would studiously look away.

“I think breastfeeding is wonderful,” said one of my aunts, “but some women seem to do it for themselves. I saw a woman on the metro the other day just sitting there with her kid hanging off her. She couldn’t have waited until she got home? When it’s public like that I think it’s more about the mother than the baby.”

The next day, when we were back in Kingston, my uncle and his three kids came over to meet Theo. They were fascinated by breastfeeding, and would crowd around me whenever I did it, shoving their heads as close as possible to my chest to get the best possible view of the action.

The youngest cousin was three, and she seemed enormous compared to Theo. Afterwards, I said to Matt, “I’m not breastfeeding him when he’s three.”

Matt, whose mother had been a La Leche League leader and who had been breastfed until he was nearly four, said, “You don’t have to.”

“Did you see how big that three year old was? I can’t breastfeed someone that big. I just can’t.”

“Yeah,” he said in agreement. “She was pretty big. I can see why that would seem weird. You don’t have to breastfeed Theo when he’s three – just do it as long as you feel comfortable with it.”

“I’m only going to do it for a year. That’s what all the books say. A year. At twelve months they can have cow’s milk.”

Because, see, I wasn’t going to be one of those breastfeeding mothers. Oh sure, I thought breastfeeding was great, and I was proud of how hard I’d fought to be able to do it, but I wasn’t going to be some kind of breastfeeding weirdo. No way.

And yet.

Here we are.

My son turned three in January, and still nurses once or twice a day – usually first thing in the morning, and right before bedtime. I’m not even producing milk anymore, but I don’t think that matters to him. It’s a comfort thing for him, and at a time when he’s going through so many changes, it’s hard to take it away from him. On top of all that, it doesn’t feel weird like I thought it would. It just feels normal – it’s  thing we’ve been doing every day for nearly three and a half years, after all. I guess I thought that there would be some magic cut-off date, at which point I would be like, “oh, ew, this is too gross to continue,” but that never happened.

I don’t feel weird when I’m breastfeeding Theo, but I do feel weird when I think about how society views me. All I have to do is look up all of the articles written about Jamie Lynn Grummet, the woman who was photographed nursing her three year old for the cover of TIME Magazine. She’s sick, she’s depraved, she’s doing it to satisfy some perverted sexual desire. Her kid is going to be fucked up. Her kid already is fucked up, and that’s why he’s still breastfeeding. She purposefully fucked her kid up so that he would always be tied to her apron strings. She is everything that’s wrong with modern parenting (never mind that extended breastfeeding has a long history in many different cultures around the world).

Breastfeeding older children (and by “older” I mean more than 12 months old) is associated with spoiled, bratty little kids and sexually deviant, overindulgent mothers. If you don’t believe me, I can easily trot out a bunch of example of this in popular culture. Peyton Place‘s Norman Page and his mother certainly fit this mother. Same with Lysa Arryn and her son in Game of Thrones. Or Christos Tsiolkas’ novel The Slap, whose titular event takes place because a bratty, breastfeeding three year old is slapped by an adult after hitting someone with a cricket bat.

Or you could look at the comments on a recent Facebook post I made, jokingly saying that I’m now basically the TIME breastfeeding mom – people reacting in disgust (as I once did) that they could never, ever imagine breastfeeding a three year old. People wondering how this would affect him as an adult, since he will probably have conscious memories of nursing (to which I replied that if they’re so curious, they can ask my husband, since, you know, he was older than Theo is now when he weaned). People saying that they couldn’t do it with their three year old because he’s too smart and too aware of the world (which is hard not to take as a dig at my own kid’s intelligence).

As a society, we are still pretty uncomfortable with breastfeeding in general, and we are hella uncomfortable with breastfeeding toddlers in particular.

But anyone who thinks it’s gross should meet my kid. My hilarious, bright, amazing-as-hell kid. My kid who snuggles up beside me and says, with an impish glint in his eye, “Can I have some mama’s milks? Can I have the left side first? Which side is the left side?” My kid who pretends to breastfeed his dolls, who says that when he grows up he wants to be a mama first and have breasts and make mama’s milks, and then be a dada and just have nipples. My kid who tried to make me nurse his Spiderman action figure the other day.

Breastfeeding gives him one certain thing in this wild new world he’s exploring and learning more about every day. It’s something solid for him to hold on to, while from minute to minute he gathers in new information that slowly but surely pulls the rug of what he understands out from under him. So many things about life are confusing and contradictory and even downright scary for him right now – how could I possibly take away something that’s not?

The answer is that I can’t.

Theo at 19 months - Photo by Diana Nazareth http://www.diananazareth.com

Theo at 19 months – Photo by Diana Nazareth http://www.diananazareth.com

On Babies and Gender

21 Jan

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.

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