As a woman who was raised decidedly in the “pink” side of the gender binary, with bows, ruffled socks, dresses, ballet classes and gymnastics, I know what I’m trying to do now as a mother is different than what my own parents did and what many others are still doing. Every parent’s journey in deciding how they want to raise their kids will be different and should be respected.
My parenting choice to attempt to raise my toddler free from the pink and blue gender binary wasn’t necessarily a result of one thing, but rather a conscious choice I’ve been trying to figure out over time. What I know today is that my husband and I want my child to have as many options in life as possible.
The first conscious decision I made, along with my husband, was to wait to find out the biological sex, not gender—as one of my doctors reminded me, gender is an identity one adopts over time—until I gave birth. During my pregnancy this involved reminding several healthcare providers not to inform me. As a result, baby’s first nine months of existence inside my womb were full of those possibilities, and, as it was, after my 40+ hours of labor, my husband and I were in so much shock when our 8-pound newborn finally made an appearance that it took a few minutes to ask the midwife what the biological sex was when we realized that the umbilical cord was blocking the genital area.
“My parenting choice to attempt to raise my toddler free from the pink and blue gender binary wasn’t necessarily a result of one thing, but rather a conscious choice I’ve been trying to figure out over time.”
Those first few minutes are probably the only my child will have free from any expectations of how to look, behave and feel. Because once the nurses found out the biological sex, they began saying things that reflect how our society treats biological females and males differently, even from day one. They’re the kind of things I have probably said in the past, without thinking. That’s how common it all is. “Oh, your girl is so beautiful.” “What a big, strong boy you have.” But now that it was my child, I wanted to start thinking about the words I (and others around me) use and all the other ways we create (or reinforce) gender norms without realizing it.
The very first time I actively had a conversation about this newfound thinking was while I was still in the hospital. A nurse was assisting me with my catheter in the bathroom, while my husband and parents were in the delivery room, and I overheard my husband using gendered language to refer to our newborn. While still on pain meds and bleeding heavily enough that I was being monitored, I was experiencing a moment of clarity.
When I stepped out into the room, I asked him to examine the words he’d said, what feeling or emotion was he trying to communicate? After all, aren’t phrases like “my beautiful princess” or “my handsome little man” placeholders for expressing love and pride? From that moment on, he’s used “mi vida” (“my life”) to convey that same feeling of pure joy and unconditional love that he felt in those first moments of holding our baby. Once we had that conversation, it opened up many more honest ones since, where we’ve discussed how to handle everything from the words others use to the (sometimes gendered) gifts they offer our baby.
“I wanted to start thinking about the words I (and others around me) use and all the other ways we create (or reinforce) gender norms without realizing it.”
For the first year and a half, setting out to raise a child free from gender stereotypes was mostly focused on looks. I spent hours agonizing over not-so-great clothing options available online and in person, ultimately opting for a mix from both the “girls” and “boys” sections. On one trip to the now shuttered Toys ’R Us to use up a gift card, I circled the same handful of infant clothing racks over and over hoping to find something, anything, that was not pink, not blue, and not white or grey — colors that are not really neutral so much as really hard to clean.
When it comes to looks, time and again, I’ve learned that the default gender is male until proven otherwise. When we went to get baby’s first passport photo at just a few weeks old, the photographer told us how “handsome” our “son” was, dressed in a white onesie. In anything bright and colorful, our baby is usually described as a “beautiful girl” or “princess.” It raises the question, which came first: Putting bows on babies to identify them as girls or the assumption that individuals have to be “dressed up” to be perceived as female? When our baby turned 1, we traveled together as a family of three in South America for half a year. After that experience, I’ve learned the specifics of being identified by others as a gender other than male can be even more exacting: In certain countries we visited, I observed that babies are only identified as non-male if they have long hair, wear bright “pretty” clothing along with bows or other accessories, and — a big must, they have to have pierced ears.
“Which came first: Putting bows on babies to identify them as girls or the assumption that individuals have to be 'dressed up' to be perceived as female?”
Figuring out how to break free from the binary of dressing our child as solely one gender or another was all a warmup. It was all about getting into good habits, checking our biases, removing gendered words like “pretty” or “handsome” from our vocabulary. We also did some evolving of our own. I chopped my long hair off for the first time to see how I like it. My husband started growing his out for the same reason. And as the older generation in our family got on board with what we were doing, my mom surprised my dad with a Scottish kilt for Christmas in her family tartan. A friend told my parents, “Why bother? Your grandchild won’t remember this.” My parents said, “Our grandbaby will never know any different. This will be our reality.”
Now that my toddler is mobile, more visible in the world, and soaking up everything people are saying like a sponge, the marathon of navigating gendered perceptions of behavior and feelings has begun. And it’s all uncharted territory. I haven’t yet figured out how to react, for instance, when people say things like, “Look at how well-behaved she is” when our 20-month-old acts respectfully to others — something I’d encourage my child to do regardless of gender identity. When a baby is dressed in clothing perceived to be female and cries in public, people are more likely to pass judgement and shush our little one. And those default male clothes? They’re good for something. With those on, I know I don’t have to worry about how loud the cries get.
For our family, there’s some added complexity. We’re an English/Spanish bilingual household and other than the recent popularization of the gender-neutral term Latinx, used to refer to people who identify as Latin American, the rest of the Spanish language as it is spoken and written today assumes a binary, so we are using gendered pronouns in both languages ― which one is irrelevant here. I admire families raising “Theybies”— those who use they, instead of she or he — and maybe if I’d thought of the concept before ours was born we might have found a way to make it work.
For now, I am trying not to let the words myself and others use define my child’s future.
“I want my little one to know that all people deserve to be loved — to be whoever they are — no matter what colors they like, outfits they wear or hobbies they enjoy.”
My own words may be imperfect. And how I put my beliefs into practice may be inconsistent — especially when I don’t feel prepared or comfortable correcting the things people say. But my intentions come from the heart: I want my little one to know that all people deserve to be loved — to be whoever they are — no matter what colors they like, outfits they wear or hobbies they enjoy. That looks, attitudes, interests, feelings and identities can be fluid and evolve over time, regardless of one’s biological sex. That no one should ever experience limitations on their ambitions, discrimination, bullying or violence because of their gender.
Gender creative parenting— the idea that baby has the freedom to choose whatever gender expression (whether that’s female, male, neither or both) feels comfortable—is important to me because I know for many the pink and blue binary is harmful and stifles individuals from realizing and feeling safe expressing their identities. I identify as female, but my concept of “being female” has evolved over time, and I don’t subscribe to most of the ways gender is defined by society—of having to look, act or feel a certain way. One of the unspoken beliefs of the religion I was born into, Mormonism, is that women are second to men in all ways. Unlearning that, and other damaging gender constructs, has taken years. Instead of having to learn how to break free from society’s confines, I want my little one to be able to simply be ― whatever that means.
For the first year and a half of my child’s life, we’ve been lucky to manage caring for our child between myself, my husband, my parents and my sister-in-law — all of whom have been on board with our approach to avoiding gender norms. As baby’s second birthday is approaching, the reality of work demands may change. We’re considering daycare, and, beyond that, bilingual public schools. Given how hard I — all of us — have worked to create a safe space for our little one to grow into the unique person baby will become, I am afraid of what messages potential caregivers and teachers might send to my child.
Even seemingly simple things like going to the bathroom or joining sports teams at school will be topics for us to consider — reminders of how gendered our society still is. At times, it all feels too much. I asked a co-worker I admire how he sends his child off to elementary school every day without worrying that others will counteract the nurturing environment he’s created at home. I think about his words whenever things feel hard: This positivity, love and freedom we have provided isn’t going anywhere, we will continue to provide it and it will be with my little one on every step of the way out into the larger world.
When I see my child dart off ahead of me, stepping with purpose down the dirt road outside the home where we’re staying, I don’t see a girl or boy running, I see a small person so full of life — possibility. And I hope that always stays the same.
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