Because I have always wanted to be a mother, I’ve spent a fair amount of time reading parenting blogs and websites, even before we were close to trying to conceive. In fact, I once purchased a used copy of “Your Baby’s First Year” at a library book sale because it was only fifty cents and it seemed interesting. Hey, don’t judge, I like what I like. That book sat on my livingroom bookshelf, scaring away dates, for years.
One thing I have picked up on in all of my reading is that it seems ALL parents and parents-to-be, even the most straight laced and normal, are annoyed by the assumptions of others. Other people make all kinds of assumptions, about what your values are, about how you will parent, even about what your child/children will be like before they’re even BORN. It could be conservative relatives assuming that OF COURSE you’ll spank your kids, or it could be hippie friends assuming that you plan to exclusively cloth diaper… but it happens to everyone and it is exhausting for all of us.
And it starts, apparently, basically the second you announce that there’s a baby on the way.
Today I want to talk about one of my least favorite phrases, that has already been applied multiple times to the fetus I am currently growing, and the assumptions it relies upon.
“What you’re having”
“Do you have any feelings about what you’re having?”
“So are you going to find out what you’re having?”
“Well, there’ll be a big surprise at the birth since you’re not finding out what you’re having!”
This gets under my skin. It gets under my skin even more than any other sex and gender related assumptions, even when they seem to have the same basic content (“So are you going to find out if you’re having a boy or a girl?” or “Do you know the sex of the baby?” are examples). Why does it bug me so much? Let’s unpack.
1. To phrase the question in what you’re having terms, the questioner is indicating that not only is my child’s gender excruciatingly important, it is in fact they’re single most important attribute. It’s their definition, it’s what they are. All of their other attributes are secondary to this first definition. All of the things that my wife and I sit around wondering and daydreaming about – Will our child be artistic? Will they be kind? Will they have brown hair or blond? Will they grow taller than us someday? – that’s all supplanted by this first question about what they are.
And yes, I realize that it’s a short hand for the “boy or girl” question, and that technically “what are you having?” is a shorter question than “are you having a boy or a girl?” But I don’t think anyone is actually in that much of a hurry, and I don’t think I’m reading too much into this. I think the way we shorthand this reveals something about the way our culture attempts to squeeze people into gender boxes as early as possible – in this case before they are even born. In this way of thinking, if our child is both artistically inclined and female, they are “an artistic girl” rather than a “female artist.”
2. It conflates sex and gender. This is actually true of the “boy or girl” style questions as well. While we aren’t planning to try to raise our child in a completely gender-neutral way (we’ll use gendered pronouns in accordance with their apparent sex, for example) we do recognize that sex and gender are NOT actually the same thing. Sex is biological, gender is social. Trans children exist. The fact is that while the majority of people are cisgender, it is entirely possible that we could assume we have a BOY and then find out when the child is six years old that actually, no, we have a GIRL who really needs us to respect her identity. If that happens to us, we hope to be the kind of parents who will rise to the occasion with love and compassion.
3. But it’s actually even worse than that, because this question is almost always asking about whether we’ll be looking for sex signs in an ultrasound. Look, do you know what an ultrasound can actually tell you about your baby’s sex? Whether or not they have a visible penis. That’s it. So not only are we talking about conflating sex and gender, we’re talking about assuming sex and gender based on the apparent presence or absence of ONE ORGAN. And I get that it is more often than not an accurate predictor, but just like trans people exist, intersex people exist. The fact is that there are many different ways for genitals to exist, and many different ways for sex and gender to exist.
I also feel like, as a cis-woman, this mode of thinking is insulting to me, because it’s saying that the only thing, or at least the main thing, that made me a girl is that I lacked a penis.
4. It assumes that whether or not our baby has a penis, and therefore our baby’s associated sex and assumed gender, is the most interesting to thing to us about our child. In actuality, it is one of the least interesting things to us. It will affect our child’s name and the pronouns we use for them (unless they ask us to use different ones, in which case we will comply the same way we do for our trans and genderqueer friends) and because we live in a patriarchal culture it will inevitably end up affecting how they are treated by the outside world. But it won’t affect whether we dress them in pink or blue, whether we give them dolls or trucks, or how much we love them. A couple weeks ago we had an early ultrasound. It’s too soon to see any external sex organs, but we did see two tiny fists, and for a brief second one stretched out into a little hand with five miniscule fingers. And THAT is a million times more interesting to me than what genitals our kid ends up with.
So what’s a queer mama to do? Afterall, this rage-inducing phrase is rarely uttered by people who are TRYING to upset me. It’s usually well meaning folk who simply haven’t taken the time (or haven’t had to) unpack their assumptions about gender. In their minds, they’re making a perfectly normal inquiry about something most parents are excited about. To make sure I’m being very very clear, I’m not upset at the INDIVIDUAL PEOPLE who use this phrase, I’m upset that it is so pervasive in our culture that otherwise thoughtful people use it without blinking. I’m upset at the realization that I’m only fourteen weeks pregnant, and I ALREADY can’t protect my child from gender essentialism.
Even my uterus is not a secure enough bubble to shield them from the assumption that what they have between their legs is WHAT THEY ARE. So how do I respond to kind-hearted, well-meaning, friends and family members who don’t realize that they are reminding me of something that fills me with both rage and despair?
“Well,” I say with a smile, “I just sure hope it isn’t another cat!”