Gender is For Babies // Why My Son Wears Pink

“I’m so sorry,” the friendly lady behind the cash register starts, staring apprehensively at my kid, “but I can’t always tell at this age – is that a little boy or a little girl?”

I get apologized to a lot these days. I look down at the baby in my arms. He is wearing a white onesie covered in giraffes, offwhite pants, and is wrapped loosely in a muslin swaddle covered in gray stars. It registers in my brain that her eyes are carefully scanning his outfit for potential gender markers. The uncomfortable expression on her face is that of a human trying desperately to sort what they see into a familiar category, but also it is the awkwardness of a woman raised to be polite who just doesn’t want to offend anybody.

I’m just trying to buy some candy before my next doctor’s appointment, so like I usually do, even though I think of a handful of responses that range from a lecture of gender self determination to a quippy “why does it matter?,” I say “Oh, no big deal, boy.” And then I shrug.

***

I’m a queer mother who lives in a community that includes a pretty wide variety of trans and gender nonconforming people.  Human variation is staggering and beautiful. We like to imagine that there are two distinct sexes that feed perfectly into two distinct genders, but it isn’t so and it shouldn’t have to be. Respecting my community and chosen family means honoring everyone’s identities, not halfheartedly but all the way.

And so, although I may, in a quest for simplicity, tell strangers that my child is a boy, I always think “well, maybe not.” Because of course that is ultimately up to him.

***

I’m struggling to write this. The truth is that gender is a rich, varied, and complex web. The truth is that I do not want to have to write out an introductory paragraph explaining the difference between sex and gender. The truth is that I’m not totally confident in my own ability to do so. But as I sit here, moving back and forth between compromising with the world as it is and attempting to rebuild it as it should be, I feel the need to explain and justify some things I should never have to explain or justify.

People are obsessed with my baby’s gender.

No, people are obsessed with babies’ gender.

“What a handsome little man!”
“Look at that hair, he’s gonna get all the girls!”
“Now I can’t remember, what did you have?”

and once, walking down the street, after passing the stroller, a man excitedly shouted “boy or girl? BOY OR GIRL?” over his shoulder at me and my wife.

***

I find myself using the word son more than I thought I would. I find myself intensely attracted to it. I like it because it is relational. It is so much different than baby or child. He can be “my baby” or “the baby” or “a baby,” but the word son is exclusive to the relationship he has with my wife and I am damn proud of that relationship. I find myself wishing there were a less gendered word that did that, but that’s how it goes. Anyways that’s punk for you, we do what we can with what we got. That includes babies. That includes gender. That includes flawed language.

***

I’m not arguing that babies shouldn’t have gender. I am arguing that the way we gender babies, by pushing them aggressively into one of two boxes at or before birth and constantly reinforcing that with a flood of carefully chosen gender markers, is limiting and unhelpful to all children, and potentially devastating to those that might need to choose the other option (or a third or fourth or fifth option). I want my child to have options. I want him to feel free to express himself. Really and truly free, not just hypothetically free.

In the world of my dreaming, my son will grow up knowing that I think whoever he is deep inside is beautiful and strong and wonderful and amazing. He will know that gender variance is not something his parents will deal with, and love him in spite of, it is something we will embrace wholeheartedly the same way we will embrace so many other things about him.

Are you gay? We think that is fantastic!
Are you straight? We think that is fantastic!
Do you love spaghetti? We think that is fantastic!
Want to be an astronaut? Fantastic!
Want to be a farmer? Fantastic!
Want to be a stay at home parent? Fantastic!
Cisgender? Fantastic!
Transgender? Fantastic!
Genderqueer? Fantastic!

Kids aren’t stupid. They pick up on their caregivers preferences, and those preferences can create barriers. If you only ever dress your daughter in dresses, she’s going to have to screw up her courage to ask you for a pair of pants.

And so my son wears pink. He wears pink and purple and red and blue and green and black and white and gray and orange and brown yellow and rainbow. He wears pastels and he wears earthtones and he wears stripes and he wears plaids. He wears onesies and he wears overalls and he wears tshirts and he wears shorts and he wears dresses and he wears these adorable little rompers. But he wears pink. And we’re not just talking salmon colored golf shorts. We’re talking pink, pink-pink even.

In a world full of subtle and not-so-subtle gender markers, a world where strangers congratulate him on what a big boy he is, a world where everyone is already constantly pushing the idea that he should be in greens and blues, that he’s made of snails and puppy dog tails, in this fucked up cisnormative heterocentric world, I need to be constantly showing him that our family is a safe place. In our family you are allowed to like trucks or dolls or both or neither. In our family sometimes girls shave their head and boys can have long hair. In our family you can marry whoever the hell you want but also you don’t have to ever get married, not ever. And in our family you can be a boy or a girl or both or neither or something else. And you can wear pink. Or not.

And my son, my child, is going to grow up knowing that is true. He’s going to know it from his earliest memories. It has to start today. It has to start right now.  Because all of the other gendering has already started.

boywtf

PS – Post Nuclear Era is now on the twitter, under @Postnuc_mama!
Part quippy parenting observations, part social justice related rage, all fun all the time!

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On Feeding My Baby

When I was a little girl, I knew that some people fed their babies from their own bodies, but I had never seen such a thing actually happen. I was fascinated by the concept, though. I took my baby dolls outside, and hid under a bushy tree in the backyard. I lifted my T-shirt and pressed a doll’s hard plastic face to my tiny nipple. Our latch and positioning were abysmal.

I had to hide under a tree to perform this act of parenting, because at seven years old, I understood that female breasts were inherently sexual. And I understood that neither me being a child, or the act of feeding a child, could neutralize that. I was certain that if anyone saw me nursing my baby doll, they would be shocked and horrified. So I hid. But as I sat there in the grass, I thought to myself, when I am a mother this is how I will feed my babies.

And then I will not be ashamed.

***

Because I believe that birth is a mostly natural process and bodies mostly know what they are doing, I planned a nice intimate homebirth. Because I know that things don’t always go according to plan, I went to the hospital when it became clear that I needed to. I ended up having a C-section. I do not regret it.

But of course I had fantasized about the moment of my child’s birth. I had tried to imagine what the rush of emotions would be like. I would be on or near the big cozy bed my wife and I share with our herd of cats, the midwife and my mother would be in the background, offering encouragement, and Chelsea would catch the baby in her arms and then pass him up to me. His first cry would pierce through the quiet in the room, it would pierce my heart with it’s beauty and strength, and Chelsea and I would laugh and cry together just like we did the day we found out I was pregnant.

Instead, my wife stood near my head in a spacesuit made of dryer sheets, peaking over the curtain that protected me from the gore, while a doctor I had only met once an hour before cut into me. The drugs made me feel sick and made my teeth chatter, and my only defense was a kind of cold detachment. I only knew our child was born by the sudden change in expression on my wife’s face, and when she said “did you hear that?!?!” I realized that I had missed his first cry entirely. I was too spaced out, and the chattering of my teeth was too loud.

After that, I became sort of obsessed with breastfeeding.

***

At the hospital where I gave birth, the pediatrics team started talking about supplementing with formula before my milk even came in. It wasn’t even late. I had more colostrum than anyone I’ve ever heard of. And yet they thought supplementation “would be best.”

I had to fight. When he had to go to the nursery because of his jaundice, they assured me they would bring him to me to feed every two hours, but instead waiting four. I had to set an alarm for every hour and a half at night, and call a nurse and ask for my child to be brought to me. They were impatient when it took us time to get the latch right, or when he nursed for longer than average. But I held my ground. He ate from my breasts, and then my milk came, and then he started to grow.

Why was it so important to me? It’s complicated. But I had read birth stories, and imagined that his birth would be a triumph of my physical ability. And then it wasn’t. And feeding him felt like the only thing my body knew how to do. And I wasn’t going to give that up, not unless it was necessary. And it wasn’t. So I didn’t.

***

The first time I fed him in public was at his pediatrician’s office. I was five days post op, and one day without my pain meds. I could barely see the pain was so intense. I was so anxious I didn’t want people even looking at him, everything felt like a threat.

But there he was, hungry in the waiting room. I asked Chelsea to help me cover up with one of his blankets. It made the whole procedure more complicated, and it fell down twice.

***

The second time I fed him in public was in the emergency room. I was four weeks postpartum, and I was having my third gallbladder attack. My mother was there to help look after the baby. Several emergency room workers told us it was the busiest ER day they had ever seen. The place was packed. And as my case was not a life or death situation, I kept getting bumped back.

And my baby needed to eat. And we were sitting across from two women if full burkas. They kept smiling at us and telling us how beautiful our child was. I wasn’t sure if they would be offended by my breasts or not. I wasn’t sure about anything, truth be told. I let my mother help me arrange the blanket. Two days later I was still in the hospital, and he had to have formula for the first time. I was so afraid of losing my supply that I pumped too much while in the hospital, and when we were reunited I had way too much milk.

***

In the dark, in our big bed, his small body is snuggled against mine. He is holding on to my finger as tightly as he can. I feel like the most powerful person in the whole world.

***

I am hungry all the time.

***

My mom came to take me to my six week postpartum follow up appointment, by that point Chelsea had already taken way too much time off work, so it was me, mom, and the baby. When he started looking for a nipple on my mom’s neck, I knew it was time to feed him. She handed him off to me, and I started to get him into position.

“Do you want me to get the blanket?” she asked, trying to be kind.

“Oh, that’s ok, I don’t need it.” I said.

There was a pause. And then I felt her drape the light cloth over me. I saw my son’s face disappear. And I felt the shame. I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say anything.

***

The week before last, I was finally strong enough to put him in the wrap and take him for a walk. I was proud to be the one carrying him, while Chelsea walked beside us. Only I was so excited, I pushed myself a little too far. I ended up tripping over my own foot and skinning my knee on the sidewalk. For one horrible moment I thought I was going to fall on top of him.

Afterwards we were both so scared, we needed to sit down. For a moment I looked around in panic. And then I saw that we happened to be right next to a little park.

Without thinking about what I was doing, I found a bushy tree to sit under. And then I sat there on the grass, and I fed my baby.

***

Without shame.

Note: I started writing this last week, for world breastfeeding week, but of course I didn’t finish it on time because I have a real live baby. Apparently it is still world breastfeeding month though? Happy world breastfeeding month I guess!