Progressive Cisgender Parents Are Failing Our Kids

I perpetually have a draft or seven in my drafts folder about how progressive cisgender parents are failing transgender children. I feel deeply complicated about these drafts, and often have had trouble articulating them to the point of completion. I am not transgender, and this is not a blog about trans issues. I am not qualified to talk about what transness is, or isn’t, with any kind of authority.

Yet, this is, at least to some degree, a blog about parenting. And while I’m not a transgender person, what I am is a cisgender parent. So I am quite qualified to talk about being a cisgender parent, and to tell other cisgender parents that they are fucking up.

Cisgender parents: You are fucking up.

So of course, I had a draft about this idea (and a fairly recent one) percolating the other day, when I saw a New York Times op-ed titled “My Daughter Is Not Transgender. She’s A Tomboy” floating around the internet. When I first saw the headline, I rolled my eyes.

NOTE: This blog post is over 3000 words long. If you want to read about why that New York Times piece is a fucking problem, I suggest you read this excellent piece first or even instead. If you only have the time/energy to read one piece about this issue today, don’t make it mine.

ANOTHER NOTE: I do not personally know the author of the NYT piece discussed here, but we are in some of the same professional networks, and I have read and enjoyed some of her other work.

“Well how do you know?” I whispered under my breath.

But, as a writer who writes for the internet, I know that writers almost never get to choose their own headlines. And I know that editors sometimes put rather ridiculous headlines on pieces for reasons of “search engine optimization” (basically, clickbait). And this particular piece of writing was being shared by feminists who I love and respect.

If you are one of those feminists that I love and respect who shared the article on social media, please know I am not singling you out here. It really was a wide variety of folks in multiple circles, and I am not doing that passive aggressive thing where one says “lots of people did X” when they really mean “my friend Betsy did X but I don’t want to name her.”

Anyway, because people I respected had shared the article, I figured maybe the headline was just crap and it was worth a read. So I read it.

***

Tomboys are great. I was raised by one, a fierce woman who knew very much that she was a woman, and also that she was better than everyone else at climbing trees. She was, in many ways, a paradox of society’s gendered expectations, and also of what we think of when we use the word “mother.” Growing up, she was a small and compact woman, who literally seemed to never stop moving during the day. When I was very young, she quit the army to be a stay at home mom, and that is how I remember her. She was an excellent mother who regularly helped us with fun craft projects and made cookies all the damn time. She was also an athletic woman who loved playing outside as much as she loved baking, flatly refused to learn how to put on make up, and loathed dresses.

As a child, my mother was forced to wear dresses to school, because that was the rule. When I picture the mother of my childhood, I see her in jeans and a tucked in flannel shirt. I remember her heartbreaking stories about being a teenage girl and having boys say “you’re not like a girl, you’re more like a buddy.” But she was a girl.

***

A few weeks ago, a heard a story that I hear over and over again. Someone’s young child, a boy, was doing something that didn’t align with the expectations of the gender assigned to him. Specifically this particular boy wanted to wear a dress, and also his mother’s shoes. And one of his parents — his father — was very upset and concerned by this behavior. He wasn’t sure his son should be allowed to do these things. And his other parent — his mother — felt that it was fine and was no big deal and was looking for was to reassure the nervous dad.

The responses, from other progressive parents, were very telling.

“Oh, my nephew was really into dresses when he was that age, then he grew out of it, it probably doesn’t mean anything.”
“A lot of little boys go through that phase, it’s nothing to worry about.”
“My son was really into pink for awhile. We were worried about it but we just let him do it, then one day he just suddenly stopped. So it’ll probably be fine!”

All of these responses have the noble goal of soothing the nervous dad so that the kid can go on doing what he wants to do, dressing the way he wants to dress and playing the way he wants to play. But all of these responses are also very troubling, particularly if we take two seconds to think about what words like “anything” and “nothing” and “fine” mean in this context.

What they are saying, though they won’t come right out and say it, is “I understand that you are worried that this could mean your child is gay or transgender, but don’t worry, he probably isn’t!” They are affirming homophobia and transphobia as right and good (because nobody wants their kid to turn out to be some kind of queer, right?) and assuring the parents that it’ll probably be fine. And bear in mind here, these are progressive parents. These are parents who, when pressed, would say that of course they would support a gay child or even a trans child and love them “no matter what.”

But situating straight as cisgender as a “fine” way for a child to be and queer and transgender as somehow dangerous is homophobic and transphobic. And if the kid turns out to be any kind of LGBTQIA, those subtle messages could make a child feel less safe and less able to come out. And sometimes, those messages are not subtle at all.

***

Four years ago (according to her tweets, there is no date on the piece), the author of that New York Times op-ed published another essay about her child. That piece is on parenting.com and bears the headline “My Daughter Wants To Be A Boy!” In her recent tweets, Davis has pointed out that we writers rarely write our own headlines, and she did not write that one. She seems to think that the problem with that earlier piece, and how it relates to her more recent piece (My Daughter Is Not Transgender. She’s A Tomboy) is the headline. But here are some quotes from that apparently four year old piece:

They told us at school that she gravitated toward the boys, and though she is quite small for her age, and not particularly hearty, they told us she could hold her own with the rowdy bunch of them.

And again, I thought, “How great is she?”

Well, okay, 90 percent of me said that. The other 10% thought, “uh-oh.” As she started to announce in ways both subtle and direct that she’s a boy, and ask me questions like “Why can’t boys have vaginas and girls have penises?” the ratio of heartwarming to heart-sinking has shifted.

and

But there is something about having the only girl who won’t play princess, the only girl in the school who thinks and says she’s a boy, that has shaken me a bit. Dressing like a boy? Cool. Thinking you actually are a boy? Way more complicated.

and

And I’ve already endured the heartbreaking experience of having long-haired, pink-and-purple-clad girlie-girls look at my daughter and say, “Is that a boy or a girl?”

and

There’s really only one remaining objection to [redacted]’s proclivity: we have the loveliest assortment of hand-me-down dresses, ones that currently [redacted] refuses to wear but that I don’t want to waste. For this, though, I have clear-cut solutions. We wear dresses on Thursdays, and any time she wants to wear her tie, she has to wear a skirt, too. Which she does, as long as she can wear jeans underneath and, as always, her Spiderman shoes.

So no, the issue is not the crappy headline. The crappy headline, while crappy, is actually fairly accurate to the piece. Four years ago, Davis’ child (who she refers to by name in the piece, though I won’t republish a child’s name in that way) showed signs “both subtle and direct” that she wanted to be a boy. Davis was cool with her kid being a tomboy, but transgender was a step too far, it made her uncomfortable, it made her afraid. It made her so afraid that she was willing to force her child into a skirt and unhappiness. This piece is basically the very definition of a well-meaning parent — who sees herself as enlightened and accepting — being transphobic as hell. Davis’ child did not receive subtle hints that being a boy was not something available, it was direct. We wear dresses on Thursdays.

And if her recent NYT piece is any indication, Davis got her wish. Four years later, she happily states:

In fact, I love correcting them, making them reconsider their perceptions of what a girl looks like. But my daughter had been attending the after-school program where this woman taught for six months.

“She’s a girl,” I said. The woman looked unconvinced. “Really. She’s a girl, and you can refer to her as a girl.”

and

But it has always just been a look, even if it came with a rejection of princesses (which also delighted me) and a willingness to play family with both boys and girls as long as she could be the dog or the police officer.

and

The message I want to send my daughter is this: You are an awesome girl for not giving in to pressure to be and look a certain way. I want her to be proud to be a girl.

And maybe Davis’ kid really is a girl, and really does feel like a girl now, even though four years ago that wasn’t exactly the case. For every transgender person who has said “this sounds exactly like me, once I was told I couldn’t be trans I shut up about it and just said what my parents wanted to hear” there is a cisgender person who has said “this sounds exactly like me, I thought I wanted to be a boy when I was very young, but I didn’t really.” And that’s fine, and I can’t know which camp this particular kid falls into.

But regardless, both of these pieces are a problem. And are instructive as to so much of what is wrong with progressive cisgender parents who center their own feelings about their children’s identity over and over again.

***

I’m already angry with how much time I’ve had to devote to Davis’ writing in this piece. I didn’t set out to write a take down of either her four year old essay or this week’s op-ed, I want to talk about something larger. But we have one more thing to cover, and it’s from this excellent article on medium by trans parent Chase Strangio:

“[T]he message they send is that a girl cannot look and act like her and still be a girl.” This is a timeless message that has been told to girls, boys and non-binary people in the United States always and has nothing to do with trans-ness. We question the “realness” of people’s gender all the time — especially people who are Black, other people of color, people with disabilities, all trans people. This is not happening to the author’s child because some people support trans kids, this is happening and has always happened because of white supremacy and patriarchy. The author’s issue is not with trans people or trans-ness, or it shouldn’t be, it is with enforcement of gender norms and the impulse to situate people outside of real girlhood or boyhood because of who they are or how they look or how they act. But connecting this to the affirmation of trans young people in their genders is reckless and dangerous and wrong. Trans youth are dying because society is telling them, telling us, that we are fake. Trans women and femmes of color are being murdered because the impulse is to believe that trans-ness is fraudulent, that our bodies are threats. A white young person being asked questions about her gender is not a new problem and it is not a problem that should be blamed on trans people or trans affirmative shifts in society or medicine.

This touches on something that I think is very important. Davis positions the questions about her child’s gender as something that is happening because of trans rights, but that is bullshit. And the most common defense of the article I have heard has been “I was also a tomboy who was called a boy as a child, and I relate to this.” And yes, girls who don’t conform to society’s idea of what a girl should be are often punished and ridiculed, and it’s crappy and mean and it shouldn’t happen. But it isn’t the fault of trans people or a result of trans kids getting a teeny tiny bit of respect from time to time.

And I think most people, at least to some degree, know that. Yet Davis is very clear on the point. And while she says she wants Trans kids to feel safe, she also pits that safety against what she really wants, which is a cisgender child. She states:

Somehow, as we have broadened our awareness of and support for gender nonconformity, we’ve narrowed what we think a boy or a girl can look like and do.

But if cisgender people who are 30, 40, or even 50 years old, are stating that they like the article precisely because they relate to the plight of a girl who is often asked if she is a boy, then that can’t be true. This isn’t happening because we, as a society, support gender nonconformity, this is happening because of the same boring old patriarchy that has always been there.

A quick return to Strangio’s piece:

We should question the impulse to situate a problem in relation to trans-ness when in fact it is a problem that exists because of systems of power that also hurt trans people. That piece could have — and should have — been written with no mention of trans-ness. But then it wouldn’t have been interesting to anyone. It is interesting because it offers a new lens to question the legitimacy of transness while just describing the basic realities of gender policing. And truthfully, pretty benign gender policing when it comes to what people of color, people in prison, homeless people, people with disabilities, trans people, are subjected to.

***

All of this language has consequences, not just for one child but in a general sense. It’s important to note that the NYT has a history of publishing transphobic crap by cisgender authors. And again, I am a cisgender woman and in no position to explain how that must feel for trans people. But I do know what I’ve seen since Davis’ op-ed.

Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs) have seized upon the article, and are using it to attack trans people on twitter. This is surprising to no one who has ever encountered TERF mythology before, and it is mythology. Yesterday I saw one woman claim that it is illegal in many places to do anything but supply puberty blockers to a child who shows any signs of being trans. When asked what places she was referring to, she dodged the question. But the idea that gender non-conforming children are being forced to transition is a huge part of the anti-trans mindset in this country, and it is dangerous and harmful.

Lisa Selin Davis should know that, and if she knows that, I find it to be very troubling that she still chose to publish this piece.

***

This is about cisgender parents, and cisgender parents who want to view themselves as progressive and affirming and accepting. I think Lisa Selin Davis wants to be those things, I think a lot of us do. And she isn’t the only one fucking it up. In fact, most of us are fucking it up, and to a certain degree that makes sense because parenting is hard as hell and gender is complicated.

But we need to stop this nonsense. We need to stop setting up being cisgender as “fine” and being transgender as some kind of failure that we’ll deal with and “love them no matter what.” We need to start out by supporting our kids no matter how they identify, and by keeping our nervous feelings about that to ourselves. We live in a deeply transphobic and cisnormative society, and it’s understandable that parents may have some complicated and confusing feelings about the possibility that something like gender could make our kids’ lives harder. But the only way to counter that is to actually counter it. If what really makes us nervous is that other people might make our kids’ lives harder if they aren’t cis, then we need to stop giving those “other people” a head start by doing it for them.

If we, the progressive cisgender parents of the world, are really as open and accepting and trans affirming as we say we are, then we have to start fucking acting like it. We have to make our homes the safest place in the world for trans children, and not just children we know for sure to be trans, but children who are still exploring. We need to stop wrestling our “daughters” into dresses they hate because somehow we imagine the fabric will be going to waste if it isn’t used to make our children miserable. We need to stop including the caveat “but some people might not like it!” every time we let our “sons” wear something pink. And we need to stop demanding that trans kids prove to us that they are trans fifty thousand times before we will believe them.

Because these stories are not uncommon. Again and again I hear from cisgender parents who have noticed that their child is operating outside of gender roles, or even straight up saying “I’m not a boy, I’m a girl.” And the parents stifle them, in direct or indirect ways. They keep on parroting “boys have penises and girls have vaginas” even though they know it’s more complicated than that, because they don’t want to “confuse” their kid. They wait to buy the dress their kid is begging for because “what if it’s just a phase?” They include with every single nail painting session the message that “some people don’t think this is ok.” Instead of positioning themselves as their kid’s biggest supporter, they are the first gender gatekeepers, the first people telling their child “it will be very hard to be what you want to be.” And then, when after years of that, the child seems to conform a little better, they breathe a sigh of relief. And even though they didn’t listen all the times the kid said something else, now that they are calling themselves the gender assigned at birth, cisgender parents are suddenly obsessed with “taking kids at their word” and they celebrate the fact that, phew, everything turned out fine.

If your kid says “hey I think I’m a boy” the answer is “great! if you say you are a boy I will call you a boy.” If your kid says “hey you know last week when I said I was boy, I realized I’m not actually a boy, I just thought I might be because some kids at school said only boys have short hair” the answer is also “great! if you say you are a girl I will call you a girl.” If your kid asks why they can’t be a boy with a vagina or a girl with a penis the answer is ACTUALLY YOU TOTALLY CAN. And if your kid asks if they can wear boys’ clothes and still be a girl, the answer to that is yes also.

And if you find yourself deeply relieved that the kid you once thought might be trans appears right now to be a cisgender tomboy, for the love of everything that is good, do not write about it for the New York Times

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Gender Is For Toddlers, Apparently

I bet you thought we were done talking about gender for awhile. Maybe you even hoped we were. Maybe you thought that we had exhausted the topic of how gender affects babies who can’t articulate gender for themselves and we wouldn’t have to talk about it again until the child was three or four and asking questions about it. I sort of thought that.

But I should have known better.

Today, I have two vignettes for you beautiful humans, all about how gender, or rather gender assumptions, play out in our lives now that we’ve entered The Toddler Years.

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***

Part One
No Shirt No Shoes No Pronouns

For those who might be dropping by the blog for the first time, let me lead with the fact that my kiddo is a little over a year old, is apparently male (I say “apparently” because the way we define biological sex is tenuous at best) and wears a variety of colors, including blue, green, orange, purple, and yes, even pink. I’ve written extensively on the subject of babies and gender here in this blog, and why his mother and I think it is important to give him as many options as possible.

When he started walking, he got a snazzy new pair of sneakers. Since he is actually beginning to show an interest in choosing thing (what to eat first for lunch, what toy to play with, etc) I thought it would be nice if he had a hand in picking out his own shoes. As it happened though, the only ones he was really excited about were a pair of pink glitter covered mary janes, AKA dress shoes. I felt for him, I mean, those are probably what I would pick too! After that he decided he just wanted literally anything that came in a box. In the end, we ended up with a three-tone pair of athletic shoes. They’re pink, blue, and electric green, but of course because they have pink in them they are “girl shoes.” He’s still on the fence about wearing them, and so we’re trying to get him more used to them by putting them on him for short bursts.

So recently, the whole family was at the drugstore, and we had a bit of a wait. He was wearing dark blue baby jeggings and a black and white striped shirt. The shirt happened to be from the girls’ section, and if you looked closely you might notice that it has slightly capped sleeves, which aren’t really a feature of boys’ apparel. But we’ve found that since male is considered the default in our culture, and since so many girls his age are dressed with multiple gender markers (parents add a headband or a flower hair clip, pants are pink and have ruffles) that oftentimes he reads as a boy even when he’s dressed in clothes that would feel too femme for my wife. He also, and this is the important part, wasn’t wearing his shoes.

A store employee, a woman, walked by and smiled at him. “Oh what a beautiful little boy!” she said. My wife thanked her, and that was that.

Soon after, he wanted to walk around, so we wrestled him into the shoes. Then, in the kind of desperation that I’m sure other parents of toddlers know only too well, I ventured to the kids aisle to see if there was a book he could pretend to read. There were only three board books.

Disney Princesses
Pirate Jake
and Doc McStuffins

We don’t really do the TV thing, but I’ve heard decent things about Doc McStuffins, so I grabbed that one. He was thrilled.

The same store employee then walked by us again.

“Oh are you reading, little one? How precious!” and then, turning to address the grown-ups, “she’s not talking yet, is she?”

He kind of is, actually,” I responded, and then gave a short list of words he currently knows. I’ve learned from experience that it’s important, in these circumstances, to use male pronouns repeatedly until they hear you. People get extremely embarrassed about misgendering children, and if you aren’t explicit, they often feel you’ve deliberately misled them.

Only she didn’t seem to notice. In fact, we saw her three more times before we got out of the damn store, and each time, we carefully used he/him pronouns, and she explicitly used she/her. My wife and I kept raising our eyebrows at each other, wondering if and when she might catch on, but also not wanting to make a huge deal out of it. I mean, why should it have to be a huge deal? But it just kept happening. It was like, once she saw the pink shoes (they are also blue and green!) and the cap sleeves, and the pink book in his hand, her brain got the GIRL message, and that message wrote over everything else, including our earlier conversation with her, and also what we were currently saying at that moment.

I don’t think most people take it quite that far, but it did get me thinking about how our brains cling to gender expectations, and how we articulate that. One time, I saw an infant in a stroller, wearing a perfectly gender neutral outfit, and yet without asking I exclaimed “oh she’s so cute!” The baby’s father said “actually he’s a boy, but don’t worry, we get that a lot, it’s because his hair is so long.” Was that what I was responding to? I have no idea, but I think about that day a lot as I raise my own kid. Because the fact is that our culture is so invested in the gender binary, that we, without thinking, studiously examine tiny little kids for gender markers, and then we use those markers to decide how we talk to them. In some cases, maybe the gender markers are louder in our brains than anything else. And while we may feel that we need them to assign “appropriate” pronouns (most people still wouldn’t default to using the singular they with a little kid) I always wonder what else we are assigning to them.

When I headed to the cash register with a lipstick, as well as our other items, our new friend said “oh did she pick that one out for mommy?” And I found myself wondering, much later, if the same question would have been asked had she assumed (or remembered) that our child is male.

Which brings me to our next story.

***

Part Two
Size Matters

We were taking the kid for a walk in the stroller, when a woman sitting on a porch said hello, and then followed it up with “what a cutie! Say, how old is that baby? Seven months?”

My wife and I both suppressed chuckles. Seven months? It was my wife who answered her, “Nah, more like fourteen.”

Fourteen? Well, she’s just a tiny little thing, ain’t she! Er, or he?”

We stared at each other.

When our child reads as male (which is most of the time, honestly) people are constantly telling him what a “big boy” he is, and how large he is for his age, and how you can just tell he’s going to be huge. And while I’m sure these comments have always been somewhat gendered, I usually don’t think about them too deeply. The thing is, he has been on the larger side for his age most of his life. When he was around six months old, he stopped being able to receive hand-me-downs from babies we knew who were six months older than him, because he was currently wearing the same size as them anyways and their old clothes wouldn’t fit him.

As we walked away, my wife said “wow, I’ve never heard that one before!”

“I actually have!” I replied. And then I realized, that the last time my child was called tiny by someone who had just asked for his age, I was out with him alone picking up supplies for his birthday present, and yeah, he was wearing “girls'” pants. I looked down at my kid in the stroller, sure enough, the size 2T pants he was wearing were bright pink.

People only call him small when they think he is a girl.

What.

And it actually makes absolutely no sense. Look, if people expect girls to be smaller (and according to the weight charts, baby girls are, on average, just slightly smaller than baby boys) than if they think my kid is a girl, he should look even more surprisingly huge to them, right? And yet, the opposite is true. They assume my kid to be a girl, inquire about age, I tell them, and they reply with “oh she’s so tiny!” Then, when I say “actually he is in the seventy-five percentile for boys weight for his age” or whatever, they dig their heals in. They are convinced my child is small, and nothing I say will sway them, so I just shrug and move on. Now that I think about it though, the really odd thing about these exchanges is that once the person knows my child to be male, they no longer say “tiny” affectionately. No, they suddenly sound worried.

It’s almost as if being small, being diminutive, is considered a characteristic of femininity in our culture. Little girl, big boy, girls are small people! So they attribute that characteristic, and it’s related adjectives, to my child, without really seeing him. Because girls are small. Then, once they realize that their gender assumption is incorrect (well, maybe it is! My kid could be a trans girl! Literally none of us know yet!) they can’t back down on the size thing. So instead they assure themselves, “no, I’m positive that baby is to small to be a year old.” That part makes a certain amount of sense. Who wants to admit their implicit bias? Who wants to admit they thought a person was one size, but now that they know that person has a penis, they can see that they are a totally different size? Nobody.

We don’t want to think we’re sexist. We especially don’t want to think we’re sexist when it comes to children. We are deeply invested in convincing ourselves that we treat boys and girls the same, yet we almost never actually do. My parents came very close to treating me the same they would have treated a son! My mother was practically famous for the level of tomboy she achieved in childhood, and she sure wasn’t going to push her girls to be feminine. And yet, a son would have been pushed harder to play sports. A son would not have been told he would make a beautiful bride one day.

I had to look up the stats on toddler sizes for this post, because writing this, it feels like I’m losing it. It feels a lot like gaslighting, and I find myself questioning my own perception of my child. “Well, maybe he’s not that big.”

I looked it up. He hasn’t been weighed in a bit, but he was exactly the average size of a fourteen month old boy two months ago. A seven month old girl, which is what that woman guessed my child was, weighs at least five pounds less than my kid.

***

So here we are. My child is growing and changing. He loves throwing a ball as hard as he can at the hardwood floors, and he loves cuddling his baby doll and giving them their bottle over and over and over again. The older kids on the block love playing sports and other “boy” games and I am bracing myself to end the world of childhood athletics way sooner than I could ever possibly be ready for.

But I also can’t stop noticing this stuff.

I don’t want to turn this into a blog about my kid’s gender. Partly because it’s his gender, and he is the one who gets to decide what he wants to do with it and how he wants to talk about it. But I do want, and on some level I think I need, to share my gender related observations. Because if you just accept it as normal, if you take it as a given, you are going to miss things. And what the hell is that doing to our kids?

 

Ok, next week we’re talking about food.

The Deal With Dads

Ha ha ha, fathers, amirite? They’re completely incompetent buffoons who have no idea how to care for children, and are totally incapable of learning! It’s not their fault, poor souls, they’re trying! They’re just helpless when it comes to dressing, feeding, and otherwise nurturing the children they help create. This is why mothers have to do everything forever, the end.

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If that sounds sexist and ridiculous to you, it’s because it is.

It is also an idea I run into a lot in the wide world of parenting, and an idea with some pretty serious consequences for all involved.

Check out this piece from Scary Mommy. On the surface, it’s just one of those cutesy write-ups about a funny moment in the world of having a kid. A parent out there in parenting land had a funny moment, shared it on social media, and now we all get to laugh along because haven’t we all had some funny moments? It’s a little bit of relief from the exhaustion and the constant pressure that parenting very young children can entail. Look, we’re all laughing together!

Except, the buoyant laughter is hiding the sinister underbelly of gender roles, sexism, misogyny, and patriarchy.

If you didn’t click the link (hey, I don’t blame you) the story is this: a father was tasked with dressing his infant daughter for daycare, and sent her in overalls without a shirt underneath. When the mother texts him about it, he explains that he dressed her in “that thing” and that he was ignorant to the tradition of wearing shirts with overalls. The mother is, understandably, exasperated and amused, and shares the text exchange. In the comments, other parents (all mothers) share related stories of their co-parents (all fathers) making hilarious wardrobe mistakes. One dad dressed his child in a robe meant for a stuffed Yoda doll, another in clothing from the Build-a-Bear Workshop (clothing which included a tail hole).

The joke, in all of this, is not just that it’s kind of funny that all these kids went out in public in truly ridiculous get-ups. It is kind of funny! The joke is that this happened because they were dressed by their fathers. And fathers, it seems, may be great at playtime and taking the kids for ice cream, but they just don’t know about clothes. These types of stories are shared by mothers (in heterosexual relationships) and the conclusion is that women are just plain superior at this whole parenting thing. On the surface it can look like (and feel like, to the women involved) these kinds of jokes hold mothers up and recognize their greatness. But none of this is actually uplifting to mothers, because it’s firmly couched in benevolent sexism.

Benevolent sexism, in case you are unaware, is sexism that sounds like it’s saying positive things about women, but ultimately is used to subjugate women and enforce strict gender roles. The first time I heard the term was while reading this series about Christian dating books (content note for discussion of rape and sexual violence at the link!). Benevolent sexism can be just as dangerous and harmful as hostile sexism, and men who believe in benevolent sexist ideas often quickly turn hostile when women don’t stay in their place.

I can’t say this enough, “traditional” gender roles hurt people. Especially when children are involved, they are just one more method to maintain the set up of the nuclear family. The nuclear family was created by and for capitalism and patriarchy, and that is all it is good for. Nuclear families keep us isolated, they keep us overworked, they keep us from meaningful connection even within the family unit, and they keep us functioning as consumers in wider society.

A joke that sounds like it’s taking a cheap jab at men (haha, they can’t even dress their babies!) is, once we scratch the surface, just plain old patriarchy all the way down.

Men can’t dress their babies, therefore women have to dress the babies, therefore women are constantly consumed with childcare, therefore women cannot access other meaningful work.

Men can’t dress their babies, therefore men are only suitable as providers, therefore men must provide and women must do all the caring and nurturing.

In the original “joke” that we started with, the baby was being dropped off at daycare by her father. That, to me, strongly implies that both parents work outside the home, possibly both work full time. Yet, it also implies that the father is not used to dressing the baby, that it is somehow the mothers jurisdiction. If both parents work outside of the home, for roughly the same amount of hours, one might expect that they would divide up the childcare and household tasks more or less evenly. Yet this is almost never how it happens. In heterosexual marriages, we see again and again that women who work are also expected to fully manage the children and the household whenever they are home. We’ve taken the original nuclear family model, and altered it slightly to include women making an income, only we don’t see men picking up the slack at home. Instead, women are told to strive to “have it all” and men maintain more or less the same breadwinner role they would have enjoyed in a nuclear family without a working spouse. And in the comments on that “joke” we see several mothers supporting this by essentially saying “see, this is why I don’t let my husband dress the baby anymore.”

And on top of all of that, it’s also just plain unfair to fathers. Fathers are human beings who are actually, contrary to popular belief, fully capable of caring for children. They are capable of learning how to change diapers and how to dress a child and all of the other things one needs to know. They may start out a little bit behind, because those of us who were raised as girls in the world were encouraged early to take an interest in nurturing and care-taking, whereas our male counterparts often weren’t (and in some cases it was even actively discouraged). But they can catch up! I can think of several fathers (some of them live within walking distance of me) who are every bit as full and active of parents as their female co-parents. It isn’t fair to them, or anyone else, to pretend like dads can’t do this stuff.

So maybe that guy confused a pair of overalls with a romper, so what? Was it a stupid mistake? Sure. But it’s not something innate, and it has nothing to do with the gender of the parent who screwed up.

And by the by, these ideas aren’t only used to subjugate heterosexual women! This idea that men parent exclusively one way, and women parent exclusively another way, has been used on the far right to condemn families like mine for years. In fact, during the endless debates about whether or not marriages like mine should even be allowed, some of these ideas were brought up as evidence in court. And years and years ago, someone who knew very well that I was gay, literally said the following to me:

“You’re going to get married before you have kid, right? Because don’t you think all children need a mother and a father?”

The subtext being, of course, that men and women vary so much in their parenting styles and abilities that I, a gay woman, should marry a man for the good of my future offspring.

But children don’t need a mother and a father. Children need parents who care enough about them to learn how to get them dressed in the morning.

Baby Gender: Nine Month Addition (Part Two)

Last week, we talked all about many of the ways that baby and toddler clothing is heavily and aggressively gendered, and how that gendering causes even progressive parents to normalize traditional gender roles. I shared a little bit about what my family does to try to combat that (we give our child both boy AND girl clothes now, that way when he’s old enough to form preferences, he has actual options). Today, I want to dive into a couple of the other ways that I’ve noticed gendering around having an older baby.

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But first, I want to mention a few comments that I got on that first post (mostly from good friends, and on social media rather than here on the blog itself), and maybe clarify a couple of points. Here are the two things that I hear whenever I talk about this stuff:

1.) Why don’t you just shop at the thrift store?

I do! The vast majority of my son’s clothing that I (or my wife) have actually picked out has come from our local thrift store. But most thrift stores have the same issues — clothing separating into “girl clothes” and “boy clothes” — so shopping at the thrift store doesn’t, in my experience, help me avoid aggressive gender binaries at all.
And honestly? There are items that can be much harder to find at thrift stores, and sometimes they are things that we need. This has happened to me. And when it happened when we had two quarters to rub together, yes, I picked him up some baby leggings while I was out grabbing diapers.
But even without that, I think that it’s important to talk about what goes on in conventional retail environments, because what we are talking about is how culture affects us all. My mother, for instance, when she wants to buy a present for my kid, does not go to the thrift store. She goes to a big box store, and what she meets there is an overwhelming pressure to buy him something suitably masculine.

2.) I select clothes based on durability and I don’t care what color it is!

I get some version of this every time I talk about how children are gendered in our culture. It’s an attractive notion, kids are hard on clothes, so we should just be looking for clothes that are sturdy and high quality, and everything else is secondary.
Except it never really works that way because we live in this culture, and we are not immune to the constant reinforcement of the gender binary. What we are looking for as parents is going to vary some because we are humans and have preferences (for example, many parents feel like overalls are good sturdy baby wear, but I find them to be obnoxious to get on and off and not all that flexible, so my kid is more likely to be rocking stretchy pants of some kind). And again, the stores have a boy section and a girl section, they do not have a sturdy section. So where do you start? Do you assume the boy clothing is sturdier? Do you start in the “appropriate” section and only move to the “inappropriate” section later? This stuff matters, and it’s stuff that I think about.
In my case, I’m trying to push back against aggressive gendering, not just not perpetuate it. The reason for that is that most of the rest of the world is participating in gendering my child very actively. If I’m neutral, he still doesn’t have real options. If me and my wife don’t go out of our way to make sure he has some pink, he’s probably not going to have any (that’s not actually strictly true but for the most part it is).
Also, to be quite honest, I am an artist who is obsessed with colors. I live for colors. I cannot imagine not caring what color my kid is wearing. Of course I care. Colors are awesome.

Ok then, let’s go.

Gender For Nine Month Olds

1. Language: Every Single Compliment is Gendered

We have talked to a few people who are close to us about gendered language and compliments, so I’m not including those people in this. This is more about the general public and those outside of our immediate sphere.

It happened a little bit when he was a tiny baby, but there was more variation. For every person who called him “such a handsome little boy!” there would be another person calling him a “beautiful baby!” But he doesn’t get called a beautiful baby much anymore. In fact, the older he gets, the bigger he gets, the more active and independent he gets, the more gendered the language has become. What do I mean by more gendered?

Two things really. One is applying traditionally masculine adjectives (my son is called strong, big, brave by strangers who know him to be male, but rarely nice or sweet). The other is simply constantly including the gender as part of the compliment. So whereas someone might say:

“Oh you’re very big, aren’t you?”

or

“You’re a really big baby, aren’t you?”

we’re more likely to hear

“Wow you sure are a big guy, aren’t you?

All of these comments affectionately compliment my child’s size (he is large everyone!) but the last one is more gendered. “Guy” is not gender neutral, it’s a cultural statement about both maleness and masculinity. The next step, almost inevitably is “hey there big guy!”

It’s almost like people are constantly telling my kid that he’s a boy. It isn’t almost like that though, it’s exactly like that. He’s not simply good he’s a good boy. Even as a tiny child, I knew that being called a good girl was a specific thing, not only about goodness, but about girlhood. My child, who cannot walk yet, breastfeeds a jillion times a day, and loves stuffed animals just as much as he loves blocks, is being congratulated for his ability to perform traditional masculinity.

Pardon me but, what the actual fuck?

So what do we do? Well, we check ourselves constantly. We can’t control the world, and people on the bus are going to say what they’re going to say, but we can challenge ourselves to not fall into the same habits at home! And this shit is pretty ingrained, it is work to remind ourselves that confirmation bias exists, that he’s just as worthy of praise for being loving or kind as he is for being bold and daring, and that he gets to be a person first, and a gendered person second. But once you do the work (and keep doing it, and keep doing it) I find that it does get easier, and we get more creative with compliments, and we notice more amazing things about him that we might miss if we were allowing ourselves to mostly focus on boy things.

2. Language: A Tiny, Adult, Man

I just wrote a piece about this particular phenomena for ravishly.com, so I don’t want to delve too deep here. But there is an intense extreme to the gendered compliment, and as my child gets older, he gets it more and more, and honestly from people I wouldn’t have expected to hear it from.

He’s getting called “little man” all the damn time.

I doubt very much that this is a conscious decision in most cases, but it is a phrase particularly loaded with gender. If you don’t believe me, when was the last time you heard a presumed female baby referred to as a “little woman.” No, girls get to be children, but masculinity requires that my child skip boyhood altogether and perform miniature adult manhood right now.

No.

3. Language: All Toys Are Male, Unless They Aren’t

A really great thing about having a baby this age is that he really plays now. He knows what toys are, and he thinks they’re awesome. We keep most of his toys in a basket in the living room, and he happily crawls over to it and pulls toys out. Sometimes if other adults are over (friends or family) they play with him.

And they inevitably using “he” pronouns for 90% of the toys with faces.

Why is this? It feels like cartoon logic. Micky Mouse is the regular mouse, so he’s a boy. But Minnie Mouse is a girl, and you can tell because she’s wearing a bow. It’s actually indicative of how our society views gender as a whole (maleness and masculinity are normal, standard, whereas femaleness and femininity are exceptional) but it’s really blatantly obvious when it comes to the world of anthropomorphized animals.

The only toys that get called “she” are pink and have other gender signifiers, like a bow or some ruffles.

So what do we do? My wife and I use gender neutral pronouns for all of our kid’s toys. That may sound extreme and funny to some, but we want him to be able to actually pick the genders of various stuffed animals and things as he grows. We also don’t want him to grow up assuming that maleness is normal and femaleness is other, even if that assumption will likely afford him some privilege. It was difficult at first — this stuff is incredibly automatic! — but it has gotten easier. It’s even easier for us, I think, because we know so many people who use gender neutral pronouns themselves. So in our household, all toys get the singular “they” until our kid tells us otherwise.

4. People Can Just Tell

Confirmation bias is so funny. When we are out in public, if our kid’s outfit is at all gender ambiguous, people obviously have to choose which gender to assign to him. If they choose “boy” they often ask for me to confirm it, and when I nod, they look so smug. “I thought so!” they’ll say or “You can just tell…”

And I want to scream, what, what can you just tell? Is there something about the shape of his nose that is particularly masculine? Because that is my nose too!

Whereas, if they assume “girl”and ask, and I “correct” them. Well then, how could they have known? After all, he’s just a baby! They can’t be expected to assign the proper gender to him unless I dress him properly!

 

More Baby Gender: Nine Month Addition (Part 1)

When I started this blog, I never imagined how much time I would devote to talking about baby gender. I figured our fairly gender liberal attitudes toward parenting would get brought up, I would link to this post a number of times, and that would be that. But in fact, baby gender has become that thing which just keeps coming up. I continue to be fascinated (and also horrified) by the way we, as a society, gender our infants, and so I continue to write about it. I’ve written about the pressure to gender fetuses as soon as possible, and why we put our kid in pink, and even the fact that we use “he” pronouns and how that is a choice. I’ve branched out and written about dressing my kid in femme clothes for Romper (note: my editor put that headline on there). So you’d think I might be done picking apart the complexities of gender for the under one set. Maybe my readers were crossing their fingers that they wouldn’t have to hear about this stuff again until my kid was two or three and the game changed.

Except, as it turns out, the game is changing now. The aggressive gendering of infants continues to be intense, resisting it continues to be a huge part of my life, but my experience of how that works changes rapidly as my child grows. As I learn new ways to navigate the ever changing world of baby gender, I find myself constantly fascinated. The changing rules of baby gender (and I’m certain toddler gender and then childhood gender) are in fact something that all new parents must be learning, but the rules have that weird “invisible but out in the open” quality to them.

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And so here we are, with a nine month old child. Here’s a little bit of what’s going on in my world of baby gender, and how we (his ma and I) are attempting to cope with it all and set him up to have a bit more gender freedom than we had growing up.

*Edit: This post is getting obscenely long, so for today, I’m going to stick to just gendered clothing issues, and dive into the other issues another day.*

Gender for Nine Month Olds

  1. Clothing: There Is No Gender Neutral

When he was a newborn, there were three main gendered options for clothing for him: aggressively feminine clothing, aggressively masculine clothing, and a tiny tiny amount of “gender neutral” clothing. The neutral clothing was mostly terrible, it was usually white or gray, sometimes with yellow or green. If it featured any animals they were either ducks or frogs, which are apparently the two gender neutral creatures in the animal kingdom. Oh I guess there are also giraffes! Anyways, there wasn’t much and it wasn’t terribly interesting, but it did exist. And because we refused to check to see if our child was sporting a penis before his birth, we ended up with a lot of it. Of course after his birth, people pretty much switched from buying us “neutral” clothes to buying us “boy” clothes, so much so that we actually had to ask our relatives for “no more dark blue please!” because it was taking over and we don’t even like dark blue (I mean all the cat hair shows up on it).

But most of the “neutral” clothing made by major baby clothes manufacturers only goes up to six month sizes. A few things go up to twelve month. Our kiddo is nine months old, but he’s big for his age, and is currently wearing mostly eighteen month sizes, and in some brands he’s wearing 2T. Which means that, as we move out of baby sizes and into toddler sizes (and no, I’m not emotionally ready for that, thanks for asking) the “neutral” options disappear all together. Most stores have a baby section, which is roughly divided along gender lines but also includes some of that gray and yellow crap. But when you exit the baby section you have to go to either the boy section, or the girl section. You can potentially work around this if you have the gumption to seek out retailers that don’t do this, but the vast majority of them do. Even Primary.com (I am a huge fan of their stuff and they aren’t paying me to say that either) divides their kids’ clothes into “boys” and “girls,” although there are some items that appear in each section (like hoodies).

Most parents, (and grandparents and aunts and uncles and friends) even if they are fairly progressive, tend to go to their assigned store section. That means that even if they think the policing and enforcing of gender roles on kids, toddlers, and infants, is messed up, they still won’t venture into items being marketed towards the “opposite gender.” So instead, they do this kind of dance, wherein they look through the “appropriate” section for items that are less aggressively gendered. I actually hear about this a lot from progressive parents!

“We looked through everything to find something that wasn’t pink and covered with bows!”

What they mean is that they looked through everything in the girl’s section. I’m not saying every parent needs to parent how I parent, and I understand that there is anxiety around shopping in the “wrong” section. But. BUT. When that’s how we try to circumvent gender oppression, we lose something. In fact, we end up normalizing the same categories that we were seaking to avoid. Parents end up settling for, instead of offering a daughter a wide variety of wardrobe choices, getting her things that aren’t THAT girlie. If it just has one bow, it’s fine. If it’s purple instead of pink, that’s seen as an improvement.

When people buy clothing as gifts for our child, it tends to follow that model. You can tell by looking, they went into the boy’s section and then looked for things that they could consider, theoretically, gender neutral. So we’ll get a set of onesies in a variety of colors, but when you look closely you realize there are three shades of blue and no pink, purple, or yellow. These items are fine, and he wears them, and some of them we even love. But now, with the neutral option completely gone, he is at risk of having all “boy” clothes.

So it becomes more and more important for us – his parents – to be willing to push back against that. I cross the aisle into the girl clothes. I am anxious every time I do it. What if someone asks if I have a daughter? What if they hear me remark “oh be would look so sweet in this?” To the friend I’m with? But giving my kid real, tangible, options is more important than my comfort level. So I keep doing it. It is, admittedly, one thousand times easier online.

  1. Clothing: Actually Everything Good Is For Girls

I’m kidding, but only just.

Because we, unlike many parents of male children, actually do venture into the girl’s section, we see first hand what they are offering. And there are a lot of things that live in the girl’s section that aren’t pink or frilly, and don’t make much sense to me, and don’t have an equivalent across the aisle in the boy’s section.

For instance, these baby leggings covered in ice cream cones.

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They’re not PINK ice cream cones, they’re just… ice cream cones. So why is ice cream gendered? Do little boys not like ice cream? Is this a “sugar, spice, and everything nice” problem?

I was starting to feel like the boy section was just boring, but I thought hey, maybe that’s just because I don’t like sports. Or maybe it’s because I’m so focused on making sure he has femme options, and other people are making sure he has plenty of masculine options. I wondered about it. So I decided to go online, and check out some of the actual differences for major retailers. Let’s look at Target for a second. These numbers are for everything currently available on target.com

toddler girls: 1356 items.
toddler boys: 1067 items.

Not only do little boys not get ice cream themed clothing, they also, apparently, get nearly 300 less options all around. I decided to check the numbers for Carter’s, a popular baby and toddler clothes brand sold at many retailers, Target included.

baby girls new arrivals: 202 items.
baby boys new arrivals: 138 items.

toddler girls new arrivals: 125 items.
toddler boys new arrivals: 76 items.

And then, Old Navy, which does have some crossover items that appear in both boys and girls.

toddler girls: 1292 items.
toddler boys: 779 items.

So what is going on here? It seems to me that the gendering in some ways is going even deeper than I realized. We’re not just telling very young children (and the caregivers of very young children) that girls wear pink and boys wear blue, that girls like dollies and boys like trucks. We are, in fact, telling them that girl children, even nonverbal girl children, need and deserve more clothing options than boy children do. Because boys, they just don’t care about fashion, right?

And at the same time, you have things as gender neutral as junk food (what child does not love ice cream and cupcakes, I ask you?) being aggressively gendered as explicitly feminine. I don’t even know how to pick that apart today, to be honest, because of all the good shame those same little girls will encounter for enjoying such treats. But I think this spells very bad news for everyone.

***

Ok, that’s all I’ve got in me for now, tune in next time for part two, when we’ll talk about the language changes around gender as babies grow.

Equity In Coparenting Land

I have a young baby, and I spend a lot of time talking with other people who also have young babies. The vast majority of those people are partnered, and are coparenting with their partners. And there’s one topic that comes up pretty much all the time. Who does what? Which parent takes on which role? And why? And more importantly than all of those questions, who is doing more? Who is resentful? Who is Burnt out and at their wit’s end?

Most of the time, most people seem to agree that the answer to that question is “moms.”

But it is a hell of a lot more complicated than that.

I recently read an advice column on this very topic. Both the letter writer and the columnist are (apparently) heterosexual women married to men. Both identify as mothers. In both cases, the mother’s husband appears to also be the child’s father and the mother’s coparent. I spell that out because, while most parenting writing on the internet (or like, everywhere) will treat those details as obvious, they aren’t actually. And that’s a little bit of why I’m writing this and what we’re going to get into with this. I’m going to encourage you to click through and read the actual column, because I actually think there’s some good stuff in there.

But if you don’t, here’s a really inadequate summary:

Q: My husband and I agreed to split childcare 50/50, but I always do more!

A: That is really hard and it happened to me too. You have to keep working at it, and make sure it isn’t you who is defaulting to doing more.

There’s also a really good bit in there about running your parenting relationship like a socialist country. That was my favorite part. But I think it doesn’t go far enough, and I think the heteronormative nature of both the question and the answer get in the way of discussing real equity.

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So now, without further ado, I bring to you…

 

The Postnuclear Guide To Equity In Coparenting Land

How to parent with another person (or persons!) without getting screwed
1. Recognize that you are a coparent.

Knowing is half the battle. If you aren’t a single parent, you’re a coparent.

You have a coparent, or possibly several coparents (you lucky duck…). When we are talking about your parenting relationship with another human being, we need to remember to frame it that way. We are talking about coparenting. You may think this sounds obvious and I’m just repeating myself, but this is so important. We often have more than one connection to many people in our lives. It may be that you are romantically involved, cohabitating, and legally married to your coparent! That’s cool, and that probably makes your life a fraction easier since that’s basically what society expects. But we’re not talking about those things. Unless, that is, you want to.
But if what you want is to talk about how you parent together and how you can make it more equitable, the first step is going to be thinking about it in those terms. As soon as you frame it as “my husband is a feminist and he’s so nice, but he never gives the baby a bath!” or “my partner just defaults to letting me clip our daughter’s fingernails because she’s scared to do it.” You’re on the wrong track. I’m not saying you can never refer to your spouse that way while talking about parenting, but I am saying that we would all probably benefit from not conflating roles.

2. Use Socialism as much as it works for you.

Each according to their needs, each according to their abilities. This is probably a your mileage may vary type situation, but in my family, we just run our entire family as a collective. We are a three member collective. One of those members (it’s the baby) has a whole lot of needs and not a lot of abilities, and that’s ok. The other two members have needs and abilities that vary. I have the ability to breastfeed, whereas our kid’s other mom does not. I also have the need for a really ridiculous amount of food to sustain all the breastfeeding I am doing. So guess what my coparent does? That’s right, she feeds me. She doesn’t do all of the cooking, shopping, or meal prep in our family, but she does do a lot, because that is a way she can support the thing that she cannot do (the breastfeeding).
Other families may have different ways of working with similar issues. I know of families who made the choice to bottle feed precisely for this reason. You do you, but thinking about making sure that each of us gets our needs met really does help.

3. Fifty/fifty (or thirty-three/thirty-three/thirty-three!) is an overall measure, it’s not necessarily about individual chore items or individual days.

I mean that’s the thing, right? When does it balance out? There could potentially be a lot of  different ways to make that work. Children don’t have the same needs throughout all of their childhood, and parents don’t have the same needs and abilities throughout all of their parenting lives. So really sit down and hash this stuff out with your partner/s. If, for example, you are taking time off work to stay home with a baby and breastfeed, what does it take to balance that out? Your partner might not be able to balance it out right now, and pretending that they can just by doing “their share” in their little bit of time off from work will make you both miserable. But in some families, it makes sense to take turns. One parent might take two years off from their career for child related duties, but after that time, the second parent steps up (and thus, steps down from work).

You need to be thinking big picture if you want to achieve actual equity.

4. Make space to talk about it, have a fucking meeting.

I’m so serious about this. Meetings are what make our family GO. If you don’t schedule time to talk about these issues, than it’s always up to the coparent who feels slighted to bring these things up and make space for the conversation… which is even more labor! If you’re stuck doing 80% of the childcare when you agreed to 50%, but you’re afraid to bring it up because it will start a fight or hurt someone’s feelings, that is doubley unfair.

Also? When parenting gets rough, when you really really need to both/all feel supported, that is when you will not be able to find time to talk about this stuff. Meetings may seem annoying, but meetings mean almost never having to say “we need to talk” when you are both exhausted and the baby won’t sleep. In my family, we have a regularly scheduled weekly meeting. Sometimes we miss it! The weeks we miss it are, without fail, the most frustrating for everyone. No matter how much we needed that hour for something else at the time, I always always always regret missing family meetings.

5. Fight against the cultural forces that destroy equity.

This is going to be really different depending on your family structure, but our culture encourages an attitude of “default parenting.” Basically, we’re operating under the (disastrous) premise that no matter how many parents a child has, there is always one parent who does the bulk of the parenting, and who is the default for all kinds of parenting tasks. If you were raised in this culture (like I was) you can’t just say “we believe in equality” and expecting that default parenting will not take over your life, you have to actively fight against it. It sucks, but so does working against any kind of injustice. Here are a few things that might qualify a parent as the default parent:

Being the parent who gave birth to the child.
Being the parent who breastfed/breastfeeds the child.
Being a woman, especially if parenting with a man.
Identifying as a mother, especially as parenting with a man.
Not working outside the home.
Not working as many hours outside the home as your coparent/s.
Not making as much money as your coparent/s.

If you have read my rantings about nuclear families, you are probably noticing something right about now. That’s right! Although nuclear families hold a place of privilege as the “norm” in our society, the more nuclear your family is, the more likely you are to be pushed into default roles. So if you are a woman, who is married to and coparenting with one man, who gave birth to your child and are staying home with them to breastfeed… guess what? Our culture is going to try to make you the default parent. That doesn’t mean that your family structure is bad! It does mean that you have to push back.

What do I mean by the forces that destroy equity? It’s the stuff both inside and outside of your coparenting relationship that constantly reinforces the notion that one parent is the primary parent. When your mother in law says “that’s just the way it is, babies prefer their mothers” tell her she is wrong and hand the baby to your coparent. When you catch yourself saying “I just can’t calm her down like you can!” remember that there are lots of ways to calm a distressed child and it is actually difficult for all parents a lot of the time… and then get back in there.

My kid has two moms, which makes this stuff a little bit easier, but it is still a struggle. I’m still the one who gave birth to him, I’m still breastfeeding him, and I’m the parent who is home with him most days. Some people like to treat my coparent like she’s a “dad” or some other kind of a part-time parent, and we have to be really really clear that that is not the fucking case. Standing up to others, and repeatedly affirming what our actual parenting division of labor is, helps to remind us and keep us on track.

6. Hold yourself accountable for your assumptions.

This is related to the last one. But look, there are going to be times when you fall into stupid assumptions. Regardless of what side of this you are on, you’re going to find yourself slipping into the default sometimes. That’s ok, it doesn’t make you bad, it’s just part of the reality of living in this culture. Holding yourself accountable for those assumptions can be humbling, but it’s also necessary and pretty simple. You just have to acknowledge it. I like to say “I’m sorry… I don’t know why I was assuming that?” and then my wife and I smile because we both know damn well why. And then I stop assuming that it’s my job to pack the diaper bag or whatever.

7. Expect your coparent/s to do the same, and don’t be afraid to hold them accountable if they aren’t holding themselves accountable.

Sometimes, your coparent/s, who are also human, will be the one making stupid assumptions. Call them out. It doesn’t make you a jerk, and it definitely doesn’t make you a nag (hello, sexist trope designed to keep women in their place!). Remember that you both/all want this relationship to be equitable, and you want them to call you out sometimes too.

“Remember that we agreed that when we are both with the baby, we both have to check in before leaving to do something else? I don’t just walk out of the room and leave you alone with our child for an undetermined amount of time, and I expect the same respect and courtesy from you.”

8. If you want it, don’t be afraid to force it.

When it’s been a long ass week, and everyone is burned out (my kid just cut two teeth, I feel you!) and those parenting scales start to tip… whatever you do, do not imagine that it’s inevitable. Do not sigh and say “well, this is the best I can hope for!” You, and your coparent/s, and your child/ren, deserve better than that. Equity is worth the trouble. Hopefully everyone in your coparenting arrangement thinks that it is worth the trouble.

Six Reasons For Not Knowing, And One That Doesn’t Matter

Earlier this week I wrote about why making gender assumptions about fetuses (and in particular, the fetus that is currently residing in my uterus) bugs me, and especially about my least favorite phrase used in that way – “what you’re having.”
It was a pretty good time.

Right now, I just want to take a quick minute, and list a few of the reasons we will in fact, not be finding out what we’re having prior to the birth of our child. Ready? Let’s go!

1. As mentioned in Monday’s post, literally the only thing we can find out from an ultrasound is “can you see a penis?” Considering the fact that this *highly scientific* method of determining sex is sometimes not 100% accurate (sometimes, the penis is there, but they don’t see it, for example) and is almost never accurate in the case of intersex children (your ultrasound tech is going to tell you “boy” or “girl” and be done with it, if your child is somewhere in between no one is likely to notice until the birth, and in some cases not even then) we’d just…. rather not.

2. We don’t actually need to know. Since we’re not planning on buying our child all pink things or all blue things based on their genitalia, finding out what kind of genitals our kid has (or, rather, seems to have) won’t actually help us prepare for their arrival in any way.

3. We can’t actually count on everyone respecting our wishes with regard to gendered gifts for our child. I’ve seen this play out many times. Young, idealistic, parents inform friends and family that they’re hoping to go more gender neutral with regard to their baby’s clothes and nursery etc. Then they decide to go ahead and find out their child’s apparent sex anyways, because the technology is there and it is easy. Then they’re excited to know something, anything, about their kid, and end up sharing. Baby-shower time comes around, and maybe HALF of the gift givers respect their wishes. The other half all thought that just one pick dress wouldn’t be a problem! The unborn kiddo now owns like, fifteen pink dresses, a smattering of yellow and green items, and virtually nothing in colors considered “masculine” by the bizarre industry that sells us baby clothes.
The reality is, since the 1990s, the makers and marketers of baby stuff have been trying to convince us that the fact that there are no obvious differences between a dressed baby boy and a dressed baby girl means that they need completely separate wardrobes with zero overlap in order to more easily differentiate. And they’ve done a remarkably good job on people. Recently, while perusing some of the offerings big box store websites, I discovered that in many cases even the washcloths come in gendered sets, and a quick google search turned up how drastically differently they expect you to dress your baby, again, based on their genitals.

babyboy babygirl

I hate capitalism. But I also live in the world. I don’t have a ton of money, and I have relatives who are excited about a new baby in the family and want to buy stuff for said baby. Since we will, in fact, need stuff for this baby, we have no desire to refuse their generosity. And we don’t expect every single relative to have thought about how screwed up all this gendered baby marketing is. So, this one time in our child’s life, we actually have the power to stop them from receiving either “all girl gifts” or “all boy gifts.” If we don’t know our baby’s apparent sex, neither does anyone else, and they’ll have to find a way to think outside the boxes or ignore them, just this once.

(No, I’m  not sure how to manage this after the baby is born.)

4. We don’t need gender markers to bond with our child. I’m really into being pregnant, so I’ve been reading several weekly-pregnancy-update type things every week. It’s been sort of cool to follow along with the fetus’ progress as it does new and exciting things like peeing, and having fingerprints! As I get closer to the point at which the *very scientific* “hey can you see a penis?” test can be performed (I really hope y’all are picking up on my sarcasm here…) some sites are including some info about how to decide whether or not you want to know.
One of the biggest reasons listed for finding out the baby’s apparent sex is that many parents feel this helps them to bond with the baby. They can picture a little boy, or a little girl, and those associations help them feel more connected to their child before they meet them. Since we live in such a heavily gendered society, this makes sense. But my wife Chelsea and I have many friends and chosen family members who aren’t comfortable identifying as “men” or “women,” people who are trans, genderqueer, or genderfluid, and often identify as “other” or “in-between.” Because we love our friends, we’ve grown used to bonding with other humans without putting those humans into gendered boxes. And since we don’t plan to raise our child with rigid gender roles, we can imagine a lot of things about our child’s future (teaching them to read, taking them to the park, helping them learn to ride a bike, etc etc etc…) without having to picture a “boy” or a “girl” doing those things.

5. We have access to perfectly good gender neutral pronouns with which to discuss our baby. Many pregnant people hate thinking of the baby that they are growing and bonding with as “it.” That makes sense! In our culture, “it” is a pronoun typically reserved for objects and almost never used for people. After finding out the apparent sex of their baby, they’re able to refer to the child as “he” or “she” with confidence and ease. There’s nothing quite like seeing a quiet smile creep across an expecting mother’s face as she says, “awe, he’s moving around a lot today!”
But “he” and “she” are not the only pronouns in the world, or even in the English language. Many people use gender neutral pronouns such as ze, hen, and they. Personally, my wife and I tend to default to they when discussing our fetus, for the simple reason that we know more people who actively use they as a pronoun, so it feels more natural to us. Of course, every once in awhile we’ll casually refer to “they” or “them” and some eager person will go “oh my goodness did you say ‘they’? Is there more than one in there???” but usually confusion is minimal.

6. As far as we’re concerned, it’s the least interesting thing about our baby. I also got into this one in Monday’s post. But seriously, even if I do occasionally wonder about our baby’s sex and gender, it sort of pales in comparison to all the other wondering I do about this child. Will they be a picky eater (like I was, sorry mom)? What will their favorite color be? Will they be athletic (like neither of their parents, and what will we do if they are…)? What will their eyes look like? Will they be shy? How will they get along with our cats? Will they enjoy learning? Will they look like me? And how will I feel if they do? Will they be afraid of the dark? Will they want to be a parent one day?
There are all of these exciting and fascinating things, that we, as parents, get to learn about our child slowly, as we all grow together. I don’t feel terribly hung up on the one thing I can find out now.

***

And now, as an added bonus, here is one reason that did not play a role in our decision not to find out our baby’s apparent sex.

1. We don’t want to make it a surprise. The surprise is everything else. The surprise is life. What kind of genitals our child has may be among the first things we find out about them after they are born, but it isn’t this singular huge thing that we’re waiting in anticipation for. If anything, when I look forward to the birth, I’m hoping for one quiet moment where I can hold my child and let them just be a child, just be a person, without a ton of gendered assumptions (my own included) weighing them down.