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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

On “What We Are Having.”

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.

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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.

Ready?

“What you’re having”

As in:
“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.

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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!”

kittennap