We know, we know, because some of you have told us: you want to know! Boy or girl? Pink or blue? Yeah, yeah… the most important thing is that they baby is healthy. It doesn’t matter, really. But you REALLY want to know! (“Come on… just tell me. I promise I won’t tell anyone else!”)
As with most things, if it’s not a life circumstance that you have direct, personal experience with, when dialoguing with somebody who has, what is an intellectual exercise for you may be deeply emotional/exhausting/sensitive for them.
So I invite you to listen as we walk down a path, together.
My experience with my own gender throughout my life has rarely felt “normal.” I was proud of being a tomboy as a kid. I used to hunch my shoulders and try to be less tall and gangly as a teen. I felt like I ruined my body early in my 20s by having children. Though I would sometimes dress up and go out with friends, I felt like I was putting on a female persona, like a costume, playing at being like the other young women I knew but feeling like it was an act. It wasn’t so much about insecurities, though that sometimes was a factor. I just didn’t feel like any of what I perceived as feminine was a fit for me.
As I got older and more comfortable with myself, I used to joke that I was “bad at being a girl.” Still, it was traumatizing, not flattering, to occasionally experience what we now call street harassment – walking along with my own thoughts, blissfully or meditatively moving through the world – then being jarred by men looking for a response based on their needs for my attention as the woman they saw. It was so dissonant from how I saw myself most of the time.
I know that none of this is how most of you perceive me, and I know that impossible societal standards have played a role. Had those pressures and expectations been removed, I might have been more comfortable in my own skin my whole life.
When I was raising my first two children, a couple of times the eldest urgently tried to vocalize what they were feeling about gender, which was essentially (from an early age) that they didn’t feel like what the world decided they were. I mistakenly thought they were experiencing what I had growing up and as an adult but still didn’t have my own language or framework for. So I would respond: “Honey, it’s okay. You can dress how you like and pursue interests you like and break down stupid stereotypes.” Their little eyebrows would furrow, unsatisfied with my answer. I didn’t get it, and they didn’t know how to say it any differently to help me understand.
I only found out later that they retreated into silence and deep emotional stress and distress about this and other sources of anxiety and dysphoria, and we are fortunate they are still alive today.
This year, at age 21, they have been doing deep personal work on honoring their authentic identity. I don’t know if you have ever fundamentally challenged something you had accepted about your reality, dismantling it, fretting, reading, thinking, walking through loneliness and fear of loss of love and identity, but it’s one of the bravest things a person can do. As a parent watching her firstborn wade through such a journey, I have been full of pride, worry, self-doubt about my prior lack of understanding and support as a parent, and joy as that grown child has begun to emerge on the other side in a much more peaceful, happy, self-assured place. It’s an ongoing journey, and my parental job of my gorgeous adult children is to assure them it won’t always be so stressful, and they are loved and cherished and I am here for them to the fullest extent possible.
When I started talking to my grown children this spring about their unexpected baby sibling on the way, it was a little weird for all of us. Since I had them so young (I was 21 when the eldest was born – the same age they are now), they have shaped my entire adulthood, and we all sort of grew up together.
The immediate protective instinct of the eldest toward the unborn sibling was: “Pick a gender-neutral first name, and don’t tell people the birth sex for the first couple years. Even when they don’t intend to, people will interact with the baby in gendered ways, and if it doesn’t fit for them it will lead to stress and confusion. It’s better to keep it as neutral as you can, and by the time they’re 4 or 5 they will begin to express their preferences.”
As Ricardo and I have taken these words to heart, and my fierce Momma Bear protectiveness of all my children has been in play, we have not shared the birth sex outside our immediate family.
At first we were only committed to this through the pregnancy, but now I want to keep it up for as long as we can. I have been grateful for the pandemic isolation and the greater ability to control the pressures that come my way. I have been to lunch with a friend once in the last 7 months, and the waitress squealed and asked: “Do you know if it’s a girl or a boy?” Nurses at my many doctor’s appointments ask. Other customers at the grocery store ask. And some beloved friends and family ask.
The asking is normal for our society. Other than: “When are you due?” it’s the only other major data point to discuss regarding the growing baby.
Even if folks claim they don’t have a preference one way or the other, though, whichever way I would answer would come with expectations attached. “Oh, it would be so good for Ricardo to have a girl since he already has a son.” “I’m hoping for a boy.” “I’m convinced you’re having a girl.”
I sometimes simply respond: “Oh, we’re de-emphasizing gender. We’re just so excited that, especially since we’re older, everything has been perfectly healthy – we were worried at first.” Sometimes I try to explain that it can be damaging to put too much pressure related to gender on kids, even ones that aren’t even born yet.
Sometimes the pressure is so intense I feel shaken and baffled, similar to the street harassment that would shake me from the world of thoughts by others who would impose their desires and perceptions on me, and I just don’t have the words – especially because in this case, people are well-meaning and don’t see what they’re doing.
We want to do what we can to make us all more aware of these unintended impacts.
Teasing small and growing children about boyfriends and girlfriends when they just want to innocently and wholesomely play with peers is not ok. “Are you going to marry so-and-so when you grow up?” A culture that offers hypersexualized Halloween costumes and dance classes for little girls is not ok. Limiting the range of emotions that are considered appropriate for little boys – such as crying when they’re injured or sad – is not ok. These kinds of cultural norms are so firmly and unhealthily ingrained in us, it’s tough to break the cycle.
We subconsciously encourage boys to be more active and give them greater physical freedom to be rough and tumble and take risks, while we subtly and overtly put pressure on little girls to be nurturing and more docile and pretty.
Our goals in parenting this little one include breaking these gendered approaches to child rearing. We can’t control the world around us, but we can place these expectations on those we love who will be around our baby in the early formative years. By us not revealing the birth sex for as long as we so choose, it will help you help us raise a healthy, well-balanced, inquisitive, bright child who is not so restrained by internalized gender norms.
Any time you find yourself consumed by curiosity about this, with our child or anybody else’s, ask yourself: why is it important for me to know? Regardless of whether we had a big, explosion PINK or BLUE announcement, you would be overjoyed for us, as long as we didn’t burn anything down in the reveal.
I encourage you to sit with any discomfort you feel in not knowing. Use it to think about the crushing weight of the gender binary, and think of how brave it is for those who are across the spectrums of gender identity and gender expression to buck the power of societal norms simply to be authentic – to be themselves. Think of the many teens and young adults who don’t fit neatly into male or female boxes, who are rejected by their families of origin, who end up homeless, who contemplate or attempt ending their precious lives. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among those aged 10 to 24, and 92% of transgender and nonbinary individuals report having attempted suicide before the age of 25.
We can’t protect any of our children from everything, but when you know better, you do better. We will try to give this child the most affirming start possible to life.
So, regarding the little one who will be with us soon, we will share the birth sex with a select few. If you hear the baby’s name, don’t assume M or F. We expect loved ones not to share this on social media, and we will trust them to interact with the kidlet in ways that focus on play, and inquisitiveness, and bravery, and joy, and healthy touch and snuggling and self-determination. There will be lots of color and laughter and freedom and gentleness in our home.
This is what we have all always deserved. Our birthright is supportive, responsive families and community and self-determination free of constructs that can be limiting and sometimes harmful.
We are bringing this baby into such a loving, wholesome, well-intentioned, beautiful community of people who share our excitement about this unexpected life blessing. We ask you to partner with us in creating a world that’s a little safer for all children to be who they authentically are.
I get that it’s a challenge. It certainly is for me. Among fielding all the questions, I won’t shop on baby websites that exclusively separate their goods by girl/boy, and the fact that there are so many like that is frustrating. It’s yet another symptom that our society is really, REALLY invested in the importance of birth sex. The pressure feels crushing for all the questions and funny looks that will come our way in the weeks, months, and years to come. But allowing this child to grow up in as much freedom as we can carve out for them is worth it.
Friends and family – always feel free to ask me questions in the DMs and I’ll respond with as much honesty as I have energy for. I invite you to challenge your own thinking around this, every time you have the overwhelming desire to know the birth sex of this or any baby. Why does it matter so much?
Love you all in our big community, and thank you for partnering with us to build a safer world.
A little more on this: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/01/parenting/non-binary-children-support.html