Wednesday, March 02, 2016

yay, it’s a they! (some thoughts on gender-neutral parenting)

Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time in internet groups devoted to progressive parenting. Sometimes I read and post comments when I should be actually parenting. Hi, irony.

I’ve encountered a couple of moms who are raising their babies gender-neutral. I don’t mean that they dress their kids in yellow and let them play with whatever toys they like (spoons, ballpoint pens and live animals, in Dash’s case). I mean these families have avoided telling anyone whether their children are boys or girls, and they use the pronoun “they” instead of “he” or “she.”

This white onesie is a completely non-gendered blank slate on which to smear bananas.
My first response was to quietly roll my eyes. Why? Because it seemed straight out of Portlandia? Because it seemed like a parenting project you would undertake only if you’d run out of regular projects, like feeding “them”? Because it seemed hopelessly contrarian and slightly immature?

It does touch all those nerves for me, although I have to call myself out on the “some people have real problems” argument, which is always a weak one. But I think the real reason I question the wisdom of eschewing pronouns for your baby is this: It seems like it’s not about the baby.

When a kid starts asserting a gender—male, female, David Bowie, whatever—more power to ‘em. If Dash announced tomorrow that he wanted to be Dasha, I would be on board because 1) I like the name Dasha for a girl and 2) I’d be really impressed that a 13-month-old had such a big vocabulary and deep sense of self.

What he actually asserted: "Ppppprrrrpp aaayyyiii."
But before a child is even verbal, what is there to gain? I posed this question to a mom who was raising gender-neutral twins, and she said the point was to avoid all the gender-based projections that society hurls at kids, not to mention the pink ovens and monster trucks and onesies that say things like “I don’t need a prince, I have Daddy” or “Lock up your daughters!”*

I get that. I read a long time ago that baby boys and baby girls smile equally, but by kindergarten girls smile way more, mostly because of how we respond, encouraging girls to by sweet and flirty and boys to be stoic. It kind of broke my heart. I smile at Dash all the time, which is not a hard thing to do. So far he’s pretty smiley in return.

Yet, if you live in this world and take a big gender-neutrality stand every time someone asks whether your baby is a boy or girl (and they were probably just making small talk anyway), there has to be some part of you that enjoys the feeling of a soapbox beneath your feet. Right? Or maybe you were genuinely hurt by the gender expectations placed on you as a small child (although, again, probably not as an infant). Either way, it’s about you.

Guy Smiley.
My parenting choices are, of course, hopelessly about me. But my goal, as I’ve mentioned before, is Dash-centered parenting. Personally, I feel like he will be better off if I devote my energy to trying to read him—his likes, dislikes and ultimately his identity—than if I chart a rigid course for him, even one that rigidly rejects gender rigidity.

I can’t say for sure yet that he will definitively embrace a male identity. I can say that he really embraces Cheerios, grapes, dogs, cats, balls, electric toothbrushes, the buttons on the DVD player, saying “bye,” and the books Sleepy Kitty and The Biggest Kiss. I want to just keep paying attention.

Do frogs like to kiss? Or do frogs engage in sex work as a completely valid career choice?
It’s not remotely fair to presume that the parents raising their kids without pronouns aren’t attuned to their children. They’re obviously devoted parents, and that’s what counts most toward raising kids who aren’t too fucked up. Yet I think about the gender-neutral choice the way I would about parents who were raising kids in a particular religion: I’m wary of meta-narratives, but the harm will probably be minimal at worst.

It also seems relevant, if not exactly scientific, to note that both gender-neutral-parenting moms I encountered were cis women partnered with cis men (I think), and all of the gay, gender-queer and trans parents I know have been like “Yay, it’s a girl!” or “Yay, it’s a boy!” re: their own kids. They might let their sons’ hair grow long and they definitely let their girls be as rough-and-tumble as they want to be, but I suspect that life experience has made them a bit less precious around the idea of gender. Gender isn’t a tightrope to be walked so much as a baton to be twirled and tossed.

Feelin' free to fuck with gender.

*These onesies actually exist. They are the topic of approximately 47 percent of conversations in my progressive parenting groups.

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