This article originally appeared on The Good Men Project. Republished here with permission.
Sarah Buttenwieser reminds us that you don’t have to purchase gender at the clothing or toy store–or as seen on TV.
Practically from the moment I let anyone know I was pregnant with my first child—now 16—the very first question seemed to be: Do you know what you’re having?
How did I know? “Kittens?” I’d answer. That’s what it felt like, at least. I worried about the sole ultrasound foisted upon me; I certainly was not going to peek. I wanted healthy; I wanted baby.
The clothing manufacturers wanted to know. In almost every store, even the baby clothes were sorted fairly strictly by gender. We were living in London at the time, and there were a couple of notable exceptions. I could buy sturdy white underclothing and sturdy white, footed pajamas at Mothercare and in a tiny and pricey store in my neighborhood were some sweet clothing that wasn’t sorted by gender. I remember still choosing a strawberry sweater and charcoal grey jacket with a red embroidered heart for my kitten.
And many people in my orbit wanted to know, telling me the impending baby’s gender would inform their gift choices, my nursery design and how I’d choose gear, such as a stroller. I chose a purple jogging stroller, because I liked it the best. I put the baby in a periwinkle room. I told them to get what they wanted to get.
The little boy arrived looking nothing at all like a kitten. He had giant eyes that turned green and surprisingly thick eyelashes and eyebrows, which made him appear owlish and much more developed than newborns with faint eyebrows. He was also petite. And thus, he was pretty.
Pretty + boy throws people for a loop, I’m telling you, even pretty baby boys seem to confuse people and especially pretty baby boys in purple strollers and purple jackets.
Quoting a stranger (female): “He can’t be a boy. He is much too pretty! Those eyelashes are so long I want to steal them.”
I almost asked her: wouldn’t the world have been a lesser place without Paul Newman?
That boy, now an impossible-to-rouse tenth grader deeply mired in the world of theater tech was, as a toddler, as uninterested in things with wheels than anyone you’ve ever met. He was and is a lover of books. He was a lover of all things Alice in Wonderland and Wizard of Oz (now, Sondheim) and he did, when small, covet the twirling powers of dresses and the beauty of ballet.
He never wished to be a girl. Also, I never wished for him to be a girl.
That marketers are even keener on this question a decade and a half later is, to me, a big problem. The more gender is packaged as a commodity, the harder it becomes to deviate from the “norm.”
A decade and a half later, there are three boys and one girl in my family. The two teenage boys have shaggy hair; the younger teen loves karate and cooking. The next boy, aged nine, has hair all the way down his back—and his three year-old-sister has hair all the way down her back. That boy loves soccer, skiing, chess and knitting. The littlest one, the sister, does favor pink, purple, bling and twirl. She also likes to play with trucks and kick balls and climb practically anything and anyone.
Often, people ask me—actually one of those questions posed that they have decided they know the answer to—whether it’s different having a girl after three boys. Truth is, I have no idea. Each of my kids is so very different from the other. I am not sure I can place the deciding factor for this upon gender; in fact, I’m pretty confident I cannot. Why did that first boy eschew all things with wheels? Why did the second one covet construction trucks? That first boy blasted all those boys-have-a-hidden-transportation-gene theories to shreds. Mine didn’t. Boys are so rough and tumble I am told. My girl is as rough and tumble as they get; she was also the hitter and biter toddler my boys never were. It’s like a big case of go figure in my household.
The message for me is not so much that we have to “know” gender; it’s that we don’t. More so, we don’t have to buy into gender—and certainly not intensive marketing to create false assurances and unfair expectations about it. We could let everyone be everyone or even kittens, and perhaps in purple.
Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser plans to be an emerging writer for a very long time (because emerging is more interesting). Her work has appeared in various anthologies, most recently Shari MacDonald Strong’s The Maternal is Political. A frequent contributor to the Daily Hampshire Gazette, she’s also written for newspapers further afield such as the Philadelphia Inquirer, Newsday, the Tennessean and USA Today. Essays and book reviews are posted on Mothers Movement Online and Literary Mama and mamazine and Brain, Child magazine. She resides in Northampton, Massachusetts, with her husband and four children (teen to toddler).