If you ever doubt that our society imposes gender roles on its inhabitants from birth and even before, try getting pregnant.
There are two questions people ask when they find out that my partner is pregnant. “What’s the due date?” is one—understandably, friends want to know when we’ll disappear from having social lives and/or turn into insufferable people who only ever want to talk about their baby. (I am not saying every new parent does this, but we definitely will.)
The second question is “Do you know the gender yet?” It’s a strange question to me, one that throws me every time I hear it. As a feminist with many trans loved ones and a genderqueer partner, I tend to move in circles where people don’t assume that genitals predict gender; I prefer not to make assumptions about a person’s gender until the person in question tells me. But of course, it will be a long time before our child, who is currently a 22-week fetus, is capable of articulating his or her internal sense of gender.
We do, indeed, know the sex of our unborn child (and it happens to be one of the two most popular, though by no means the only two available). But we’re keeping it a secret until the baby is born. Why? Well, if you ever doubt that our society imposes gender roles on its inhabitants from birth and even before, try getting pregnant. There is no such thing as life before gender.
Expecting a baby is weird. They’re physically present—I can feel our child kicking sometimes when I put a hand on my partner’s stomach—yet we don’t know anything about them. Like many soon-to-be parents, we feel a deep desire to grasp at any information that could potentially tell us anything about this person who will soon become such a huge part of our lives.
Thinking that we know our child’s gender is a way to begin to establish some concept of them as a person we’ll soon meet, rather than an amorphous blob of possibilities. When we found out the sex of our baby, he/she suddenly felt more real to me. I stopped saying “they” or “it” or “the baby” and started using the gender pronoun most closely associated with our child’s sex, and it makes this fetus feel like a person that I’m starting to know, to understand just the littlest bit.
It also makes me sad, in some small and ineffable way. I don’t think this is what’s described as “gender disappointment”—I don’t wish our child was a different sex, though I’m open to the possibility that he/she won’t be the gender we assume. It’s just that, before I found out, I could see two potential paths open before me, the path where we have a baby boy and the path where we have a baby girl, and upon learning the sex, one of those paths (which never really existed) disappeared. But when I step back and examine that reaction, it bothers me to realize that I would envision distinct paths for my child based on genitals and chromosomes. Why am I closing off possibilities for this tiny life that isn’t born yet, based entirely on a social construct that I don’t even particularly believe in?
Look, we’re not going to be totally weird about this. Until our child is old enough to express an opinion on the subject, we’ll treat them as though they are the gender that matches their sex, since that’s the assumption most likely to be correct. Neglecting to teach our child that gender exists, or that people will make assumptions about theirs, would only leave them unprepared to navigate the world.
At the same time, our child will learn from a young age that sex and gender are two different things. They’ll grow up in a household of queer feminists, with a mother to whom they have no biological relationship and a father who gave birth to them. We’re going to do everything in our power to teach our child that neither sex nor gender determines the trajectory of their life.
Shopping for baby clothes, you realize almost immediately that the gender neutral options are paltry. Everything is gendered—not just outfits, but even things like crib sheets and pacifier holders. Girls get birds and butterflies; boys get sharks and lions. Girls get “Little Princess.” Boys get “Tough Guy in Training.” Anyone who thinks there are innate gendered differences in children that predate socialization isn’t paying attention. Nothing predates gendered socialization.
The other day at a bookstore, Charlie and I found a royal blue onesie with the cover of Le Petit Prince on it. It’s one of my favorite children’s books and our baby will be raised on it, so we snapped it up—in fact, it was the first piece of clothing we bought for our child. I posted a photo of Charlie holding it up to his belly on Facebook. People took it as a gender reveal. “Congratulations on the boy!” poured in. I was baffled. Do you think that if I had a baby girl I wouldn’t dress her in a blue onesie with a classic book cover on it? GUYS. I WOULD TOTALLY DO THAT. I love blue! And I love pink! And I resent the implication that I will restrict my child’s access to one of those awesome colors based on nothing more than physical characteristics.
I don’t want to close off potential for my child, not even in service to my own insatiable need to know more about this person who will be such a huge part of my world so soon. Neither my child’s sex nor gender will determine who they are and what they’re allowed to do—maybe that’s naïve of me to think, but I want to keep it that way for as long as possible.
Lindsay King-Miller is a queer writer who lives in Denver with her partner, an ever-growing collection of books, and a very spoiled cat. Her first book will be published by Plume in early 2016.