“Such a Handsome Boy” and Other Tales of Parenting in the Gender Binary

It’s Christmas 2013. My partner and I announce that she’s pregnant. One of her cousins asks if we know what our sperm donor does for a living. My partner says she’s not sure. He’s a student, we think. Why? we ask. We assume her cousin is just curious. He grins at us. “Because if the guy’s a construction worker,” he says, “I think the baby will be a boy.” We look blankly at him. “Uh…” my partner starts to say. The cousin continues, “And if he’s an interior designer, it’ll be a girl.” The cousin is a social worker. He has two sons.

It’s summer 2014. Our baby is born. We are thrilled. When we move to the recovery room, she’s wrapped in a hospital receiving blanket and wears a blue and pink cotton hat. The hospital gives us diapers and Disney Cars-themed baby wipes. While I’m asleep, the recovery nurse brings us a new hat and new wipes for the baby. She hands them to my partner. The wipes are princess-themed (for the “princess”). The hat is just like the hat the baby already has except this one has a bow. So people know she’s a girl. The nurse smiles. She tells my partner she had to look hard for that hat and she’s so glad she found it. “Thanks,” my spouse says and wishes I were awake so she could see the look on my face.

There’s a noticeable shift in the presents people send. No more yellow. No more “neutral.” All pink. It’s like a pink explosion at our house. If it’s not pink, it has frills or ruffles or lace (or leopard print – my god, the leopard print), or it’s a dress. We mix and match the outfits. Pink socks with blue onesie. Navy hoodie with polka-dot tights. She’s cute in everything we put her in. We think we’re immune to the “pink princess” pressure. We make sure to tell her she’s smart and strong and brave. Still, the first time we put her in a dress, we can’t believe how adorable she looks.

It’s August. Our baby is three weeks old. We take her to a pro women’s soccer game. I wear her in our Moby wrap. At halftime, I pace the perimeter of the stadium to soothe her to sleep. A woman falls in step next to me and comments on how tiny she is, how brave I am to bring her here, and what a good baby she is. I laugh and tell the woman that although this is her first “earthside” game, she attended many a game in utero. The woman smiles, “When you were pregnant with her?” I’m startled. “Oh no, not me,” I say, “My partner gave birth to her.”

It’s fall. Our baby is two months old. We take her to the library. She’s wearing a gray onesie and pink pants. She has socks on that are made to look like black Mary Jane shoes over pink striped tights. A woman at the library chats with my partner and coos at the baby. She asks my partner if the baby is a boy. No, my spouse says. “Well, you’ve got her dressed in boy’s clothes,” the woman says. She’s wearing pink pants. Mary Jane socks. My partner looks confused. The woman tells her it’s the pants. Girl babies only wear dresses.

Our baby is still two months old. We take her to Home Depot. This time she’s wearing orange. And black leg warmers with little bright-colored monsters on them. I change her at the diaper station in the women’s restroom and a female employee goes on and on about how cute “he” is. “Such a handsome boy,” she says, and smiles approvingly at me. “Thank you,” I say. I don’t correct her.

A Modern Day Barn-raising

At the end of July, my partner gave birth. Three weeks prior, we’d closed on a house and moved all of our stuff to the new place. Moving is hard enough as it is, but moving in Washington, DC in the summer (which is the only time we ever seem to move…) is a special kind of awful. Though this has been a ridiculously mild summer by DC standards, the week we moved temperatures were in the high 90s and the humidity was out of control. The day we moved had to have been one of the hottest days of the year – the heat index easily topped 100 degrees. We had movers, so I can’t complain much about the actual moving of most of our stuff, but my wife was nearly 9 months pregnant at the time and the task of packing and unpacking a house seemed impossibly overwhelming.

We needed help and without fail, help came out of the woodwork. My partner’s parents arrived a few weeks before our move to help us pack – a godsend. One friend came to our house the night before the move and helped me take apart our bed and the crib we had already put together before we’d realized we’d be moving. Two other friends came to our old place and helped me move out old furniture we weren’t keeping, and then they hauled it all away to the thrift store for us. And the weekend after we moved in, six friends descended upon our new house and unpacked boxes, cleaned, set up our kitchen, put together furniture and generally provided much-needed support, and relief from the immense stress we were feeling. As our house bustled with people on a mission and a steady stream of food and drink, it occurred to me that what we were doing was not unlike a barn-raising might have been some many years ago. Friends and neighbors gathered together to help a small family quickly accomplish a task that would be unmanageable – maybe impossible – alone. A modern day barn-raising, I thought to myself. Given our Midwestern roots and my love of vegetable growing, it seemed fitting.

A few weeks later, our baby arrived and as my partner slowly recovered from the rather difficult birth, help continued to arrive. One of the friends who had helped us unpack texted us one evening that she wanted to bring us some food her sister-in-law had made us. People are so nice, we said. We were touched. It takes a village, our friend texted back. It sounds cliché, but it’s true. It always takes a whole community to raise a child – children need exposure to many different kinds of people, experiences, and ideas. But it literally takes a village those first few weeks – recovering from delivery, adjusting to sporadic sleep (or no sleep, which was basically my partner’s experience for the first week), trying to keep a household running, cats fed, and a new baby alive and thriving. Like most new parents, we would have been lost without the people who helped us those days. Now that we’re a month in, rounding the corner on (a little less) sleep deprivation and (a little more) energy, it’s a good feeling to look back and know we made it through in large part due to the loving support of our community. It’s also a good feeling to look forward and know our kid will grow up in that community – a lot of good, solid folks who know a thing or two about building barns. So to speak.

Gender Essentialism with the Ultrasound Tech

Gender essentialism is the idea that the traits we typically associate with femininity or masculinity are in fact innate (or essential, hence the name) to being female or male, respectively, rather than socially conditioned behavior. Shocker – I find this concept irritating. Unfortunately, babies and babies-to-be seem to elicit an astonishing degree of gender essentialist commentary – mainly from strangers, and particularly from medical professionals. My partner and I aren’t planning to find out the sex of our baby before it’s born. While our midwives have largely steered clear of the baby gender guessing games, most of the nurses and ultrasound techs we’ve encountered on this journey can’t seem to help themselves.

We recently had an ultrasound during which we learned our baby has hair. We were rather tickled to discover this, and surprised that hair can be seen via ultrasound (it’s so weird!). The ultrasound tech told us the hair was mostly around the back of the baby’s head – kind of like male-pattern baldness – the typical newborn monk look.

“So,” the tech said, “If it’s a girl, she probably won’t be very happy about that.”

I’m sorry, what?

Later on, she tried to get a picture of the baby’s face. The baby was turned towards my partner’s back, so this was a difficult task. At many of our ultrasound appointments, “Itty-bitty” (baby’s current nickname) has been either facing away from the ultrasound wand or covering its face with its hands. We joke that Itty-bitty is camera shy. After a few minutes of trying to find the face, I started chuckling and said to the tech,

“Itty bitty says ‘no pictures please!’”

The tech chuckled back and responded, “Well, it must be a girl, then.”

I know it’s light-hearted. I know people mean well. I know it’s supposed to be silly. I know. And I’m sure that plenty of folks smile at comments like that. I know lots of people do imagine little baby girl princesses and little baby boy super heroes. People are emotionally invested in baby gender. People are emotionally invested in the binary. I know. But can’t people also take a look at my partner and I and the fact that we are plainly queer and both gender non-conforming in our own ways and think, this might not be the right audience for this kind of joke?

People say these things so casually like it’s not remotely offensive or problematic to suggest that if a child is female, her biggest concern will be her appearance. The stakes are so high that I have a hard time stomaching it. We know that adolescent girls struggle with self-esteem, self-image, depression, healthy eating… We know that adolescent boys struggle with profound pressure to be “manly,” to not show emotion, to command their physical space in ways that may ultimately lead them to violence. Do we really have to wonder how and why this happens if we say these things about our children before they’re even born? What seems silly and light-hearted when they’re babies has a tremendous effect later on when boys become men who have learned their primary value lies in strength and stoicism and when girls become women who have learned their value is in their looks and not their minds.

I’m so bad at coming up with smart, direct responses to stuff like this on the spot, but I hope that next time I can remember to say something like, “if our kid is a girl, I hope she’ll be too wrapped up in chasing bugs and reading books to worry about her hair.”