From getting “Sirred” to getting “Mom’d”

Ever since I cut my hair short – almost ten years ago, I have become accustomed to regularly being addressed as “sir” by the vast majority of strangers I encounter. It’s partly because of how I dress (and the fact that I do not, and have not ever, had boobs of any noticeable size), but mostly, I think it’s the hair. I don’t mind being “sirred” most of the time – as someone who claims a genderqueer identity, I don’t tend to enjoy being referred to as “lady” or “ma’am” – so given the choices, “sir” is not the worst thing. It’s awkward on occasion – usually more so for the folks with me, or for whoever’s doing the “sirring,” than it is for me. I don’t love awkwardness, but again, it’s not the worst thing.

What I didn’t realize, is that not only is being sirred not the worst thing, I think part of me really likes it. I came to this realization during the near eleven months I recently spent as a stay-at-home parent, during which time I was not sirred a single time. As long as I was with the baby, everywhere I went, I was “mom’d.”

We are not planning for our baby to call me “mom” – we’ve been referring to me as “papa” (read more about that here). But it’s not the fact that folks are calling me “mom” when I don’t claim that title that throws me off – there’s no way people would know I prefer “papa” if I don’t say so and there’s no need to have that conversation with every grocery store clerk on the planet. Rather, I’m feeling thrown off by the draIMG_4605 - Version 2matic shift in how I’m being read. I’ve gone from being predominantly read as masculine in public to being predominantly read as feminine. It’s jarring, in part because it has changed how people treat me, and in part because I completely didn’t expect it. Perhaps I’m naive to have been surprised, but since nothing about my appearance or expression changed – hair, clothes, mannerisms – save for having an infant strapped to my chest most of the time, I assumed people would still read me as masculine, as they always had.

Because I was frequently read as a very young man in the past (young enough that perhaps nobody would expect me to have a kid), the fact that I now frequently have a baby in tow leads to the immediate conclusion: Mom/woman. In the past people either confidently addressed me as sir, or hesitated and waffled back and forth between “ma’m” and “sir” as they tried to figure me out. What’s fascinating to me now is that there is absolutely no hesitation when I’m with the baby. I am “mom’d” without question every time. The truth is, people still don’t expect to see men or boys with children. I think it’s also possible that people don’t expect to see queer and genderqueer folks with children either. Perhaps people now see the baby in my arms, or the stroller, or the diaper bag over my shoulder, and don’t see anything else.

It’s been an uncomfortable shift, as I feel less comfortable with the title “mom” than with “sir,” though neither is really right. This shift in perception has also illuminated the limitations of the gender binary in ways I hadn’t considered before becoming a parent. Before, I was “sir.” Now, I am “mom.” As a queer-identified person, I am invisible either way.

This blog entry is cross-posted at Queeringtheline.com.

Sumner’s non-sequitur board book review: Little Owl Lost by Chris Haughton

My baby loves owls (an affinity orchestrated by my partner who hung three little canvass prints of ridiculously adorable, brightly-colored cartoon owls with enormous eyes over her crib), which is why this book originally caught my eye at the library. I would have checked it out just because of the owls. But in the end, it’s Squirrel who steals the show. Never has a children’s book had an ending so perfect as this one.

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SPOILER ALERT. I’m gonna tell you how it ends.

The story opens with Mommy Owl and Little Owl asleep in their nest. Little Owl leans a bit too far over the edge and tumbles out. LO falls to the forest floor, where we meet Squirrel. LO is not hurt, but is rather lost, and asks Squirrel where Mommy Owl could be. The two embark on a search for Mommy Owl, which follows a trajectory not unlike the P.D. Eastman classic Are You My Mother? In the end, they meet Frog (mistaken for Little Owl’s mommy by Squirrel because they both have “BIG eyes,” as described by LO). Frog leads them all to Mommy Owl, who has been frantically searching for LO. She thanks Frog and Squirrel for finding her baby.

And then (here’s where the story just makes you want to die of cute), almost randomly, Mommy Owl asks if everyone wants to come up to their nest for cookies. “Yes, please,” says Squirrel. And here’s the clincher – the most perfect line ever uttered by a neon pink, talking woodland creature: “Cookies are our favorite thing.” 

The End (Basically. I’m not going to give the WHOLE story away).

So, to sum up, cute owls, cute forest animals, funny dialogue, suspense, emotional family reunion, brilliant ending involving baked goods. Best book ever. Go check it out.

Passive-Aggressive Exhausted Parent Communication: A Translation Guide

As follows are a handful of seemingly benign questions and phrases commonly employed by parents (typically directed at their child(ren)’s fellow parent(s)) when they are exhausted and possibly experiencing a critical deficit of caffeine or calories. Or both. Accompanying each “thoughtful” question or phrase is a handy translation of what your spouse/partner/co-parent actually means. It’s recommended that you keep this guide on your person at all times for use as a quick reference when attempting to pick a fight and/or for the purposes of general moral superiority.

I would also like to note, for the sake of marital harmony, that I am guilty of all of the following about 67 times per day…

1. Commonly used phrase: “Where’s the (insert critically-needed object – for example: pacifier, wipes, diaper bag, keys, phone charger, burp cloth)?”

What your spouse/partner/co-parent really means: “Where did you put (insert critically-needed object) and why is it not where I thought it was and why can’t you read my mind and understand why I need (insert critically-needed object) at THIS EXACT MOMENT RIGHT NOW IMMEDIATELY?”

Note: This question is typically yelled rather than spoken, over a cacophony of baby screaming.

2. Commonly used phrase: “Do you need some help?” (Often accompanied by a hefty sigh).

What your spouse/partner/co-parent really means: “Seriously, what the f—k are you doing and why is it taking so f—king long?”

Note: Tone is important here, as sometimes spouses/partners/co-parents are genuinely interested in offering assistance. However, when the questioner comes across sounding completely exasperated and as if they are in an utterly un-helpful mood, and/or are standing by the door juggling keys, baby, bags, and a cup of coffee yet to be consumed, see above re: “WTF are you doing.”

3. Commonly used phrase: “I don’t know about that idea…” (or alternatively, “Can we think about this a little more?”).

What your spouse/partner/co-parent really means: “I sure as f–k don’t want to do that.”

Note: If the spouse/partner/co-parent on the receiving end of this phrase/question is also sleep-deprived, experiencing low blood sugar, and/or generally irritated by anything else, this one will frequently be interpreted as “That’s the worst idea I’ve ever heard, and so is every other idea you’ve ever had ever.” Be prepared.

“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.”

These Washcloths Are For Girls

Impending parenthood brings with it all manner of anxiety and challenges, but also fun things– like picking out baby stuff. I was fully prepared for the gender apartheid I knew we would encounter in the baby clothes department, but I was caught off guard by the extent to which this boy/girl segregation has bled into pretty much every facet of baby gear production. I’m not saying there aren’t any “gender neutral” options out there (whatever the heck that means to people – I might need a whole series of posts to unpack the notion of “gender neutral”), but you name the baby item, there’s a “girl” version and a “boy” version. Thinking and writing as much about the gender binary as I do, it was probably naive of me to have been surprised by this. And yet.

In the end, it was the washcloths I couldn’t get over. The most mundane things can also be the most absurd. My partner was setting up our baby registry and as we were scrolling through the pink and blue car seats and the onesies with frills for girls or “tuff guy” printed on them for boys, we came across the baby bath items. And there they were: one set of infant washcloths for girls and a separate set for boys. What distinguished the “girl” and “boy” washcloths from one another I could not even begin to explain to you. They were both polka dot patterned and that’s about all I could tell you. Why two sets of washcloths? Part of it is definitely about money. It’s the baby gender industrial complex out here. If all the baby gear comes in boy versions and girl versions, the likelihood that parents to whom that stuff matters might not reuse as much stuff and will buy more if they have a male and a female child is higher.

Money matters. But there is also an unbelievable amount of social and cultural energy focused on identifying infants as male or female, or more specifically, marking infants in ways that communicate to the world at large – namely, strangers, of course – that the child is a boy or a girl. I’m not completely sure where this anxiety comes from. On the one hand, binary gender is about power. Clear distinctions between men and women serve to maintain power for those who benefit from a system in which gender is still significant in determining people’s life chances. But the fact that the gender binary reinforces the patriarchal elements of our culture isn’t new. That’s always been true. There has not, however, always been such social anxiety around infant gender. Both male and female infants once wore dresses. I was born in the 1980s, before the “pink princess” phenomenon really took off. There were definitely differences between what boys and girls wore when I was small, but I don’t remember there being such distinctions in everything else – like strollers, car seats, crib sheets, etc… like there are now. I’m not sure what it is about the cultural moment that we’re in that leads us to embrace the idea that boy and girl babies can’t use the same washcloths, or that leads strangers to believe they’re entitled to know the sex of other people’s kids at passing glance, but it’s the moment we’re in. I’m hoping I can keep as much of this stuff out of our kid’s life for as long as possible, though I know that will be difficult. Perhaps we’ll start with a revolution at bathtime. Washcloths for everyone.