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.”

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Absum

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As many of you (who know me in real life) know, my dog died last week. Ladybug was my girl for seven years. I was 22, barely an adult, it seems, when she came into my life. It’s been a very hard 2014 for me, mostly from stuff I haven’t been able to share, and Ladybug’s death has been the last thing I can handle. I’m hoping to get back to blogging—I have so much to say!–but right now I have to learn how to take care of myself.

So love to you all, take care of yourselves and your families, humanoid and non-humanoid alike. And here’s a picture of the dog we called the mother of all things, so, so sorely missed.

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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.

The Things That Spring Uncovers

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I pry the skull from my dog’s frenzied jaw. The old bone is yellow and the smell of rancid death still clings to it, though it is mostly clean now. I wonder how it died, how it came to be so clean under mounds of Wisconsin snow and record-cold temperatures. The things that spring brings up.

I carry it home in the poop-scoop. This is the second time she’d tried to claim the skull, and it’s unlikely to be the last unless I move it. Picking it up is neighborly, right? I’m sure the elderly couple whose yard the squirrel died in don’t have any particular attachment to it. And I’m saving all the other dog-owners in the area from having to pry little skulls from their dog’s maws.

It reminds me of a Georgia O’Keefe painting, although I think O’Keefe dealt in animals more romantic than gray squirrels. But there’s something to the slope of front teeth and the jagged edge of back teeth, and the way it’s just the top of the skull. The jaw has disappeared. Maybe a dog ate it.

 

Spring forces this up.

 

The smell of blood and road salt. My son was born in spring. The tulips heralded his first cry. His first full day of life, we stood outside in the sunlight with relatives, and his tiny, red fists senselessly battered the warm, not hot, air. I remember the smell of breastmilk mingling with the smell of lilacs, and the smell of the birthing tub. Spring things.

Now he is older, and like the little skull, he fights the frozen ground and still-present mounds of dirty snow for purchase. He races outside in the sunlight, heedless of frozen fingers and cheeks, to chalk sea monsters and spindly flowers on the patio. He blows bubbles, as if it were summer already. So impatient. He’s done with spring before the snowdrops even showed up. But maybe that’s the most spring-like thing of all.

 

The smell of blood, in water, in spring.

 

Spring brings these things up, frozen as they were, buried under mulch and rocks. Spring pushes them forth, yellowed skulls and the impatience of children.

 

Blood, in water, in a springtime breeze.

 

He was born at home. I gave birth to him. We don’t talk about that anymore. I don’t. I don’t have words, I lack purchase. I’m slipping on dirty mounds of ice and snow, the scent of blood and water and birth is in my nose, and I’m okay, I’m okay, I’m okay, I’m just falling.

 

And it’s springtime. And springtime pushes these things up.

photo credit: jacilluch via photopin cc

What’s in a Name?

My partner is pregnant and due this July.  We’re excited and nervous, and like any new parents, we have a lot of questions.  We’ve got most of the basics covered, but we also have a question that seems to be increasingly common among masculine-identified female queer parents.  What to be called?  We likely appear to most folks as a run-of-the-mill lesbian couple.  Many people probably assume that when the baby arrives, we’ll both be moms.  While we have yet to come to a final decision on my parental moniker, we do know one thing.  I won’t be “Mom.”  Or “Mama” or “Ma” or any other variation thereof.  “Baba” is now in vogue among lesbian couples, and we’ve talked about whether or not we like it.  On the one hand, “Baba” means father or daddy in Kiswahili (and about a bazillion other languages…  except for the ones where it means grandma), and I speak a little Kiswahili, so it feels somewhat familiar.  But it’s also the way lots of English-speaking babies say “bottle” or “blanket” (or possibly “Barbara,” which is my partner’s name), and we’re having trouble shaking these other associations. “Dad” or “daddy” are in the running, and in reality, we may just default to those for ease’s sake, but most days, we imagine our child calling me “Papa.”  It’s what our cats “call” me (yep, we’re those people), and we both already like it.  But using the name “Papa” for a female parent brings up yet another set of questions that I’ve been contending with of late.

Our culture is rife with situations that draw a hard line between maleness and femaleness, masculinity and femininity.  There are moments when the gender binary – namely, the notion that there are only two sexes and two corresponding genders and that these categories are completely distinct and exclusive from one another – is quieter, fading into the background of our social interactions.  There are other times when the binary forcefully rears its head, making many of us think that there are no alternatives.  Parenting is one of those latter cultural moments.  Social mores lead us to believe that parents come in two flavors only – fathers and mothers.  Moreover, although many people understand that the activities and traits ascribed to motherhood and fatherhood can be flexible (i.e., that fathers can cook dinner or be stay-at-home parents and mothers can throw a football or be breadwinners), the idea that mothers are women and fathers are men is decidedly more fixed in our culture.  These identities are so ingrained that even within some LGBT communities, the notion of gender-segregated parent identities persists with vigor.

As much as I hate to admit it, I worry what other people will think or how they’ll react to the idea of me being a “Papa” or whatever I end up choosing to be called. My partner is awesome at reminding me that none of that matters, but I still fret all the same because once we’re parents – and especially once our kid is walking and talking and sharing all manner of our personal business with strangers in the grocery checkout line – I have to live this reality publicly, even if it’s the right one, and sometimes the publicly lived realities of trans and gender queer people are stressful or awkward or even scary.  For instance, I imagine the following likely scenario: Our kid is preschool age and we’re out in public.  Some well-meaning stranger refers to me as the child’s mother and the child (out of indignation, pride, or just general confusion that this person can’t plainly see that I am not the child’s mother) loudly proclaims, “That’s not my mom.  She’s my papa!” I shared this anxiety with my partner who rather unhelpfully pointed out that most people probably won’t mistake me for our child’s mom but will more likely mistake me for our child’s brother.  Awesome.  Thanks.

In truth, though, we’ve spent some time thinking about how we would respond to such an incident were it to occur not in our own neighborhood but, say, at an interstate rest stop in rural Ohio, or a restaurant in Virginia, or some other location where we are likely to find ourselves at some point and where we might hesitate to affirm my identity and our family, not out of awkwardness, but for fear of our emotional or physical safety.  A veteran queer parent whose partner feels similarly to me pointed out that if someone asks if I’m our child’s mom, I can always respond by saying, “I’m the parent.”  Because really, most people are just curious about babies and most people are well meaning and kind, but even so all the intimate details of our family are also not most people’s business.

I am trying to settle into and embrace the knowledge that queer families are remaking a heteronormative world in their own image.  We are remaking what it means to be spouses, lovers, parents, mothers, fathers, men, women, or creating new identities altogether.  I hope this extends into my child’s life as well.  This is what excites me most about parenthood – creating a family is like creating a new world that we will in turn share with the people we encounter.  People might not get it.  They might say hurtful things.  This is another lesson my children will learn – perhaps earlier than others.  I hope they will see that love is stronger than any obstacle we face.

Sumner McRae is new to the Queer Dads blogging team as of March 2014.  She also writes about the gender binary at queeringtheline.com.

Beautiful Weekend in Prarie Dog Town

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Yesterday the three of us went to Prairie du Chein to visit family, and Jetpack jumped in every puddle and covered himself in mud. We went to Pizza Hut and Jetpack climbed in a tree and greeted every child going to a birthday party there. And then we went to Cabela’s and Jetpack schooled a group of adults and children on the different kinds of sportfish that they had in the display aquariums.

Prairie du Chein is kind of adorable, in a run-down rural Wisconsin town way. It sits at the edge of the Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers. The terrain is wonderfully jagged with hills and bluffs and rocky outcroppings, and trains fly through the area several times a day. There’s a lot of very old, lovely brick buildings. Prairie du Chein was, once upon a time, a very important town in the fur trade business, and it has that lovely, dated feeling. Though we were only in town for a little while, I think we plan on trying to stay for longer, next time.

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It’s always a little strange to be the “gay” family in a rural midwestern town. Being white, and male, and cis-appearing, we don’t feel unsafe–just on display. We’re out of our comfort zone but not out of safety. (Rest in Power, the both of you. My heart goes out to your family and your child and your friends.)

And Jetpack, oh Jetpack. He’s quite a kid to have around when you’re an awkward introvert, let me tell you. He still patiently and happily explains that he has no mom to anyone who makes that mistake. And it’s sometimes odd to see that mistake happen—for example, when we’re at Costco and he runs up to get a food sample. The clerk says “make sure to ask your mom” even as I’m standing there with him. That’s not a case of misgendering—it’s merely that the cultural narrative is of mom as the primary caregiver. That a kid would be out with their dad is beyond the scope of how a lot of people understand the world. This hurts moms—we expect mom to take care of the kids, so their contributions aren’t valued— and dads—we expect dad to NOT care, and if they do, we’re treated like special snowflakes.

When you have two dads, those special snowflake moments are even bigger. When we were in Prairie, for example, we received a lot of very broad smiles. While it was the midwest and all, I’m pretty sure some of it has to do with being a pair of unicorns and a precocious, adorable kid.

But it was a beautiful weekend. It made the shit-sandwich of this week so far–The Mister has extra work to do, I’ve got a second-hand-smoke induced cold, Jetpack was made fun of AGAIN at preschool–a little easier to bear. Horray for sunshine, and greasy pizza, and my cute kid. I hope your weekend was lovely, reader. Feel free to share in the comments!

Princess Movies

 Like a invasive bug in your home. Kids bring it home from preschool, like lice. There’s no chemical treatment, no nit comb. No definitive recovery.

Negative gender stereotyping.

I’ve noticed an insidious motion in Jetpack’s preschool class. As the kids approach five, they are starting to segregate by gender more and more frequently. I don’t know whether it’s encouraged by his teachers (I wouldn’t be surprised, this year) or just a natural age progression.

We were at the library last week, and I was looking for a movie to watch with him. I pulled “Alice in Wonderland” off the shelf. The book is one of my partner’s favorites, and Jetpack has a book of Lewis Carrol’s poetry that he loves.

“I don’t want that. I don’t watch princess movies.”

I was thunderstruck. You what now?

I mean, he doesn’t. He doesn’t watch princess movies—or anyway, he never has. We’ve never offered. He also found Finding Nemo was terrifying, and Earth’s Mightiest Heroes left him shaking after twenty minutes*. So his outright refusal was bizarre. I had never offered a princess movie. Furthermore, I mean, what exactly made him refuse Alice as a princess movie?

 

Alice in Wonderland DVD cover, with Alice, the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat, etc.

 

Here’s the cover. What screams princess about this? There’s no pink dresses, no crowns (well, except on the Red Queen, but she’s itty bitty in the corner and not really indicative of the “Princess” stereotype). So was he actually reacting to the fact that there was a girl on the cover? It’s about the only conclusion I can come to—that we’ve coded “movies about girls” into “princess movies” into “boring movies for boys” and that he’s picked that up from society at large.

Flames. Flames from the side of my face.

Thankfully, my partner swooped in to the rescue, as I stood, mouth agape. “You do too. You like Star Wars, right? That’s a princess movie.” (No, we haven’t shown our 4-year-old Star Wars. He’s played Star Wars Angry Birds a lot, though, and is familiar with the cast and stuff).

“No it isn’t!”

My partner deftly explained who Princess Leia was, and it was settled—we rented Alice in Wonderland, and he loved it (though the Red Queen terrified him). He asked to watch the next episode the next day (if only!) and then we watched the movie again the day after that (he hid trembling behind a chair during all the “off with her head” bits).

I hope that next time he’s more interested in movies with girls on the covers. I may have to rent a bunch more, for since.

Any recommendations?

 

 

*He was concerned because someone was trying to hurt Tony Stark. Cute, but misguided—I mean, come on, it’s Tony.