“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.”

What to Expect When Everyone Else is Expecting

This blog post is about me and my family on our journey to pregnancy. Plenty of people choose to remain childless by choice, and that is as rewarding and valid as the choice to have a child. Check out http://www.childlessbychoiceproject.com for more thoughts about this. We are also well aware of other options of having children, including fostering, adopting, and surrogacy. This piece is not about those options at this time.

My partner and I are trying to get pregnant. Some people know this, and some people do not. Some people know specific details (and text us sweet words the morning of insemination), and some people only know that we’re on this journey.

I don’t know if it’s because I’ve got conception and babies on my mind, but it feels like I’m seeing pregnant people everywhere. Out of the five women on my organization’s board of directors, three are pregnant. Many young people in the drop in center where I work are pregnant. I see pregnant people and women at the co-op, at the park, and at restaurants. I see them at the bus stop, at the movies, and walking past our house; all in various stages of “bump”. Recently, someone was excitedly telling me about a pregnancy in their extended family. “How nice for them.” I said dryly, as I stared at my computer screen and clacked away at an email.

I don’t like them. Ok, let me back up; I’m sure they are all nice people. I don’t even know them. But my partner and I have a challenging and costly journey to pregnancy (if that will be the end result) due to age and egg/sperm viability, and seeing people have “happy accidents” and “perfectly timed bundles of joy” really chaps my ass. To borrow a phrase used around our house from the kid lately: NO FAIR. I can be peaceful and steady minded about a lot of things, but not knowing if this road will lead to a child makes it extremely hard to be happy for others who are meeting egg and sperm in rapid fire succession.

Many years ago, before I met my partner, I had all my reproductive pieces removed from my body. I knew that even if children were in my future, it sure as hell was not going to be me that carried them to term. As I was showering a few nights ago, tiny thoughts crept in before I could stop them. What if I still had my uterus? What if I kept those ovaries? I wonder if I stopped taking testosterone long enough…. But that’s where the thoughts stopped. I was surprised that I was even considering that as an option, but since it’s not possible, I didn’t think much more about it. See what this has done to me? I’m reaching backwards for pieces of myself that don’t even exist anymore in the hopes that we could have a baby.

Once we made this choice to move forward with getting pregnant, I signed up for all sorts of informational websites. I read books and talked to friends about the pregnancy and birth process. That is all good, and has been helpful. But I’ve noticed that lately, with a few unsuccessful tries under our belts, those emails and books have been quiet pokes in my side. “Look at what you’re missing” they all seem to say. One website, “The Bump”, is particularly annoying with frequent emails. Until we have a few weeks of a successful pregnancy behind us, I’ll just keep deleting them:

Actual gif of me deleting the email

and keep my scowling face towards pregnant people in public to a minimum.

Guest Post: Super Sperm!

This post is a submission by a guest author who wishes to remain anonymous. To submit your own guest post, click here.

My partner and I are shopping for sperm. With all the sperm available out there in the world, you would think this would be easy. Cismen unload that stuff in frenzied sessions all year long. They literally throw sperm away all the time. But when we asked our good friend for a bit of his sperm so that we could try to have a baby, he said no.

I’ve never felt that my body was lacking something the way that I feel it right now. In the past, if I wasn’t able to change something about my body with available options presented to me, I could make peace with that. Somehow, this feels different. This would not be an “accident” baby. This baby is well thought out; names meticulously considered, lists compiled of anti-racist baby books, theories on how to talk to our child about trans stuff, should we make baby food or buy baby food?*, what happens if I get bored or isolated as a stay at home father?, how much screen time should they have, etc. You get the point. This kid is well planned for…..now we just need the kid.

We approached Kyle with compassion and neutrality. We did not beg for his sperm, nor did we make it overly emotional. He felt honored that we asked, but he quickly said no. He wanted his own children in the future, and felt that having a child who was “sort of” his would mess up something, emotionally, for his future kid. We respected his choice, of course. But that left us with the real problem of sperm. We do not know any other cismen that we feel comfortable being a known donor to our child. That simple “no”, however we love and respect Kyle, just cost us a minimum of $1,000 worth of: anonymous vials of sperm, trips to the doctor, and any insemination costs not covered by insurance – then multiplied by however many times needed to get pregnant. What an expensive rejection!

I went through several days of depression while I sorted out my feelings. I felt embarrassed that I had to ask another man for his sperm. Angry that he put some theoretical child of the future as a larger priority than his good friends’ current situation. Considering the costs of sperm banks, I felt anxious that we wouldn’t get pregnant right away and the costs would be too much with subsequent attempts. I felt angry that he can make sperm and I cannot. I feel angry that he has the choice whether to give his sperm away or not. I wanted to write this post in a letter form, addressed to Kyle, but I think that he’s been at the center of my brain for long enough. We are not waiting for anyone else to be part of this path to parenthood. Whatever the outcome, we are doing this together. I just hope we get lucky with some awesome anonymous sperm that does the trick! Hopefully at this time next year, I’ll be wiping up drool and longing for the days when I could sit down to write a blog post about sperm.

* Make!