Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Handsome Daughter

One of the first issues that arose during my pregnancy was whether or not we were going to find out the baby's sex before birth. I didn't especially want to but my partner really did, and when he suggested half-jokingly that he could find out and keep it to himself I decided to go ahead and ruin the surprise with him. We'd find out eventually anyway, he rationalized; what would a few months earlier or later change? (I'm pretty sure it's about the method of discovery and not the timing, but anyway.)

Once I'd signed on, I really looked forward to the possibility of the baby not crossing its legs during our one ultrasound. I had wanted to wait partly because I love surprises and partly because I didn't want to give false weight to our child's male- or female-ness. In the end, I realized that our excitement didn't stem from a specific desire to know the sex of our child but a general desire to know something. We had no interest in stocking up on gender-specific clothes and toys and decorations for a nursery ahead of time, no need to narrow down baby names as soon as possible; we just wanted a piece of concrete information around which we could daydream for the second half of my pregnancy.

Still, there's no escaping it. Gender and all its weird trappings rear their heads even before birth and just keep on rearing once the baby arrives, whether or not the mama consents.

Let me interrupt myself here to say that I could go on and on and on about gender. It's a hugely challenging and endlessly intriguing topic, and more often than not I am infuriated by the way gender expectations play out in my life, the lives of my loved ones, and society as a whole. In other words, I could spout off about gender and parenting all day long, but not much of it would be news to anyone I respect. Instead, I've decided to share the two biggest lessons I've learned about gender since becoming a parent.

First of all, having a little girl has taught me that boy = infant neutral. Babies, with their no hair or short hair, are assumed to be male barring the conspicuous addition of some explicitly feminine indicator/signal. My daughter is mistaken over and over again for a boy even when wearing mildly feminine garb. At ten months, she is just now beginning to cultivate enough hair to be automatically perceived by some as female. I'm sure there are female babies that somehow look particularly like little girls without any extra adornment, but I'm also sure that they are in the vast minority.

Given this early androgyny amongst the baby set, it's surprisingly rare for strangers to come right out and ask, "Boy or girl?" I had always assumed that the only reason parents would dress their babies in nothing but boringly explicit "gender-appropriate" clothing is because they themselves are utterly unimaginative. While this might be true in many cases, after the first dozen consecutive times that my neutrally-dressed daughter was taken for a boy, I amended my judgment to include parents who find it disturbing to have their child mistaken for the opposite sex. Then, one particularly exhausted morning, I caught myself sorting through my daughter's baby clothes in search of something identifiably girly. Upon self-cross-examination, I realized that we had to go out and run errands and I didn't feel like dealing with the irritation of strangers.

Which leads me to lesson number two. I enjoy dressing my child in all sorts of clothes and I don't have any problem with her being mistaken for a boy, but strangers often grow offended and irritated if they can't guess the sex of my child. Gender-specific clothing is a social shortcut that allows strangers to gracefully apply pronouns and adjectives to an infant they don't know. It's not just parents who find such such social cues important; lots of people expect parents to offer enough hints for them to make accurate gender assumptions without too much effort. Furthermore, if parents don't do this - especially mothers, since fathers can be forgiven for not knowing how to "properly" dress their children - there will be embarrassment, dirty looks, and even scolding.

I don't know why this surprised me, given that androgyny and other challenges to gender norms are most often met with extreme discomfort and sometimes with violence. Perhaps I naively assumed that infants would get a pass from society's bizarre intensity around this stuff for at least the first year of their lives. In a way they do, since it's adults who dress them and are either rewarded or punished for their choices. That the weight of such judgments will eventually shift to my daughter - and probably sooner than I imagine - is a reality amongst so many that give me the chills.

But for now I can be a buffer. My kid is gorgeous. Handsome. The best-looking baby around. Her favorite book this week is "My Little Toolbox" and her favorite toys are a squeaky dog ball, a mirror, and plum-colored sequined tank top that her mother bought a decade ago but never had the guts to wear and so lets her drag around the house. She is lanky and strong, stubborn and charming, and completely unconcerned about making other people comfortable. All she cares about is learning to walk. And soon she'll start picking out her own clothes.


  1. I love this post. People get so uptight when they can't decode the baby's sex. I was assured by others that it would in fact bother me that people wouldn't be able to 'tell' and just like I retorted, it did not. I did find it fascinating to watch them respond. Some were apologetic and some balked -- how could my daughter be wearing forest green, brown and blue at the same time AND STILL POSSESS A VULVA?!

    I enjoy dress-up and encourage Alice to have a part in deciding what she wears each day. Ironically, one day when *I* had independently selected her outfit, a man coming out of the library sneered, 'Letting her choose her own clothes already??!!'

    I love you and Ada and I really do want us to all be in the same time-space soon!


  2. i love this. i too have noticed that it is the absence of pink that really does it. anything not pink is automatically boy. 99% of the time people think my babe is a boy. one time she was called out as being a girl - she was wearing pink pants, but they were "boy" pink pants. it's super interesting. especially since they really are so genderless. i do not get a sense of gender at all from my little one. i thought perhaps she had a boy energy that made everyone think she was a boy. but, alas, i believe it is the absence of pink.

  3. This is fascinating. One of my gender studies classes had a day where we looked went to a toy store and looked at the differences between "boy" toys and "girl" toys.

    You should start telling people she's a hermaphrodite. Or a robot.


  4. I'm expecting a girl after having already given birth to a boy -- one who is obsessed with trucks and tractors and running and jumping on things (but also making "soup" with his magnet letters in his own set of pots and pans and serving it to his baby doll, just to counterbalance the gender stereotyping). Since we're not doing anything else different for this child, I do find myself drawn to the girlie clothes -- but I'm sure she'll wear a lot of brother's hand-me-downs, too. Will have to see if I get any similar reactions to what you're describing.