Say it with me now!
Gender. Is. A. Social. Construct.
I have been acutely aware this pregnancy of how quickly and readily the first question I receive upon hearing the news is related to the baby’s genitalia.
“Are you going to find out the gender?” (SEX! Gender is a social construct. And, no.)
Or, “A BOY! It has to be a boy!” (Yes, because I have complete and utter control over this process.)
Or “It’s because James needs a boy, huh?” (Yes, in fact, if it’s a girl, we’ll be giving her up for adoption. Or try experimental hormone treatments on her to correct this error.)
Sigh. I know these comments aren’t coming from an ill-intentioned place. No one means to sound as rigidly gender-constructed as they appear when they lead with these questions. And yet… and yet that’s exactly how they read when I hear them. I realize that American society in particular is extremely married to the male/female divide (check any children’s aisle in a department store or Big Box Mart for proof) but it’s so poorly guided.
Perhaps it’s my evolving feminism, or raising daughters, or the realization that my two children with vaginas are so drastically different that knowing that they were both going to have female genitalia prepared me in no way for who they would be and are, and how James and I would parent them, but it’s been more apparent this time than with either of the girls how often the question is asked in some shape or form.
Admittedly, with the girls, I wanted to know their sex. I felt like it gave me some semblance of control or knowledge or preparation – but in having two girls, I realized it in no way did that. In fact, it just conditioned me to buy pink and flowers and frills (which, hey, is tons of fun) but was truly not necessary for an infant with no gendered baggage whatsoever. It also had me envisioning a prescribed idea of what they might be, informed by a lifetime of societal stereotypes and conditioning around female vs. male. Which wasn’t fair to them. And wasn’t fair to me.
I love the not knowing. This baby is a blank slate, his or her own person and I am imparting no preconceived notions of who he or she will be because I don’t have this categorizing information to direct those thoughts. I feel like being surprised in the moment is one of the last true surprises in this life. A colleague responded this way when I told her that I wasn’t going to find out the sex, and went on to relay how she dreamed differently not knowing the sex of one of her babies during pregnancy. Anything was possible for that baby, because social norms and stereotypes weren’t subconsciously influencing her dreams.
We underestimate how powerful the male/female categories are in our society. Infants all look like gender-neutral, mushy blobs, yet people yearn for that piece of categorizing information. And upon knowing it, respond with, “What a beautiful, sweet girl!” or “Such a strong, handsome boy!” Study upon study proves that we speak to babies differently based on their sex, and yet we somehow think that boys just innately like trucks and fighting and girls princesses and pink – when, since before their arrivals, we’ve been conditioning them toward those things in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. With language, with clothing, with nursery decor, with toys, with visions for their future, and so on, and so forth.
You don’t need any information about my child’s genitals, or any child’s genitals, to know how to treat them or what to buy for them or how to speak to them. Infants, especially, represent a rare moment in a human’s life where the world is a blank slate. Let’s not begin it with our own gendered baggage.
And instead of asking “Are you having a boy or a girl?” or “Are you finding out the SEX?” upon learning of someone’s pregnancy, instead try leading with, “Congratulations. How are you feeling?”
P.S. I am in no way judging or condemning families who want to and do find out the sex of their babies prior to birth. James and I were those parents… twice! Every mother gets to decide for herself what is best for her body and baby and what information she wants and needs to get through this experience. We all need to be a little more live and let live on this front. I’m just asking that we think critically about why it is we want this info and how it may influence how we think about our child and their place in the world in both wonderful but also maybe not so wonderful (if we’re relying on gender stereotypes) ways.