What to do about babies and gender

[Content note: reference to adult-child related sexual creepiness]

As a person who intends to have kids at some point, and as someone who is very aware that you can’t tell what a person’s gender is (/what their gender is going to be or whatever) when they’re born, I have to deal with the question of what I’m going to do about my future babies and gender.

I mean, hopefully it’s obvious that I have no intention of imposing any sort of gender norms or expectation on any kids I have. And I will listen to them about their own gender as soon as they are able to tell me about it. But there is still the question of what to do about pronouns etc until they’re able to do that.

In an ideal world, I would lean toward using neutral pronouns – either the perennial ‘they’, or something specific as more of a placeholder (I remember reading a long time ago about someone who referred to their fetus using the ‘ou’ pronoun, and I like the idea of using something that isn’t so clearly linked to non-binary/genderqueer identities, since that may carry a lesser version of the baggage involved in traditionally masculine or feminine pronouns.)

But living as I am in an entirely un-ideal world, I’m not sure this is what I will actually end up doing. I may very well wind up simply using the pronouns assume the baby is cisgender (unless they’re intersex, in which case, gender neutral pronouns it will be until I can hear otherwise from them), as a sort of default/educated guess (since there is a high likelihood that they will be cis), for a few reasons.

The main one is, I just don’t know that I have the energy to have all the conversations that would be involved in refusing to gender my baby. Although I am not going to adhere to gendered expectation with clothing, toys, etc with them, I know that people would push back harder against gender neutral pronouns than other things, simply because it makes them uncomfortable to use them. Which is a terrible reason, obviously, but still. I have enough work on my hands doing this for myself, and people are more upset by gender neutral pronouns when they are applied to children, and more prone to inappropriateness or downright violence (or trying to get me to lose custody of my children even, probably) than I am prepared to deal with.

Which, on some level I feel like maybe I should not have kids unless I am willing to fight for that for them. But on the other hand, I don’t think that placeholder pronouns alone are going to harm a kid who is otherwise raised as much as possible without gendered expectations. I don’t think that ‘he’ or ‘she’ is somehow inherently a more harmful placeholder than ‘they’ or ‘ou’ could be anyway.

My other fear, though, is not about me and my own energy, as much as it is about my child. A baby who is referred to by gender neutral pronouns may attract some really unsavoury behaviours from people who really really need to know the baby’s ‘real’ gender. I am quite sure that refusing to indicate a binary gender for my baby would make a whole lot of people suddenly really interested in changing that baby’s diaper, or helping them with their bath, or something. And that level of creepiness is not something I want a baby or toddler subjected to.

I am also afraid that being quite to obvious about my gender neutral approach to parenting would result in other adults trying to over-compensate for that, and my children being subjected to even more over-the-top, explicit gender policing than they otherwise would.

So, I dunno. I don’t know what the least harmful route to take, really. I’m just going to do my best and what feels right, I guess.

3 comments

  1. My SIL briefly tried to keep her daughter gender-neutral. It ended up failing, partially because other adults in her life, as you anticipated, ended up just using the cis-gender pronouns and exhibited a bit of resistance to treating a baby as gender neutral. The other reason, though, was that she said it just got too hard. We don’t live in a world that makes dressing a young child neutrally, or having all/mostly gender-neutral toys and activities easy. So now her daughter is referred to by feminine pronouns, but wears a mixture of feminine, masculine, and neutral clothing, and has lots of toys and books that are for girls, boys, or either. Her new strategy is, let her dress how she wants and play with what she wants, and as she gets older, start introducing age-appropriate information about gender binaries.

    I don’t have or want kids, so this isn’t something I’ve thought too much about, but I can see where it’s challenging. You want to be respectful of who your kid is, but also need to navigate a world in which gender identity is tied to biology and a lot of people are resistant, even violently so, to anything different. Not an easy thing to go through as a kid or as a parent.

    1. Oh! I mean for the record, exposing a kid to a mixture of “girl’s”, “boy’s” and unisex stuff *is* what I call gender neutral parenting. Boxing your kid into unisex stuff exclusively isn’t any better than boxing them into girly or boy-y stuff.

      1. You know, that’s kind of how I felt when she initially indicated that she wanted to keep the baby’s outward appearance gender-neutral. I personally felt like…making sure she has a variety of options is best, and as she gets older, helping her to understand that if biological sex and gender identity don’t align, that’s okay. I also initially wondered, how do you explain to your child that other kids are heavily gendered? Will that confuse her?

        Initially SIL was resistant to any pink clothing, any feminine toys, to the point of having returned gifts to people over it. Once the baby was in the world for a while, she realized that total gender neutrality wasn’t sustainable. (And, as you said, possibly not any better than automatic gender labeling.) She also had a moment where she realized that she was actually just dressing her daughter as a boy, and called herself out on having failed at gender neutrality. That’s when she was like, “I made the mistake of putting my daughter in boy clothes and thinking I was being gender neutral, this is too hard, we’ll just offer her a variety of clothing and toy and activity options and see who she grows up to be.”

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