A few thoughts on babies and gender

A number of my lady friends are currently expecting (congratulations, girls!) and it has me thinking about gender, and our conceptions of gender around babies. In a time not so very long ago, parents didn’t know the gender of their child before it came out, because ultrasound was unheard of or extremely expensive. Parents prepared with practical, comfortable clothing for the baby, and focused their efforts on building a healthy addition to the family. Recently, however, it’s become quite common to learn the sex of the infant and stock up accordingly on nauseatingly pink or blue baby clothes, to paint flowers or tractors on the nursery walls, and read books like “The Courage to Raise Good Men.” Most of the pregnant women I know have made the choice not to pre-determine the gender, to wait and see what happens, and this is a choice I respect immensely.

After all, in about one out of every two thousand births, parents get an extra surprise–an infant with “ambiguous genitalia,” genital anatomy that doesn’t agree with our narrowly defined norms of “male” and “female.” Sometimes the physical appearance of the external genitalia is normal, and the truth of the matter only emerges later. Perhaps an intersex identity is obvious, and sometimes an individual lives out an entire lifetime unaware of the secret in ou underwear. Most children with obvious intersex traits are subjected to a series of surgeries and hormone treatments to bring their physical identity in line with one sex or another. (Later on in life these individuals may end up being transgender, because their parents and doctors “chose” the wrong gender at birth.) This seems like a terrible way of dealing with intersex children, to swipe the problem under the carpet and never deal with it. What happens to a woman struggling with infertility who learns she’s actually intersex, for example?

The Intersex Society of North America has some recommendations on how parents should deal with intersex children, and these recommendations include obvious suggestions like making sure parents and child receive counseling, dealing with intersexuality in an honest open and shamefree way, and refraining from surgical or hormonal correction until the child is old enough to reach a decision on ou own. The ISNA believes that attempting to raise children in a third gender would defeat the point of trying to enfold intersex children, rather than marginalizing them.

I’m intrigued by the idea that many parents learn the sex of their child beforehand, in order to plan out names, nursery decorations, or clothing. It’s nice to see our gender stereotypes reinforced even before birth these days. Gives me great hope for eventual gender equality, you know. I admire parents who attempt to find neutral baby clothing, to prepare for a child, rather than a boy or girl. It’s a sad truth that in the 21st century we still feel the need to differentiate between boy and girl babies, to buy boys Tonka trucks and girls dolls, to begin instilling heteronormative gender values from an early age.

I mean, perhaps I’m mistaken, but I was under the impression that the point of getting pregnant was to produce a healthy, happy baby who would grow into an amazing adult. In many parts of the world, including the United States, parents seem to value one sex over the other. (Often, though not always, male infants are preferred.) Why not rejoice in the gift of new life, rather than investing time and energy in forcing gender ideals upon your child? When you’re cleaning diapers, I promise you, you won’t care whether the baby has a wee-wee or a hoo-hoo–it still makes an unholy mess.

I know that when I meet a new baby or learn the details of birth from someone, my first question isn’t “was it a boy or a girl?” It’s “was the child healthy? All limbs present and accounted for? How did the birth go?”

I’m confident that all my lady friends are going to raise great children, and I’m delighted to see them trying to create a less gendered environment for their kids to grow up in. Luckily, this is the kind of community supportive of these ideals. Little boys can wear skirts and young girls can sport logging boots, and this is the way it should be. Childhood and youth are about exploration and creating your own boundaries, not having boxes forced upon you, after all.