My friend Jodi over at Dear Sabrina wrote a good piece about raising gender neutral kids in Sweden that got me thinking. It’s actually something that I think about quite a bit, but I found it to be particularly fascinating to read about the norms for kids in Sweden and to think about how her experiences compare and contrast with ours.
When I was pregnant with Jonah I desperately wanted a daughter. Honestly, I can’t even tell you now why that was. I truly don’t remember what felt so important to me about raising a girl. We found out the baby’s sex at the 20 week ultrasound because I felt like I needed to know so that I could prepare appropriately if I were having a boy. My sister had wanted a boy and found out at 20 weeks that she was having a girl, and struggled a bit with the news (it didn’t take her long at all to come around, however, and her daughter is very very loved). I was due only a few months behind her, and I was afraid of what might happen if we waited to find out in the delivery room and I gave birth to a boy. What if I was disappointed when I met him? That would be awful, and I had no experience to tell me how very unlikely that was, so I decided that I needed to know early so that I’d have 20 weeks to turn my attitude around.
Once I met Jonah it didn’t take me long to learn that it wouldn’t have mattered who I’d given birth to – I couldn’t imagine my life with any other child but him. He was exactly the child for us. But I’m not sure anyone could have told me that and had me believe it without me seeing it for myself.
When Jonah was a baby, I was pretty adamant about not covering him or his room in stereotypically “boy” themes. I picked out bedding for him that had a pattern of teal and blue floral elephants, we refused to buy him clothing or even PJs with things like trucks or sports equipment or even dinosaurs on them. When he was not yet two, a friend from the UK brought him a cute little book called Digger and Skip, about construction vehicle friends working together to solve a problem. From that moment on, he was completely hooked. He couldn’t get enough of construction vehicles, and before long that led to John Deere vehicles and farm equipment. It was kind of amazing to me because he’d seen books on lots of different things before, but this was the first passion that was truly his. We didn’t hesitate to follow his lead, so from then on we were happy to buy him construction-themed clothing and toys, make his Halloween costumes in alignment with his interests, and so on.
For his first birthday, some good friends gave him a baby doll and he just never took to it. He never showed much interest at all in traditional “girl” toys, despite my desire to raise him a bit more gender neutral than most boys. On the rare occasion that he did express an interest in something more gender neutral, I sometimes found myself hesitating more than I’d expected to. When he was two, we were picking out a backpack for him for an upcoming trip, something for him to carry a few small toys in, and I showed him a number of different colors online and he chose pink. I was truly surprised, and wondered if he’d be happy with that choice. Doubting it, I ordered three different colors and figured he could choose in person and we’d send the other two back. He saw them and stuck with his original choice. I was actually kind of proud of him, but also a little bit concerned. For that same trip he’d also chosen shoes that were purple with a pale orange (nearly pink) stripe around the bottom. I remember worrying that if people saw him they might think, “oh, of course the lesbian moms bought their son a pink backpack and purple shoes.”
When Jonah was two, he also started asking us to paint his toenails. I remember tossing the question out to my mom group because I had to ask myself: if he were a girl, would I let him have painted toes at age two? Or would I feel like that was somehow sexualizing a two-year-old girl, having her grow up too quickly? I didn’t want to have a double standard at play, so I had to ask myself how I would feel if the tables were turned. After some deliberation we decided that it was fine, and he’s had his toes painted many times since, including a couple of weeks ago. It’s something that I honestly really love about him and I’ll be sad if/when he stops asking. I remember, however, sending him to day care one of the very first times we’d done it. He came home and told us that he’d asked Gladys if she liked his toes and she told him that no, she didn’t. I can’t remember the exact words she used, but I picked up the phone and called her immediately and explained that it wasn’t her place to judge him for something so benign. She could talk to us if she had a problem with our choices. She was very apologetic, and it never happened again.
Recently when we were shopping for clothes for a trip, I was asking him his preferences and he told me that he wanted rainbow striped leggings like one of his classmates had. I honestly did look for them online in a few places, and had I found any that were a truly primary colored rainbow I probably would have bought them, but I kept finding pastels and neons and just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I don’t know whether I was worried for him or worried for us, but I can’t say that I feel good about it (now I feel like I should make more of an effort and find him some). We were also buying shoes again recently and for a moment he expressed an interest in some pinks and purples and I was kind of excited to see him thinking outside of the boy box, but in the end when he had to choose just one, he went with red. On the same shopping trip he did pick out pink shorts, however, and I was tickled. They’re now my favorite thing in his wardrobe.
When the twins were born I cared far less about the sex of the babies than I had the first time around. We both thought that it might be nice to have a boy and a girl because we’d get a daughter while Jonah would also get a brother and not be too outnumbered by girls in his family, but we both felt pretty good about any combination. We got our boy and girl, and watching them all grow as people has been even more fascinating as I think about gender.
It didn’t take Vivienne long at all to adopt that baby doll of Jonah’s. She absolutely adores baby dolls, and plays pretend with them all the time. When we were in Charleston she even told me at one point that she was nursing the baby in the hammock.
Well before she turned two, she started carrying around this little toy barn with a soft handle. She’d hook the handle over her elbow and carry it around like a handbag. Both K and I were flabbergasted – neither of us carries a purse on our elbow, and her day care provider certainly didn’t do so. Where was she getting this? Also before she turned two, she started asking to have her ears pierced (without knowing the words). I’d pick her up and she’d reach out and touch my earrings, then touch her own ears and say, “I want some.” She’s also had very strong preferences about her clothes in the last six months or so (again, before age two). On a couple of occasions I laid out a pair of jeans that Jude had outgrown, and she flat out told me that she didn’t like them, and went into her drawers and replaced them with leggings. You might assume that it’s because leggings are more comfortable and flexible, but she’s happy to wear two other pairs of jeans that have a floral pattern. She’s also given me grief about khaki joggers, and will always choose pink and purple polka dot leggings over a neutral.
Most of Vivienne’s clothes are hand-me-downs (from girls), so we honestly haven’t done that much thoughtful selection of her wardrobe. I really don’t mind putting her in tutus because she adores them (and she loves pink), and it’s fun to see our children excited about something they love, even if it does align with gender norms. Still, I’ve been surprised by how powerful some of her “girly” tendencies are. That said, she’s totally fearless, clearly adores and looks up to Jonah, and is just as happy to play trucks with her brothers.
When Jude took to baby dolls before he turned two I was totally charmed. Since Jonah hadn’t been into it I think I’d started to assume that maybe Jude wouldn’t be either, but he started bringing an old Cabbage Patch doll with us on stroller walks whenever Vivi would bring her doll. By Christmas we knew that he needed his own baby, and watching him love it is the sweetest thing.
Jude doesn’t seem to be at a point yet where he shows much interest in what he’s wearing, so we’ve always put him in pretty standard boy clothes without much thought. Our neighbor actually remarked recently how amusing it was to watch them play in the yard: Vivienne was sitting in the driveway drawing with chalk, and Jude and Jonah were hitting a tree trunk with sticks over and over again.
I’ve also been amazed (and frustrated) by the emergence of Jonah’s fascination with guns and shooting. Is this a boy thing? Another boy mom warned us that it would happen. No matter how pacifist and anti-gun you are, she told us, they will at some point turn anything into a pretend gun. With Jonah it didn’t happen until preschool this year (the first year he’s been in school with boys his age), and he talks all.the.time about his friends who have Nerf guns. We’ve told him time and again that we don’t like guns (and why), that we don’t buy toy guns at our house but that his friends who have them aren’t bad people and neither are their parents, they just believe something different than we believe. When he plays with those friends he cannot wait to play with the Nerf guns. He’s also really into robots lately and walks around pretending to shoot a laser at things all day long. In Charleston he borrowed a squirt gun from his cousin for the week and just adored it. When he had to give it back he tried to reason with me so that he could get one. “It only squirts water,” he said, “so it can’t hurt people or animals so it’s not the same as other kinds of guns.” I finally caved at Easter and put a squirt gun in his basket, but I still cringe when he plays with it in the bath.
Parenting has surprised me in many ways, but watching our children’s personalities and passions emerge and wondering what’s nature and what’s nurture has caught me off guard on more than one occasion. I’m a feminist who majored in women’s studies and thought that I could resist caving to gender norms or buying into the idea that nature weighs heavily on their personalities and preferences, but here I find myself waffling over the tiniest things. I do think that part of it has to do with American culture. A huge part of me takes great pride in watching the kids be completely, unselfconsciously themselves, and another part of me worries about how they’ll (or we’ll) be judged. We’ve told Jonah many times that there’s no such thing as boy clothes and girl clothes, or boy toys and girl toys. He’s even called us on it when we’ve slipped up. One day Kristin mentioned to me that she’d seen some cute clothes at Target in the Cat & Jack line. She said something along the lines of “I only had time to look at the boys’ clothes, but they were cute.” Jonah piped up from the next room “There’s no such thing as boys’ clothes and girls’ clothes.”
Unlike my friend’s experiences in Sweden, I feel like the norms for boys here at school (more so than for girls) are somewhat rigid. I’m actually thrilled when I walk into the brown room at school (the room with dress up clothes) and see a little boy in Jonah’s class wearing a skirt. There have been mornings when Vivienne wants to wear a bow in her hair, and Jude has to have one too, so Jonah asks to join in. We pick out bows for everyone, but when we get to school, Jonah always decides to remove his and asks me to take it home. Every time it’s happened I wonder if he’s starting to learn what’s acceptable for boys and girls, and it makes me a little bit sad. Am I contributing to that?
Despite my desire to be progressive, I think that maybe I’m a little too happy to be able to tell people that Jonah loves construction vehicles, and to dress Vivienne in dresses and tights that I think are adorable, and to have Jude planted firmly in the middle: our cuddle bug boy who takes his baby for walks and also gets excited about watching basketball. As a non-traditional family, it’s easy to feel like we’re already under a microscope and there’s pressure to show the world how typical and well-adjusted our children are. Still, it’s not fair to project our fears onto them. Gender expectations are powerful and we’re living in a world that reinforces norms constantly. It requires much more intentionality and confidence to go against the grain than I’d assumed.