As soon as you tell the greater public that a new baby is on the way, the most common first response is “Boy or girl?”
It’s certainly an interesting question, and one that is laden with significance. However, as we respond that we prefer to wait for the surprise, we’re often confronted with questions like “But how will you know what colour to paint the baby’s room?” or “What will you dress the baby in if you don’t find out if it is a boy or girl in advance?”
There’s an enormous amount of focus placed on how parents could possibly begin to be sensitive to a newborn’s gender if said baby is not dressed in either pink or blue. Many who do support the surprise of waiting for the birth, have said “Well, I guess you can dress the baby in neutrals.”
A lot of people find my zeal to not colour code our child a bit over the top, but it is absolutely fundamental to me. The kid, when it feels strongly about wardrobe decisions, can make them. But until then, they can get experience in all the colours of the rainbow, plus black, white and camo. They can wear “girl” clothes and “boy” clothes and run around in the buck for all I care. (And yes, as so many people love to tell me “little girls love dressing up like a princess!” I didn’t. I just loved dressing up in anything, multiple times a day. But yes, if they want to be a princess, they can be a princess, and that’s totally cool with me).
This is not just about what the kid wants and feels – it’s a baby! It’s about the expectations society has of children to express gender… and for what purpose? Observing adult behaviour towards young girls (or girls of any age, for that matter), I often hear first comments about the girl’s outfit. With boys, it’s often about toys or something about how strong or smart they are. (Much to my chagrin, at times I find myself falling into these patterns in conversation with children myself). It may seem like a leap to some, but how we speak to children and what we focus on is what they come to focus on. If they’re only ever told they’re “pretty” or they’re “strong”, then they value those things and pursue them. Why do we need to start this at birth? Perhaps if we could start looking past gender-specific conversation starters, we’d learn to have new conversations with children, ones that allow them room for thought and expression, help them to see that they are valued for more than how they look or how strong they are. We may learn something as adults too. We could ask them about their favourite books. Do they like nature? What animals have they seen? These are things I really try to work on in my own interactions with kids, and feel particularly motivated to be conscious of now that I will soon have one!
Additionally, all this baby-gender-labelling feeds mass consumerism, with people buying made-in-China baby clothes that are worn and thrown away within weeks. Fast fashion is so obvious in baby land, yet is not talked about because it’s considered cheap or uncaring not to buy something newly made in a sweatshop for a newborn. (Side note: fast fashion is the #2 polluter in the world behind oil). It’s so prevalent that when we mentioned we were expecting to a small group of friends, we were inundated by hand-me-down baby clothes 0-12 months, and within two weeks had two full sets of “girl” clothes and “boy” clothes. We had to kindly ask people to stop.
It may be a little young for a newborn to ponder these ideas, but I do not want to set the expectation that femininity comes from tutus and pierced ears. Nor do I want to encourage that masculinity means playing with trucks and being too tough to cry. I hope as they grow older, our child will think about these concepts, and decide what they mean to them.
Our pregnancy intersects with a fascinating time in history where, in addition to having views on how babies should present, everyone seems to also have an opinion on transgender rights and expression too. No one can escape being told by society what or how they “should” be. Despite the precedent of non-binary gender expression being an ancient concept in societies around the world, we now seem to feel that it is of utmost importance that political parties debate on it. It is rather ironic (but perhaps unsurprising) that society places such importance on how an infant is dressed, yet feels it should also be able to prevent an adult from deciding how to express their own gender.
A wise person once said “Expectations are the root of all resentments”. Maybe it’s smart to just leave everyone alone, and let them be whoever they’re going to become. We can all practice acceptance and maybe learn something from our differences.