I recently published this piece on a fun website, Great Moments in Parenting. Here’s the full essay.
Confessions of a Gender-Neutral Mom
Early on in my first pregnancy, we decided against finding out the sex of our baby. “One of the few surprises in life,” many people told me. There was more to it than that, though. I didn’t want my unborn baby to be gendered before birth, to be born into a room decorated according to stereotypes or dressed in a wardrobe of pinks or blues. For as long as possible, I wanted this baby to remain a baby— a miracle, and nothing more. My pre-birth newborn clothes were browns, creams and yellows. One tiny little drawer filled with gender-free love and anticipation. From the very beginning, I set out to raise children who are not defined by gender, who could see opportunities for themselves across a broad spectrum of interests. This is why it surprised me when I realized my own bias. I am now determined to correct it.
Our first child is a boy, and as soon as he was born, the “It’s a Boy!” cards arrived in the mail, along with the sports paraphernalia and “Handsome Like Daddy” onesies. I was too tired to fight it most days, but I enjoyed those moments when he was dressed in a periwinkle sweater set knitted by my mom and strangers exclaimed, “How sweet! How old is she? What’s her name?” The slightest bent toward lavender threw them off.
I answered by simply saying, “He’s three months,” or “His name is Robert.”
Next, the unnecessary apology. “I’m so sorry! I thought…”
Less than two years later my daughter was born, and my ideals became more confusing. When she was only a few days old, a relative described her as “such a pretty girl.” My stomach twisted in knots, discomfort replacing postpartum cramping. Eliza had a shock of slick black hair, pink skin, little eyes and pursed lips. She couldn’t hold her head up and had plump rolls under her chin when I cradled her. She looked a bit like a combination of Danny DeVito and E.T., but with more hair. This time I wanted to scream, “No, she is not! She is a beautiful, healthy baby.” I held my breath and sighed. For me, the word beautiful captures the whole child, the beauty of life. Pretty is on the surface only; I did not intend to raise a pretty girl.
Over the last few years, I’ve analyzed my gender beliefs and the stereotypes I see in the world around me. My own childhood was quite gender-neutral. I am the third of four children. My parents emphasized academics, but beyond that, we were free to choose our interests from an array of sports, art, music and miscellaneous “other” categories. My mom was the family wordsmith and history expert. My father was musical, artistic, and athletic. My dad worked in insurance and my mom took care of us, fulfilling traditional gender roles, but both roles were valued just as our diverse interests were validated.
In college, I developed an interest in popular culture and art history, a background that helped me find a job working in New York in the fashion industry. I first worked for a retailer doing trend research and later in marketing for a fine fragrance company. I studied shifting concepts of femininity and masculinity, as well as trends that deconstructed stereotypes and blurred the lines. This experience reaffirmed my belief that individuals should feel empowered to express themselves, not limited by traditional attitudes. When I became an elementary school teacher in my late 20s, I set out to create an unbiased classroom community. I was careful to use gender-neutral language and worked to refine the school’s dress code to offer more choices for students. We even taught a unit in second grade on stereotypes and the opening activity involved breaking down gender stereotypes. As a new parent, this was one area in which I felt pretty confident. Surely I could raise children who are free from the confines of these stereotypes.
As Robert grew up, he broke away from my ungendered grips and gravitated toward traditionally boyish things. He played dress-up in fireman and superhero costumes, learned the name of every type of digger, and was usually in motion, often playing sports. From an early age, books and music captivated Robert. His recent passion is Legos. Robert is a multi-faceted six-year-old, yet I have heard people say that he is “all boy.” It seems to be a positive in their eyes, even if to me it overlooks certain aspects of him, especially his more feminine traits. Robert is emotionally sensitive, nurturing, expressive and cuddly. He still loves to play make-believe, but mostly does this with friends who are girls and with his sister. He now only sings around his family.
During Eliza’s toddler years, she gravitated toward more traditionally feminine activities while also emulating her brother. She loves running, riding her bike, playing games, building and drawing with all colors of the rainbow, but her favorites are pink and purple. She creates make-believe worlds, playing family and having pretend sleepovers. Eliza is a comedian and collects friends everywhere we go. No one ever refers to her as “all girl” but she would not be labeled a tomboy, either. I don’t hear people say, “all girl” very often in general. It has less positive connotations, which is part of the problem. Does being “all girl” mean being a frilly, superficial people pleaser? Does it mean being unathletic? There is a reason why the Always “Like a Girl” ad campaign from 2014 was so moving. At some point, doing things like a girl changes meaning from pride to shortcoming. This should not be the case, and would hopefully not become the reality for my children.
While they were developing along somewhat traditional paths, I thought I was doing my best to foster gender neutrality and promote equality until I read an article by Lori Day called “If Our Sons Were Treated Like Our Daughters” published in Huff Post Parents on February 20, 2015. I began to read the article, thinking it would confirm my instincts. I treat Eliza as an individual, but I certainly don’t encourage her to be passive, pretty or unathletic as the article suggests, thus reinforcing outdated stereotypes. As I read, the repeated references to pink and princesses left me feeling guilty, not because I expect my daughter to adhere to traditionally feminine labels, but because these stereotypes make me feel so uncomfortable that I actively avoid them. By the end of the article, I began to articulate what I see as the real problem, which is that more masculine characteristics are favored, for both girls and boys, and it doesn’t serve anyone well.
That was when I had an epiphany: By not attending to Eliza’s interests in pink, purple and princesses and by showing a preference for seemingly gender-neutral activities, I was stifling a side of her and sending a message that her more feminine interests are less desired. Robert picked out a bright blue bike for his fourth birthday. When Eliza turned four, back when I was still guilty of my bias, we went to a bike shop. She enthusiastically selected a shiny magenta bike. We begged her to pick the red one instead. That way, when her younger brother, Ian, got older, he could use it without complaining or turning heads. It seemed practical to us but sent a powerful message to her. She cried, we gave in, and she proudly pedals her pink bike down our street every day. Looking back, I see the glaring inequity and am glad she stood up for herself.
It was okay for Robert and any of the kids to watch Bob the Builder or Paw Patrol, but I shied away from Sophia the First and cringed a bit when Eliza dressed in a gown and tiara, not wanting to encourage examples of superficial beauty or frailty. It made no sense. Eliza’s princess isn’t a weak victim; she’s a spirited activist saving a bed full of stuffed animals. There is no prince in the picture. I had the same reaction to Eliza’s princess play that I had to Robert’s imaginary play that involved bad guys and weapons: if I ignore it, it will go away.
This was the wrong approach for all of my children. I now see that Robert’s imaginary play may have decreased because I discouraged it, worried he might cross boundaries on play dates. Eliza, sandwiched between two brothers, still plays make-believe, but rarely does it involve princesses and fairies. I value imaginary play, both as a parent and as an educator. But I was simply more comfortable with the play that hovered in the middle of the gender continuum than the scenarios that explored the extremes. The extremes are where the questions lie, where children’s fears and sense of self and power can be explored. Instead of encouraging my children to make sense of the world through role-playing, I worried about how gender stereotypes might interfere and projected my own goals onto my children. Despite good intentions, I was inhibiting their growth, not broadening their horizons.
Eliza’s interest in accessories and sparkly things does not define her; it is a piece of her, like her interest in math or gardening. It is something that makes her feel good and is also a connection she feels with me, her mother and the only other female in the house. Even though I have never been one to wear makeup, style my hair or put much thought into clothing and accessories, she notices slight efforts. On occasions when I go out for dinner or even to meet a friend for lunch, I throw on a dress, upgrade my purse, apply lip-gloss and wear shoes with a heel. The first time I wore heels after Ian was born, Eliza called them my “Mommy Shoes” and followed me around the apartment. It had probably been over six months since she’d seen me dressed up, and she couldn’t contain her excitement. Eliza was watching and learning, looking for signs of self-expression in her mother. She admires the femininity she sees in me. Why would I discourage that?
I have come to embrace acceptance as my goal, taking strides to be truly open-minded and supportive when it comes to my children’s interests and personalities. I point out examples of people who follow their passions, both men and women, while giving my children the freedom to find their own paths. We go to museums and plays more often, experiences I love sharing with my children as much as my husband enjoys playing sports with them. It was almost as though in my early years of parenting, I forgot about my own diverse hobbies at different stages of my life and how they shaped me.
With change comes opportunity. Eliza recently attended a fairy princess tea party with some of her schoolmates. A year ago, I would not have signed up for the party. Instead, I smiled as she sprinted and spun around the yard in her best fairy princess dress, exuding joy and confidence. That is what childhood is all about.
Rather than guide my children’s gender choices to be neutral, I try to foster gender openness and diversity. This means valuing both sides of the coin. Actually, it means seeing gender not as a coin at all, but as something complex, unique and beautiful: a crystal, a snowflake, a rainbow.