Why are new parents still so obsessed with gender?

From throwing gender-reveal parties to buying gendered clothes and toys, new parents tend to be among the most attached to the gender binary—which, argues Leah McLaren, isn’t doing their kids any good.

Photo: iStockphoto

When I was pregnant I had a stock joke. Whenever anyone asked me my baby’s gender, which was approximately 287 times a day, I’d stroke my enormous belly and say, “I’m having exactly what the world needs—another privileged white male.”

The joke was funny, I think, because nobody expects pregnant women to think about their babies in terms of labels, but in terms of love. In truth, I couldn’t have cared less about the gender of my unborn babies for the simple reason that I don’t really care much about their gender now that they exist. It’s not just that I don’t think it’s important—it’s that I don’t really believe it exists.

I minored in gender studies in the late 1990s, you see, and if there was a single takeaway from my otherwise sublimely impractical liberal arts degree, it was this: Gender is a cultural construct that bears little or no relation to the biologically sexed body. But how can this be, you might ask? It’s actually pretty simple once you get your head around it. Most babies are born with a penis or a vagina, but those genitals don’t always match up to a person’s gender identity, which is something far more complex, psychological, deeply personal and even potentially fluid. Now obviously we live in a world which has separate social mores for children born with one set of genitals or another, but when you think about it, how much of their girl- or boy-type behaviour has anything to do with what genitals they have? Like any nature-versus-nurture question, it’s impossible to answer, so when it comes to my own kids I like to stick to a simple rule: Equality, always.

“There is no such thing as girl colours and boy colours, or girl toys and boy toys,” I have told my sons over and over ad nauseum, like the tedious feminist broken record that I am. And to some extent it’s sunk in. My boys are both stereotypically “boyish” in their interests, but they also show an inherent tolerance for gender difference. For instance, I was recently walking home from school with James, age six, when he described an “epic tackle” in soccer practice by a kid named Scarlet. “Nice to hear that you’re playing with girls as well as boys,” I remarked. He corrected me. “Scarlet’s a boy.” My ears pricked at this. “How do you know?” I asked. James shrugged. “It’s obvious. You’d know if you met her. Plus she says she’s a boy… so she’s a boy.”

Mother and son holding hands while walking. Only their backs are shown. I’m not an amazing mom for accepting my transgender son He changed the topic after that but the conversation has stayed with me. It made me realise how inherently accepting kids can be when it comes to human diversity, and how relaxed they often are about differences that would make many adults deeply anxious or weirded out.

It wasn’t strange or even interesting to James that “Scarlet” is traditionally a girl’s name and that he was describing her with a female pronoun but identifying her as male. And I’m absolutely 100 percent certain he had no interest in whether she had a vagina or a penis. As adults, by contrast, we tend to categorize as a way of understanding the world. People, things or situations that don’t neatly fall into our predetermined, usually binary, sorting process, seem troubling for the simple reason that they destabilize our perceived sense of reality.

Children haven’t got much of a sorting system in place yet. The world is constantly confronting them with people, places and things they’ve never seen the likes of before. If our kids fear difference, it’s only because we teach them to do so, and if we are responsible parents, we won’t. This rule, more than anything else, is my single most cherished principle of parenting. That and, “Watch where you’re peeing.” And maybe also, “Wipe it up yourself.” But that’s pretty much it.

I recognize the fact that I’m swimming upstream here. Many people—perhaps most of us—are gripped by the notion that gender is singularly important, the defining characteristic in who and what we are.

And while in some ways our society seems to be making social progress toward a more fully realized state of gender equality, as parents we’ve become collectively more fixated on it. Part of the reason is simple market forces. Children’s toy and fashion marketers worked out long ago that there’s serious profit to be made from selling separate boy’s and girl’s versions of, well, just about everything. When I was a kid in the early 80s, I wore Osh Kosh overalls and played with gender-neutral Lego. Today I’d be in a Frozen dress playing Shopkins. Gender-neutral baby clothing used to be the default; now it’s a whole separate “progressive” consumer category. Calm down people, it’s a striped romper, not a revolution.

As modern consumer culture has become increasingly gendered, so to have the attitudes of many parents. I’m not just talking about the sort of people who place limits on their children based on the fact of their sex, but also people who throw parties and with special colour-coded cakes or balloons to reveal what flavour of baby they’re having.

My feelings about gender reveal parties is a bit like how I felt about people who’d peer into the pram when I had a newborn and ask, “Boy or a girl?” I’d feel a stab of annoyance and fight the urge to snap back, “Does it matter?”

The construct of gender is so limiting for so many children (and adults) that I completely understand why a small group of parents have the urge to scrap it altogether. What good is gender for young children? What’s it actually for, apart from placing a whole bunch of external social expectations on them that they may or may not wish to fulfil?

I have a neighbour who’s bringing up her first child (now age two) as gender non-binary, using the pronoun “they.” I laughed when she first told me. But she explained that, as a mother, she deeply wanted them (meaning her child) to decide how they felt about their gender when they were old enough to do so. After thinking about it for a while, I understood. That stab of annoyance I used to feel when people asked the sex of my newborn—this neighbour was simply acting on it. When I told my son that our neighbour’s new baby was neither a boy nor a girl but a “they” who would decide what to be later on, he was like, “Cool,” and went back to watching soccer highlights. Privileged white male or no, I think kids like him are exactly what the world needs more of.

Read more:
Transgender kids know their gender and the AAP says doctors should offer care accordingly
Can you actually raise a baby free from gender?

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