I sat frozen in the hard, plastic lecture chair, staring at the blond nurse speaking at the front of the room. “…And then Mum pushes the rest of the baby out,” she said, cheerfully setting down the baby doll who had been resting in her right arm. I was in shock, mouth agape—she seemed completely unaware of how exclusionary her gendered language was.
I reminded myself that the evening wasn’t about me—I was attending the prenatal class to support a friend who was eight months pregnant. Her partner couldn’t make it, so I was the stand-in. I wished I could have done a better job, but I was too uncomfortable. Not because of the bloody, crowning head I watched emerge from someone’s vagina onscreen, but because of the language the nurse was using. Everything she said mentioned the “mother” or “woman” as a way to describe people who are about to give birth. I considered saying something to her after the class, but by the end of the two hours I just wanted to leave.
I brought it up to my friend after the class. She nodded and tried to listen, but it didn’t seem to bother her. (Also, let’s face it, she had other, more pressing things on her mind.) As the days passed, though, I couldn’t stop thinking about the nurse’s choice of language, and how common it is. As far as this nurse is concerned, mothers are women and fathers are men and babies are either girls or boys. I’m not attacking her for it. These are the assumptions most people make. But as a non-binary, or gender-nonconforming, person, it’s deeply alienating—it feels like, as far as the medical community is concerned, I don’t exist.
Gender identity isn’t as simple as the nurse would have us believe. It’s so much more varied and nuanced than that. This can be hard to understand for those who have no exposure (or who think they have no exposure) to trans people. But basically, not everyone born with a vagina is a woman, and not everyone born with a penis is a man. Some people assigned female at birth and who grow up socialized as girls are actually men, and vice versa. Some people, like me, don’t conform to any gender at all, and identify instead as non-binary. Not all mothers give birth, and not all people who give birth identify as mothers—if they’re trans men or non-binary folks with more masculine identities, they might be dads. And for some trans parents, words like “mom” and “dad” may not apply at all—they might simply call themselves parents, or invent new words that make more sense for them and their families. These people all need to be included in conversations about parenting.
Right now, that happens all too rarely. In order to model inclusive, safe behaviour for their children, parents need to change their language to reflect the true diversity of families.
I used to be sure I wanted a totally child-free life. Now, I’m 30, and performing it well. My life looks totally unlike what I expected. I live in a small seaside town. I’m in a loving relationship with a man who brings coffee to my bedside in the morning and holds me while I sleep (albeit while snoring at an alarming decibel level). Our weekends involve batch cooking, early-morning yoga and garden-centre outings. A number of my friends are becoming parents, and I’m starting to ask myself whether I might, in the next few years, want to become a parent, too. But it’s hard for me to entertain any possibility of having kids when mainstream parenting culture looks this way, and when joining it means I will be constantly misgendered.
A lot of my discomfort with parenting lies in its preoccupation with gender. Just the idea of pregnancy brings up intense feelings of body dysphoria, or the feeling that my body doesn’t comply with my idea of myself. Between that and stereotypical constructs like pink for girls, blue for boys, and yummy-mummy dates, it feels like there is no room for people like me.
Framing motherhood as something inextricable from women with uteruses can make non-binary people, trans men, and women (cis and trans) who aren’t able to conceive children feel as though we don’t count. As though nobody sees us, and our concerns don’t matter. Shutting us out of the conversation can make us feel worthless, contributing to the already-high rates of depression in our communities.
According to Sharn Peters, who runs the EarlyON Child and Family Centre at the 519 (a queer-focused community centre in Toronto), trans people usually notice when they’re not being accounted for. “Families feel isolated and disrespected by those who should be their supporters, such as nurses, other professionals involved in their lives and educators,” she says. “The negative impact is not only in the moment when trans or non-binary parents are being misgendered, but it extends much further, as it adds to the marginalization and erasure of the community.” Service providers should be mindful of the language they use, she says, to avoid contributing to those harms.
Binary language can make our kids feel like outcasts, too. The majority of parents, trans ones included, are deciding to raise their children as cisgender, meaning they refer to their children as the gender most people see as corresponding with the sex they were assigned at birth. But we know trans children recognize their true genders as early as their toddler years. We also know that failing to affirm a child’s gender can, in the worst cases, lead to severe depression and suicide ideation later in life.
Despite what trans people know about themselves, enhanced discussion about trans rights and lawmakers’ moves to recognize us, there is very little actual talk about concrete ways for parenting culture to better include trans parents and children. In a world full of micro-aggressions against trans people, and where, according to one report, three in five people misgender trans people on purpose, a little love from the parenting community could make all the difference. There are ways to validate gender variance that don’t necessarily involve raising a fully gender-neutral child, and adopting some of these tactics might create more room for kids to grow and form their own identities.
There are obvious ways, like encouraging them to gravitate toward what they like rather than what’s expected of their assigned gender. Referring to your child sometimes with gender-neutral words like baby, toddler or child rather than as a boy or a girl could be a relatively simple nudge toward inclusion, rather than always stressing the gender you’ve assigned to them. Making clear that your mommy group welcomes people other than cis women is another.
“Use [the right] pronouns, celebrate all types of family configuration and all types of diversity within those configurations,” Peters advises. “Language and visuals of chest-feeding and not just breastfeeding is an example of being supportive to families.”
The first step in this, she says, is an intensely critical look at services for parents and families, analyzing all steps of the customer/client journey to replace any heteronormative behaviour and language with more inclusive, respectful and welcoming language. For me, it would have made a big difference if the nurse at my friend’s prenatal class had said “pregnant people” instead of always defaulting to “women” or “moms.”
“Don’t make assumptions and do not use heteronormative language,” Peters says. Instead of directing your child to “ask Jaymie’s mommy,” for example, you could say, “Ask Jaymie’s adult.” This teaches kids that parents are humans first, and makes more space to recognize a variety of identifiers later.
Changing language can be hard. Parenting is not completely off the table for me, and these cultural problems are not the only barrier. But the culture feels too exclusive right now, and it makes not being a parent feel like less of a choice. Using language that acknowledges everyone won’t remove cisgender women from parenting conversations, but it will make sure trans people feel safe. That’s a crucial feeling to have for a population that is often marginalized and erased.
Please don’t misunderstand—I am here for women’s stories being heard and centred. If anything, mothers should receive more care, love and attention. But I also want to see the same visibility and welcome extended to trans and gender-nonconforming parents. Almost all of the issues that affect mothers affect trans and non-binary parents, too. So why are we so quick to leave these people out of the conversation?
Sarah Ratchford, a journalist who writes on sex and consent, is fuelled by Americanos and survivor love.
This article was originally published online in July 2018.