Monthly Archives: January 2016

Gendered from birth: our obsession with baby junk


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I’m 33 weeks pregnant on Sunday and there’s one question I’d be pleased to never hear again.

Is it a boy or a girl?

A variation of this question includes what is it? And my personal favourite: do you know what you’re having?

I’ve begun laughingly answering to those with whom I feel comfortable enough oh, we’re having a whale shark. A puppy. A wombat. It’s a semi gracious way to sideline the question and convey that I’m uncomfortable with it, with levity for good measure.

With those I don’t feel comfortable I usually say oh we just want a surprise. I loathe saying this because it is untrue – we actually aren’t telling anybody what junk our baby has, much less allowing others to make that the basis of gender delusions – yet this is the only socially acceptable way I can squirm out of the question without getting into a huge treatise on sex and gender politics. Which I’m not always up for – sometimes the person asking me is a midwife, or a co-worker, or a neighbour, and I’m tired and sore and hungry and just don’t want to get into it right then and there.

This question means a lot though. It tells me so much about how far we have to go when the list of questions about a baby’s identity begins with gender interrogation. It shows how little we know collectively about gender and how it works. How we effortlessly conflate sex and gender, and how sex and gender really still matter. Even though we try to convince ourselves that we’ve evolved, I’m not sure we have.

This mattering, this essential base need to know what a baby’s genitals are before we can respond meaningfully to them or connect with them, is so troubling to me. It is rife with projection and reproduction of stereotypes and roles and bio-essential notions and it is the ground zero of all of that. It is where it begins.

Just as a baby’s life begins as cells divide (disclaimer: I am pro choice! Don’t get distracted, I’m being figurative here), I feel their gender journey begins with people putting them into pink and blue boxes. And encouraging parents to with that relentless bloody question, what is it?

It is a useful question from a social function perspective, in that it is a tool for constructing identity from birth, but time and again evidence is showing us how gender stereotypes are toxic and punishing to children. Yes, you can gender your child at birth based on their physical sex characteristics and still work against stereotypes and rigidity and there are many ways to parent in a gender neutral, or gender questioning way. But as parents we should never forget that gender is assigned. It is not, at birth, who children are. We grow into gender, work it out, or don’t. Gender is a mess and nobody decides but us.

Our choice to not assign gender at birth or disclose our child’s physical sex characteristics to anyone beyond those who may need to know for physical care reasons (such as doctors) is a very personal one, and I don’t think it is more “right” than people who assign gender at birth and work on challenge gender notions along the way. There’s a lot of different ways to go about this stuff, and gender is a mysterious muddle we all blunder through together. For us, it feels weird to announce what our baby’s junk is, and all that it would invite to do that feels even weirder.

Cordelia Fine blew my mind when she talked about (in her book Delusions of Gender) how we speak to boy and girl assigned children differently. How we provide for them differently, nurture them differently, teach them differently. I don’t know if I can disrupt all of these things in myself but I can certainly deprive everyone else, for a while, of the main lens through which they may interpret my child. I want them to have a chance for a while at least to just be a child. To just be a human. A person.

I’ll respect, also, whatever my child indicates about themselves. And I acknowledge that some gendering will inevitably happen along the way because we are all subject to and swept into this gender “stuff”. However, I won’t accept rigidity around gender as a fait accompli. I know agency is a myth (thanks Foucault) but you still have to have a crack at things. Do what you can with what you have. And hope for the best.

I resolve, first and foremost, to never ask my pregnant friends what they’re having. It’d be nice if every one else could stop caring about this too – because it shouldn’t matter what’s between a baby’s legs. If it does matter to you, enough to continually hound an expectant parent, that’s on you, not them.


Bodily autonomy: from birth


It interests me how much right people feel to cuddle a newborn.

The desire to is understandable – they’re cute. They have smooshy, squished up, grunty little faces and they do baby farts and their tiny fingers are delicate and amazing.

But when this desire to hold a newborn tips over into a feeling of entitlement to hold them, I think we see something very different.

When you get huffy or upset or pressure new parents about not “getting a hold” you’re really saying that this baby is an object that exists for your gratification, instead of a person with needs and rights that you holding them may not meet in that moment.

It seems radical to some people to say that babies are people with rights. They are, though. Their bodies aren’t consumables and they don’t exist for our entertainment and pleasure. In fact, babies have no duties to us. Nor do the parents of newborns. Their role is instead to keep their babies safe, and sometimes “safe” means comforted, calm, close to their parents, and not in the arms of strangers (and yes, close family are strangers to a tiny human who has been in the world not long at all).

At 31 weeks pregnant I know I will never feel guilty for denying people cuddles with my baby once they are born if I feel it isn’t right for them to be held by someone else at that time. As their guardian, it’ll be my job to work out when being held by someone other than me is appropriate or not.

As they age, it’s going to be part of a larger patchwork of teaching them that their bodies are their own; and nobody has a right to touch them if they don’t want to be touched. There’ll be no forced cuddles in our house.

Bodily autonomy from birth means that we are our own; and touch should always be invited, appropriate and optional. Until babies can show us – and they do, quickly – who they want to be held by, and who they don’t, it’s our job to watch them closely for cues, and make decisions based on them.


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