Writings on a baby’s body

On sisters and siblings

I made the mistake early in my pregnancy of asking the Boychick if he wanted a brother or a sister, meaning did he want one-of-the-above. But he heard me, paused for a moment, and announced “A sister!” I laughed, and tried again after explaining that we didn’t get to choose, but he was undeterred. From then on, he was adamant that a sister he would have.

And then came the baby, vulva first. (The line that ran through my head at the birth, which we weren’t expecting to be breech, was “I don’t think scalps have mucus membranes.”) We explained again, as we had throughout the pregnancy, that we were making a guess about her gender, based on her genitals, and we wouldn’t know if she was a girl until she told us, just like we didn’t know he was a boy until he told us1. He was fine with this (it helps, I think, that he has an openly trans man in his life, so he’s familiar with vulva-but-not-a-girl) — as long as we were clear that she was his sister. “Sibling” just would not do.

So sister she is. And she she is, for the moment, as long as English insists on gendered pronouns. Oh, I could refer to her online as ze or s/he, but the truth is, we don’t do that in person, and it seems overly pretentious to do it online alone.

On pronouns and provisional assignments

Which, of course, begs the question: why is she she? Why do we, The Man and I, advocates of gender diverse parenting that we are, assign gender at all, no matter how provisionally? I’ve been asked this before, even been attacked because of it, and had my “commitment” to the “cause” be questioned.

Not, please note, by anyone with children of their own.

Because here’s the thing: this parenting gig? It’s fucking hard. It’s hard intrinsically, one of the most physically, emotionally, and mentally challenging activities one can engage in in life, and certainly the one with the longest haul and hardest hurdles to “quitting”. And my society, my dear, pressures-all-(privileged)-women-to-be-mothers-but-forget-about-actually-supporting-them society, makes it so, so much harder.

All parents are attacked for their choices by somebody2; any parent making a choice outside of the “mainstream” gets attacked even more viciously, by even more people; and the more marginalized a parent is, the more the attacks come not “just” in words3 but in tangible, terrifying ways.

Nearly every time I write about gender diverse/gender “neutral” parenting, I have a queer parent or a trans parent or a parent on public assistance or a parent dependent on the goodwill of their disapproving family tell me that they would be so much more radical/subversive/gender-diverse in their choices if they weren’t afraid they would lose custody of their children.

They have reason to be afraid.

I’m reasonably protected from the most catastrophic of the consequences, apparently living in a socially-condoned heterocentric, white, middle-class relationship — but even I still have so much shit to deal with, with my finite mental/emotional resources, that there’s only so much I can do. There are only so many choices I can make that take me out of the mainstream and into even-deeper public scrutiny, and still, y’know, survive.4 So I make the ones I do, the ones I can, the ones I am willing to defend in the face of the worst of the judgment.

(Just for not enforcing gender roles with my children, I am called a cunt and a dyke and a fucking crazy bitch and told I should have my children removed. There are all too real consequences for stepping out of kyriarchy’s line, before it even comes to the level of custody issues. It is not only unreasonable but actively harmful, a means of perpetuating kyriarchy and oppression, to demand that parents, already attacked on all sides, do all the work raising children radical. Society has to help make it reasonably safe for us to do so, as well.)

Vulva Baby or the Girlchick?

Girlchick seems the obvious blog moniker for this new child of mine, doesn’t it? We have a child with a penis, the eponymous Boychick, who was given that name years before his gender was self-declared, and now we have a child with a vulva. And I tried it on, used it in a post, tweeted it a handful of times — but it never sat right with me.

I look at this child, and I don’t see “girl”. I see a baby, as her brother was once a baby; nothing screamed “boy” about him, the occasional acquaintance’s comments to the contrary, and nothing announces “girl” about her. She is very much not her brother: she spits up less, and farts more; she is happier to be in a carrier when awake, but more often prefers facing to the side instead of towards me; her elimination signals are clearer, and she wakes more frequently at night; her hair is redder, her eyes less goopy, her scalp more bumpy, her digits shorter. And she has a vulva. What about this makes her a “girl”, if we are to avoid essentializing gender to genitalia?

When strangers ask me “Boy or girl?”5, I’m apt to answer “she’s a she”, because saying “girl” just doesn’t feel right, or honest, or accurate; this answers the question they really need to know6, which is what language to use to talk about this adorable being. But it seems nearly obscene to that heavily put a gender on an infant this young; can’t she just be a baby for a little while, before we start telling her what role to play?

Resolving the conflict

That may seem like a contradiction, this use of “she”, this (mostly) avoidance of “girl”. But one is about survival in a society antagonistic to non-gendering; the other is saying “this far and no farther”. I cannot stop all damage from being done to this perfect child of mine, but I will do what I can to minimize it. I won’t pretend that she’ll be unaffected by others’ perceptions of her, but I will help her be aware of them; I won’t tell her what her gender is, but I will tell her what her society thinks her gender should be; I won’t subject her to every strangers’ disapproval of alternative pronouns, but I will tell her she can choose another if she likes; I will tell her she has a vulva, but I won’t tell her she has to stay that way. And I will tell her I will always, always, always love her, whoever she turns out to be.

  1. He started declaring “I’m a boy!” around a year ago, at 3.5 years.
  2. No, really — that is the point of the “mommy wars”: there is no winning. It truly does not matter which “side” you fall on, because there’s the mass media, telling you how much the “other” side thinks you’re ruining your children/going to hell/Doin It Rong. Fun! Only, not.
  3. As though the psychoemotional toll of verbal abuse isn’t itself a problem?
  4. For someone with a set of mood disorder diagnoses that is the most lethal of those tracked, this is not hyperbole.
  5. Or, the strangest comment I’ve received yet: “I’m sorry, I can’t tell from here, is that a boy or a girl?” Like you could know if she weren’t inside the wrap?
  6. Yes, need, until English eliminates the need for gendered pronouns.
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22 Responses to Writings on a baby’s body

  1. Awesome post. I will confess I have been feeling a little squicky about the vulva baby moniker if only because I have tried hard to avoid using terms for body parts as insults or descriptives (ie. dick head). Part of me wondered why boychick and vulva baby instead of penis baby and girlchick? I can appreciate your explanation about why girlchick squicks you out but in the end the only thing that matters is what works for you. I find it frightening that those of us who challenge social mores run the risk of losing our children, our rights, and our access because we have crossed some line that someone somewhere totally unconnected to how I see the world has said this is where “norm” stops and “abnorm” begins. Thank you!

  2. On footnote 5, I could see that (if it’s someone you don’t know well — I assume not) if they were worried about offending you with a guess; I gather they were looking for external hints? Maybe a large sign or one of those “cute” onesies they make for baby girls that say things like, “Daddy’s Little Princess” in Scriptina?

    The post is interesting, I just don’t have any more intelligent thoughts that, “Maybe number #5 was trying, at least.”

  3. Fascinating. Brilliant. So very true. Thanks for sharing- missed your posts!

  4. If I weren’t six months pregnant, I’d be jumping up and down right now over the brilliance of this post. (The jumping up and down has become mighty uncomfortable, however. So I’ll let my squirmy fetus jump for me.)

    There’s so much wisdom here, especially in your last paragraph. Because this is the beauty and shitstorm of parenting, this trying to give our children the tools to navigate both themselves and their own bodies and the society that will both impinge upon them and (I hope, oh I hope) open up all sorts of amazing possibilities for them. And I think that you give your children an enormous gift just for simply caring about this at all.

    The caring counts for something, doesn’t it?

  5. Great post, as usual. Yes, I really get it, that this is a wonderful baby, and that’s enough. It just shouldn’t matter at less-than-two-months old what gender of baby it is; the baby is wonderful and delightful and amazing, and cute and full of all kinds of potential that need not be limited by gender. Since I was a (cloth)diapering mother back in the day, I used to say that the only difference at that age was which side of the diaper got the double-fold. With EC there’s not even that!

  6. Heather Freeman

    Something I always liked about “boychick” was the pairing of the male identifier with an animal that is frequently constructed as feminine. A possible approach to a counterpart once she outgrows the baby part of “vulva baby” would be “girlpup” or girl paired with a juvenile male-constructed animal.

    (pardon typos or awkward phrasings; sent from my iPhone :)

    • I thought the same thing. I thought of girlpup but I think I like girlcub even better. Not that I don’t like vulva baby as a pseudonym, I do. I just have an above-average fondness for symmetry.

  7. I’m not brave enough, or perhaps just not aware enough, to be fully gender neutral in raising my own little vb, who just turned 1, but I’m constantly irritated by the remarks I get about the clothing choices I make for the squeaker. I was moved to draw a cartoon, which I had not done in months, to express my ire, and my hat is off to you for continuing to write and blog: I can just manage one tiny personbaby. Your continued work and creativity with 2 tiny people to take care of is inspiring.
    Here’s a link to the cartoon. Hope you get a giggle from it. http://vmlojwclog.blogspot.com/2011/09/cross-dressing-babies.html

  8. This is so spot on. I like the idea of pushing people’s perspectives on gender, but I don’t actually have the energy for it. It would take constant explanation to everyone my child meets and then some and ugh, no, parenting is hard enough

  9. Agree, as always. I was always annoyed when people wanted to girlify my babies, they’re just babies for goonesssakes, just let them be! We’re not activists by any stretch of the imagination, but my 4yo already knows that a girl doesn’t have to stay that way if she doesn’t want to. Anyway, at the moment, her plan is to get married to her best (girl)friend. The fact that her parents aren’t married is quite irrelevant.

  10. I’m a relatively new reader of your blog, but this is the first post I’ve felt I must comment on. Really only because I want to say “thank you.” Thank you. As a former-vulva-baby who is not (and never was) a girl, but continues to try to make sense of this to his mother, I’m so glad to read this entry. I can only imagine what it would be like to have a mother like that.

    A more general point: love the blog. My partner and I are trying to conceive and I’m looking for all the resources I can find about raising “gender-neutral,” or perhaps better put, “gender savvy” kids. Very glad to have found this one!

  11. Thank you for opening my eyes to a new (to me) way of looking at gender!!! You sound like an amazing open minded parent! Keep up the good work!!!

  12. I think that really, our ultimate role as parents is to provide our children a safe space to express who they are, and honour them when they do. If you’re doing that, well, the rest is mostly window-dressing.

    Although it totally, totally sucks that we can catch so much flack over that window dressing.

  13. You’re right – it’s exhausting, this parenting business, even without attempting to be an activist for justice on top of it. I teach my children about their ethnic heritage, I get people asking why I am making such a big deal about race when they both pass for white; Libra wears pink crocs and shirts with rainbows, and I get people insisting that boys don’t like pink and rainbows are gay; I refer to my partner as my partner instead of my husband and people huff at my “political correctness.” It’s a damn long tunnel, and I don’t always or even usually have the energy to educate the ignorant.

    So, thank you, for this. It’s good to know we’re not alone in our attempts to raise radical, inclusive kids.

  14. Thank you for this, Arwyn. I appreciate how intentional you are about your choices surrounding parenting and gender. I agree that until our language changes, there’s only so far I can go without greatly inconveniencing myself in the process. It’s unfair that people feel the right to label you (at all, much less so harshly) for your parenting style, and for that I’m sorry. I think your kids are lucky to have such an aware and mindful set of parents.

  15. Interesting post. I think about these same questions myself A LOT. Like you, I do way less gendering of my children than almost anyone I know in my community and way more gendering of them than I can reconcile with my politics. I can’t entirely get to the bottom of why – I tried exploring it but I didn’t have a lot of luck – thought maybe it was something about the fun of dress-ups and that some of the gendering stuff is almost ceremonial in our culture.

    But anyway, I have wondered how you and other feminist mothers on-line would answer all this so it was nice to find your post.

    • I think that’s a really interesting point about gender as ceremonial. I mean, it’s meaning, right? Symbols. There’s no inherent meaning to a colour or a cut of clothes, but we make meanings from those all the time (sex attribution, masculine, feminine, cultural, religious, whatever).

      At its most intense it has totemic quality, like how “pink” functions in Anglo countries – both in the normative girling and the negative ZOMG turningboysgayortransorsomething reactions. Stands for much, much more than simply aesthetics which is sort of fascinating to me.

  16. “I look at this child, and I don’t see “girl”. I see a baby, as her brother was once a baby; nothing screamed “boy” about him, the occasional acquaintance’s comments to the contrary, and nothing announces “girl” about her.”

    You’ve captured what I’ve felt about both my children (a Boychick & a VulvaBaby), and have been chastised (by strangers & family) about my choices for their clothing and playthings.

    Your writing has sharpened my understanding of the issues and given me a vocabulary for engaging others in useful discussions of choices I had (prior to reading your work) made on instinct alone. Thank you for encouragement, knowledge and wisdom.

  17. Well, ISNA suggests that children be assigned a provisional gender at birth because people have great difficulty relating to genderless people AS people. Not that that couldn’t/shouldn’t/mightn’t change, but at the moment that’s where we are. I wrote about this matter when my first daughter was a baby–people worried about her being too girlie or not girlie enough and the pressure to make her conform as her parents. It sucks when a baby is a bay because you have to decide FOR a baby what to do about it all and it feels awkward and unnatural no matter what you decide. We used to just go “oh my god that [clothing item of whatever color or technical gender assignment] is soooo cute!” and put her in it. You have hand-me-downs you can use, presumably, as an excuse for whatever you do. But I have to say, it’s taken my kids to age 6 and 4 to show much preference about what they wear, and sadly, it seems to be more a reflection of peer pressure than taste or desire. So who knows how it will all shake down in the end?

  18. For some reason I was thinking about you and wondering how everything was going with the new baby and it popped into my head that maybe “Girlcub” would be a moniker you’d like.

  19. Great post! I wish English did not require nor provide these gender pronouns. I love your response, “she is a she.”

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