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.
- He started declaring “I’m a boy!” around a year ago, at 3.5 years. ↩
- 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. ↩
- As though the psychoemotional toll of verbal abuse isn’t itself a problem? ↩
- For someone with a set of mood disorder diagnoses that is the most lethal of those tracked, this is not hyperbole. ↩
- 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? ↩
- Yes, need, until English eliminates the need for gendered pronouns. ↩