Monday, December 04, 2006

Boys and Girls

Today a woman from my mums' group had us over to help polish off some post-party goodies. Any time someone wants help eating something, I am always willing to lend a hand. I'm generous like that. So while we ate yummy bite-size cherry cheesecakes, cupcakes, banana bread and helped reduce a cheese ball, we watched like 8 babies crawl over one another and wrestle over toys. It was lovely mayhem, and I hadn't seen several of these women and their wee ones (who are not so wee) in months.


One woman arrived with her son and immediately began exclaiming over the two little girls who were there and how dainty and feminine they are. "I'm just not used to all this girly business. Oooh, look at your dainty hands, so feminine." Yes, those baby girls had some adorable girly outfits on and some lovely long lashes. But really. They're babies. How does feminine apply to a baby???

I mean, there's one boy who I see more frequently than most of the others who has the most graceful hands. When he's tired, he rhythmically twists them back and forth and occasionally sort of undulates them, a move I continue to have difficulty with in belly dance class. He has beautiful hands with long narrow fingers, and I love to watch what he's going to do next with them. If you didn't know he was a boy, you could perhaps describe his hands as feminine.

Before we left that same woman made another comment, this one about her son. "He's a real little boy, isn't he. There's no mistaking that he's a boy." Like this is a good and important quality in a baby. And since I'm a bitch and annoyed by those comments, I will take a moment to wonder, does she not notice his ski-jump nose??? If I were going to start labelling the babies with either feminine or masculine traits, I think I'd label that nose as decidedly feminine. But the thing is, he's a baby and they're all adorable in their own way and I don't really care about that crap. Their faces and bodies are going to change radically over the next twenty years and their baby-ness is what matters to me now.

I really don't care if someone thinks Swee'pea is a girl when we're out and about, because what's important is he's a baby and precious and adorable. And anyone can see that at first glance. That said, I haven't really dressed him in pink, and not just because I don't like pink and not just because it doesn't look as good on him as orange and brown and green. So I too am subject to some of these expectations.

Nevertheless, it really bothers me how culture wraps our babies in gender as tightly as the most proficient nurse's swaddling, even before they're born. When I was pregnant, the second question people asked me, after when is your due date, was invariably, do you know what you're having? I'd always respond jokingly, "well, we're hoping it's a baby." But I was also trying to make a point. We didn't find out from the ultrasound what sex Ezra was. Although I was sorely tempted to gather any information about him I could, I really wanted it to be a surprise and enjoyed speculating about whether it was a boy or a girl. And I was glad that when the baby kicked, I didn't think things like, "Oh she's going to be a dancer" if it were a girl, or "Oh, he's going to be a soccer star," if it was a boy. I laughed when one day one woman said to me, "Oh, you're definitely carrying a girl. Absolutely," and like 20 minutes later a man said, "I think you're having a boy."

But I didn't laugh when people said things like, "Oh boys are way easier than girls. Especially when they get to their teen years because you don't have to worry about boys, about what they're doing on dates." And I don't think that woman was talking about sexual assault either. I think she was talking about concern over teenage girls' sexuality.

I also know many people who won't buy baby gifts for expecting moms until the baby is born, so they know what kind of outfit is appropriate. This attitude maddens me.

I never really considered what it would mean to have a girl or a boy, beyond the naming issue. I was surprised when a friend of mine confessed that she was kind of relieved to have a boy because there's so much less risk of bad things happening to him than to a girl; things like sexual assault, kidnapping, eating disorders and body image issues, etc. etc. Not that boys are immune, just that the frequency of these things happening to boys is lower. I was surprised because I really hadn't considered that aspect before. And I think she's got a point. I think Mad Hatter and Her Bad Mother are right that there are different concerns raising a daughter from raising a son.

(Ack! I'm having such a hard articulating what my peeve is. I just keep throwing new examples into the mix hoping someone will be able to make sense of them.)

When my first niece was born, she was a talker, from three months old. I think her first word was meow and at one year old she knew the sounds of many many animals. She's always been shockingly verbal (I think she was about two years old or less when she talked about a meltdown she'd had the night before. "I was upset," she said. "I cried.") She will talk your ear off if given half a chance. As a baby her brother was always more interested in the mechanical side of things and in exploring what his body could do. At three months old he bounced instead of babbling. Where she would ask you to help her with something in no uncertain terms, he'd struggle endlessly to figure it out all by himself.

All this made me think that maybe there was something to the idea that boys and girls are different (outside of the obvious physical differences) because my niece and nephew were so different. Then my nephew started to talk and now the two of them can seriously screw with your head trying to keep up with their lines of conversation in the same room. Then my sister had my third niece, and she's more like my nephew was when he was her age. So I'm back to my original thought that babies are who they are, and it's not about sex or gender.

For me, it's a question of attribution. It's not cool to attribute a skill or personality trait to biological facts like hair colour or skin colour. So why do we insist on saying things about our babies, "Like, oh he's such a little boy; look at how he wields that toy drill or toy hammer."

When I was pregnant, I really didn't care whether I had a boy or a girl. Well, part of me wanted a girl because there are so many more great girl names than boy names, and because I would hope that I could help raise a girl to have a positive body image and healthy relationship with food. And part of me wanted a boy because I enjoyed the challenge of finding a great boy name from the smaller pool. I figured the sex of a baby would matter more the second time around, because the ideal situation is to have one boy and one girl. But now that I've had a baby, I see that it still doesn't matter if our next child (if there is one) is a boy or a girl. Because more than being a boy, Swee'pea is a person in himself. He comes from us and he has bits of us in him and around him, but he is his own person.


Domestic Slackstress said...

I'm (attempting) to raise two boys (ages 5 and 3) and a girl (age 2). Attempting to raise them from their cold/flu illness at the moment. I bought my boys baby dolls and toy strollers and bought my daughter tools. I think in doing so I was trying a little too hard to load the gender deck ... to veer them away from stereotypical gender roles. No matter what I do, my daughter is drawn to brushes, dollies, strollers and all things pink. My boys are drawn to knights, swords, sports and competitive games. My middle son, though, seems to go in any direction -- from sporting my high heels to smearing on colored lip gloss to saying that he "doesn't like" girl stuff to jousting like a crazed night with his brother to playing hardcore enthusiastic roller hockey outside. My husband seems to wrestle the boys more and tickle our daughter more. Since having a daughter, I've gotten in touch with my stereotypical feminine side, buying reams of skirts, matching earrings to my outfits and wearing all kinds of printed and zany scarves to "layer" my ensembles. What ever happened to hippie gender-bending with my non-fashion me? My newly turned over (or sashayed, shantayed) "feminine" leaf has been a pleasant shock. So what if my daughter inspired it? I'm going with it. Loved your insightful post. I'll be back.

Beck said...

Some moms drive me nuts with their "Oh, look at that burly baby boy" stuff, too. Babies are so sexless that it's just weird to say things like that. But I don't think that gender is just an artificial construct at all - why would it be? It both means a lot and not much at all - my son is both a boy and all that implies, but he's also an individual and needs to be parented as the person he is and not just as, you know, a penis-bearing individual.
Teenage girl sexuality - yeah. My husband and I have talked a lot about that - the implied idea that girls need to have their sexuality controlled MORE than boys is creepy. Our sexual morals are something that we want to pass onto all of our children and not just the female half.

Nancy said...

I also resisted finding out whether we were having a boy or a girl (with each pregnancy) -- one reason was because I thought it would be fun to be surprised, but also I didn't want people giving me overly pink and lacy or blue, truck-themed clothes, etc. I couldn't believe how many people were offended at the idea that we weren't finding out the sex ahead of time so that we could get the "appropriate" clothes and toys. We did primary colors and animal themes for the nursery and I love our decor. It worked fine for our girls and it would have been good for a boy as well.

It's interesting, though -- I seem to naturally have one very girly girl and one that's more tomboyish. Totally by nature and personality.

I like your point about the question of attribution. People wouldn't normally dream of categorizing babies because they had brown hair instead of blonde, etc. -- why do people think babies would act or look a certain way because they are boys or girls? The gender roles become prominent soon enough, why not just let them enjoy babyhood free of stereotypes that might drive behavior?

Lisa b said...

I completely agree that personality is more important than gender in determining behaviour. That said I notice that my daughter is interested in play that mimics people doing things like cooking, tucking the baby in etc. We were worried she was being socialised like this at daycare but we have never ever made a big fuss over her playing with a doll so it is hard to say why that is her favourite toy. Maybe there is something in it but I think it is dangerous to assume people will be a certain way because of their gender. There are always exceptions.

I think you are the only other person on the planet who did not find out the sex of the baby. It is a nice surprise but I did discover it is really hard to find cute gender neutral clothing.

bubandpie said...

I definitely worry about my daughter differently than my son when it comes to the pre-teen and teen years, but that's primarily because I think the culture of girls differs from that of boys. Aside from a few truly miserable victims, boys seem to be able to get by a bit better - they don't seem to turn cruelty into an art form in the way a 15-year-old girl is likely to do.

And I've taken comfort many a time in the observation that boys often talk later than girls. There are differences in language acquisition that even out later on.

But I love the fact that the Pie is surrounded by trucks and trains and power drills - I have yet to succeed, though, in interesting Bub in dolls. The best I can do is set up a good game of meal preparation at the giant plastic kitchen.

penelopeto said...

I'm glad you had a boy, because you will raise a great one, and this world needs more great men.

bee shares a nanny with a little boy, and it's been amazing watching them, trying to figure out which aspects of their personality are nature, and
which are nurture.

while my daughter's fine motor skills trump his, and his gross motor skills trump hers, most other things are pretty equal.

they play with 'babies' and trucks. I'm willing to just see what kind of play they naturally are drawn to, but his parents are much more concerned with this stuff. Lest anybody think he's a girl, they cut his gorgeous blond curls right off and send him over with cars and action figures. I won't even go into the fuss his dad made when our nanny braided his hair!

then again, bee wears a lot more pink than i ever thought i would put on my child.

penelopeto said...

p.s. we did not find out the sex of our babe until she was born, either.

good surprises are hard to come by.