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.
A love letter to Tristan, age 12
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