Wednesday, December 7, 2011

'are you having a boy or a girl?'

I think this was the most common question I was asked while pregnant, followed closely by ‘you must be very excited’ (more of statement really, but the question is implied) and ‘can I touch your tummy?’ (this was also sometimes implied as the odd person just touched it without even asking). Asking the baby’s gender is a fairly conventional question - although it ignores the small possibility that the baby may be born with the sexual characteristics of both genders - and not one that you would think would cause much controversy.

In my perverse way, however, I felt unwilling to answer it, feeling that there were some things about the baby that I wanted to keep private until she was born (the name we chose was another). I also felt that she was - and we were - going to have to deal with the weight of cultural meanings of gender soon enough. I’m already dreading dealing with demands for a princess dress when she’s a pre-schooler, so I wanted - perhaps naively - to have some space where she could just ‘be’, rather than ‘be a girl’. I could of course have avoided the question by not finding out the sex of the baby during the scan. But, as I sometimes peek at the ending of murder mysteries or Google the winner of Project Runway halfway through the season, the likelihood of my not finding out was small.

So, how to answer the question? Being a mostly honest person, I didn’t want to lie and say that we hadn’t found out. Instead, we adopted a strategy - borrowed from a former workmate of mine - of saying that we knew, but wanted to keep it a secret. This had the advantage of being true. It did, however, generate a number of confused ‘O .... Ks’, and the odd inane comment such as ‘well, I’ll know if it’s a boy or girl when you come back from lunch with lots of pink or blue clothes.’ Apparently it had never occurred to this person that one of the reasons I didn’t want people to know is that I wanted to stave off gendered reactions and satorial choices for as long as possible, and was therefore extremely unlikely to come back from a shopping trip with either blue or pink clothes.

Such gendered colour choices are not ‘natural’, and it was not always the case that babies wore their gender. Before the twentieth century in the West, both boy and girl babies were dressed the same, usually in white gowns. Gendered clothes were not introduced until boys were ‘breeched’ and girls adopted smaller versions of the dresses their mothers wore.

Aside from one or two small pronoun slips that mostly passed under the radar (I think), my husband and I kept mum on the subject until after the birth. Until then, the gifts that we received were neutral: mobiles, toys, green or white blankets. As soon as the baby was born, and her gender was revealed, nearly every single gift we received was pink. I don’t wish to appear ungrateful, as it was obviously very generous of all the gifters to give us something, but even I was surprised by the amount of pink. My baby, however, took to both pink and other colours with a laudable lack of discrimination.

But it’s not just about an aesthetic objection on my part to pink. I’m not opposed to any other colour, nor am I particularly opposed to dresses and skirts. As a baby, my daughter has no more idea about what pink signifies than she does any other colour. What it’s primarily about is the desire to know, and, once the gender is known, to categorise and pigeonhole. Once people knew that we had had a girl, not only were we showered with pink gifts, but also unthinking gendered assumptions. Some of these included: ‘girls are so contrary’, ‘she looks like a real girl’, ‘dad’ll have to watch out for the boys‘ and so on. I’m not sure what most of these even mean, nor how age-appropriate they are (boy trouble at six months? Really?)

It works both ways, of course. I have heard people say of baby boys things like ‘he really likes trucks, he’s such a little boy.’ My daughter likes trucks too - is she such a little boy? Or, alternatively, I have heard people censure even very young boys for crying, suggesting they ‘be brave’ instead, or for liking conventionally feminine toys.

In the fantastic Delusions of Gender, Cordelia Fine relates the heart-breaking letter of a mother of a young boy, at her wits’ end over her son’s preference for ‘girly’ clothes and dolls. While she had been inclined to let him be, her husband - not ordinarily a macho man at all - was determined that he should play football and like ‘boys’ toys’ or other people would laugh at him. Her husband actively discouraged the boy’s favoured toys and told him off when he acted ‘like a sissy’. What is so sad about this, I think, is that the father was trying, in his own way, to protect the boy from bullies and ridicule, but in doing so was bullying and ridiculing him and teaching him that it was not OK to be himself. He seemed oblivious to the fact that, as the boy’s father, his own relationship to his son was far more important than those with his peers or other adults.

This is an extreme example, and I don’t wish by any means to suggest that I disapprove of conventionally feminine things, which would just mean inverting a binary opposition: girls’ things bad, boys’ things good. But I do wish for my daughter the option to sample lots of different things and experiences, not just those that are considered ‘feminine’ and suitable for girls, and find out what suits her in her quest for her own subjectivity. After all, to paraphrase Simone de Beauvoir, ‘one is not born, but rather becomes, a girl’. By broadening out what ‘being a girl’ could mean in the here and now means less constriction for both little girls and boys.

And surely that can only be a good thing?