Early in my first pregnancy, we decided against finding out the sex of our baby. “One of the few surprises in life,” people told me. There was more to it than that, though.
I didn’t want my unborn baby to be gendered before birth, to be born into a room decorated according to stereotypes or dressed in a wardrobe of pinks or blues. For as long as possible, I wanted this baby to remain a baby— a miracle, and nothing more.
My newborn clothes were browns, creams and yellows. From the very beginning, I set out to raise children who are not defined by gender, who could see opportunities for themselves across a broad spectrum of interests.
It surprised me when I realized my own bias. I’m now determined to correct it.
Our first child was a boy, and as soon as he was born, the “It’s a Boy!” cards arrived in the mail, along with the sports paraphernalia and a “Handsome Like Daddy” onesie. I was too tired to fight it most days, but I enjoyed those moments when he was dressed in a periwinkle sweater set knitted by my mom and strangers exclaimed, “How sweet! How old is she? What’s her name?” The slightest bent toward lavender threw them off.
I answered by simply saying, “He’s three months,” or “His name is Robert.”
Next, the unnecessary apology. “I’m so sorry! I thought…”
Less than two years later my daughter was born, and my ideals became more confusing. When she was only a few days old, a relative described her as “such a pretty girl.” My stomach twisted in knots, discomfort replacing postpartum cramping. Eliza had a shock of slick black hair, pink skin, little eyes and pursed lips. She couldn’t hold her head up and had plump rolls under her chin when I cradled her. This time I wanted to scream, “No, she is not! She is a beautiful, healthy baby.” I held my breath and sighed.
For me, the word beautiful captured the whole child, the beauty of life. Pretty is on the surface only. I did not intend to raise a “pretty” girl.
As Robert grew up, he broke away from my ungendered grip and gravitated toward traditionally boyish things. He dressed up in fireman and superhero costumes, learned the name of every type of digger, and was usually in motion. Robert is emotionally sensitive, nurturing, expressive and cuddly. He’s a multi-faceted seven-year-old, yet I’ve heard people say that he’s “all boy.” It’s a positive in their eyes. Robert still loves to play make-believe, but mostly does it with friends who are girls and with his sister. He now only sings around his family.
During Eliza’s toddler years, she gravitated toward more traditionally feminine activities while also emulating her brother. She loves running, riding her bike, playing games, building and drawing with all colors of the rainbow, but her favorites are pink and purple. She creates make-believe worlds, plays family and has pretend sleepovers.
No one ever refers to her as “all girl.”
I don’t hear people say “all girl” very often. It has less-positive connotations than “all boy,” which is part of the problem. Does being “all girl” mean being a frilly, superficial people-pleaser? Does it mean being unathletic?
Robert picked out a bright blue bike for his fourth birthday. When Eliza turned four, back when I was still guilty of my bias, we went to a bike shop. She enthusiastically selected a shiny magenta bike. We begged her to pick the red one instead. That way, when her younger brother, Ian, got older, he could use it without complaining or turning heads. It seemed practical to us but sent a powerful message to her.
She cried, we gave in, and she proudly pedals her pink bike down our street every day. Looking back, I see the glaring inequity.
I didn’t expect my daughter to adhere to traditionally feminine labels, but because the stereotypes made me feel so uncomfortable, I actively avoid them.
By not attending to Eliza’s interests in pink, purple and princesses, and by showing a preference for gender-neutral activities, I was stifling a side of her and sending a message that her feminine interests are less desired.
It was okay for Robert and any of the kids to watch Bob the Builder or Paw Patrol, but I shied away from Sophia the First and cringed a bit when Eliza dressed in a gown and tiara, not wanting to encourage examples of superficial beauty or frailty.
It made no sense. Eliza’s princess isn’t a weak victim; she’s a spirited activist saving a bed-full of stuffed animals. There is no prince in the picture.
I had the same reaction to Eliza’s princess play that I had to Robert’s imaginary play that involved bad guys and weapons: If I ignore it, it will go away. I value imaginary play, both as a parent and as an educator. But I was simply more comfortable with the play that hovered in the middle of the gender continuum than the scenarios that explored the extremes.
The extremes are where the questions lie, where children’s fears and sense of self and power can be explored. Instead of encouraging my children to make sense of the world through role-playing, I worried about how gender stereotypes might interfere and projected my own goals onto my children. Despite good intentions, I was inhibiting their growth, not broadening their horizons.
Eliza’s interest in accessories and sparkly things does not define her; it is a piece of her, like her interest in math or gardening. It’s something that makes her feel good and is also a connection she feels with me, her mother, the only other female in the house. Even though I have never been one to wear makeup, style my hair or put much thought into clothing and accessories, she notices slight efforts.
On occasions when I go out for dinner or even to meet a friend for lunch, I throw on a dress, upgrade my purse, apply lip-gloss and wear shoes with a heel. The first time I wore heels after Ian was born, Eliza called them my “Mommy Shoes” and followed me around the apartment. It had probably been over six months since she’d seen me dressed up, and she couldn’t contain her excitement. Eliza was watching and learning, looking for signs of self expression in her mother.
She admires the femininity she sees in me. Why would I discourage that?
I’ve come to embrace acceptance as my goal, taking strides to be truly open-minded and supportive when it comes to my children’s interests. I point out examples of people who follow their passions, both men and women, while giving my children the freedom to find their own paths. We go to museums and plays more often, experiences I love sharing with my children as much as my husband enjoys playing sports with them. It was almost as though in my early years of parenting I forgot about my own diverse hobbies at different stages of my life and how they shaped me.
Eliza recently attended a fairy princess tea party with some of her schoolmates. A year ago, I wouldn’t have signed up for the party. Instead, I smiled as she sprinted and spun around the yard in her best fairy princess dress, exuding joy and confidence. That is what childhood is all about.
Rather than guide my children’s gender choices to be neutral, I try to foster gender openness and diversity. This means valuing both sides of the coin. Actually, it means seeing gender not as a coin at all, but as something complex, unique and beautiful: a crystal, a snowflake, a rainbow.
Alison Cupp Relyea is a writer, former teacher and mother of three. She lives in Rye, NY with her husband and kids. You can read more at her blog.