Thursday, September 29, 2011

Raising a Toddler in a Gendered World

Perhaps our family thinks about gender and gender roles more than the average family (but not quite as much as some of the neo-con family groups that seem to be obsessed with it).

We didn't find out Leo's sex while I was pregnant for several reasons including that we hoped it would cut down on some of the gender focus.  And it did, and we were lucky enough to receive a lot of lovely gender neutral gifts which allowed us to keep some of the gender noise out of our house (as well as allowing for a sibling or friend to inherit regardless of sex).  Now that Leo is earth-side and learning to navigate the world, we are still trying to limit stringent boy/girl messages.

So far I think we are on track.  I do realize that once he gets to the age when he asks for things and is exposed to advertisements aimed right at him things will be different - but the goal isn't to keep him away from gendered things forever, we are just hoping to give him the space to figure how he relates to his gender on his own.  If his gender identity doesn't "match" his biological sex, we are ok with that (obviously).  But since it is statistically likely that he will identify with the masculine end of the gender spectrum, I'd really like it if he wasn't fed stereotypes of what being masculine means. 

At nearly a year and a half into Leo's life, I think that so far we've done a pretty good job of keeping his toys mostly neutral with equal parts "girl" and "boy" associated toys thrown in.  He loves cars and cooking; dinosaurs and babydolls.  It hasn't been difficult - but it has taken some thought and we've had to be very intentional about it.  The division between "girl" and "boy" toys is striking when you walk into any store - luckily we rarely buy toys.  Leo has a lot of people in his life who can't seem to resist buying him gifts and we've also been grateful recipients of some fantastic hand-me-downs. Currently his favorites include his kitchen, puppets, drums, cars, and any stuffed animal that he can feed or put to sleep.

Clothes have been a bit trickier to navigate. When I search in the girls' section for articles of clothing that walk the line it's really depressing.  Even items that are supposed to be comfortable, like pajamas, often have frills or lace around the collar - it doesn't look like something I'd want to sleep in.  We try to snap up any cute crossover items, like that "girl's" sweater without lace or bows or a "boy's" polo shirt with pink stripes.  Still, most of his clothes could double for tiny man clothes (which is adorable in it's own way, but not the point of this post).  He has a bunch diapers that were likely designed with girls in mind (from pink and purple to flower patterns) and some pink pajamas - but that's as non-traditional as his wardrobe currently gets.  I'm sure we will have some fun with dress-up play, but again, our goal isn't to push the envelope, just present a wide range of options.  As he figures out his own style we'll follow his cues, even if it's all football jerseys and backwards caps.  Currently his first choice is always one of the shirts with a dinosaur on it. 

Modelling Gender
jb and I are not your everyday mom and dad - but we do fall into traditional gender roles in a lot of ways.
  • jb works in an office and I stay home to care for Leo
  • I present with mostly feminine traits and jb is handsomely butch
  • jb takes out the trash, kills the bugs, and carries the heavy stuff
  • I love to sew/craft/decorate
Of course we also do the old switcheroo for some expectations.
  • I am the Ms. Fixit of the family.  If it requires a hammer or a screwdriver I'm your girl.
  • jb does the vast majority of the laundry - including the diaper laundry
  • We share cooking, chores and parenting pretty evenly 
Hopefully Leo sees us taking on a range of roles and responsibilities.  He will also be able to look to his uncles, aunts and grandparents for familiar examples of gentle and caring men and strong independent women.

Right now he is just the sweetest little boy.  He's all kisses, and hugs, and "I love you"s.  He is so eager to help with anything and everything.  He loves taking care of people (and pets and stuffed animals).  He's a cuddle monster.  He feels his feelings and seeks comfort openly.  He's just so tender and loving.  I hope we are able to foster these qualities and keep them intact as the world sends him the message that they are weak and un-manly.  I think he's strong enough to weather it. 


  1. "I hope we are able to foster these qualities and keep them intact as the world sends him the message that they are weak and un-manly." THIS.

    I feel like we do pretty well here too. We have a diaper with flowers and are open with clothes - Mostly mix-matched secondhand separates. Other people can be a real pain in the ass - TWO people made "Oh, but this won't work for a boy; it's PINK" comments at his birthday party. I laid down the law on them a bit as statements like that really make my head hurt. I feel like I'll have to keep a close eye on my father-in-law especially. Luckily the men on my side of the family are great examples of sensitive yet masculine non-stereotypical dudes. :) My mother buys most of Seb's toys at this point and she is very gender-neutral in her choices and parenting.

    Side note: I am super jealous of Leo's cute couch and kitchen!

  2. You're doing great. As a"straight" couple were mix it up too. Joey loves manicures, minus the polish after kids teased him about his lovely red nails and had me make him a man bag a.k.a. Purse. Marysa and Tanner love boy clothes and basketball. Declan has pink sheets on his bed, lots of babies and loves to play dress up in dresses and hats. Sonny he's pretty much a gender stereo type until it comes to favorite movies. Hey likes a good princess movie. I'm the yard man and Warren is the cook including all grocery shopping. Keep up the great works. If nothing else I bet you'll foster a strong sence of self. I sure hope I do. Enjoy your baby the don't stay small long.

  3. In terms of clothes, we've had a lot of luck with H&M kids. There's a lot of girls stuff without ruffles (Will has a fabulous pair of raspberry colored jean type pants from there) and the boys clothes tend to be a bit less macho, with lots of gender neutral orange, green and red items too. Will gets mistaken for a girl at least once a day, but I think it's more because he's so damn pretty (although it could be the raspberry colored jeans).

  4. yeah, i hear you! thanks for sharing.

    one of my hopes is to find a way for raven to learn that (self-defined) gender can be a real source of pleasure, and to separate out *my* feelings and experiences from hers. it's tough, though. i'm trying to do gender-neutral, gender-flexible, and just non-gender-oppressive stuff for clothes and books and toys and experiences, but it's a gamble given the larger world we live in, even the bubble of west philly.


  5. Loved reading this post, thanks so much! We try to do similar thing - and probably have an easier time of it because there is more social acceptability of girls doing "boy" things than vice versa (I can buy boys clothes easily, etc). Looking forward to more posts on this topic!

  6. I really worked hard when Bliss was a baby to raise him gender neutral. At about 2.5-3 he picked out 2 dresses from Target he wanted and I bought them and he wore them for a time. I have always said all the colors are for all and still do. But then one day he told me not to put his hair in the ponytail I did often because it was for girls???!!!??? We had numerous male friends in our lives with ponytails and he was always with me and not very exposed to anything. It bummed me a lot and we worked on it but it continued with all sorts of things for a while. As time has gone by though he has come to speak loudly about equality of genders, so much so we had to recently have a talk about oppression and girl power being ok.

    Looking back it was likely all part of the individuation process but it crushed me for a time. He leans towards some stereotypical boy stuff but he is also the most nurturing of any of his friends male or female.

  7. Anonymous10/03/2011

    It's fun to read about how other queer families navigate gender. I feel like there is a serious tendency, even for those of us who like to challenge gender assumptions, to fall back pretty quickly into gendered expectations as soon as our kids demonstrate a stereotypically traditional preference.

    I'm not in favor of imposing what doesn't fit for my son Miles, but I keep working not to assume X, Y, and Z boy preferences are true for him just because he adheres to V and W. For example, I keep circling back to art work even though he hardly ever sat still for it when he was younger. He preferred balls, then cars, and now trains to anything else. But I would occasionally reintroduce art work even though it felt fruitless, and now he actually gets it out all by himself almost every day.

    Meanwhile, when I reintroduce his doll and try to spark nurturing play, he immediately takes its clothes off and throws it on the floor. He shouts, "You be the Papa, Papa!" as he circles the dining room table with the doll stroller full of matchbox cars.

  8. I love our preschool because it is super gender-neutral focused. I think there are even some trans teachers. The boys dress up in tutus all the time and they are all encouraged to just use their imaginations and be who they want!

    On another note, we have friends who are two moms and both pretty gender neutral, certainly not outwardly feminine. Their 3-year-old girl is obsessed with dresses and princesses and makeup. It's hilarious! They're always like, "So, Taylor painted my nails. Now I have a manicure!"