Navigating Gender in Newborns

In March of last year, we learned that my partner was pregnant. Along with the rollercoaster of emotions that entailed, we were also met with innumerable recommendations. Some of which, to my gringo ears, sounded completely bizarre, to be frank. “Don’t go out during an eclipse, or else your baby will be born with a cleft lip.” “Always wear something red to protect the baby.” “Put on a safety pin to ensure it reaches full term.”

But more than anything, as seemingly everywhere else in the world, advice and divination nearly always revolved around gender. “If your back hurts, it’s a boy.” “If you eat chiles, it’ll be a girl.” “If you don’t have much morning sickness, it’s a boy.” “If you have heartburn, it’s a girl.” The guessing game of gender seemed never ending and always pointing toward different conclusions, along with the constant questioning of what we, the parents, wanted: a girl or a boy.

Finally, about three months into the pregnancy, the obstetrician could make an “educated guess” that we were going to have a boy. Amount of chiles being eaten or not, this guess was later confirmed by subsequent ultrasounds. I wish I could say that my response was one of disinterest. Rather it was one of both joy at the thought of having a son, accompanied by the worry of knowing too many men (along with myself) and hoping my son wouldn’t be like them. But a third thought pervaded my thinking and continues to prod at me to this day: what does it even mean that this child is a boy?

My starting point for that question is the acknowledgement that gender is a social construct and the gender binary a European religious invention. My starting point is founded in fierce opposition to cisheteronormativity, sexism, patriarchy, and the society in which they are rooted and perpetuated.

As such, and as I wrote in a post on Mastodon, I felt much inner tumult with the act of assigning a gender to our child. In a way, societal inertia took over. Before the baby was born and once the gender was known, we defaulted to referring to them as him. Upon the birth of the baby, the attending obstetrician noted the baby’s genitals and assigned them with the corresponding gender. Since the baby has been born, we have been referring to them as he/él. All of this has been done, of course, without the baby’s consent, as – along with not yet being able to speak – the baby themself has no idea what gender is anyway. They’ve simply been thrown into one of two rigid, arbitrary categories because that is how this society is structured and there is literally no other option (at least not on a Mexican birth certificate).

I’ve discussed my discomfort with my partner and internally entertained the idea of changing our baby’s pronouns to they/elle until our child can choose any (or no) gender of their own volition. However, that led me into a quandary. In cisheteronormative societies such as the U.S. and Mexico, what would be the implications of insisting our child be referred to as “they”? Would I not be subjecting them to unfair and unwarranted judgement and ostracization because of what I believe? Would I not be making my child fight a battle on my behalf? How could that be the right thing to do? Yet at the same time, if I allow our child to be referred to as he, am I not giving in and letting the gender binary win? Am I not, through my inaction, reinforcing an oppressive, alienating, and deadly system? I felt like neither choice was the right one, and all I really want is what is best for our baby’s sense of self, soul, and spirit; for them to flourish, thrive, and live as freely as possible.

So I decided to do one thing I know how to do well: read. After doing so, I feel I’ve reached a satisfactory conclusion and learned some things along the way. The first text I read was Becoming an Ally to the Gender-Expansive Child: A Guide for Parents and Carers by Anna Bianchi. Not recommended, don’t bother with it. The second was Gender Born, Gender Made: Raising Healthy Gender-Nonconforming Children by Diane Ehrensaft. Highly recommended – especially in a world where conservatives are calling for the genocide of trans folks and where just this year there have been 471 anti-trans bills put forward in 44 U.S. states. The spread of fascistic, anti-trans hate merits its own post, but I will not spend time on it here.

Ehrensaft covers much ground in her book, but a few salient points stood out to me. One being that while gender assignation is something that is done to you, gender affirmation is something you do for yourself. While our child may have been assigned a gender by the world, ultimately, they will have the opportunity to choose and affirm their own gender on their own terms. And this happens earlier than one might think. At nine to twelve months, our child may have a sense of their own gender, regardless of that which has been assigned to them.

Another point that stood out, and caused relief, was that “parents probably have little or no influence on the child’s core feelings that define him or her as gender typical or gender variant. Such core feelings appear immutable.” I read this as asserting that no matter what gender our child has been assigned, and no matter how we may refer to them, they have within them their own sense of gender identity.

Throughout the text, Ehrensaft emphasizes over and over the importance of listening to, hearing, trusting, believing, and supporting our children. She provides numerous case studies of how gender-nonconforming kids just know who they are and are not shy about announcing it, despite what society, their parents, or their gender assignation may be. In the end, I believe our child will tell us who they are. As parents, we have to be the ones prepared to listen and understand that we don’t know.

This made me reflect on just how much I was projecting the power of gender onto our child. I’m the one who has spent decades living in a gendered body in a gendered society. Our four-month-old baby has not. I can’t read or construct their essence through my experience, and it’s been wrong of me to try. My partner and I can only do our best to model a healthy, loving, hopefully non-stereotypically gendered relationship to our child. We can only give them the space the be themselves, to love them precisely as they are, no matter what gender that might be, and to support them on that journey, be they a boy, girl, or something else on the gender “web” or “spectrum.”

In the end, therefore, I’ve decided that the pronouns currently placed upon our child aren’t that big a deal. I’ve decided that I’m fine referring to him as him. He is my son. I love my son dearly. And if one day he decides he is not a son but a daughter or both or neither or something else, I will love him/her/them just as dearly and embrace my glorious child with all my being.

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