One of Which? On Labeling Babies by Gender and More

Reading Time: 6 minutes
Two pictures, side by side, of siblings as newborns, one in blue pajamas with construction vehicles on them, the other in a lacy pink dress.
The quiet baby on the left was given pajamas with the words “Here comes trouble” on them for his first portrait, but the real troublemaker is the baby on the right, in the angelic pink frills.

The other day I saw some of my old college friends, and inevitably the topic of children came up. One of them has a newborn, which resulted in many squeals, internal and external, along the lines of, “Oooo how tiny and adorable and sweet I am so glad my own children have outgrown that stage.” Indeed, when a grandmother there told her daughter, “Doesn’t she make you want to have another one?” most of us kind of grinned painfully at each other and said, “Yeah, no.”

As it was, most of us there had two children, a boy and a girl. And, if I could skip over the newborn phase, I am almost tempted to have a third, just so people would stop saying, “Oh, that’s perfect; you have one of each.”

One of which? Yeah, I know, a boy and a girl. But if I had a third child, would I really have two of one and one of the other? Probably the assumptions would just change to, “It must be nuts being the only boy/girl surrounded by sisters/brothers.” But I still think it would be a little clearer: I don’t have two-to-one, I have three separate individuals. Not “the boy” or “the girl.” Just them.

Yes, I do have a boy and a girl. One is quiet and cautious. The other is loud and reckless. And it’s not the one you think. Yet, people keep saying things like, “I have all boys, so of course my house is noisy.” “Yes, girls are always so much better behaved.” Um, YOUR boys. YOUR girls. My girl is sugar and spice and everything hyperactive. My boy is afraid of snakes and snails, and wary of puppy-dog tails, though at least puppy faces are cute.

At the same time, my boy became obsessed with vehicles at the age of two, and we all went, “Oh, what a boy he is!” And my girl wore stacking rings as bracelets by one and took to putting together her own outfits by three, and yes, she looooves anything pink, and we all went “Oh, she’s a girly-girl!” Funny, we don’t say “Oh, he’s such a girl,” when he squeals over kittens, or “she’s just being a boy,” when she falls off whatever precarious perch she decided to climb onto… then, they’re just being them.

The other night I accidentally called my son “my girl,” and he laughed at me and said, “I’m a boy!” “Oh. You sure?” I said teasingly, and he said, “Yes, I’m definitely a boy.” A pause, and then he said more seriously, “but I want to be a girl.” “Why’s that?” I asked, being sure to be as open as he needed me to be to whatever he said. “Because girls can have long hair. I want my hair long.” I ruffled his already-shaggy head. “Aw, dude,” I told him, “boys can have long hair, too. Some guys have really great long hair. So can you, if,” here’s where my stern concern came in, “you actually wash it and brush it sometimes.” If only his dad and grandmother would get off his case about wanting long hair, I thought, and just let him be. It’s funny how it seems that the people most concerned about kids being confused by gender-nonconformity are actually the ones who are confusing the kids, by insisting various traits belong to one gender or the other when they’re already present in kids of any gender. Poor kid thinks he has to be a girl just so he can grow his hair long! If society didn’t keep insisting long hair is a girl thing, it wouldn’t even be an issue.

To be honest, I myself can’t quite wrap my head around the concepts of gender-fluidity or gender-dysphoria. My best friend’s spouse is transgender, and she considers herself fairly non-binary as is, but my own brain is so certain it’s female that I can’t comprehend what it must be like to feel any other way. And yet when I see how much people insist that there are two types of young children and they each fall solidly into one of those buckets, I can only imagine how frustrating it is for people who don’t identify with the labels at all, because it’s frustrating enough when you do identify with the label, but you don’t quite fit in the bucket.

But lots has been said about gender expectations here at GeekMom before. I’m thinking beyond that. It’s labels in general, making assumptions about people based on a label they happen to have. Goodness knows I’ve talked about labels here on GeekMom before, too. It’s kind of my thing. It’s just that gender seems to be the first label to get thrust onto a kid, maybe because, at birth, a person’s physical sex is one of the only things the people around them know about them.

I think it’s the blank-slateishness of babies that makes people so determined to saddle them with traits based on labels. It’s going to take awhile to get to know this tiny person, and people don’t want to take that time. So they latch onto the little they do know about the baby, and project. Unless you pay unusually close attention (as their birth mother, I could tell my children had completely different temperaments even in the womb, and from birth it was clear which one was the quiet one and which one definitely wasn’t), the only things the average person knows about a baby are 1. who their parents are (and 1.a which of those parents they look the most like) and 2. their physical sex. And 3. their birthday, if you want to bring astrology into it. The first two were enough for my mother-in-law to buy my oldest the pajamas in the photo above, which say “Here comes trouble” around the part you can’t see. She had that gloating look as she poked her son: “HAHA. You have a little boy who looks just like you. KARMA IS SERVED.”

I’ve often looked at those baby pictures and laughed. While he inherited many traits from his father, including some difficult ones, troublemaking was not one of them. On the other hand, his sister, two years later, while inheriting many of my traits (including looks), did inherit that troublemaking gene from her dad, after all. But, of course, the blue pajamas had been passed on to another little boy. Our newborn baby girl had to have a pink dress instead… which did fit her personality, too, as it turned out. What she really needed was a pink frilly dress that said, “Here comes trouble.” They’re not mutually exclusive. The people who make baby clothes just think they are.

For ten years, my parents had only girls: three girls, each completely different from each other. We were all born under Aries, too. My mother always said that if she’d had any stock in astrology to begin with it would have been gone after meeting her three very different Aries daughters—none of whom, for that matter, were very much like the description of an Aries, either.*

When I found out I was going to have a brother, at the age of ten, I pictured this quintessential all-American, rough-and-tumble, baseball-playing little boy. The “baseball-playing” was important—I was big into baseball at the time, but klutzy, so I thought maybe I could live baseball vicariously through my little brother, who must be good at sports, because, come on, he was a boy.  But one day as I sat watching my actual newborn brother, asleep in his bassinet, skinny and jaundiced and even then a little off (and Gemini, if that makes a difference. Not really. There’s nothing particularly Gemini-like about him besides his birthday, either), I just knew the brother I’d invented had nothing to do with the real one. My real brother, as it turned out, had even less skill or interest in sports than I did. Instead, he liked me to make up fantasy lands for him to play make-believe in, which in the end was much more up my alley, too.

Whenever people want to generalize about a kid, whether through gender, ability, family history, or even superstition, I remember what The Voice of God told me when my son was born. No, I’m serious. You know that calm, still voice in the back of your head? God, or Wisdom, or your Conscience: however you want to think of it, it knows what it’s talking about. Usually, you have to calm your mind through meditation or the like to hear it, though. This time it made itself known.

As I held my day-old first-born, my mind started ruminating morbidly. Boy, I’d given him a genetic minefield to deal with. His dad had had a lot of childhood struggles with ADHD and learning disabilities, and had ultimately had to be sent away to a special school just to deal with them. My brother had childhood struggles (or was it our parents’ struggles, really?) with an autistic spectrum disorder, of which I’d always had “shadow symptoms” myself, and everyone knows it hits boys “worse.” So what was Sammy, my beautiful little boy, going to have to deal with? Would he be like his dad, or like his uncle? Dad, or uncle?

Then, suddenly, that Quiet, Still Voice in the back of my head spoke up.

All it said was, “He will be like Sammy.” Mic drop.

He got the ADHD, but not the separate learning disabilities, from his dad. He got “shadow symptoms” of ASD, but not a full-blown “disorder,” from my side. I additionally saddled him with my godforsaken depressive tendencies. Yeah, he’s got a lot of childhood struggles. But that truth-bomb The Voice dropped on me his first day wasn’t promising a trauma-free childhood. It was reminding me not to put my child in some pre-made box with a label. He might be a boy, with ADHD, with autistic tendencies, with an engineer’s mind and a short stature and a great deal of sensitivity and earnestness, but none of those things sum him up.

He is like himself. Unique and irreplaceable.


*Now, both of mine are Aries and they actually are Aries-like, but they inherited those personality traits from their father. Who’s a Libra.

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