Whenever I go out in public and am behind a baby at the checkout, I immediately start playing peek-a-boo. For that matter I play peek-a-boo whenever a small child crosses my path. One of the things I find myself doing as I engage with these smaller people is asking their caretakers what the child’s name is. Although it is totally futile to know the baby’s given name since I typically forget it within the first 30 seconds, I find that asking for a name is a friendly conversation starter. Parents love to talk about their kids; caretakers love to tell you that they are not the parents of their respective charges. The name also helps me to determine the child’s sex rather than make an awkward mistake of calling a he a she, or visa versa: to avoid the huffy parent who gets upset when I use the wrong pronoun: “How old is he?” “Jane? She is 18 months.” Or do I ask because I have learned to place every individual into a box of male or female, and to associate babies’ attire with a color: blue for boys, pink for girls, and yellow for gender neutral. Interestingly, it used to be the other way around.
If you find yourself wandering around Kenan, you can understand why I have been thinking about babies. We are expecting to add five new members to the Kenan family: half of the staff this semester is expecting a baby.
In honor of all the new arrivals, this past Monday we threw a baby shower for the parents-to-be. Baby Kenan “swag” was the gift of choice. Although we have a general idea when each staff member will take parental leave, the bigger “surprise” will be the sex of the babies, not maybe to the parents, but to me. I am just so darn excited with the anticipation of meeting the newest additions that it does not matter to me one bit if the arrivals are girls or boys.
The idea that parents to be could get more excited about having either a girl or a boy does not seem ridiculous to me, particularly if they have children already of one sex and are anxious to have a representative of the opposite sex. There was a family in my neighborhood that had seven boys before they were “blessed” with their first girl. But what is the difference between raising a girl or a boy, and should there be one? This increasingly seems to be an ethical concern of the college-educated parent.
My parents struggled to reject societal norms for raising two girls, suggesting that my sister and I should not base our self-esteem on appearances. They wanted us to have the autonomy to follow our hearts’ desire, not to adhere to what the norm said that a girl should do. Thus I joined the boy’s high school hockey team. They hoped we would have the freedom to transgress, disregard, or otherwise opt out of gender norms. Yet, my mom still reminded me this past December that, as woman, I would often be judged solely on whether I was “good looking,” evaluated on the basis of my dress and style, not my mental ability. And my sister has taken the “good looking” dress and style to the nth degree. She would not be caught dead attending class in a sweat shirt and without makeup—my normal attire for four years in high school.
One of the Kenan parents-to-be said that “ people want to relate their own parental experiences to other parents, and gender—usually in the guise of sex—because that’s definitive—it is usually the safest, easiest place to start.” So perhaps I ask about the sex of a baby to connect with the caregivers in the checkout line that I do not know, using the binary classification of sex to make some quick assumptions so as to bridge the gap between the stranger and me. Perhaps the question, “Is it a girl or a boy?” will become increasing irrelevant as we attempt to break the gender norms and remold societal expectations. We will also have to also generate gender neutral pronouns. But for now, my inquiry about the potential sex of the child remains germane.