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Baby blues (and pinks): Queer pregnancy and the gender stereotypes that litter the way

They ask: "do you know what you're having?", I reply: "A baby!"

By Jules Stapleton Barnes


The journey to creating a family has been a long and precarious one. Hopes have been enthusiastically stacked and tapped like sandcastles and have been just as easily washed away with tides of disappointment. Over 5 years of IUI, IVF, subsequent egg transfers and a family bereavement, my partner and I found comfort in the notion that regardless of how it happened, we would one day welcome a baby into our lives.

So here we are, 37 weeks of pregnancy and this little life is ready to enter our world. We are blessed to know (as much as we can this far) that they are healthy, and the rest has yet to be discovered.

But whilst we have been focused on the joy of a successful pregnancy and preparing to increase our little family from 2 to 3, the rest of the world and their neighbours ask mainly one thing in passing, “do you know what you’re having?”. It has been by far the most common question I’ve received from all stages of pregnancy, and from a diverse range of people. I almost always answer with ‘a baby!’, a now predictable and boring joke, but genuinely it’s where my heart and mind goes. Inquirers politely titter at my response, but I can tell they still want a proper answer to their universally understood question, as if knowing the baby’s sex determines the script for the rest of our interaction. I give in let them know that we don’t know the sex and we have opted for a surprise.

I’ve been trying to understand the motivation and meaning behind not only the question, but the importance people give it in our interactions about this miracle process happening inside me. Why wouldn’t people want to first know how on earth a baby manages to grow in there? Or how soon can they hear what we’re saying?

It feels like people can’t imagine a world for our baby, without first imagining the sex-determined pathway they must follow. If I knew they were a girl, how would that pathway look any different? If I tell them ‘it’s a boy’ what kind of different narrative do they begin to write for him, and Steph and I as parents?

As queer parents we are not immune to this either. It is difficult but we are trying to remain conscious and critical of this and to challenge our own views and feelings along the way, and really question our assumptions and how that influences our decision-making. Like any parent we really want to ensure we do our best for our baby. And for us that means that they know they can live a life as their whole selves, without needing to hide any of their hopes, dreams, interests or feelings simply because of their gender.

We talked about getting a bunch of friends together before the birth but felt uncomfortable with the concept of a ‘baby shower’. Although I suppose they have good intentions; a supportive space provided by your loved ones to make you as an expecting Mum, and your baby feel special before life changes forever; they tend to be extremely gendered. Not to mention heteronormative - I’m not sure if Dad’s are even invited? For two women in a relationship the blueprint doesn’t fit.

After a delicious viewing of The Favourite and watching lead female characters clay-shoot down stereotypes across the big screen, our friend turned to us and said, I’d really like to help organise for you both, a gathering to celebrate your imminent arrival. Our faces lit up, and out of my mouth burst “a Baby Power!”. Like the baby was blurting it from somewhere deep inside my oversized uterus. They are listening after all.

And so, it happened, a gathering of 20 or so friends to bring power, strength and support to us and our home, where baby would lay fussing in a matter of weeks. And there were rules to attending:

No-nos

  • There will be no guessing of the genders
  • There is no requirement to spend money on things covered in plastic that no one, including baby, needs
  • Unsolicited parenting advice or traumatic birth stories are banned
  • Leave your binary gender roles and coats at the door - don’t even think of bringing anything pink or blue!

 

Yes yeses

  • Simply join for a baby-themed playlist, a few drinks, nibbles and games. You’ll need to bring your wisdom, humour and general awesomeness as we help Steph and Jules compile such resources as ‘things to remind them if it all gets too much’
  • Dress code: colourful

 

Our Mums weren’t invited. A decision born of some practical barriers (they live far away) but mainly our Mums not being able to follow the above rules. Not only would mine fall at the first hurdle (with assessing the current state of my bump and stating their guess at the sex of baby) but it seems physically impossible for these remarkable women, who have raised 7 children between them, to not provide unsolicited advice and they can (and do) do that any other day. Our mums are also about as queer as a WI sponge cake so the anti-shower concept of the event would most likely be lost on them. It’s not to say we wouldn’t have loved the sponge cake though. My Mum is also getting close to being able to filter or correct herself when referring to our donor as ‘the father’, and the distraction of a party might interfere with this progress, and perhaps upset others in the room who have used a donor to start a family. My mother-in-law recently declared that she didn’t feel she could buy any baby clothes until she knew the sex, which made us giggle. “Why’s that?” I asked, knowingly, but sighing discreetly I listened to her worries about colours, skirts and dresses and the dreadful faux pas of a wee boy (in particular) ending up with the wrong type of clothes. She also added that she really loves little girls and I got the impression it was intrinsically linked with the baby-clothing she prefers.

Are we worried about what a dress could do to a baby boy, or are we worried about what a dress on a boy could do to those who encounter it? And speaking as a queer parent-to-be, I’m not sure I would put a baby boy in a dress, as a matter of course. Is it because of the attention, questions and explanations it would demand? Quite possibly.

I admit I am excited to find out our baby’s sex. For me, our baby’s sex-assigned at birth is significant. Our laws, systems and government (not least everyone else) treat people differently depending on which box is ticked. The box is incredibly influential to babies, their liberties and opportunities, their parents and the society around them.

Fundamentally though, I believe sex and gender are two different things, one is decided for you and the other you feel about yourself. It’s the gender stereotyping based on the sex assigned at birth that brings the damage. I should know, because I was never the ‘girl’ society wanted me to be and spent my young life saying no to the things that it wanted me to say yes to.

Something I wasn’t prepared for in regard to our unborn baby being subjected to gender stereotyping, was the implications of how people feel about Steph and I as parents. When a friend imagined us having a boy, they deliberated for a moment and felt compelled to reassure me that he’d be OK and was lucky to have some excellent male role models around him. It made me really question what these wonderful individuals could offer a little boy? I think it has something to do with growing into a ‘good man’. Almost like there’s a good chance our baby boy could go the other way… What kind of message does this send? If only this pal knew how reassuring it feels for me, to look at Steph everyday and think how lucky our baby is to have her.

So, what if we have a boy? We may end up stubbing our toes on tractors and trains, but there are lots of boys who prefer Sylvanian Families. There has to be a way of letting the baby lead with their own interests.

The ever-present but sometimes hidden waistcoat of patriarchy will make life hard enough for our baby. So, it’s all the more vital that as parents we acknowledge that we are susceptible to enacting patriarchy sometimes and then challenge ourselves to do it differently. Fundamentally, what I want for our baby, is an unrestricted pathway in life, with unlimited options and all the colours of the rainbow to choose from.

 

 

WHAT CAN YOU DO?

This blog is part of our Talking Gender series Anyone Can Play. It is all about how to talk to people about Gender Stereotypes and their effect on children.

If you agree that gender stereotypes are harmful to children, then join the movement for change!

1. Start Talking Gender – use our guides to have conversations with family, friends, nurseries, and teachers, about the harms of gender stereotypes on children

2. Download and print out our #AnyoneCanPlay posters and display them at home, at work, or give them to your child’s nursery

3. Like, comment, and our campaign posts on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagramto get more people #TalkingGender

4. Donate – Help Zero Tolerance continue to lead work in primary prevention of men’s violence against women, through tackling gender inequality

 

HAVE WE MISSED SOMETHING?

Do you have any other strategies and tips for approaching these conversations?

If you have any useful resources or tips about how to talk to friends and family about gender, race, sexuality, and disability please just let us know – we’d love to include it here!

We are also taking pitches for #TalkingGender blogs - we want to know how you approach and experience these conversations.

Please email jenny.lester@zerotolerance.org.uk with any suggestions for additions or blog ideas.

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