“What are you having?”
“Are you having a boy or a girl?”
Common questions that, while technically harmless and asked often to pregnant people and parents-to-be, created awkward moments for me and my husband while I was pregnant. To this day, since giving birth three months ago, gender-related questions continue to lead to interesting conversations with family and friends. Why? Because we’ve chosen to raise a “gender creative” child.
Foundations of A Plan
Before I had a name for this parenting choice, I explained to my husband and close friends that I wanted to raise my child outside of the binary. In my mind, I envisioned avoiding heavily gendered names, clothes, and certainly a “gender reveal.” No matter what my child’s genitals looked like I wanted to avoid traditional gender roles, given the fact that gender is a construct. As a non-binary femme, the limits placed upon people because of gender are far too familiar to me.
Growing up, and especially after living as a non-binary person (who’s struggled with severe body dysmorphia) and studying gender theories in college, I found the idea of gender to be confusing and unfair. The fact that certain clothes, names, activities, character traits, and more have been labeled as either something for girls/women or boys/men, while normalized, is limiting.
Gender and Society
Since gender has been historically tied to biological sex for hundreds of years, any people, ideas, or systems that conflict with that notion are often viewed as wrong and/or unnatural. There have been countless articles written about gender as a social construct, the history of gender, the dangers of rigid binary thinking, and the benefits of dismantling the binary. A Journal of Adolescent Health study even argues that strict gender expectations subjects children to a greater risk for mental and physical health problems during and after adolescence.
Thanks to personal experience, research, and observation, I learned about the problems that arise when we consider the gender binary to be a necessary part of life and humanity. When it came to family planning, I knew I wanted to approach different choices outside of the binary and together my husband and I decided to raise our child in a gender creative way.
What Is Gender Creative Parenting?
Raising a “theyby” is a parenting choice that recently made its way to mainstream media in the United States. In other countries, though, gender creative parenting is less taboo—at least less taboo than it is in the United States. Researchers in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology predict that in Sweden, a gender-neutral kindergarten system will foster more successful adults due to decreased expectations and limitations based on gender roles. But what exactly is gender creative parenting?
In one viral article, a parent explains that “the point was not to have a genderless child but one who comes to an understanding of their gender whatever it might be in an environment where colors and objects and activities are not slotted into the arbitrary and binary categories of ‘girl’ and ‘boy,’ and the concepts of ‘girl’ and ‘boy’ are not set up in opposition to each other.” Another parent explains that they are “very tired of the heteronormative and cisnormative model. I’m very tired of the patriarchy. A part of why we are parenting this way is because intersex people exist, and transgender people exist, and queer people exist, and sex and gender occur on a spectrum, yet our culture loves to think people, all 7 billion of them, can and should be reduced to either/or.”
I felt lucky stumbling upon that article a couple months into my pregnancy because I’d finally found a parenting philosophy regarding gender that made sense to me. Let the child wear clothes of any and every color, and avoid gender pronouns until my child can tell me about their gender identity, and more.
Easier said than done. Especially when it comes to people outside of your immediate family.
When Raising A Theyby Is Not So Simple
I realized while I was still pregnant that this choice would come with many questions from friends and family but didn’t expect for strangers to stress me out. Once my baby bump was noticeable I was constantly asked “if I knew what it was” by strangers in the elevator of my building and random people on the street or subway. They’d always ask with a smile and I’d usually reply “I’m not going to find out for a long time.” If they asked me if I had a preference or made a guess for themselves, I’d tell them that I was going to wait until my child told me their gender before I told other people. Confusion would ensue.
My husband and I have used the pronouns they/them whenever talking about our baby, named Io, like the moon of Jupiter, with other people and are often asked if we have twins. Since pregnancy, using they/them pronouns has led to confusion, which leads to a long conversation about gender, constructs, and binary thinking that tends to leave other people, quite honestly, annoyed or exhausted.
Family and friends, who know what my child’s genitals look like due to diaper changes, or who aren’t themselves trans, non-binary, gender non-conforming, or accustomed to non-binary thinking, address our child by the pronouns traditionally assigned to someone with their biological sex. They tried while I was pregnant and during the early days to stick to they/them pronouns but eventually it stopped. The only people who’ve consistently respected Io’s they/them pronouns, given Io’s lack of a chosen gender identity, are friends of ours who are queer, trans, or non-binary.
Neither I nor my husband have ever gotten angry or upset about it because it’s technically not misgendering, Io hasn’t made sense of the concept of gender, let alone identified as one. At times, we even slip ourselves. Binary thinking is so deeply rooted in our psyches and we are so conditioned to think of gender in such rigid terms that it’s sometimes difficult to actively dismantle that oppressive system in our minds and home. I’ve even stopped correcting people when they misgender me, but out of exhaustion. Existing as a queer, Black femme is often difficult enough with respect to conversations about identity.
We dress Io in clothes of all colors and types, and people online and in person will call Io he, she, or them depending on different factors. What’s interesting is neither I nor my husband have ever, not even once, referred to Io as anything other than their name or they/them when we post photos online or make a post of some kind of social media. Without fail, people will still gender them. It’s fascinating and I often wonder, is it their outfit? The way their face looks? What is it? People will assign a gender, either he or she specifically, to my child even though I’ve never even described them or referred to them as one.
As Io starts to learn and be more vocal about their own pronouns, I will as well. And as they learn, I believe it is important for them to know they have the freedom to question, to explore, and to be exposed to a spectrum of identities and ways of expressing gender. I intend to help them understand that whoever they are and however they identify is perfectly fine and that identity doesn’t require a specific way of dressing or for them to exhibit certain traits or interests.
My continued mention of others’ fascination with my child’s genitals is to point out and remind you of the fact that that is how traditional gender ideas work. Your gender, according to heteronormative tradition, is what’s between your legs even if a growing body of research proves otherwise. A baby, or a young child, should be more focused on growing up feeling comfortable in their skin and safe to be who they are without having to worry about fitting into a box shaped by gender roles. Not only are gender roles limiting, they are also perpetuated by binary thinking and outdated conceptions of human sexuality and behavior.
Maybe Io will grow up and identify as the gender traditionally assigned to people with the genitals they have. Maybe they won’t. Either way, I feel that gender creative parenting provides children with a sense of freedom that allows them learn who they are, free of fear of negative judgment. They won’t feel like they have to dress or act a certain way or have certain interests based on what they look like, their gender, or what’s between their legs. Gender creative parenting allows for free range children who have the freedom to express themselves openly.
All any parent can do is try their best while hoping for the best and offering their children a healthy and safe environment to grow up. Gender creative parenting is one way to decolonize parenting and avoid the binary. It may not always be easy to understand, but to me, the pros outweigh any cons.