Saturday, February 22, 2014

Pinks and Blues

 I've been thinking a lot about babies lately, because I'm a crazy woman who just turned thirty and my uterus has been replaced with an alarm clock, but also because there are plenty of babies showing up in all my social media feeds. Babies on Facebook, babies on Instagram, babies on Twitter. It's a baby-palooza up in this joint.

These critters are undeniably cute. They've got little bald heads and squinty little eyes, and they all look like aliens until about four months, when they start snapping into cute, small children. That's one of my favourite things: the first photo where the baby doesn't look like A General Baby born of cosmic dust, and starts looking like A Specific Baby whose parents are clearly George and Ellen Dewar of Owen Sound, Ontario. This baby clearly has George's nose and Ellen's eyes and it's intergenerational and amazing.

One of the things I'm noticing most about this baby jamboree is the different degree of gendering that's happening across different families. Some of these kids have been suited up in little white or black nondenominational onesies, while others have been stuffed into footie pajamas festooned with cartoon construction tools, or tiny headbands (everyone sees how similar the baby headbands are to wedding garters, right? It's not just me saying, "Is that a piece of quasi-lingerie on your kid's head?"), or wee little tutus.

To be clear: these are newborns. Their ages are listed in months, not years. They're pre-verbal, pre-opinion, pre-even knowing what's really going on. These kids' hobbies include breastfeeding, and looking at you sleepily with one eye still slightly open in a hilarious way. These aren't children who can make decisions about the way they present in the world. They're completely at the mercy of their parents, and their parents's politics.

My main issue with heavy gendering of newborns and infants is that it creates a certain type of family culture. I know that, no matter how progressive your parenting style might be, you could still find yourself with a girl who is obsessed with ballerinas, or boys who will chew toast into the shape of guns if you ban toy firearm from your household. Fine. It happens. And while it's still a identity-politics minefield, it's not an parental imposition.

But when parents create a certain "way" of being a boy, or only offer a certain brand of girlishness, and it's pervasive from birth, I think it becomes more difficult for kids to experiment with what being a girl or boy means to them. Not impossible—as a friend pointed out, a boy who wants to wear a pink dress will find a way to make that happen even in the most strenuously gender-normative households—but the myriad ways that personality can be expressed is focused through a gendered lens. There are a few neutral baby options, but for many parents, they're off their radar, those prices are out of range, and it's just not a priority. Who cares if the baby is wearing black, white, or electric teal? As long the kid is alive and preferably sleeping through the night, it's like MISSION ACCOMPLISHED.

In the kids clothing section in any Walmart or Target store, the boys get khaki, olive green, navy blue, hunting orange; the girls get pink, dark pink, pink with sparkles, white. Boy clothes are designed to hide dirt, while girl clothes aren't. Onesies designed for male infants can be miniature baseball uniforms (get them sportsing early!), whereas the girls get Strawberry Shortcake. We get used to seeing little girls in pretty things, and little boys in "rugged" things (although how masculine a shirt needs to be for a session in the Jolly Jumper is a mystery). And for girls who crave a chance to get dirty, or for boys who want to feel pretty, asking mom or dad for a tee shirt from the other side of the store can be a risky move, especially if all they've known since birth is pink or blue. It's changing the narrative, and if mom/dad is invested in their pretty princess or their big, tough, strong, three-year-old man, there might be some questions.

I would like to believe that I would be a white-onesie type of parent, but as my friend Suzanne pointed out when I posted about this issue on Facebook, clearly gendering a baby is one of way of connecting with other parents out in the world, "a strategy to find connection or approval from other adults, which given how lonely child-rearing is, is very understandable." This floored me. We obviously want kids to look "normal" and we model normal on what we see every day. For me, there's nothing normal about hot pink clothes for either me or les bébés, but if it helps me connect with other mothers, I see its value.

I hope that, if/when my time comes, I can be flexible. I'm not going to be militantly neutral on every last thing, but my squeamishness about those blue and pink onesies is likely not going to evaporate. Babies are a blank slate, and letting them do their own thing—with feeding, with accessories, and with other developmental issues, including self-expression through fashion—means I can get to know them as people. Some of whom will definitely need a pink pair of overalls at some point in their lives, but I can't predict if that someone will be a boy or a girl. I'm looking forward to finding out.