This is what my stepmother, Dora, replied when I told her I would be naming my son Jonah. I was five months pregnant, and had just seen the grainy boy-parts on a sonogram. Dora, recently emigrated from Columbia and suffering hearing loss, may not have understood me, so I repeated, slowly- Jonah, from the Bible, whale, prophet, male. Dora shook her head, clearly upset. “That is a girl name. You are having a boy.”
We argued over whether Jonah was a boy’s name for days. Proof piled up, and Dora conceded that Jonah was traditionally male, but “sounds too feminino.”
It was the first time I encountered a wave of emotion in response to the gendering of Jonah, who at the time had just grown sex organs visible by sonogram. The threat in Dora’s mind was clear: my son would be intimately linked with something feminine, and it would devastate his male identity. It was the same concern expressed by my mother-in-law, proclaiming “boys learn to pretend with guns,” when I showed her Jonah’s toy kitcen; it was the worry of an uncle who demanded we cut toddler-Jonah’s shoulder-length hair, “before its too late, before he’s confused.”
In three years of parenthood, I have collected plenty of anecdotes to promote the philosophies of gender-neutral parenting, of raising a child devoid of gender-stereotypes. Yet I found myself questioning the very possibility of raising a child who would not form his identity, at least in part, around typical lines of pink and blue, dolls and footballs.
I was a gender-neutral zealot when Jonah was born — the time when it was easiest to be. I chose what he played with, since he could only play with things in a one-foot radius of his body. I chose what he wore, where he went, even what he saw to a large degree — I could simply turn him around if I found something developmentally undesirable in any direction.
But then came walking, play dates, afternoons with grandma, and gifts from grandpa. I couldn’t erase the words “boys don’t like dolls” from my son’s mind after he’d heard it from another preschooler. I didn’t have the heart to hide the arsenal of birthday-gifted excavators, footballs, and Hot Wheels in order to create a balance of gender-typical and gender-neutral options in the toy box.
I knew that gender was slipping into Jonah’s life as he grew increasingly autonomous, but when I took a developmental psychology class, I really began to feel hopeless. I read studies showing that the ratio of gender-typical and gender-atypical toys, clothing and activities are a small facet of the gender identity picture. These categories are easy for parents to premeditate their approach to gendering: even with the reduced influence I already have in Jonah’s life, I still choose his clothing, decide what gets thrown out of the toy box, and direct most of his daily activities. But early childhood psychologists believe we gender our children in subtle, subliminal ways. We are more likely to handle a baby boy roughly, and to talk longer to a baby girl. Studies show that, while my son may own a toy kitchen, his father is more likely to play ball or wrestle with him, unintentionally reinforcing ideas of appropriate male activities.
Keeping this in mind, I resolved to pay closer attention to my own gender stereotypes and behaviors. But even then, I had to come to terms with the limited effect my efforts might have, especially for the next few years of Jonah’s life. Theory on childhood identity argues that from preschool until about age 7, children’s identities are naturally and strongly attached to categories: that only from the adherence to categories early in life can children learn to explore and rebuke them as they gain the power of abstract thought. Boy or girl is a category children identify early and often cling to dearly, which can be disappointing to parents who vigilantly protect their child’s gender-neutrality. Then there are hormones and biology, which scientists believe do hold sway in the overall tendency for a boy to smash dinosaurs together and a girl to rock a baby doll.
I went through a period of downhearted, gender-neutral disillusionment. To me, it became another Sisyphean effort of motherhood, as pointless as my gender-stereotypical battle to keep dirty clothes in the hamper. When I read about a Swedish couple determined to raise their child completely gender neutral—with only themselves, the child and a caregiver knowing the sex of the child—I have to admit I scoffed a little at their idealism. Practicalities make their effort seem impossible. What will they do when the child goes to school, and has to choose a bathroom to enter? Someday, the child will have to quickly reconcile itself with a facet of identity other kids have been sorting out for years.
But as I read about the Swedish family, my cynicism lightened as I read the cynicism of others. Who were these people, one reporter asked, to raise their child as a social experiment?
For all my questions and doubts concerning the viability of a gender-neutral society spawned by gender-rebuking parents, I can’t condemn the Swedish couple for trying to this extreme. After all, what is parenting other than a collection of our best hopes for the future, channeled into the actions of raising a child?
All parenting is a social experiment. It is an experiment with no control group, one we each perform individually yielding results assessed individually. It is an experiment where we may not get the results for decades, when our children have grown into a stable identity. Jonah will go out into a world of gender stereotypes, but I can continue to construct a home life where gender doesn’t limit his interests and expressions. And if I wait 25 years to hear him say, “Boys can like dolls, too;” I’ll still say the experiment was successful.