When I fell pregnant with my daughter, I was absolutely sure I wanted to know the sex of the baby as soon as possible. At the time I didn’t mind if the baby was a boy or a girl, but I had convinced myself that it would be easier to bond with, and ‘visualise’ the baby, if I knew the sex. Paranoid that the pregnancy wouldn’t go to plan, I figured that the time I had to get to know the baby would be invaluable time I’d never get back if the worst was to happen.
More practically, I’m also a compulsive planner, so the more time I had to buy all the stuff I needed and sort the nursery, the better. By the time she was born, the obsessive organiser in me had everything in place; every pair of baby socks had been washed and paired, the muslins were ironed and folded and the home-made Jane Austen mobile was hung over the cot.
Now I don’t necessarily regret the decision to find out the sex of our first born, but over the last couple of years, I’ve come to feel differently about our society’s approach to gender when it comes to babies and young children.
Everyone that stopped me in the park or street in the first few weeks asked me if the baby was a boy or a girl. I didn’t mind this at all until I started to notice a pattern. Over the next few months, whenever the baby was wearing something gender neutral, people always assumed she was a boy. When they did this, the language and even the tone and volume of their voice changed. She was referred to as a ‘strapping young lad’, with ‘good strong legs for football’. People were louder and more direct when they spoke to her. Whenever she happened to be dressed in anything more feminine, people addressed her as a ‘beautiful, delicate little thing’, in hushed, comforting tones.
I was also puzzled when many people, after hearing me fret about her sluggish weight-gain as a newborn, would say, ‘yeah but little girls are supposed to be small, you wouldn’t want a great big baby girl, would you?’ All I wanted was for my baby to be healthy, it seemed peverse that this was a response I would hear over and over again – if my baby’s health was at risk, why would I care what she looked like? It seemed totally irrelevant to me.
As the year passed, I came to notice more and more how much emphasis we put on gender; from the way we talk to babies, to the sea of pink and blue clothes on the high street with their reductive, generic slogans, to the hyper-gendered baby toys in every shop window, to the increase of ‘gender reveal parties’.
Why, when these babies are yet to make their way in the world, were we so hell-bent on leading our daughters in one direction in life, and our sons in another? This heaps unnecessary pressure on kids from the get go and almost asks them to live up to an impossible idea of what it means to be a ‘girl’ and what it means to be a ‘boy’.
When it is well evidenced that ideas that children form about gender from the ages of two and three stay with them into their adult lives, we know that the toys they play with and the clothes they wear have a huge influence on them. Children aren’t born with these ideas; they learn them from the world around them.
I became increasingly more agitated when people would assume Emily was a boy because she was wearing something considered ‘boyish’, like a dinosaur t shirt, or Paw Patrol wellies. Finally, in my own small way, I decided to push back on all this gender nonsense.
When Emily was about 15 months old, I set up the #dressdownfriday campaign; a means by which parents could come together en-masse to uplode pictures of their kids in clothing that smashes gender stereotypes.
I felt like all this gender prevelance presented an incredible opportunity to challenge the status quo and reject these outdated ideas on gender. Within the space of six months, hundreds of parents had joined the campaign, and it received backing from a number of online clothing brands – and even got a celebrity backing from Gok Wan! You can read more about the campaign here.
It has also been great to see the conversation around gender being driven by organisations like ‘Let Toys Be Toys’ and ‘Let Clothes Be Clothes’; they’re helping to change the narrative around traditional gender norms and they’re getting parents to consider the impact of hyper-gendering on their children. Retailers like John Lewis are launching gender-neural clothing lines and many others are introducing more ‘empowering’ slogans and designs for both boys and girls.
And so now that I’m pregnant with my second child, I’m looking at the prospect being a parent to a ‘boy’ or a ‘girl’ a little differently.
I now don’t feel the need to know the sex of my baby. This little bean is already so loved and is already so much a part of my life, not knowing their sex hasn’t stopped me from bonding with them.
As a relentless planner, I’m also finding it easier than I thought to plan for a baby without knowing the sex. Regardless of the gender, the nursery and all of the newborn clothes will be white with splashes of colour, and a great deal will be hand-me-downs from their big sister, who already has a wardrobe made up of clothes from the boys’ and girls’ section of the store.
I’ve come to think that if I expect this baby to grow up being tolerant and excepting of others, I need to demonstrate to them that there is no right or wrong way to be a boy or to be a girl. They will have the opportunity to wear, play and socialise without gender restrictions. This way, they’ll hopefully know that they can grow up to be whoever and whatever they want to be…and that no matter what, they will always be that little bean that has been so loved from the minute I found out I was pregnant.