What is some advice for a soon-to-be parent?
Updated: Mar 13
Q: My wife and I are both cis-gendered, and we're expecting a baby next month. We know our baby's sex, but we haven't told anyone, in part because we don't want to burden the kid with the traditional gender binary before they're even born -- we wanted to avoid gendered gifts, advice, comments, etc. The result has been that we still get the weird comments (the least obnoxious of which is probably "How will you ever know what color to paint the nursery?!"), and are left feeling like we've built it up to be more of a secret than we had intended. We're seeking your advice on how to parent this child in a way that deemphasizes gender as the central metric of personhood in our society, and allows them, as they come into consciousness, to comfortably have whatever gender identity they have. In private, we've recently started occasionally using the pronouns traditionally associated with our baby's sex, so maybe we're already doomed to perpetuate the gender binary. Are there things we can do to help at this stage, or at the very least not harm? Thank you!
S: This is an excellent question! (It's 'cisgender,' by the way, not 'cis-gendered.') The first thing I'll do is point you at some resources that draw on a lot more relevant expertise on this than I have. Rainbow Parenting is a podcast that I have not listened to but have heard good things about, and it seems ideally designed to address some of your concerns; they've also got a forthcoming book. Gender Reveal has a handful of episodes on trans parenting that might also be interesting (these are from the perspective of trans people raising children, but some include conversations about how to approach the gender of those kids). The 2022 edition of Trans Bodies, Trans Selves has chapters on parenting, children, and youth. I'm sure there are plenty of other good resources as well (readers, feel free to put suggestions in the comments)--as well as plenty of really dreadful ones, so take care with finding materials that center the lived experiences of trans and gender diverse people.
With the limitation that I am not a parent and have no plans to change that and so have no personal experience navigating these conversations and decisions, I have many thoughts. First, people are super weird about gender and my understanding is that some people are always weird about babies as well, so I don't think you can realistically hope to avoid strange and intrusive comments. It's not your problem if your perfectly reasonable (and good!) choice to not tell other people your child's assigned sex is reacted to oddly; I personally think that those who expect to be told deserve it if you point that out. Even if you can't actually say "It's strange that you're so fixated on our baby's genitalia!" in all situations, remembering that it's true might help you ignore the people who expect that very private and irrelevant-to-them information. It's on them if they want to be weird and invasive.
But to your actual question of "how to parent this child in a way that deemphasizes gender as the central metric of personhood in our society, and allows them, as they come into consciousness, to comfortably have whatever gender identity they have," I think you're already framing it in a realistic way. You can't really change the society they'll grow up in, and that society will impose gender on them in ways that aren't okay but that you probably can't fully prevent. What you can do is give them the knowledge and tools to navigate that. And this isn't just in case your child turns out to be trans: that metric of personhood often harms cis women enormously, as well as cis men in different ways, and societal gender roles aren't healthy for anyone at all. In addition, even if your kid is cis, they'll meet trans and gender diverse people throughout their life, so you need to teach them how to treat those people with empathy and respect.
I'm resisting the temptation to give a whole lot of advice on raising a child that I have zero qualifications to offer; please do check out the resources above. What I can tell you is the one huge thing that would have my life as a trans person so much easier: Tell your kid that trans and gender diverse people exist, that their own gender is whatever feels right to them, and that they can do whatever they want regardless of what that gender is. While I hope that they'll grow up in a world where they learn that trans and gender diverse people exist simply by being around people, a lot of us were not given that information until we were adults. Pick media for whatever age they're at that represents a wide range of identities. I don't know when children register that some people are boys and some are girls (though I've certainly been asked which one I am by kids), but make sure they know that some people are neither. It's very possible that they'll pick all this up, but there's also a lot of transantagonism around, so talking openly and positively about gender and the existence of trans and gender diverse people is incredibly important.
While I'd prefer to live in a world where gender is opt-in, that's not really where we are right now, so I personally don't have a problem with your using he or she pronouns for your kid (though there are also people who use they/them pronouns from the beginning, and that's also a perfectly legitimate choice). As it sounds like you already know, don't impose an essentialist gender binary on things like colors or anything else--let them pick whatever toys and clothes appeal, for instance. If you're in a location that allows you to put an X on the birth certificate instead of recording the assigned sex, please consider doing that (Maine, NYC, and most recently Vermont allow this, and contacting your representatives about it in other states is a good idea). When you talk about gender, let them know that they can also try different names/pronouns/looks/etc. It's a good idea to stick with gender-neutral language like child instead of boy or girl, partly because that's what everyone should be doing for people whose gender they don't know.
And that's the main thing to remember: like anyone else, you don't know your child's gender unless they tell you. A common and awful thing in parents, even ones who consider themselves supportive of trans and gender diverse people, is to feel and express grief when their child comes out. There's all sorts of factors behind this that I won't get into, but I'd really like to urge you to keep it in mind from the beginning--don't create and grow attached to an idea of who this new person is that is tied to a particular gender. Also do not view it as a negative thing if they do turn out to be trans or gender diverse. While it's true that the transantagonism that is so prevalent in our society may make certain aspects of their life more difficult, there's all sorts of other things that you can't predict that may also impact their experiences apart from gender. And you don't have to (and shouldn't) just accept that things are more difficult for trans and gender diverse people. In addition to the individual choices you're about to make, also contact your representatives, be vocal about trans-inclusive school policies, and do all the other stuff you can to make the world better and safer for trans and gender diverse kids.
K: Seconding everything said above. I'm also not a parent and have no intention of being one, but I do have a few friends who have kids (some of the parents are trans, some of the kids are trans), so I'll just add on what I've heard them say: If you do happen to default to she/her or he/him pronouns for your child, or even if you use they/them but invasive families or school systems find out (or somehow, believe they've guessed, even if they're wrong) your kid's assigned gender and drag in associated stereotypes, make sure to talk to your kid about that. You can say things like, "we've defaulted to using she/her or he/him pronouns for your out of convenience because it is what people expect, but it's just a placeholder until you tell us how you'd like to be referred to," or like "we try our best to raise you without gendered stereotypes, but not everyone understands that. [Insert family member/school teacher/friend's parent's name here] thinks that certain colors, clothes, games, toys, etc. are for girls/boys, but that's not true, whatever you like or don't like is fine and we support you," or something. There are difficulties no matter what pronouns you end up choosing to use for your kid until they tell you what they want, as well as sharing or not sharing their assigned gender with people around them. Whichever option you choose, you need to be upfront with your kid and tell them that trans and gender diverse people exist, and demonstrate that they'll be safe and supported no matter what their gender ends up being.