One thing about parenting: Carrying a cute baby out in the public sphere garners far more smiles than I’m used to receiving after twenty years as a gender non-conforming lesbian. My short hair and purposely androgynous clothing–I’m small enough that I can shop in the boys’ section of most clothing stores–often earn me double-takes, particularly in public restrooms where older women especially have looked like they’re about to tell me I’m in the wrong place.
But with a baby in my arms, I am the recipient of beatific smiles from all quarters. I know the smiles aren’t necessarily for me, but I can’t help wondering how much of the approval cast my way is for the ostensibly heterosexual act that earned me the babe in arms. Does an accessory infant offset my clippered nape and men’s collared shirt so that I now appear overtly heterosexual to most passersby? Or is it just that most people love puppies and babies?
Yesterday, Kris and Alex picked me up at work and we went for lunch at the local co-op. Perhaps it’s just me, but I expect co-op patrons and workers to be more progressive than the average, say, Walmart customer. That’s why I was surprised by the conversation I had with a fellow shopper as we stood beside the deli counter considering salad options. I was holding Alex, and Kris was around the corner looking at sandwiches. The older woman, who had smiled at me when I first approached the deli display, leaned in and said, “How adorable. Is it a boy?”
Kris and I are both accustomed to this question because we tend to favor what we believe is non-gender specific clothing, most of which has been donated from friends and family members who have boys. Plus, at three months, Alex still has her grandfather’s follicly-challenged hairline.
“No, she’s a girl,” I replied.
“Yes,” I said, “people do seem to have very specific ideas about what a girl should wear.” This was my roundabout Midwestern way of accusing the other woman of acting like a narrow-minded member of the gender police. And then, because even this vague chastisement felt rude, I added, “Her grandfather gave her the outfit.”
“Well, then you have to wear it, don’t you,” she cooed to Alex, not seeming to pick up on the circuitous insult in the first part of my statement. “I’m expecting my first grandson next month.”
“Congratulations,” I said. “That’s exciting.”
“It is. I’m on baby alert now wherever I go.”
I knew what she meant. When we were trying to conceive, Kris and I saw pregnant women everywhere. Now that we have a baby, our radar is attuned to mothers and infants or toddlers. Over the past few months, I’ve had intimate conversations with perfect strangers who happen to be holding a baby about Alex’s age. I’ve also announced her birth to co-workers, coffee shop cashiers, former students I run into around town, and multiple strangers who don’t give a whit that I’m a new parent or that our baby is, of course, amazing.
Not only that, but since Alex was born I’ve occasionally had the shocking revelation that every single person I see was once a helpless infant in someone’s arms–the simultaneously cocky and insecure pre-teen boys who skateboard through our development; the degreed professors who work on my hall; the gas station attendant who always chomps her gum at me. Everywhere I look I see babies become adults.
Our lunch selections made, Kris and I advanced to the cash register. I was holding Alex, so while Kris paid, I went to scout out a table in the nearby dining area. Once we were seated, I told Kris about my deli counter conversation. She, it turned out, had an exchange of her own to share.
“The cashier asked me whose baby Alex is, yours or mine,” Kris told me. “I just looked at her, and then I said, ‘Both of ours. She’s our daughter.'”
“Probably this is just the start of decades of similar comments to come,” I said.
“Probably,” Kris agreed.
We’ve had the gendered clothing discussion before, of course. A few weeks ago, Kris took Alex to the gym she manages, intending to meet some of her senior fitness class participants. While they were there a longtime gym member told Kris disapprovingly that Alex looked like a boy, dressed as she was in a blue cotton jumper decorated with puppies. It wasn’t just the color blue that signaled maleness, he explained to Kris. It was also the puppies.
“Girls like pink,” he added helpfully.
Kris eyed him coolly and answered, “She’s eight weeks old. I don’t think she really knows what she likes yet.”
This insistence on associating masculinity first with adorable puppies and now with cute little monkeys was, we decided, a bit much.
“So boys get animals, and girls get, what, flowers?” Kris asked me. “Is that how we’re divvying up the natural world now? Except not all animals. Chicks and bunnies and kittens are for girls. Apparently if it’s fluffy it can’t be for boys.”
“Or pastel-colored,” I pointed out, and we rolled our eyes in unison.
Cultural notions of what constitutes gender-appropriate attire for children haven’t always been as fixed as they now appear. Last month, Smithsonian.com published a piece called “When Did Girls Start Wearing Pink?” In the article, writer Jeanne Maglaty points out that pastel-colored dresses were the garment of choice for all babies from the mid-nineteenth century well into the twentieth, and that pink was actually considered more suitable for boys up until the 1940s. Meanwhile, growing up in the ’70s, Kris and I both wore plaid pants and baseball shirts, and not just because we were tomboys. That was the style then, the same way that princess apparel for girls and truck gear for boys now rule the day.
Maglaty also cites University of Maryland historian and author Jo B. Paoletti as suggesting that “nowadays people just have to know the sex of a baby or young child at first glance.” So far, in my experience with our daughter, that has held true. Just as people seem not to know what to make of a gender non-conforming adult, they become flustered and sometimes actually angry with us, the parents, when they can’t immediately tell our baby’s sex.
Fortunately, there are still plenty of people out there who don’t seem to care how we dress our daughter. Just before we left the co-op yesterday, I struck up a conversation with another diner holding a baby on her lap.
“How sweet,” I said, smiling down at the sleeping infant. Noting the pink jumper buttoned over her onesie, I gambled and said, “She has so much hair! How old?”
“She’s two months,” the mom said. “What about yours? Girl or boy?”
“Girl. We’re not really doing the gender-specific clothing thing,” I explained.
“Good for you,” she said. “How old?”
And we went on to discuss sleep habits, feeding schedules, breast milk, formula–the usual conversational topics of new moms everywhere meeting for the first time.