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Why We’re Not Raising Our Son To Be Gender-Neutral

Photograph by Twenty20

The woman who performed our baby's ultrasound took her sweet time in revealing our pre-human's gender. It was almost as if she was deliberately ratcheting up the suspense before the delirious moment of revelation. She spoke slowly and deliberately, telling us that our little one had healthy arms and healthy legs and healthy ears and a healthy tummy, and oh yes, a healthy penis.

I don't know that I revealed my desire for a boy to anyone, but I vividly remember quietly pumping my fist in jubilation. My mind immediately danced with images of all the fun boy things me and my boy would do in the years ahead. I imagined myself playing catch with my son, playing video games together, taking him to superhero movies and maybe even building a pinewood derby car to compete against other Boy Scout's wooden automobiles, the same way my father did with me when I was little.

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Of course, girls can enjoy all of the above activities (although they may have some difficulty joining the Boy Scouts,) but I realize that my fantasies of all the fun things I'd do with my son were for the most part extremely gendered. That wave of anticipation surprised, and even disappointed me, because I like to think of myself as a staunch feminist, yet I was unmistakably relieved and excited to be the father of a boy. I couldn't help but feel I stood a better chance of understanding my child because we share a gender. And while we have historically viewed gender as something of a social construct, my wife and I will not be raising our child gender neutral.

I suspect part of the reason I was so excited to be having a boy was because it would give me an excuse to do all the boy stuff I abandoned long ago.

I am the furthest thing from macho. Hell, I'm not even particularly masculine. Throughout my life people have assumed I'm gay. Hell, you're reading this essay on a blog called mom.me and I am not, and have never been, a mother.

And it's worth noting as well that at this point in my life, I don't actually do many of the things I daydream about doing with my son when he gets older. I don't play video games, I don't play sports, I don't watch sports, and I sure as hell don't build wooden cars out of blocks of wood. I suspect part of the reason I was so excited to be having a boy was because it would give me an excuse to do all the boy stuff I abandoned long ago. I see being the father of a son as an excuse to be more of a guy.

Since moving from a working class neighborhood in Chicago to wealthy suburban Marietta, Georgia, I have attended enough Princess-themed parties that I can understand why some people might see the relentless cultural pressure for girls to love all things sparkling and pretty and princess-related as inherently feminine and loving cars as masculine as oppressive, unfair and exhausting. Yet I also wonder whether there might just be something in the hard-wiring of little girls that leads them to love princess dresses and in the DNA of boys that makes their hearts skip a beat when they see a shiny red car.

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Gender-neutral parenting is invariably well-intentioned but I fear that it replaces one form of intense, unfair societal conditioning with another. I would never want to force gender roles on my son (or my daughter) but I also wouldn't want to keep my son from things he might love because they don't conform to my personal sense of ethics.

The key, I think, is to present children with options from across the spectrum of activities considered masculine or feminine and allow them to make choices for themselves. Hell, if our Declan wants to have a sparkly, glittery princess party of his own in a few years, I would be totally happy with that as well, just as long as it is born of genuine interest and not of us pushing him in one direction or another. And there's nothing wrong with that.

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