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It’s a . . . Baby!!

I’m six and half months pregnant. Thanks so much. Yes, we’re thrilled. What’s that? Am I “going to find out”? Um, at six and half months you tend to be pretty sure, what with the big belly and the kicking and all.

OK, OK. No need to explain. You meant “are you going to have an ultrasound technician look for genitalia to try to make an educated (but often wrong) guess about the sex of the baby so you can be drowned in the ‘proper’ color at your baby shower?” I know that’s what you meant. I could count on one hand the number of people who haven’t asked that as their first question, and I’d still have enough fingers left to take down a phone message from the midwife. (God bless the one of you who instead said “Home or hospital?”)

It’s not that I don’t kind of understand. I mean, it’s one of the first bits of information you get about a new little human that’s likely to have lifelong implications. Most other things about them are just going to take a while to unfold. And it’s become such a thing that it may feel impolite not to ask. It’s the urgency about it that confuses me.

And it’s also not like I don’t have reason to be wary of what many of you will do with this information. I knew one couple who weren’t intending to find out their baby’s gender, but due to a health complication in her ovary (it’s all fine now) ended up finding out a week before their shower. It spread through the grapevine like wildfire, and the father-to-be’s expression as they opened their umpty- skillionth pink thing was priceless. (A week! Man, y’all are last-minute shoppers.)

Other friends I knew in New York City—design-minded people with a stylish loft in Greenwich Village—had been more proactive. They had a color theme, requesting red, white and black (sharp contrasts are easier for babies to see). They, too, drowned in pink. (And pink doesn’t even go with red!) Another person locally tells of how her mother instructed people to buy blue, and so everyone assumed she knew she was having a boy.

Now this is not actually about my having anything against pink or blue as colors. (Interestingly I’ve heard it said that little girls really do like pink a lot. Thing is, if we would let them, so do little boys.) Nor is it about trying to be control-freakish about people’s baby shower generosity. It’s just that the color thing is the easiest representation of so many people’s obsession with having babies easily labeled and sorted by gender.

Some friends here in Albany who have a 10-month-old have perhaps the most ridiculous stories in this regard. They have, on numerous visits to Honest Weight Food Co-op (not exactly a bastion of conservative society, you’d think), had people approach their little girl, and either ask what his name is or ask if it’s a boy or a girl. This is no problem. After all, the English language makes it awkward to talk about the kid much without this bit of information, and it really can be hard to tell with babies.

But upon being told, some mind- bogglingly large portion of people apparently respond with something like “Oh sorry, I should have looked at the [insert thing the baby is wearing that is closest to pink or frilly, which given these parents’ preference for bold primary colors is often something of a stretch].”

Other amusing variations have included “Oh, right, because of the bib/bow/pants” (Because of? I know some trans folks who only wish it were that easy) and “It’s so hard to tell in yellow.”

Realizing that variations on “No, you should have looked in the pants” or “It’s because of the vagina,” might not be acceptable responses, my friends have considered resorting to “No, you should have looked at the chromosomes.”

I don’t plan to be gender-neutrality obsessed with my children. My spectrum of acceptable gender expression includes feminine girls and masculine boys. I’m willing to believe that hormones and chromosomes do make some difference all on their own. And I’m much more concerned about making sure my children are healthy, secure, loved human beings with a good set of core values and the ability to make decisions on their own than I am about never ever communicating an expectation based on gender.

But if I got anything out of college women’s studies it was this: Just because certain habits, behaviors, and assumptions are so ingrained in us that they feel impossible to change doesn’t mean they are necessarily biological in nature. The subtle messages that we send during infancy, a time when personalities are developing and it is being decided whether certain genes will be expressed or not, actually do stick and make a difference. Whether it’s expecting a boy to stop crying faster or saying that a grinning baby girl is being a flirt, our own ingrained attitudes get passed on despite our best intentions.

This limits us—all of us. I’m not going to run down some list of depressing statistics about lack of access to reproductive health care, domestic violence, crimes done to prove someone’s manhood and on and on that show how gender biases are still doing tremendous amounts of harm. They’re easy to find. So a little bit of self-awareness on the most basic level feels like the least we can do.

For now I’m just giving my kid a few more months free from the assumptions (including my own) and sharpening my witty repartee. After that, we’ll have to see what the kid wants.

—Miriam Axel-Lute 

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