A couple in Canada isn't telling anybody the gender of their baby. But paradoxically, their attempt at neutrality may make gender an even bigger deal.
According to Parent Central, Kathy Witterick and David Stocker have decided to keep the gender of four-month-old Storm a secret — only they, their two older children, and a few others know the truth. In an email announcement to friends and family, Witterick and Stocker said,
We've decided not to share Storm's sex for now — a tribute to freedom and choice in place of limitation, a stand up to what the world could become in Storm's lifetime (a more progressive place? ...).
Recipients of the email were reportedly nonplussed (though genderless parenting has made headlines in the past), and opinions are divided over whether the parents' decision will harm Storm. Victoria Pynchon points out at Forbes that we often reflexively judge parents who raise their kids in non-mainstream ways — but that at least Witterick and Stocker are trying to "open up to their kids every possibility imaginable," not limit them. However, psychologist Diane Ehrenshaft is concerned about their approach: "I believe that it puts restrictions on this particular baby so that in this culture this baby will be a singular person who is not being given an opportunity to find their true gender self, based on also what's inside them." She worries that rather than freeing Storm from categories, Witterick and Stocker are just putting their baby in a new category — "Other than other" — that Storm may find difficult to negotiate.
Indeed, it's hard to say whether Witterick and Stocker's approach is truly freeing. Their two older children are both boys, which isn't a secret, but they choose how to style their hair and how to dress. The result is that Jazz dresses in pink, wears braids, and is frequently mistaken for a girl, though he definitely identifies as male. In some ways he sounds like "princess boy" Dyson Kilodavis, an iconoclast supported by a loving family (and indeed, Jazz is sometimes called a "princess" by people who don't know his gender). His sartorial decisions do seem to be his own — but in other ways, he seems to be leading a life dominated by, not liberated from, gender. His mom "unschools" him at home because, she says, "When we would go and visit programs, people — children and adults — would immediately react with Jazz over his gender." And he has a notebook written under his pseudonym, "Gender Explorer," including messages like "Help girls do boy things. Help boys do girl things. Let your kid be whoever they are!" The sentiments are heart-warming, but it's hard to tell how much they're really Jazz's own, especially the last one. Would a five-year-old, left to his own devices, really write about gender-neutral parenting?
Witterick and Stocker's approach is almost certainly better than the strict gender essentialism they're fighting against — at least their kids will never have to quit sports or dress-up because of outdated stereotypes. And I understand the family's frustration with questions about its youngest member — I tend to agree that gender isn't the most important of all the ways people differ from one another, and the idea that "boy" and "girl" are the most crucial categories a person can fit into is pretty reductive. At the same time, Witterick and Stocker appear to have made gender nonconformity the center of their kids' lives in a way that may actually make gender more of an issue than it would've been if they'd taken a more laissez-faire approach. Hopefully as they grow older, they'll be able to find their own comfortable relationship with masculinity, femininity, and everything in between, without being pressured either to stand out or to fit in.
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