Raising Octopus Kids

Adventures in gender-expansive parenting

The thing that made me decide I wanted to have a baby was living with a couple who were raising an incredible kid and doing a damn fine job.

They created a beautiful and very non-traditional extended family for their child by involving all kinds of adults in her life. The parents were musicians and radical activist types—they regularly hosted rehearsals of the Brass Liberation Orchestra in our living room and joined flash mobs for labor rights. (This was Oakland, 2009. Flash mobs were a thing.) They were queer and gender-creative, so when they hatched baby M, they decided to dress her in gender-neutral clothes until she was old enough to express her own preferences. Family members were clearly asked not to gift lots of ruffles or excessive quantities of pink; baby M wore mostly stripes and pants, because in our misogynist culture, “gender neutral” usually ends up meaning “not overtly feminine.”

What the parents did not know until M was old enough to tell them, was that her grandmother kept a closet of secret girly dresses in her home, and when baby M got dropped off there in the morning, grandma removed the carefully curated stripes and put her in frills. She seemed to think baby M was being robbed of a girlhood, robbed of being pretty, so she took direct action. When I saw how incensed everyone involved became, I started to get a glimpse of the gender wars to which we subject our children.

The year after baby M was born, I came out as genderqueer, a non-binary gender identity. I changed my name and emailed a FAQ to 93 people asking them to refer to me with “they/them” pronouns. Publicly naming what had already been fairly obvious about my gender non-conformity was both exhilarating and terrifying, and it opened me up to celebration, ridicule, and a whole new set of microaggressions when people resisted using my pronouns or continued to call me by my deadname. 11 years later, most of my family still fumbles over the pronouns, and one of my father figures refuses to call me Jacks. On the rare occasion I show up at a family event wearing a dress, I am praised for my beauty, but if I show up as my usual gender-weirdo self, I am met with silence. I think it would be easier for everyone involved if I could just pick sides, but I can’t – something inside me is always shifting, always troubling the line.

When I finally got pregnant with a child of my own, I struggled with the decision of how to handle her gender. I have friends who are choosing to raise their kids gender neutral or gender ambiguous—they refuse to take actions that would force a preconceived set of gender norms on their child before the child is ready to express for themselves how they understand their own gender. (According to experts, this usually happens around age 3.) The idea is that if you don’t put your kid in a box, they won’t have to break out of that box later on if their internal sense of gender identity doesn’t align with the sex they were assigned at birth. What this can look like in daily life is not informing folks what sex the child was assigned at birth; using gender-neutral pronouns like “they/them” to refer to the child until they show a preference for specific pronouns; giving the child a gender-ambiguous name; and either dressing the child in fairly androgynous clothing, or alternating between clothes that are traditionally read as masculine and feminine. It’s a brave, bold and surprisingly common-sense approach, and it’s more widespread than you think.

While I love this approach in theory—who doesn’t want to keep their kid from being forced into a box?–my wife and I have hesitated to adopt it with our own child. The idea of endlessly having to educate and correct family, childcare providers, and the general public about my child’s gender sounds exhausting, and I am already exhausted by advocating for myself. I don’t want to call attention to my daughter being different—she is already dealing with feeling different because she has visibly queer parents. At 2, she is already trying to figure out why she doesn’t have a mommy and a daddy and how to get the grown-ups in her life to use the right words. I also don’t want her to feel like there’s anything wrong with being a girl, if that’s how she ends up identifying. Our culture does so much to denigrate girls and women—I want her to feel proud of who she is, and not like it’s something we might be hiding or negating. So we decided to use “she” pronouns, call her our daughter, and dress her in a wide range of clothes, from monster shirts to gauzy pink dresses and everything in between.

Our daughter’s relationship to gender has become quite interesting and fluid. She loves playing with her toolbox and wants to be “a good fixer,” like her parents, but she also loves unicorns and rainbows. She enjoys showing off how she can carry heavy things, and strives to get as dirty as possible, but she also loves to put on an apron and bake cookies. She frequently follows our lead and refers to grown-ups as “people” and “parents” rather than men, women, mommies and daddies; last week she asked us, “what is a man?” and we scrambled to find a creative and developmentally appropriate response. I hope she is learning that we’ll support her on all sides of the gender spectrum. As she gets older, I imagine the cultural messaging around what a girl should be will become even more intense, and we will have to be intentional in helping her keep her options open. I hope she gets to be like an octopus or a tree frog–choosing her camouflage, changing colors at will. It has brought me some ease knowing that gender does not need to be difficult for her, at least not yet. She is free to tell us anytime that we’ve got it wrong.

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