It Runs in the Family: On Being Raised by Radicals and Growing into Rebellious Motherhood (2015)


Seamus went to a University of Connecticut basketball game a while ago. UConn beat Yale, big time. He sat in the stands with his dad, uncle, and papa and was completely absorbed by the action below. “My son is a boy,” I thought. He is a handsome, strong, demanding, loving little boy whose favorite things are blocks and balls and Cheerios.

We did not know before he was born if we were going to have a boy or a girl. It was the first question everyone asked. “Congrats. What are you having?” When I said that we didn’t know, older people always offered additional congratulations. “Good for you! We never knew back when I was having my kids.” I thought it was strange that even people who thought not knowing ahead of time was good couldn’t help but ask. I also got a lot of speculation about the bump’s sex. “What do you feel like you are carrying?” I was asked. “A watermelon, a small sedan, or perhaps a large sofa,” I responded.

“You are having a boy!” was the informal consensus from women at the grocery store, on the street, and in my extended family. Almost no one thought I was going to have a girl, except Rosena who wanted a little sister.

While I was pregnant with Seamus, I learned about a new trend: gender reveal parties. Expectant parents throw a party where they learn if they are having a boy or a girl. They get balloons filled with pink or blue confetti, they get cakes with either pink or blue frosting inside, and the guests divide into Team Girl and Team Boy to suggest names and guess the baby’s stats like weight and due date.

“How do you know what color to paint the nursery?” asked the woman bagging groceries at Stop & Shop, when I told her I didn’t know if my bump was male or female. “White,” I said. “We have painted it white.” She looked disappointed. In truth, I painted all the walls white. I was not going to waste any time meditating over paint chips and variations of green with names like “Summer Moss” or “Old Toad.” I could not see how knowing the sex of our baby ahead of time would help us prepare for being parents. We had everything one actually needs for a baby—car seat, co-sleeper, high chair, and stroller. Friends with two boys moved back to New Zealand and gave us all their baby clothes, shoes, hats, diapers, baby seats, and swaddles. The clothes were mostly European and Kiwi, which meant lots of stripes and lots of red and white patterns with very few overly assertive boy markers, such as the ones you see emblazoned on everything at Target and Babies “R” Us: T-shirts with gorillas, trucks, or super heroes. Girl clothes have pink polka dots, dogs or cats with long eyelashes, and princesses. Sex education starts immediately.

Sex, gender, and children have gotten a lot of media attention in recent years. A couple in Sweden is raising Pop, a child whose sex is known only to immediate family. Pop wears all kinds of clothes and plays with all kinds of toys. As Pop grows and becomes articulate, Pop will identify Pop’s self to the world.

The Toronto parents of Storm are doing something similar. In their birth announcement, they wrote to friends and family that “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?…).”

The New York Times Magazine did a long profile of “gender-variant” kids and their parents. The thing that struck me most in the article was how hard the parents were working to create a space in the world for their kids.

One father of a boy who wore dresses and had long hair reflected: “He’s just this very brave person. My son showed me this is part of core identity, not something people just put on or take off. And it’s not their job to make sure we’re all comfortable.” A preschool in Sweden is working to inculcate the next generation with that same kind of sensitivity and appreciation for the breadth of human expression. They have done away with the pronouns “him,” “her,” “he,” and “she.” The kids are called by their names or referred to as “friends.” Toys are not gendered and neither are activities.

The move came after a 1998 law requiring equal opportunities for girls and boys in school. Teachers then filmed their interactions with the kids. The director said that they found caregivers were responding really differently to boys and girls: “If a boy was crying because he hurt himself, he was consoled, but for a shorter time, while girls were held and soothed much longer. With a boy it was, ‘Go on, it’s not so bad!’”

Our society is fast and ruthless in its enforcement of gender norms. It is not just the clothes, it’s everything. From the kinds of toys that babies and children are given—doll babies and kitchens for girls, matchbox cars and fire trucks for boys—to the kinds of activities that are sanctioned—sports and tree climbing for boys, playing house and picking flowers for girls—it is no surprise that this impulse also manifests in how parents and caregivers respond to injuries and tantrums.

Kids do it to each other too. When Rosena was in kindergarten, she came home from school complaining that kids on the playground said that her jacket was for a boy and she must be a boy if she’s wearing a red and blue jacket with a hood.

She was hurt and upset, but she was also indignant. “Who did they think they were?” It was not too hard to convince her that she had a nice warm fall jacket and that she should keep wearing it. But it happened again at summer camp.

It was probably my fault. I cut her bangs and bungled it badly. She was just happy to have the hair out of her face, but it was a bit of a hatchet job. Kids called her a boy and it hurt her feelings. But then the next day, she picked out an outfit of shorts and a T-shirt, nothing pink or girly. She was going to be who she was—comfortable and ready for fun. I was proud of her but I also made an appointment for her to get a real haircut later that week.

All of this made me consider my own gender education. I was often mistaken for a boy because of my homemade haircuts, oversized clothes, and generally grubby appearance. I didn’t really mind it most of the time. I either relished the opportunity to correct people for getting it wrong or I subtly revealed my femininity in their presence by taking my hair down or doing something unmistakably girlish to see how they reacted.

In some ways, my mom and dad had a traditionally gendered relationship within the completely nontraditional context of a nonviolent resistance community. There was something archetypal about both of them. My mom was a peacemaker, a negotiator, a finagler. She asked questions. She listened, she was patient, she conceded, and she gave second chances. She sought solutions that worked for everyone, and she softened my dad’s hard edges. My dad was the tough guy. He did not suffer fools. He was sharp, abrupt, spoke in declaratives, and made hard choices. He followed his conscience, which seemed to speak to him in clear, easily understood sentences. He made determinations, he judged, he warmed slowly, he held onto things.

Despite her maternal and feminine role within the community, my mom is almost free of girlish flourishes. No makeup, no hair style, no gussying up. Her mom was a pillbox-hat-and-white-glove kind of lady who put my hair in rags to give me nice curls for church on Sunday morning when we were visiting. When I complained, she told me that one had to suffer for beauty.

But my mother did not suffer for beauty and she encouraged me not to either. Grandma McAlister gave me a set of nail polishes for my birthday when I was 8 or 9. Mom told me to write a thank you note and then got rid of them.

When we were growing up, my mom bathed once a week, ran a comb through her hair, kept her clothes neat and practical. She worked just as hard as my dad on the house painting crew. She was afraid of heights, but she climbed ladders and cleaned out gutters just like everyone else. She also, like most women, did a second shift at home, cooking meals, cleaning, and staying on top of the kids. Mom had a few feminine rituals. She shaved her legs and loved Jean Naté after-bath splash. The scent would linger in the bathroom long after her weekly scrubbing ritual. These were deeply incongruous behaviors, left over, I imagine, from her days as a middle-class Catholic girl and as a young, well-dressed, post-Vatican II nun. I tried shaving my legs for a while in high school, but after a few months of bloody shin bones, I gave it up for good.

Looking back, I think my mom taught me to be myself, and to parent from that position of strength. In parenting Rosena and Seamus and Madeline, I try to parent the kids, not their genders. We encourage Rosena to run and climb, to dig and discover, to push herself physically and mentally. We hold her when she cries. We hold her responsible when she acts out.

It’s the same with Seamus. We hold him when he cries. We do not ignore his pain. We do not tell him to shake it off. We dress Madeline in blue and stripes, she looks great in Seamus’s hand me downs. We do not try to pin big bows on her head.

Seamus has a little kitchen and can occupy himself for long stretches by putting Velcro wooden fruit and veggies together, by stacking pots, and handling rolling pins and tea pots. We taught him sign language. More. Please. Nurse. The sign for gentle is one of my favorites: your left hand is straight out with the thumb turned skyward, forming an L-shape. Then the right hand gently traces the shape. Seamus gives the “gentle” sign to other babies, to cats and dogs, to his stressed-out mother. He has his own sign for gentle: he rubs his hands together vigorously. He reaches out to smaller babies to touch them, but he does not grab. He pets cats, though he is still justifiably nervous around dogs. He is a little boy, at least for now. We’ll see what the future brings and we will always love him fiercely.