My parents often told me that from a young age I’d insisted I was a boy – not a girl. I didn’t like dresses, the colour pink or dolls.
I grew up with an older brother and apart from the large age gap, I never perceived us as being treated differently. My parents never pushed either of us into any specific subject or career choice.
In fact, the first time being female made sense to me was when I was pregnant. It still felt right whilst I was breastfeeding, which I did for several years with each of my children. But between kids, the gender nonconforming identity I’d assumed as a child returned and is still part of who I am now.
My pronouns are ‘she’ and ‘her’ but honestly, I don’t feel bound to any particular gender and I generally reject gender as a concept – except for those people who have fought to be able to express a gender denied to them from birth.
So I felt a warm recognition and a sense of kinship at hearing Doctor Who star Jodie Whittaker reveal recently that she and her brother were ‘raised gender neutral before it was even considered a thing.’
She added: ‘We were given equal opportunities and thrown into the same activities. Our parents told us that our social skills and sports were just as important as our academic results.’
This spoke to me because it’s really how I feel all children should be raised. I would love this outlook to become more normalised, so there was no question in my mind about raising my own kids without gender bias.
I provided all of my three children with a wide range of toys – including tea sets, teddies, dinosaurs, cars and trains – and let them choose what made them the happiest. I also avoided very stereotyped books, and provided clothing choices from both boys and girls sections.
When I had my kids, I didn’t know about gender neutral pronouns, and initially used the standard ‘he’, ‘she’ pronouns assigned to my children. When I became aware of the possibility to choose one’s own, however, I offered this to my children too.
I had my first child in in 2002 and she was assigned female at birth. I generally dressed her in blue, mainly because it was darker and showed less dirt (we had a border collie and would spend a lot of time in the park) but also because I didn’t like the assumptions people made of a child dressed in pink.
People always seemed to restrict her if she looked ‘girly’ but allowed her more freedoms if they saw her in blue.
Around the age of one, I was surprised when she chose to play with a doll (I’d always found dolls creepy) but happily let her have one. She was a fantastic parent to her doll.
I noticed that once she started school, however, the gender roles were more solidified and my firstborn did then start to veer into the cultural stereotypes of what a little girl does and wears.
At around 16 years old, having previously used ‘she’ and ‘her’ pronouns, she trialled using ‘they’ and ‘them’, although she reverted to gendered pronouns a while later. I supported both decisions wholeheartedly and encouraged her to find something she was comfortable with.
She also developed a passion for rugby, maths and computer science and is now studying maths at university.
Bringing up my second child was curious as everyone assumed they were a boy – even though they were assigned female at birth – and at first being misgendered seemed to make them unhappy.
At age 13, they are now uncomfortable with male or female pronouns and identify as non-binary – they prefer it if people mistake them for a boy.
Just like with my older two, I gave my third child a range of toys to play with, didn’t dress them in any particular colour or style and once they reached an age where they could express a preference, I allowed them to choose what they liked.
Around the age of three, they wanted a less gender conforming hairstyle so I ventured to find a hairdresser offering hair styling to any person of any gender – without differentiation.
We had previously tried local hair salons and told the stylist that he wanted his hair to be tidied and trimmed out of his eyes, but he wanted to keep it long, and was hoping to grow it ‘like Rapunzel’, as he described it. Yet every time, we would get a very clipped ‘boyish’ haircut and he would be sad that his hair was too short.
Once we had found someone to do what he actually wanted, he became far more confident and comfortable in himself.
It was only as my third child got older that I finally started to experience negativity towards my parenting style.
I was accosted in the street by a stranger when my son was pushing a toy pram and told that I shouldn’t let him do that. She asked me if I was worried about what he’d become and I simply responded: ‘What will he become if he pushes a pram? A good father, who takes care of his kids? Why would that worry me?’
I had a person at my church making disparaging remarks when he wore hand-me-down jeggings – despite how much more practical they are for potty training and the fact that most male pop stars wear skinny jeans.
I was also told by some people that I shouldn’t tie his hair back with hair bands and clips, or let him have his toenails painted. But if he has long hair, of course he will need it tied back.
As a side note, I’ve always found it tricky to find hair clips and ties that aren’t all pink and sparkly – not that my son minds – but I don’t see why they have to be.
In reception class, my youngest chose to wear the pink gingham dress school uniform in the summer term and despite the support of the teachers – not to mention the fact that other children soon got over the novelty – I received quite a lot of criticism and even aggression from other parents.
One parent in particular came up to me in a playground and snarled at me that I was ‘weird’ and my son would grow up ‘wrong’. It shook me but didn’t shake my resolve.
My response is generally to point out that they are the ones imposing restrictions on their children and clipping their wings. I’ve noticed that the judgement we’ve received comes only from people outside of the queer community.
Our colourful family is not limited to gender norms – and neither is The Doctor. When it was announced that Jodie Whittaker would play the next regeneration in the form of a female, we were thrilled.
My older kids felt that they could identify with Whittaker’s portrayal even more, but of course, in reality, they already did. The idea of an enigmatic stranger who is a little out of place in a very uniquely ordinary world – which child hasn’t felt that?
Just like Whittaker and celebrities like her – from Will Smith to Angelina Jolie – I don’t really think forcing an extreme stereotype of a gender onto a child is helpful. I feel the world would be a much healthier and happier place if we had more strong independent women, and more emotionally aware and sensitive men.
But even better would be if we had a world of strong, independent, sensitive and emotionally aware people, where gender was not relevant at all.
I want my kids to feel free to become anything they truly want to be, and for them to know that I won’t restrict their growth or future options. My only hope is that they will be happy as much of the time as possible.
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