There’s been a fair amount of media coverage around parents raising genderless kids lately. The media storm around young Storm, a Toronto child being raised without the parents assigning gender, attracted international attention. Many applauded the family’s efforts declaring that gender roles are too restrictive to children, not allowing them to fully explore their personalities and interests because of societal pressures. Many felt the family were crazy, that gender is natural and will show through and that the family may be damaging their child by not allowing him or her to develop a full identity.
This isn’t a new phenomenon; there have been several instances over the last few decades of families seeking to hide their child’s sex in order to avoid having their gender assigned. And, in fact, gender bending or ignoring gender altogether has been going on since the beginning of time.
The media attention has, for the most part, focused on children whose parents are making these choices for them. But we largely ignore the adults in our midst who are cross-gender, transgender, or gender neutral. And many of those adults are parents.
Sure, we all know a family, like friends of mine, where typical gender roles have been reversed: the father is the stay-at-home or work-from-home parent while the mother works outside the home. Unless they’re fundamentalist conservative, most people see that as a progress of sorts. We’re moving towards a society that sees parenting as a shared role without necessarily assigning specific tasks to mother or father.
But we still assign attributes, if we don’t assign responsibilities. Mothers are the nurturers, the worriers, and the ones that make those important child-rearing decisions like: at what age are they permitted to chew gum?
Fathers, meanwhile, are the risktakers, the ones who push the kids to be independent and the ones who are prepared to ignore rules in order to explore or have fun.
This isn’t necessarily true, especially not for all couples, but it is the common perception of the gendered aspects of parents.
We see mothers as having a special bond with their children – especially in the early years – because they carried them and fed them and were physically connected to them.
But what happens when there are parents who cross over those sex and gender boundaries? Parents like Trevor McDonald, a 27 year old stayat-home Dad who was born a woman and gave birth to and is nursing his and his partner, Ian’s, 16 month old son?
Trevor identifies as a male and as a father, though his roles include those that traditionally and biologically remain in the realm of woman and mother. According to a recent letter he received from La Leche League Canada (LLLC) rejecting his application to become a LLLC leader, “the roles of mothers and fathers are not interchangeable” and “the father’s role (is) not as a mother substitute, but as a unique figure in the baby’s life.”
But families like Trevor and Ian’s and hundreds of other LGBT families are showing that both parents, regardless of gender, sex, or sexual orientation are unique figures in their baby’s life. There are gay male families where one – or both – father(s) “nurse” an adopted baby using a supplemental nursing system and donated breastmilk and lesbian families where one mother carries the pregnancy and gives birth while the other mother induces lactation and breastfeeds.
In response to an article on male breastfeeding, “Breastfeeding for Dads?” by Jennifer Newton Reents, published in And Baby magazine in 2003, Joseph Nicolosi, founder of the National Association for Research and Treatment of Homosexuality (NARTH) said “We were not created to masquerade as the opposite sex — and no man can truly ‘mother’ a baby.”
Yet, in a response to an article on the same subject posted to my Facebook page, “Milkmen: Fathers who Breastfeed” by Laura Shanley, more than one father expressed to me his wish to have known that male lacta- tion was possible and his desire to have tried it with his own child. Men whose wives were unable to breastfeed or found it difficult were the ones that expressed this interest.
And that’s what it comes down to, isn’t it? If one parent either cannot or will not or has difficulty with a traditional role of gendered parenting, as a parent first and a gender second, any parent would try to compensate for their partner’s difficulty by providing that act of nurturing or parenting to their child themselves.
As Trevor MacDonald told The Star reporter Josh Tapper in response to his rejection letter from LLLC, “first and foremost I identify as a parent.”
It seems to me that if all parents viewed their role as fluidly as many of our LGBT peers do, our children would be parented better, with all the nurturing and caring necessities met whether by mother or father or both. By allowing ourselves to determine our parenting by our gender we limit our children’s accessibility to parenting and having their needs met. Dara Squires is a freelance writer and mom of three. You can contact her on facebook