Queer Parenting: Gender Play

BCN 86 cover

This originally appeared in BCN issue 86, Summer 2007

‘Let’s play mommies and daddies!’  This is Z’s often recurring phrase during our days together.  Despite noticing and appreciating that she always uses the plural for her favourite game, and that she does indeed organise both adults and children around her so that there are multiple moms and dads in the game whenever possible, I cannot help feeling a little miffed at my daughter’s heteronormative proclivities.  What about all she knows about children having only mommies or only daddies?  Where have all my valiant efforts to raise a daughter in happy queerdome gone?  Once I engage in the game I can see that Z is still her mother’s daughter as she asks X to play mom and me to be dad. Gender switching: now that’s something that any queer mom would be proud of! Still, as I hold Z in my arms, whilst she pretends to be a baby, I cannot help but reflect on how much she has already learnt about gender at the tender age of 3 years and 8 months.

I remember the first time I was acutely, and somewhat painfully, made aware of this simple fact of life. I was wearing my suit to go to a job interview back in January and Z said: ‘You look like a man, mom’.  As I wore that fake smile that all parents seem to naturally develop when their child makes somewhat perturbing comments, I asked her what she meant, especially since this was one of those rare times when I was actually wearing a skirt! Patiently Z proceeded to explain that my top was a ‘man’s top.  Like daddies wear when they go to work’. Considering I had worked before, during and after giving birth to my lovely daughter, I was rather surprised by this turn of events.  Z was still unperturbed when confronted with this fact. ‘Mommies go out with babies in pushchairs and daddies wear man’s tops and go to the office’, she insisted. Dear reader, I was crushed.  The combination of me mostly working part-time from home, not having a clear and designated place of work, and living in the Sticks where, to be fair, many young moms push prams around town had proven to be fatal!

Little did I know that this would be the beginning of almost daily conversations about gender with my insightful daughter.  Whether it was nursery, observing people on the streets or watching Cbeebies, we seemed to be assaulted by gendered stories at every turn!  Under siege, I became even more painfully aware of how we have divided our world in pink and blue, masculine and feminine, boys and girls. Now, to be honest, this was not something new for me.  Nevertheless, watching my daughter grow to absorb some of these messages has been proving to be much more challenging than I could have ever imagined. Gone is the hope that a feminist, queer upbringing in the Goddess tradition will mean no dealing with misogyny.  Shattered are the expectations that Z will float through life unscathed by such polarised views of the human race.  Apparently there are men and there are ladies, even for her.

Naturally, being the optimistic and idealist Piscean that I am, I have not given up.  One of my current favourite arguments with my stubborn and beautiful daughter centres on ‘why mommy is not a lady.’  Reproducing lively debates in print is always a challenge but one that I think worth undertaking here.

‘Look at that lady over there, she is beautiful’, says Z, who is very much into complementing at the moment.
‘Yes honey but she is a woman not a lady.’
‘She is a woman and a lady. Women are ladies, mommy’ – Z looks at me with contempt as she utters this obvious truth.
‘Well, some women may like to be called ladies but not all. For example, mommy is not a lady. I am a woman but not a lady. Ladies don’t fart or sweat so mommy cannot be a lady, right?’
By this point Z is obviously starting to wonder whether her mother even understands language as she rolls her eyes and sighs ‘But you have a pisellina*. So you are a lady and a woman’.
As she looks on in triumph, I can only feel defeated and postpone my lengthier explanation of why mommy does not like to bear the mantle of expectations usually posed on a lady’s shoulder until primary school.

So what feels like the external struggle continues.  Z looks at the world and learns what other people consider masculine and feminine and I can only hope that she is also learning our more fluid stories too.  If I had any doubts that my influence is any less important than society’s dominant discourse, they were quenched the other day when Z explained to my mom that ‘you don’t have to be a girl to be a mom. You can be a girl and be a dad, and you can also be a boy and a girl and have a pisellina or pisellino**.  So what are you, nonna?’  It may seems inconsequential to some but, for me, as a feminist and a queer, poly woman with a genderqueer partner, it is reassuring to know that I have sown the seed of choice in my amazing, world-changing daughter.  I slept well that night, after hearing the amusing exchange between my mother and my daughter, and dreamt of a world where gender had finally become just child’s play.


* Children’s Italian word for vagina.
** Children’s Italian word for penis.

It would be great to hear from other parents out there. Are there particular issues that you would like to talk or read about?

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