Tag Archives: social norms

Beyond Suicide Prevention: An Overlooked Threat to LGBTQ Youth

February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month. Having recently returned to paid, full-time employment in the domestic and intimate partner violence prevention and intervention field, I thought I would take this opportunity to discuss barriers to serving queer youth, especially when so many entities dictating the structure for provision of programming are still mired in homophobia, transphobia, and heterosexism.

Any input from readers is much-appreciated.

– Amanda


I don’t often consider the reality that my children will be teenagers someday: probably because I still need to periodically remind myself that I’m not a teenager. 15, in particular, really stands out as a Me-seeming age. However, even my rudimentary math skills allow me to easily calculate that both of my kids are closer to 15 than I currently am — in terms of years, if not emotional maturity.

Actually, I am the same age as Steve Kornacki, the news editor at Salon.com, who recently wrote an article about coming out as a gay man. At 32.

It’s a sobering, but not all together bleak, tale of finding one’s way in the dark.

Kornacki describes how, although he knew he was attracted to other guys as early as his sophomore year in high school (when he was probably around 15 years old), he quickly wrote off the idea of ever openly acknowledging his preferences. Because he didn’t believe he fit the stereotypical image of how a gay male is expected to behave (he is a rabid sports fan; others described him as “straitlaced”; he notes that his role models had always been wholesome [and presumably straight] “family men”),  he was driven to,

[learn] how to compartmentalize. I didn’t have to spend all day fighting my urges; I could just ignore them in public and acknowledge them in private, fleeting moments. …  Back then … the idea of being 35 or 40 seemed ridiculously far off – distant enough for me to tell myself that everything would take care of itself and I’d end up married to a woman.

Reading Kornacki’s story, I experienced an almost palpable Oh-God-I-Am-Definitely-A-Parent epiphany. I’m not 15. I’m a stodgy woman in her early thirties. And I have Concerns.


Back in July of 2011, I wrote about the glaring omission of — and ever-contentious debate over — LGBTQ representations in pre-literate children’s media.  Parents, educators, and otherwise invested adults must step up our game, I reasoned,  if we want to ensure that gender variance and a diversity of (nascent) sexualities will be considered par for the course by the time our current crop of preschoolers reaches adolescence.

But there is another major void that I was so inured to,  I simply failed to notice. Until Kornacki’s article got me thinking.

Most people who are supportive of and wish to protect young, queer people understand that attitudes obfuscating LGBTQ identities, and corresponding policies like the infamous (and — as of today — erstwhile!)  “neutrality” mandate in my region’s Anoka-Hennepin (Minnesota) School District, pose a danger to children.  They (1) implicitly sanction violence against and abuse of LGBTQ youth; and (2) unapologetically marginalize these kids, isolating them from some of the most fundamental sources of encouragement (i.e. teachers,  school personnel and other professionals tasked with advocating for young people) to which they should reasonably expect access. The climate resulting from the collision of these two factors has spawned a rash of widely-reported-on suicides and suicide attempts.

Unspeakably tragic though this is,  we need to remember that LGBTQ experiences’ absence from very basic, “life skills”-oriented discussions also has an impact on those who make it through this stage visibly unscathed.


In an opinion piece on the Anoka-Hennepin neutrality policy, Jeremy Tedesco wrote, “…  schools are places for education, not indoctrination”: a sentiment echoed by many supporters of maintaining the status quo.

If taken at face value, it’s hard to argue with Tedesco’s logic, especially when use of the term “indoctrination” conjures images of  drone children,  spouting political slogans.  But I believe one of the purposes of school is priming kids to be functional, healthy, self-actualized grown-ups who can Play Nicely With Others. Yeah, parents “should” be the pace-setters with regard to all that stuff. Having to put these skills into practice at school, though, gives children and young adults the opportunity to navigate less insular waters that more closely replicate, in microcosm, the challenges they will face in the real world.

Okay, then: by exclusively acknowledging heterosexuality and gender binary conformity (the premise behind the so-called “Don’t Say Gay Bill” in the Tennessee legislature, which applies to students in kindergarten through grade eight),  kids won’t be tempted to ‘try out’ LGBTQ ‘lifestyles’.  The truth of the argument, similar to the “If we don’t teach comprehensive sex ed in schools, teens will be less likely to have sex” line of reasoning that was prevalent during my high school years, simply isn’t borne out by anecdotal reality. With regard to Abstinence Only education: teenagers didn’t abstain from sex without mandatory, comprehensive sex ed curricula in public schools; they were simply sexually active in more precarious ways.

Ibid., what does happen with alarming frequency: LGBTQ youth are left floundering and are forced to either retreat into emotionally difficult — and socially stunting — self-denial, or forge their own path in the domain of dating and sex … without much of a safety net, and with unpredictable outcomes.


Assuming that Kornacki’s account is more thorough than not, he was a relatively “lucky” one. That luckiness, of course, still involves 17 years of hiding his sexuality from family, friends, and other important people in his life; a coercive sexual encounter with someone he met online; and a lot of fear and uncertainty.

For many others, even those who are out, by degrees, this  represents the tip of the iceberg. They are the not-so-“lucky” ones.

My small-ish and decidedly Midwestern-ish circle of friends who identify as … something other than one hundred percent straight and cisgender … have an alarming number of stories, from their teens and early twenties, of sexual assaults, relationships mired in physical, verbal, and emotional abuse, survival sex that included instances of rape and battery, high-risk alcohol and drug use, and semi-anonymous sex that could have easily turned dangerous.

Somewhere along the line, this simply became part of the script: not good, certainly, or a mandatory rite of passage. Just common and unsurprising.

Why? Templates for young, queer Americans’ first forays into dating and sex aren’t stamped onto our collective unconscious: not the way straight kids’ experiences are, at least.  Hetero coming-of-age narratives have been a national obsession for — what? 50 years? But LGBTQ correlatives are not exactly writ large for eager minds seeking a direction.


Say you’re a — coughcough — comfortably middle class, white, gay male high schooler living in moderately-sized community in the US Heartland. You have, frankly, quite a lot of privilege going for you, other than the whole liking guys thing.  And, speaking of which, you want to find one with interests similar to yours, talk about and partake in said shared interests, and make out a bunch. Now,  how to achieve this goal?

Genders of the main players notwithstanding, this is pretty much the woebegone thesis of  every wretched teen romantic comedy I’ve ever seen. But our plucky protagonist has more hurdles to overcome than his straight counterpart pursuing … Selena Gomez or whoever.

1. Where do you meet someone your age?

The obvious answer is “at school,” which presents additional hurdles. How do you know who is safe to approach? If you express interest in a classmate who does not share your feelings, can you be sure that they’ll simply decline your advances instead of, y’know, murdering you? And if you’re fortunate enough to go to a school with an active Gay-Straight Alliance (or similar), do fellow participants really represent the entirety of your dating pool?

Outside of school, though, the rules are even more nebulous.  The city where I grew up — with a population in the neighborhood of 65,000 — offered a LGBTQ support and social group, facilitated by volunteer human services professionals, for under-21s. Even in that environment, where one could  assume a certain degree of security, you run into the difficulty of a small number of prospective “candidates” to work with, made even smaller by the reality that there is no promise of encountering anyone who has much in common with you beyond your shared non-heterosexuality.

Then, lest we forget, there’s the internet.

As I’ve written before, it’s a double-edged sword. The internet allows people to feel less isolated and forge self-defined community … while simultaneously providing a refuge for those inclined to prey on vulnerability. And if you’re a queer-identified young person in the United States, regardless of where you live, and through no fault of your own, you’re vulnerable.

2. What do you do on a date?

One of the most compelling parts of Kornacki’s article is a throwaway comment about a realization that occurred, for him, at age 24: “I found myself hoping [he and a man he was interested in] could get dinner or go to a movie. Dating, I think it’s called.”

It’s easy to write this off as naive, until you think about all the ways in which the stars must align for someone to date “normally” in high school. If you’re a kid who is, in any way, dependent on your parents for transportation, money, or a place to non-platonically watch TV and eat pizza, they have to be somewhat cooperative. Want to go anywhere in public? Hoping that no one you know sees you, suspects that you and your date aren’t “just friends,” and then relays this information to someone who could make your life miserable … well, that doesn’t exactly smack of equality.

And if you plan to attend some kind of Teen Milestone Event, like prom or a homecoming dance, it might be No Big Deal (in which case you also run the risk of well-intentioned people demonstrating just how progressive and open-minded they are by rubbing your face in the NBD-ness at every opportunity), or it might be a Very Big Deal — like the Constance McMillen case, which involved school district subterfuge, the ACLU, and a nationwide media circus. Whither the simple promise of spray tans and limo rides to the Red Lobster?

3. Who gets to know?

Okay, so I understand that “your parents” isn’t going to be an inevitable answer for any teenager. Flying slightly under the radar regarding the particulars of your dating life is a common tactic for young adults trying to assert an autonomous identity. I don’t look forward to being the nervous parent in this scenario. But I get it.

Are you comfortable with at least one friend knowing about the relationship, though? And, if so, is that friend someone whose opinion you value? Someone you trust to speak up if she or he notices any red flags? To know when it’s acceptable to keep your confidence, and when to call in reinforcements? Would the policies in place — either tacit or actual — allow a teacher or counselor at your school to respond to your direct requests for advice, or even act on their suspicions that something is amiss?

Herein lies the crux of my fear.

The fact is, intimate partner violence (and I use “violence” loosely to include myriad physical, verbal, emotional, and sexual behaviors) among teenagers, in general, is staggeringly common. Fortunately, this is finally getting more recognition; and programming to educate young people on how to strive for equanimity and mutual respect with their dating partners is becoming increasingly prevalent in schools. Students are given the opportunity to critically examine the components of a healthy relationship, define their personal values, and cultivate the skills necessary to communicate these to their partners. They also learn to identify features of an abusive relationship, and how to respond to threatening situations in a safe and productive manner.

As someone who has actually worked with students on these issues, in a classroom setting, I can’t place enough emphasis on how important such curricula are, or how much potential good they can do. Nonetheless, we are doing a huge disservice to many young people if we stand (solely) by a heteronormative model when hawking our message — even if that is more politically expedient and palatable.

We must start actively welcoming LGBTQ kids to the table, being unafraid of their sexuality, and divesting ourselves of the idea that they are not a sizable enough population to matter.


Doing so might register as more radical in practice than it initially seems in theory, though: owing largely to the above-mentioned complications.

Simply leaning on ambiguous pronouns and leaving it up to kids to infer the rest isn’t going to cut it.  If we do not directly signal to LGBTQ youth, who have spent so much time in obscurity, that we are speaking to them, they will assume that we are not.

Moreover, we need to acknowledge that their experiences — if not their fundamental feelings — are different due to the ever-present specters of homophobia, transphobia, heterosexism, and a whole lot of other compounding oppressions. It is hard to reconcile this with an impulse to will everything into fairness by pretending the disparity doesn’t exist.  Yes, LGBTQ youth should be afforded the same rites of passage, on the same timeline, as straight, cisgender youth; but, in order to help them now, we also have to let their current realities steer our outreach efforts.

Although I don’t have a proven formula for making this happen, it is something I have been discussing with other personal and professional stakeholders, including young people themselves. And a handful of key points seem to be raised, time and time again:

  • Tell kids it’s okay to be queer. Like, really: just fine. Value-neutral. Period. If you find yourself harboring a kernel of doubt about this — but still have a child in your life who you love and think deserves health and happiness — keep on repeating that mantra until you do truly believe it. But tell kids they’re okay anyway, without adding any disclaimers or provisos. Because introducing your “personal belief” boilerplate into the conversation isn’t going to result in anything positive for anyone involved. Trust.
  • Assure young people that it’s also fine to accept or reject (or take an a la carte approach to) the trappings of “regular” adolescent social patterns. Personally, I feel that this could stand to be applied to all young adults. I was pretty firmly situated in the REJECT camp during my youth. Then again, my gender and sexual orientation lined up well with the implicit defaults; so I had greater license to be a sullen malcontent (wink).

Queer kids may take some extra convincing that, no, they don’t have to capitulate to (frankly, fantasy-based) archetypal high school experiences in order to be accepted for who they are; and, by the same token, they don’t have to shun these in order to legitimize their queerness.

  • Meet them where they are. Some life lessons have the greatest impact if learned through trial and error. When adults acknowledge this, we also accept that our children are entitled to try and fail, and, thereby, achieve personal growth. Shifting into harm reduction (that is, providing people with tools and resources to make their choices — however subjectively “unhealthy” — less permanently or fatally detrimental) mode with your beloved kiddos is no small task. But I feel vesting LGBTQ youth with this level of trust is especially  important in order to underscore the point that their sexuality and gender aren’t “risky behaviors” in and of themselves: a fallacy that these kids are all-too-susceptible to internalizing.

The Anoka-Hennepin school district suicides I mentioned earlier? In a widely-quoted blog post by Tom Prichard of the Minnesota Family Council, the author wrote, “[Y]outh who embrace homosexuality are at greater risk [for suicide], because they’ve embraced an unhealthy sexual identity and lifestyle.”

Let that sink in for a second. If Prichard — and others whose opinions his statement represents — is blaming young people’s sexuality and gender identities for directly precipitating their deaths, it stands to reason that similar attitudes exist about what they should expect from their involvement in relationships. It’s a vicious cycle that goes something like this: sanction willful disregard for promotion of safety in LGBTQ young adults’ relationships -> lacking the resources to properly navigate the proverbial minefield of love/dating/sex, LGBTQ youth end up in situations that compromise their safety ->  “See, I told you ‘homosexuality’ was inherently dangerous!”

 My point, then, is this: we, as adults, need to counterintuitively resist using an aggregate of scary information to put the kibosh on  LGBTQ young people experimenting with dating and sex altogether. This only functions to (1) reinforce the message that being queer is dangerous, (2) ensure that they are, developmentally, behind the curve established by their straight/cis peers when they reach an ill-defined “magical age” at which relationships are suddenly deemed “safer”, and (3) in effect, dare them to defy this edict and retreat even further from our watchful eyes.

Remember that the “particular vulnerability” I keep mentioning is entirely predicated on environmental conditions. So educate, inform, equip, and support away. Just don’t ensconce them in bubble wrap and sequester them from the world. There are threats, sure. But there are a lot of great, formative experiences to be had, too.


Where do we go from here, on a larger scale?

I am developing both inclusive and LGBTQ-specific curricula and teaching tools — following on the path forged by a handful of pioneering individuals who have also observed this need in their own schools and communities — for use in my work with interpersonal violence initiatives.

If you have any suggestions or insights to contribute to this effort, I welcome your comments.

Advertisements

1 Comment

Filed under Amanda

You Make Me Sick (?)

Consider this convenient compendium of factoids from Wikipedia’s breastfeeding article …

  • In a 1993 University of Texas Medical Branch study, a longer period of breastfeeding was associated with a shorter duration of some middle ear infections (otitis media with effusion) in the first two years of life.
  • A 1995 study of 87 infants found that breastfed babies had half the incidence of diarrheal illness, 19% fewer cases of any otitis media infection, and 80% fewer prolonged cases of otitis media than formula fed babies in the first twelve months of life.
  • Breastfeeding appeared to reduce symptoms of upper respiratory tract infections in premature infants up to seven months after release from hospital in a 2002 study of 39 infants.
  • A 2004 case-control study found that breastfeeding reduced the risk of acquiring urinary tract infections in infants up to seven months of age, with the protection strongest immediately after birth.
  • Infants exclusively breastfed have less chance of developing diabetes mellitus type 1 than peers with a shorter duration of breastfeeding and an earlier exposure to cow milk and solid foods.
  • In children who are at risk for developing allergic diseases (defined as at least one parent or sibling having atopy), atopic syndrome can be prevented or delayed through exclusive breastfeeding for four months.
  •  Atopic dermatitis, the most common form of eczema, can be reduced through exclusive breastfeeding beyond 12 weeks in individuals with a family history of atopy.

 … and this recent study, from Denmark:

An observational study of 69,750 infants born in Denmark has concluded that breastfeeding may decrease epilepsy in childhood. Information on breastfeeding was reported by mothers at 6 and 18 months and information on epilepsy retrieved from the Danish National Hospital Register. Breastfeeding was associated with a decreased risk of epilepsy, with a dose-response like pattern. For example, children breastfed for 3 to 5, 6 to 8, 9 to 12, and >13 months had a 26%, 39%, 50%, and 59% lower risk of epilepsy after the first year of life, respectively, compared with children who were breastfed for <1 month. The authors conclude that the observed protective effect of breastfeeding may be causal.

Now hear me out when I say that, rather than feeling self-satisfied, as a former breastfeeding mama, reading these statistics always gives me pause.

Another follower of the site that referred me to the last precis (on the incidence of epilepsy in BabyDanes) commented, “How bizarre that you have posted this! I saw a woman in town today who has two epileptic children under the age of 4 and I wondered as I walked past her, if breastfeeding reduced the risk.”

This got me thinking: about how we peddle breastfeeding; about the false  dichotomy of “sick children” and “healthy children”; about whether kids in either imaginary category should be used as marketing pawns. And about why we are making mothers feel like they must produce their “vetted breastfeeder” card before they can be held faultless for their child’s illness.


I’ll put myself and my kids out there as an informal case study.

I am the parent of two children who were sickly babies, and still face some health challenges — so far not-insurmountable ones — at ages four and two, respectively. They will likely deal with illness, to one degree or another, through adulthood. What’s to blame? Probably the confluence of my and my husband’s genes. There’s a lot of auto-immune hinckiness going on in all branches of the family tree.  We’re just lucky that, with accommodations, the stuff that Stuart and MaryAlice have experienced hasn’t had a big impact on their quality of life.

Thing is, many of the symptoms of and secondary conditions related to  their illnesses are ones for which extended breastfeeding is often touted as having near-prophylactic qualities. And both of my children were breastfed from day one: Stuart for 16 months (self-weaning about four months into my pregnancy with his sister), and MaryAlice, who also self-weaned, for roughly 30 months. What else? We introduced solids, on a conservative  schedule for allergen-avoidance, at six months. They got a combination of homemade purées and finger foods; but breastmilk was still their primary source of nutrition until toddlerhood. Brownie. Points. To. Meeeee.

A friend of mine, who did not nurse her first child (for sundry reasons, and despite valiant attempts), remarked, when Stuart was an infant (gaunt and anemic with a hyper-sensitive GI tract and weeping plaques of dermatitis): “You know, they say that breastfed babies are healthier. But when I see what Stuart has been through, I have my doubts!”


Therein lies the problem. Or a problem.

“Hold the phone!” you might be (reasonably!) saying, “Are you suggesting that these studies’ findings shouldn’t be circulated? Or that the studies shouldn’t be conducted in the first place? If you look at that data, it doesn’t imply that breastfeeding prevents or cures illness across the board, or that breastfed infants can’t get sick!”

No, and no. True, true. 

Breastfeeding advocates are regularly coming up against the challenge of how to disseminate our message persuasively and memorably while remaining on the sunny side of factual certitude. Formula companies have advertising dollars in their arsenal that we never will. (I’d add, “because breasts can’t be commodified.” But ohohoho how shortsighted that statement would be!). So why not at least co-opt their approach?

Except, unlike formula companies, breastfeeding advocates don’t have a centralized clearinghouse for our information or the vehicles we use to get the word out.  And, by dint of the “product” itself, we aren’t going to. (That would be weird and dystopian). Wonderful resources like Best for Babes aside, breastfeeding “proselytizing” probably goes over best at the grassroots level.

That great, potential strength is also a great, potential pitfall. Why? Because wielding logical fallacies is so, terribly (and I do mean terribly!) … well, fun. And easy. But they’re also easy  — and, I’d venture to guess, fun — for naysayers to dismantle.

The way this sickness-impervious-breastfed-babies fable makes the rounds is by way of misleading vividness couched in the actual outcomes of the above-mentioned studies and trials. (It’s a kissing cousin of the sickness-impervious-babies-of-stay-at-home-parents yarn). The positive take on this fallacy is, “My baby is robust and thriving and hasn’t had so much as a case of the sniffles since birth! We owe it all to breastmilk!” It’s an argument I don’t mind at all because it is person-specific and self-referential. Celebrate your healthy baby and celebrate breastfeeding, by all means. Is the implicit argument, “You should breastfeed, too, so your baby is healthy like mine”?  Perhaps. But it’s subtle and non-damning enough to be pretty innocuous (no pun intended), from where I stand.

At least when compared to the negative flip-side: “All the formula-fed babies I know are little mucous-buckets: always coming down with something. And their parents wonder why their kids are sick all the time! Could it be because they’re mainlining ‘crap-in-a-can’ [or alternate, disparaging euphemism for infant formula]?”

Sure, that exact sort of vitriolic take on the subject is probably reserved for preaching-to-the-choir internet fora. But the sentiment shines through, even in more tempered renditions (e.g. “That baby sure is sick a lot. I wonder if s/he is breastfed“). At least it does for me, as the parent of two, breastfed-to-the-gills children who struggle with chronic health problems.

Here is the snowball effect of the thoughts it evokes:

  1. Parents who choose to formula-feed their infants invite illness into their babies’ lives. There is direct, anecdotal causality between formula-feeding and illness, despite the studies drawing no similar conclusion.
  2. Sick children are undesirable.
  3. Sick children are not only undesirable because of the difficulty managing their illness poses to the children themselves and their families and caregivers. No, they are “gross.” And they spread their ick to more pristine, hardier kids. Yuck.
  4. This undesirability serves as a testament to their parents’ — their mothers’ — shortcomings. A sick baby is your punishment for Doing It Wrong.
  5. If you were a competent parent (read: if you loved your child), your kid would be healthy.

All sorts of other permutations of the same, basic idea feed this last point. I mentioned the non-parental caregiver/center-based daycare factor earlier. There’s also the chemical exposure factor (“I bet she used diaper lotion with parabens!”). The non-organic food factor (“Mom ate at McDonald’s a lot during her pregnancy …”). The medical intervention factor. (“They head straight to the pediatrician for antibiotics every time their baby coughs!”). Etcetera ad infinitum.

What are otherwise objectively reasonable convictions — avoid harsh chemicals; make healthier food selections; don’t jump the gun on prescription drug use (all “choices” fraught with their own privilege, by the way) — get mired in this over-zealous correlation-inflation. The fallout, here, is two-fold. First, we’re taking the offensive and using shame as a battering ram. I know I’ve harped on this topic before; but, since it continues to be massively uncool, I don’t feel bad about pointing it out again. The second issue: we’re leaving the door open for similar flights of empirical fancy that contradict our own. Like, “Breastfeeding can’t be the best choice for all babies: look at Stuart.” (“Heroin can’t be that bad. William S. Burroughs made it to 83!”).


More upsetting to me than the tenuousness of the rhetorical devices at play (and leave it to a former English major to be upset about rhetoric at all) is the idea that Well Children have cachet, whereas Sick Children are a liability to one’s reputation as a parent.  I mean, occasionally, in these discussions, there will be a hurried amendment to the opining: “Andreallyit’stoobadthatthekidshavetodealwithbeingill.Thatmustsuck.”

But, for the most part, the children that are held sacrosanct, the children we are supposedly jumping down each other’s throats to protect, are reduced to symbols. It’s almost as though bodily fortitude stopped being something that is desirable in and of itself (“I am so grateful for my health!”)  and started to have  … moral overtones.

(I want to take a moment, too, to acknowledge that parents of children with cognitive and psychiatric disabilities undoubtedly face even greater reproach in this doctrine of blame-assignment. It’s simply a topic for another time!)

At the heart of the matter: when someone learns about my kids’ rather storied history of illness, I don’t want their first thought to be, “How did you fail them?” And I don’t want to have that whole earlier spiel about my breastfeeding cred tattooed on my body for easy reference a la Memento. Because, yes, being obligated to prove myself is tiresome; but, more fundamentally, because I don’t feel others are entitled to information about Stuart and MaryAlice’s actual, corporeal, cellular-level selves for the purpose of reifying or calling into question their basis for discrimination. I’m using the term “discrimination,” by the way, to mean determining who deserves praise, and who deserves criticism; who should be given sympathy, and who is getting their just desserts.

(This piece by Julia at Kidneys and Eyes about the site Too Big for Stroller [which doesn’t merit a hyperlink, because ew] offers a variation on the same theme and is well worth a read).


Does mentioning potential benefits to maternal and infant health still have a place in discourse about breastfeeding? I would say, yes. Absolutely. I don’t have a concise vision for how this piece of the puzzle would ideally fit (how to find that impactful, consumer-friendly balance of fact and plain-spoken coherency?) ; but “yes,” nonetheless. However, I also believe that we need to examine our tendency to use wellness as a way to patly incentivize breastfeeding, because of the ease with which such promises are misconstrued and either (A) end up having an inverse effect on the reliability of our message, or (B)  “other”(-as-a-verb) certain mothers.

Let me reiterate: when you are as passionate about breastfeeding as I am, I know how enticing it is to cling to any and all affirmative-seeming associations and proffer them desperately against what often feels like a deluge of disadvantageous societal messages (“booby traps” in Best for Babes parlance). I’d submit, though, that we also have a responsibility to consider the potential fallout from leaning on shaky logic.

And, yes, it’s pretty common to cast aspersions and flippantly over-simplify Big Thoughts in our interactions online when we would never do so “IRL.” On the other hand, if we give ourself a “pass” because of this, we’ve set up a holding pattern: that is, we want to re-normalize breastfeeding; we have determined that safe spaces for doing so are far too rare “out there” … so we create an antithetically hostile climate “in here”?

Where does that leave our fellow mothers, but stuck in a limbo between competing spheres of judgment?

4 Comments

Filed under Amanda, Uncategorized

Pink Apologia

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

Is there a more divisive color?
 
I’ve written about the utility and frugality-influenced decision to dress my son in pink clothing as an infant. (And, on the very day I caught wind of the flap surrounding a J Crew ad featuring a five-year-old boy with pink-painted toenails, guess whose toenails were,  indictingly, sporting a Wet ‘n’ Wild shade called Bar-B ).  Based on the feedback I got, it’s pretty clear reasonable people  understand that (A) boys, of any age, wearing pink clothing is not an offense worthy of comment — or an offense, period; and (B) gender performativity and gender aren’t one-to-one correlatives. To say nothing of sexual orientation.
 
However! What is considered defensibly boundary-defying when applied to boys still inspires pushback from some high-minded, unorthodox parents when applied to girls.  I’m talking about parents, usually of a pedantic ilk, who question the implications of various childhood rules and rituals, and talk their way around the acceptance or rejection of these. (See also: “What we concern ourselves with when we aren’t concerned about where our next meal is coming from”). Yeah, I’m talking about parents like me.
 
 A lot of these … whatever … parents have no problem saying, “I would never dress my daughter in pink clothes” or deriving pride from their little girl’s pink-repulsion.  And, I admit, I might have done the same. In fact, this issue probably wouldn’t even be a blip on my indignation radar if not for MaryAlice, my two-and-a-half-year-old (in case you missed it in the slide show):
 

MaryAlice, whose current hair-hue comes courtesy of Manic Panic’s Hot Hot Pink, has a certain appreciation for the color: one that Stuart really doesn’t.  Her mindset hasn’t reached an “I will forsake all  other colors!” plateau. But, when given a choice between a pink object and a non-pink object, it isn’t hard to guess which one she’ll select.

“Why?” doesn’t really matter. We didn’t deluge her with pink from birth or eliminate it from her realm of awareness. In fact, she mostly wore hand-me-downs from Stuart — which, again, meant her wardrobe included pink items but was not exclusively pink.

As a child who has been around other children, most of whom are products of traditionally-inclined  households, since she was eight weeks old, has MaryAlice digested the idea that Girls ♥ Pink? Well, sure, probably. On the other hand, if taste indoctrination is what is raising hackles, shouldn’t counter-indoctrination be viewed with an equally jaundiced eye?


I think it’s difficult to divorce emblems from their perceived connotations or historical, cultural, or iconographic roots. And it’s less complicated  to put the kibosh on, essentially, an aesthetic preference than it is to “say what you mean” — to quote the eminently quotable Lewis Carrol.  Just like it is less complicated to forbid branded and cross-branded toys and apparel and food and household products than to have a frank, age-appropriate discussion about the detriment of consumerism and insidiousness of advertising. (Believe me, I’ve been there. In the past month, my four-year-old has exclaimed “Trix are for kids!” and questioned, “What does that Cheetos cheetah [shady and beshaded spokestoad Chester Cheetah] want us to do? Should we eat Cheetos all the time?”). Or to put princess-blinkers on our daughters than to celebrate and cultivate the multifarious characteristics that make them special people. (This is also territory I’ve covered before).


Ah, princesses. Without deviating too far off-course — because this topic probably deserves a post unto itself — I want to briefly bring princesses into the discussion, if only because they, and the alleged damage they cause, are often conflated with the color pink, and vice versa.

Peggy Orenstein has been getting a good amount of press for her latest offering, Cinderella Ate My Daughter. Full disclosure: I haven’t read the actual book in its entirety, but have seen it excerpted widely. Here is a quote from the afore-linked NPR interview: 

Orenstein says very young children don’t yet understand that your sex is fixed — that you can’t go to sleep a girl and wake up a boy. So little girls may be drawn to pink, sparkly princess gowns as a way of asserting that they’re definitely girls.

But an overemphasis on pink can eventually be harmful, Orenstein says. “Those little differences that are innate to boys and girls, if they’re allowed to flourish by having kids grow up in separate cultures, become big gaps.

“When your daughter is sitting there in her room, with her pink princess dress and her pink Scrabble kit … and her pink Magic 8-Ball, it just makes those divisions so much bigger and so much harder to cross.”

I understand why archetypal fairytale princesses make people squeamish. They are demure; delicate; in need of “rescuing”; objectified; valued only for their beauty. Their chief goal is to be desired, and subsequently obtained, by a prince. 

This is not a revelation.

I will point out, though, that (A) the whole trope has been revised significantly (if imperfectly) in many cinematic and literary interpretations of the past several decades; and (B) I don’t think princesses’ appeal, for young children, is even rooted in those classic traits. From observing my own children, who are pretty typical, I’m all-but-certain that they are mesmerized by the pageantry, the sparkle, the ostentatiousness : l’art pour l’art. Pink figures prominently into this schema — and tulle and glitter and cupcake-like embellishments. All of these things are value-neutral in a vacuum.

For example, Stuart and MaryAlice call Glinda the Good Witch from The Wizard of Oz a “princess.” Does her lack of monarchical lineage contradict this assumption? Or her disinterest in princes/men, her ability to act independently, and her role as a font of guiding wisdom in the story? Of course not! She’s a “princess” because she’s got an absurdly impractical dress that looks like it’s made from cotton candy, a disco-mitre crown, and travels in an incandescent, fuchsia bubble. Just like, in their minds, I’d be a doctor if I donned a white lab coat and wore a stethoscope. (Thankfully, few people over the age of eight or so could be similarly fooled).


Here’s the thing I don’t get: why the princesses — and pink — are being singled out, as supposedly hyper-gendered signifiers, for lambasting. Why should girls be steered toward so-called “crossover” interests (more on that in a bit), and boys, by and large, left to their paradigm?

To try to respond to my own confusion from Orenstein’s perspective: she  may be castigating them because she’s built a career on writing about social challenges foisted upon girls. Plus, she has a little girl. It’s an immediate concern for her.

Nonetheless, some of her quotes and conclusions give me pause:

 I wanted [my daughter] to be able to pick and choose the pieces of her identity freely — that was supposed to be the prerogative, the privilege, of her generation. For a while, it looked as if I were succeeding. On her first day of preschool, at age two, she wore her favorite outfit — her “engineers” (a pair of pin-striped overalls) — and proudly toted her Thomas the Tank Engine lunchbox … My daughter had transcended typecasting.

Then, of course,  disappointment sets in when, under the influence of her Princess Svengali classmates, Orenstein’s daughter takes up the pink-loving torch:

As if by osmosis she had learned the names and gown colors of every Disney Princess — I didn’t even know what a Disney Princess was. … [F]or her third birthday [she] begged for a ‘real princess dress’ with matching plastic high heels.

Shame. Failure. Bad feminist mommy.

So many of these feelings that one needs to write an entire book to expiate them? That’s a bit of a reach on my part.

It isn’t too farfetched to say that Orenstein  is not alone — not by a longshot —  in stamping implicitly or explicitly boy-aligned toys, colors, interests, even behaviors and emotions, with gold-star status, and declaring them honorarily “gender neutral,” while taking their girl-aligned counterparts to task. 

As  the proverbial “snips and snails and puppy-dog tails” are given nods of approval from every direction, boys are still the clear default target demographic, and girls a mere afterthought. Orenstein herself bemoans Thomas the Tank Engine’s tokenistic treatment of female characters:

I complained to anyone who would listen about the shortsightedness of the Learning Curve company, which pictured only boys on its Thomas packaging and had made Lady, its shiny mauve girl engine, smaller than the rest. (The other females among Sodor’s rolling stock were passenger cars — passenger cars … ).

Dressing in pinstriped overalls to emulate a conductor on Thomas  might be “transcend[ing] the stereotype”; but is it a victory for girls? And, critically, is it better than an infrastructure  that deliberately places girls’ existence at its center? After all, even in the most abhorrent, outmoded fairy tales in which princely acceptance is regarded as the ultimate goal, and physical beauty is viewed as paramount, those princes are just kind of set-dressing, plot devices. Heck, they usually don’t even have memorable names!

So, regardless of intention, this reactionary favoring of “boy stuff”  makes boys the litmus test. Again. Still.


I have a sneaking suspicion that many of us — especially women — continue to unwittingly devalue, and even demonize, the traditionally “feminine” because we are trying to shield the young girls in our lives from the imperatives that we, ourselves, may have struggled with. We wanted a Transformer and got a Barbie instead. Science and Math were seen as masculine subjects in school, so we were encouraged to make our mark in English and Art. We babysat, while our brothers had paper routes. There was internal  dissonance  if we followed the mandates to a T and  external tut-tutting if we didn’t.

This, I absolutely agree, is unhealthy for girls, and unhealthy for boys.

But not because newspaper-hurling is a worthier pursuit than babysitting. Or because excelling at English or Art has no merit. And neither Barbie nor Transformers are the ideal role models for children of any sex or gender. (Can I note, though,  that Barbie and the Magic of PegasusBarbie Fairytopia: Mermaidia and Barbie of Swan Lake meet Bechdel/Wallace standards? Anything from the Transformers franchise of films: uh-uh).  


 The way to counteract gendered pigeonholing is not to give a figurative cookie to girls who say their favorite color is blue and roll our eyes at the “false consciousness” of girls who say their favorite color is pink. As I said earlier, challenging though it may be, we need to divest these empty symbols — pink, princesses, frippery — of their connotative power. It’s adults who enthroned them, and adults who need to topple the regime. Unfortunately, a whole lot of tastemakers don’t care about this in the least … or , even more discouragingly, are so convinced of the importance of upholding gender codification that a kindergarten-aged boy wearing pink nail polish makes international news.

It does, then, need to be an individual effort. If your daughter is offered a pink balloon without being asked what color she would prefer — something that offended Orenstein — you ask her what color she would like, thereby giving her permission to state her selection with impunity. Shopping with your child for his or her friend’s birthday gift? Don’t simply stick to the “boy aisle” or “girl aisle” as a matter of course. And, importantly, when confronted with a transparently objectionable message, point it out for what it is and tell your child why it bothers you.

Arguably the hardest part of all this is avoiding the temptation to get sucked into an “either/or” fallacy. You don’t “win,” as a parent,  if your daughter loves construction machinery and karate, and “lose” if she favors butterflies and cheerleading. There is an undeniable desire, especially among those of us whose tastes run in a countercultural vein, to have kids with an enviable coolness quotient.  But, in the end, their lives are their own, and their likes and dislikes will probably follow a very circuitous path before cementing. Just like ours did.

Your daughter can still win, though: provided she knows you support her ability to make choices, and demonstrate this by giving her the latitude to do so. Even if she is wearing a tutu, brandishing a fairy wand, and twirling, twirling …

6 Comments

Filed under Amanda

Breastfeeding, Bootstrapping, and the Boundaries of Personal Experience

“Breastfeeding is a Must …” declares the headline for an article on City Limits magazine’s website, “… for Moms Who Can Afford It.”

It’s a knowingly incendiary statement: the sort of thing considered, by some journalists, de rigueur for maximizing eye-catchability. (And to them I say, “Hey, at least you didn’t use a forced pun”). A little backlash is written off as acceptable in that it means the title is doing its job, serving as an entrée to the meat of the story — which people hopefully bother to read.

I was referred to this City Limits article by the Facebook page of an online compendium of breastfeeding resources. It should go without saying that people who follow said Facebook page — myself included — tend to be pretty vociferous breastfeeding advocates.  However, reading others’ comments in response to this article reinforced the fact that some of my cohorts-in-name-only and I part ways significantly when it comes to bolstering our allegedly shared cause.

(Two quick caveats before I continue:

  1. I should probably impose a “No reading ‘users fora’ comments for any print or, especially, electronic publication” policy. I don’t need to court high blood pressure.
  2. Like my Pax (Ro)mama counterpart, Jen, one of the many hats I wear is that of professional educator. In my case, I’m an adjunct humanities lecturer at a career college that does not — emphatically not — traffic in liberal arts degrees. So convincing students of the utility of my classes is sometimes a hard sell.  All things considered, though, I think I do a pretty good job. And yet, I am so the type to read course evaluations and home in on the one or two negative comments bobbing ineffectually in a sea of positivity. That same, basic principle applies to other facets of my life, too.

Okay, so, back to the action!)

The gist of the article, written by a New York City social worker, is that, while Michelle Obama recently spoke out in favor of federal support for breastfeeding initiatives (especially in underserved African American communities), other federal programs, utilized by many poor women of color, actually impede the establishment of positive breastfeeding relationships between mothers and babies.

There were three camps of pro-breastfeeding readers who reacted negatively to this article’s premise:

  1. “WTF? Breastfeeding is free!” These people either failed to read past the article’s title, or are so mired in this kind of “strict constructionist” rhetoric that anything seeming to stray from a rotely-regurgitated adage just will not penetrate the ol’ gray matter.
  2. “Even though I am a huge proponent of breastfeeding, I also [coughmindbogglinglycough] agree with Michele Bachmann’s [coughmindbogglingcough] comments about Ms. Obama’s campaign being literally indicative of the United States’ slide into [coughbogglebogglebogglecough] ‘nanny state’-dom. Ergo, people on TANF can suck it. ” The opinions of this group aren’t so much focused on the thesis of the article as the notion that a conflict between what they see as two cogs in the same, decrepit machine lends credence to their position. And that is, “The entire ‘factory’ [to  belabor my metaphor] needs to be shut down.” Frankly, for their purposes, it doesn’t even matter that the article is about breastfeeding. It’s just another way to insinuate a general political stance into a thread of discourse. Their prerogative, I guess.
  3. “I breastfed sextuplets after having a breast reduction and I needed to relactate seventeen times and I had mastitis every day and my partner left me and I had to hand express into a Ziploc bag while working 16 hour shifts in an abattoir and my babies all reverse-cycled for 12 months so I got by on two, non-consecutive minutes of sleep every night and the babies and I had to live in a hole in the ground, under a plastic tarp. If you can’t boast my willingness to blithely self-sacrifice, you aren’t entitled to claim hardship.”

It’s this last cluster of naysayers that frustrates me the most. Their objections aren’t rooted in an obstinate lack of reading comprehension, or a political ideology. Instead, they’ve become devotees of bootstrappery, and unable — or unwilling — to see that their stories, like everyone’s, have wholly unique parameters.


I had my own share of difficulties while breastfeeding. The most difficulties? Of anyone, ever? Clearly not. But enough to say to those feeling indignant about the momentusness of their efforts going unacknowledged, “I can relate.”

Neither my mother nor my grandmother breastfed any of their children, so I didn’t have the foundation of tradition buoying me along. After having my first baby, I had to return to work outside the home, starting at six weeks postpartum. (Of my partner and I, I had the greatest earning potential and carried our family’s benefits. My husband still worked near-fulltime hours in the evenings and on weekends). Stuart (the baby) rejected  just about every bottle my husband tried and, consequently, turned into a reverse-cycler. This meant he refused expressed breast milk during the day, preferring to wait until I got home from work and he could sup “from the tap,” every hour or two. All. Night. Long.  And he ended up having some pretty significant food allergies, which meant that I had to go on an allergen-elimination diet (and execute the second Great Freezer Stash Purge of 2007. The first GFSP happened after I discovered an excess lipase issue)  — while I was newly pregnant with my second baby, no less! Poor weight gain. Anemia. No La Leche League meetings within a forty-five minute drive from my home. It was not a walk in the park.

I did have a lot going for me besides a steely resolve, though.

Stuart did not require a surgical birth and, as such, I was able to breastfeed him almost immediately after he was born. Stuart was a full-term baby and did not have any physiological or developmental issues that prevented him from latching properly and swallowing and digesting my milk. I did not have any physiological or psychological issues that prevented me from producing milk or nursing without pain or emotional distress. I had six weeks to begin to establish a nursing relationship in the comfort of our apartment. I had healthcare providers who were knowledgable about breastfeeding, and encouraging of my goals. I had a computer and internet access at home and the ability to search for, and discern, credible information on breastfeeding. I was able to acquire an electric double-pump at no cost to myself. My employer offered a comfortable, private location to use my pump, and allowed me to do so according to my own schedule . 

In my case, when the factors from column “A” and the factors from column “B” duked it out, the circumstances contributing to my ultimate breastfeeding success prevailed: “success” meaning that I achieved the milestones I hoped I would (nursing until Stuart was at least one year old, and allowing him to wean at his own pace). I can easily see how, if things had been only slightly different, I wouldn’t have made it.


Sure, the strength of my commitment played some part in all of this. But I know better than to arrogantly say, “That’s all it takes.” The implication of such a statement is that those who do not breastfeed, for whatever reason, are “weak.” In fact, the reason I take such pains to point out that the very definition of breastfeeding “success” is highly subjective is that I believe objective success/failure polarities are counterproductive.

For some, success may mean never using artificial milk or artificial nipples to feed their baby. For others, it may mean exclusively expressing breast milk for, and bottle-feeding,  their baby until they are able to begin transitioning to solid foods. The bottom line is, until breastfeeding is truly enculturated, across the board (for working and stay-at-home moms; mothers of every ethnic and cultural background; moms of all ages and socioeconomic statuses), and steps are taken to provide practical accommodation for all manner of barriers, we breastfeeding advocates need to be a little better about reserving judgment.

Does that mean we should all rest on our laurels until the fabled day arrives (or until Michelle Obama delivers it unto us? Wow, that woman is endowed with an awful lot of responsibility for a single person!)? Well, obviously, I wouldn’t suggest that. However! If you’ve been following along, you can probably surmise that I appreciate how daunting a task it seems to take a run at The System while trying to juggle the stuff of everyday life. I know it is easier to just feel disgruntled and cast aspersions at faceless folks on the Internet. So here are some things you can do to constructively forward the cause that require virtually no time commitment whatsoever:

  • Acknowledge people’s victories, including your own. I think one of the major contributors to breastfeeding mamas’ bitterness is that they expend a ton of effort to do right by their child in a not-always-breastfeeding-friendly climate only to have their breastfeeding milestones pass without so much as a pat on the back (or, even worse, with comments like, “Oh, you’re still doing that?”).

Do you know someone who is breastfeeding or pumping milk for their child? Throw a casual, “Good job!” in their direction every once in a while. And if you don’t get the same in return from people in your life, celebrate yourself! Just say, “I am proud of myself for breastfeeding,” out loud, to another human being (or, heck, in a Facebook status update). It’s all part of moving toward a curious-but-necessary re-normalization of this biological function. Plus, who doesn’t appreciate a little praise?

  • Acknowledge people’s setbacks, including your own. I feel like no one should have to justify their personal reasons for breastfeeding only at a certain level (i.e. supplementing with infant formula), or only for a certain period of time … or not at all. We’re trying to take down the paradigm, not the individual, right? Nonetheless, I’ve found  that many people really want to share their challenges: particularly people who have had to revise their original breastfeeding goals. The tricky part to navigate: knowing when they are looking for suggestions to redress the difficulties they have encountered, and knowing when they are simply looking for commiseration and recognition. Responding with, “That sounds really hard. Here’s an anecdote about something that was hard for me when I was breastfeeding my child …” and leaving the door open for further discussion is a good one-size-fits-all salvo.

Relatedly …

  • Be able to identify threats and challenges to individuals’ breastfeeding success as well as broader, societal acceptance of breastfeeding. Be open to reading articles, like the one from City Limits, and listening to people’s stories that might, initially, trigger a defensive or antagonistic response. Be aware of laws pertaining to breastfeeding in your state and imagine the different ways in which they may help and harm breastfeeding mothers. Try to avoid interpolating your own history and cultural background into the experiences of others; trust that they are accurate chroniclers of their circumstances, and that it might take action internal to their particular demographic to effect change.

And, last but not least …

  • Remember that the vast majority of parents love their babies and want to do what is best for them. The shame of being told , “If you really loved your child, you would [do X,Y,Z differently],” is pretty peerless and, I would venture to guess, not a great motivator. Understand that we humans all have different stress tolerance thresholds, different priority hierarchies, different coping mechanisms.

If one mother, for example, is part of a religious congregation that frowns upon breastfeeding during services, it may be feasible for her to attend services elsewhere, or forego attending until her baby is able to make it through the service without nursing. For another, the very idea would be unthinkable and could lead to alienation from her family or faith community. Whether or not their choices line up with the choices we would make, it is not our place to question their love for their babies, or their fitness to parent.              


 

This post isn’t about the benefits of breastfeeding for babies. It isn’t really about the benefits of breastfeeding for mothers, either. Trust me, though: those considerations are never far from my mind. What it is about it this:

 I would like to propose that increased acceptance of breastfeeding is too important a battle for us to employ tactics like reductive credos (“Breastfeeding is only natural!” “Where there’s a will, there’s a way!”), ad hominem attacks, and scorched earth exclusivity. I wish that it was as simple as “boobs + baby + positive attitude = universally utopic breastfeeding experience.” But I think that, in the end, admitting the flaws in that equation will lead to a more comprehensively useful, fundamentally stronger campaign.

1 Comment

Filed under Amanda

And Another thing!

… or, “Why the Valentine Episode Touched a Particular Nerve”:

Almost everyone who knows me well enough to meet — or at least be aware of — my kids eventually hears the anecdote about how Stuart, my four-year-old, was “supposed to be a girl.” 

What happened isn’t all that uncommon. The technician administering my level 2 ultrasound had a little difficulty compelling cooperation from the 20-week fetus (imagine!). When he was finally able to achieve a view that allowed him to determine (“with 99.9 percent certainty”) the baby’s sex … well, Stuart must have been feeling a mite demure.

“See those three lines?” the technician asked. “That means it’s a girl!”

To this day, I have no idea what those three lines were; I only know that they weren’t labia. Because, when Stuart James (neé “Vivian Lucille”) was born, in the words of our midwife, “I said to myself, ‘Wait a minute: that’s a scrotum’!”

My husband, looking mildly surprised ("mildly") at the arrival of our baby BOY.

After we managed to convince my parents-in-law, who weren’t present for the birth, that, no, we were not, in fact, joking (this wouldn’t be outside the realm of possibility for Cullen, by the way. When we were discharging from the hospital, a nurse’s aide asked him if Stuart was his first baby. Cullen responded, without missing a beat, “The first that I know of!” while prompting her to give him a high-five. She looked kind of uncomfortable), we quickly got used to the idea of having a boy. Frankly, new parenthood was such a shock to the system that I couldn’t really think clearly enough to differentiate between boy, girl, and small wombat.


The questions we got the most, both then and when I retell the tale today, were, “What about the baby’s room? Did you have all kinds of pink clothes already?”

In response to the first point: Stuart didn’t have a room. Not a room of his own, at least. (Negative points to me for not cultivating a Virginia Woolf baby?). We were living in a one bedroom apartment at the time. He did have a crib and mobile and junk (I was gung-ho about bed-sharing; Cullen, uh-uh), and my main concern, with that arrangement, was how we could integrate it into our existing room decor. Fascist, I know. Baby Stu had a poster from Blue Velvet hanging above his changing table for the first six months of his life.

As for his clothes, though? Ooohhhh, the pinkspolsion.  “Rose” to “ballet slipper” to “Pepto Bismol” and every shade in between. All perfectly acceptable garments from perfectly well-meaning friends and relatives: nothing that we’d dismiss out of hand for a child, regardless of sex.  Not ones to turn up our noses at the thoughtfulness of others, and facing the very practical issue of needing to clothe our newborn … Stuart just wore the “girl” clothes.

What you can't see in this photo are his pink, scallop-edged socks with the word "Princess" on the cuff. Those really made the ensemble.

When I would show acquaintances pictures of Stuart in get-ups like the one above, or have to correct strangers in the grocery store who assumed he was a girl (most of the time, I didn’t bother. But I was often cornered into showing my hand when faced with the question, “What’s her name?”), I heard nary a disapproving word. I did hear a lot of, “Oh don’t worry, he still looks very handsome.  Wearing pink doesn’t mean that he’ll be gay!”

First of all, score one for Team Pointing Out the Obvious. You mean the color of clothing a child wears before he or she even has a sense of object permanence has no known correlation to their adult sexual orientation? Tell me more!

The main thing that continues to irk me about receiving “reassurances” like this is the 800-pound-gorilla-of-an-insinuation. It is the insinuation that I would be concerned if my child was gay (not to even broach the topic of how I’d feel if my boy-who-was-supposed-to-be-a-girl started articulating that he actually was a girl). As my husband has mentioned, we might be concerned about how he would fare in a world that is not currently readily accepting of people who don’t identify as heterosexual or cisgender. But concerned to the point that we would actively interrupt or steer the formation of our child’s identity? Not on your life!


I was recently directed to the seemingly prescient post “My Sons Are Gender Conformists” at Blogging While the Baby Isn’t Looking.  Heather’s sons, as you can probably gather from the title of the post, are currently into stuff that traditionally skews “masculine.” But she writes, astutely,

If and when this masculine phase comes to an end and they decide to start wearing body glitter and cute skirts, I’m okay with that, too! And not just because it would probably be a phase, not just because it probably wouldn’t mean anything, and definitely not because I think that would be super freakin’ cool, but because even if it DID mean they were gay or transgender, those are not bad things to be.

Moreover, comments like, “It probably doesn’t mean anything [… with regard to sexual orientation or gender],” betray such a narrow comprehension of sexual orientation and gender and the confluence — or complete diffraction — of these and myriad developmental activities.

 It’s why (and I know this will be an unpopular stance to take) I’m even somewhat cautious about efforts like the Born This Way blog. While the stated objective (“a photo/essay project for gay adults (of all genders) to submit childhood pictures and stories (roughly ages 2 to 12), reflecting memories & early beginnings of their innate LGBTQ selves”) is a beautiful one, and so many of the photos and essays are extremely poignant, humorous, and otherwise moving … I wonder if it is, even just a little bit, furthering the idea of a one-to-one equation and unintentionally delegitimizing a host of other narrative voices. 

(I need to take a moment for digression, here, and stress that I am not, not, not suggesting a corrolary movement: like “Born Straight” or what-have-you. Let’s just get that cooptative silliness out of the way).

What I would like is for me to tell about the “ultrasound follies” with Stuart and have it received with a wry chuckle and no additional commentary. Or for it to act as a springboard for a real conversation about this very topic: people’s deeply-ingrained ideas (including my own, certainly!) about sex and gender and just what those impute. Because, uh, clearly I’m not at all opposed to that!

Maybe, just to be contrarian, I will start reminding parents of infants who are dressed in ways we perceive as normative for that child’s sex, “You know, that doesn’t mean that your baby will be straight and cisgender.”

7 Comments

Filed under Amanda

Tinkerbell Valentine of Much Consternation

It was Valentine’s Day this past Monday and, on Tuesday, Stuart’s preschool did a card exchange. Both Stuart and MaryAlice (who is only two, and lacks a “social circle” save the rather de facto one composed of her daycare chums) chose their own Valentines: store-bought, because  inspiration and patience for making homemade cards were in short supply.  Stuart’s Valentines were dinosaur-themed, and MaryAlice’s featured Tinkerbell.

(Let me take a moment to stress that both Stuart and MaryAlice are fans of the 2009 cinematic triumph  Tinkerbell and the Lost Treasure . Far from being a Disney apologist, I will say that, if this movie is any indication of the thrust of the character’s recent rebranding (deviating from the original character of 1953’s problematic-for-a-whole-host-of reasons Peter Pan), today’s Tinkerbell and her Pixie Hollow friends seem to be rather benign spokestoons for a highly-glossed treatment of animism. Animism with lots of sparkly bits and sassy costumes. They even seem to have dispensed with a gendered division of labor. Tink herself is a mechanic-slash-inventor in this incarnation. So … pillorying averted? Nonetheless, I definitely acknowledge that the target demographic for this arm of the Disney pantheon is girly-girly-girls).

Anyway, when it came time for Stuart to select individual  Valentines for each of his classmates at preschool, he had two themes to choose from. We sat down with the teacher-provided list of the five girls and two other boys in Stuart’s class.

And then, it happened:

“I know!” Stuart exclaimed. “We can give the dinosaur Valentines to the boys, and the Tinkerbell Valentines to the girls!”


Well, I knew the day would come sooner or later — especially taking into account the amount of time Stuart spends outside the home, with peers and older children. And the fact that he’s kind of a media-head. We don’t have TV. I mean, we have a TV: just no broadcast television. But we do make use of inter-library loan to acquire DVDs, and, because both my husband and I are huge cinemaphiles (I’m an adjunct film studies lecturer, too), we have a pretty impressive movie collection, which includes a healthy number of children’s titles. Plus, there are fewer checks on Stuart and MaryAlice’s viewing habits when they’re at their grandparents’ house. Or visiting friends … . You get the picture. They ain’t cloistered. 

I’m not in denial. I know  Stuart has osmotically absorbed some binary-oriented thinking when it comes to gender. After all, my husband and I haven’t engaged in a Pop-level offensive to screen these messages. (If you don’t feel like following the link, I’ll mention that Pop is a Swedish child whose parents did not disclose hir sex [not hir “gender,” as claimed by the article’s title] to others).  This was just the first time I heard Stuart isolate “masculine” and “feminine” so clearly.


Remember how I said my resolve was too ground-down (read: I was too lazy) for homemade Valentines? The same applies to making ev-er-y-thing a teachable moment. I envy the parents who can do it.  But, most of the time, I stick with a broad definition of “negligibly important.” I did, however, decide to turn the Tinkerbell Valentine of Much Consternation incident into an object lesson in … well, why dinosaurs and fairies aren’t inherently aligned with boys or girls.  And, guess what? It turned out to be no big.

“Say, Stuart,” I replied. “I bet there a lot of boys who love Tinkerbell.  And I’m a girl who happens to think dinosaurs are so cool. Think about what your friends like. We should pick out a very special Valentine for each of them.”

Then I painstakingly made my way through the list of names (okay, the “pains” I “took” weren’t that great. There are only eight kids in his class, after all), reading them aloud. Stuart carefully reviewed the avaiable designs, holding each friend’s name in his head and trying to find its perfect complement in an image of a lurching t-rex or coterie of fairies tiptoeing through the tulips.

Of the five girls, two were given dinosaur cards, and three Tinkerbell cards. Both boys got dinosaurs.


You might think I’d be disappointed that my little didactic exercise produced results not too dissimilar from Stuart’s original intention. But, working with him on his project, I could tell that the path he took to get there was much more well-considered. He didn’t just chuck a few dinosaurs into the girls’ mix to appease me, either. He actually thought about his friends as people — which is the precise point that mandating an expectation-reversing “dinosaurs for girls, Tinkerbell for boys” would have missed.

Ours isn’t a household that promotes a wholesale squelching of all things pink or blue. When the kids were infants, sure: we took a decidedly a-gendered tack. Now, though, instead of trying to neutralize gender by limiting their options, we find ourselves reminding Stuart and MaryAlice of the limitless possibilities when it comes to investigating their interests and aptitudes: dinosaurs to fairies, baseball to ballet.

What’s so amazing (and relieving) for me to discover is that, with their minds being as permeable as they are, it seems just as easy to counter the messages of compulsorily gendered, rigidly segregated preferences and behaviors as it is for the kids to become passively indoctrinated in the first place. Good news! I don’t need to adapt the works of Judith Butler for the pre-K set, and enforce a strict dress code with entirely muted-earth-tone pallette garments. I don’t need to be hyper-vigilant, raising them in some kind of house-sized Skinner box. And I don’t  need to shame them for mirroring the dominant tropes of “gender-normative” behavior. If I just remind them, once in a while, that their horizons are endless … they will be.

4 Comments

Filed under Amanda

Suck on This

My daughter is 19 months old and still uses a pacifier.

This, I have become aware, is a highly controversial situation secondary only to the socialization of our health care system.

We really weren’t going to use a pacifier.  Until, of course (like so many things we weren’t going to do), we had a baby.  We realized, that first day in the hospital (or, at least I think it was the first day, it’s hard to sort through the haze of physical and emotional exhaustion/trauma/happiness/confusion that was that time), that we were spending a ridiculous amount of time with one of our fingers in Naya’s mouth to soothe her, and thus, relented when a seasoned nurse offered us a pacifier.

And no, it didn’t lead to nipple confusion or compromise our breast feeding relationship.  She went strong until she self weaned at 18 months, which is fodder for another entry (or 20), I am sure.

And no, it hasn’t delayed her speech development.  The kid talks all the time.  All. The. Time.

And yeah, there have definitely been people who make an issue of it– however (un)subtly.  Taking it out of her mouth, or making comments like, “She doesn’t want that, she wants the real thing.”  (I realize that some women really will nurse their kids for hours on end to provide this kind of nurturing comfort, and I salute them.  That, however, is not on my personal itinerary.)

For the most part, it has been something she’s only wanted when sleeping, spending time in her car seat, or feeling sick.   Thus, it has become a mostly private thing, and one with which my husband and I haven’t been all that concerned.  We figured that, like most developmental things have so far with Naya, it would work itself out.   Sure, we won’t mind giving up the foraging for “suckers” under the crib each night before bedtime, making sure we have a spare in our pocket before we leave the house, and the obligatory midnight trek to the baby’s room to replace the one she’s dropped in her sleep, but as a whole, it’s really not that big of a deal.

It’s really not that big of a deal.

Naya’s most recent bought of teething (4 at the same time!) has spurred new enthusiasm for her suckers, however, and she now brandishes them wherever she goes.

This, of course, leads to a lot more (very) public scrutiny.

Last week, the woman at the Y nursery tried to take it out of her mouth the minute I handed her over to them.  “You don’t need this, do you?”

Yeah, actually. The screaming when you take it out of her mouth would probably indicate that it’s an issue for her.

Last week another mama helpfully volunteered the information that their pediatrician recommended she take away her child’s pacifier after the first birthday.

Yeah, our pediatrician really hasn’t made a big deal about it, but thanks.

So of course, being the consummate worrier, I have been thinking about this constantly, and mentioning it to my husband.  We weigh the pros and cons.  We know we don’t want her going off to kindergarten with it, but at the same time, it sure is convenient that she has something so simple to comfort her, and it has proved invaluable on our relatively frequent travels by plane for keeping ear pressure in check.  So, we tentatively agreed to table the discussion until she’s at least 2.  We won’t offer it, but we won’t refuse it either.  In the meantime, there’s a very good chance that (like so many things) she will work it out for herself.

But, of course I’m still going to worry.  It’s what I do, right?

Then, on Friday, she started asking for “Beherrrr.”   I figured out that “Beherrrr” was her pacifier, but couldn’t figure out what the association was for days.  Every time she asked for her pacifier, it was, “Beherrrr?”

Then on Sunday morning, during a particularly fragile time of tears (about what, I can no longer recall), it all came together when I placed the beloved pacifier in her mouth.

“Thas Beherrr.”  she said as she instantly stopped crying.

THAT’S BETTER.   Her pacifier is her better.

So yeah, the pacifier stays, and all you naysayers can suck it.

4 Comments

Filed under Jen