Family Matters

Gender-Free Baby: Is it O.K. for Parents to Keep Their Child’s Sex a Secret?

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If pregnancy were a musical composition, finding out whether you’re having a boy or a girl would be the coda. Indeed, “Do you know what you’re having?” is probably the question lobbed most frequently at pregnant women, right up there with, “When are you due?” So news that a Canadian couple is raising their third child “genderless” in what amounts to a grand social experiment has set parental tongues a-wagging.

Gender is so central to parents’ concept of their unborn children that most moms- and dads-to-be can’t even wait until delivery day to learn what they’re having. A 2007 Gallup poll found that 66% of 18-to-34-year-olds said they would choose to learn their baby’s sex before seeing their newborn’s birthday suit for the first time.

Yet Kathy Witterick and her husband, David Stocker, have kept their baby Storm’s gender a secret. The only people who know are one family friend and Storm’s older brothers, Jazz, 5, and Kio, 2. (Not surprisingly, the two midwives who delivered Storm on New Year’s Day are in the know as well.)

A lengthy feature last week in the Toronto Star profiled the family and their quest to raise their baby unfettered by the rules of pinks and blues. The couple began by sending out an email after Storm’s birth: “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? …).”

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Although they’re confident that they’re giving their child the gift of freedom from social norms, others are not as certain. Some have worried about Storm being bullied or teased, and friends fretted the couple was using their baby to fulfill their own ideological longings. Many Star readers were outraged as well:

“Never has an article left me so upset. These parents are turning their children into a bizarre lab experiment,” wrote Heather Reil in an email.

“The world around us has been set by thousands of years of social evolution. To try to undo this evolution through your child is very selfish and very inconsiderate to the child,” said Wayne Leung.

Yet Stocker and Witterick take issue with what they see as parents promoting gender stereotypes. “What we noticed is that parents make so many choices for their children. It’s obnoxious,” says Stocker.

While it’s certainly an intriguing undertaking, the amount of effort that must go into keeping Storm’s gender identity under wraps — the constant questions from strangers, the endless explanations — makes me want to curl up and take a nap. His parents have got to be hypervigilant since no one but them can change Storm’s diaper. That means no help from grandparents, no relief courtesy of babysitters.

It also feels wrong to ask Storm’s older brothers to keep such a sophisticated secret. There’s no way they can truly understand why their parents are doing what they’re doing. Little kids are notorious blabbermouths; if they’ve truly been able to keep their baby brother/sister’s gender on the down-low, their parents must spend an inordinate amount of time reinforcing the importance of doing so. And for what?

Is it really such a bad thing to be a boy or a girl? It’s not which camp we fall into that matters, but how we choose to embody that gender. Much depends, of course, on how parents socialize their children. All the boys in my son’s preschool class pretended to be Batman and Superman, but he never once assumed the persona of an Action Hero. Nor did he cleave to cars and trucks; it just wasn’t his thing. But that doesn’t mean he swung to the opposite side of the pendulum. Sure, he’s pranced around with his sisters in tutus and I’ve painted his toenails, at his request, when I’ve painted theirs. But he’s forged his own path and developed his own interests: soccer, rock-collecting, reading anything that’s got print on it and cooking and eating really good food.

My daughters, on the other hand, are quintessential girlie-girls. A year ago, I recorded my then-5-year-old daughter’s “favorite things” in her own words: ballet, sparkly things, jewelry, twirly dresses, cupcakes with sprinkles. Her favorite game with her younger sister is “Mommy, Baby,” which is pretty self-explanatory. When they’re done role-playing, they alternately swaddle, stroll and put various baby dolls or stuffed pandas to sleep. I hated dolls as a kid. Go figure.

And yet: my daughter who lists twirly dresses as a preference doesn’t let that stop her from climbing any tree in her path. Does that make her a tomboy? My youngest updated me yesterday on the evolution of a caterpillar into a chrysalis; perhaps that indicates future scientific leanings.

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The way Storm’s parents handle the de-genderizing (is that a word?) of the youngest member of their family is confusing at best and creepy at worst. During a family vacation to Cuba, they flipped a coin to decide how to refer to Storm: on this particular trip, (s)he was a boy.

“In fact, in not telling the gender of my precious baby, I am saying to the world, ‘Please can you just let Storm discover for him/herself what s (he) wants to be?!.” Witterick wrote in an email to the Star.

Cheryl Kilodavis, author of the recently released My Princess Boy, about her young son with a penchant for pink and all it represents, applauds Storm’s parents for challenging society’s way of categorizing people.

But she thinks using the term “genderless” or “gender-free” to describe what’s going on is inaccurate. “It concerns me because honestly that’s not the truth,” says Kilodavis. “If we don’t acknowledge there is a gender, we lose the power of acknowledging differences. To me, there is a beauty in boys and girls, in different skin tones, in different religions.”

Respecting nontraditional paradigms is something Kilodavis has learned to embrace as a result of her experiences parenting her two sons — Dkobe, 9, a “typical” boy, and Dyson, 5, who was anything but. He gravitated toward princesses and sparkles; Kilodavis tried to repress that by giving him toy trucks. Notwithstanding, 3-year-old Dyson announced, “I’m a pretty princess.”

Kilodavis firmly corrected him: “Boys are not princesses. Girls are.”

“He looked me in the eye and said, I am a princess boy,” says Kilodavis. “I was taken aback by that.”

Dyson made clear his own identity. But his story is hardly analogous to that of baby Storm. I don’t know Storm’s parents, but after reading about them, it feels like they are not-so-subtly imposing their own agenda on their kids. Of course, what parent doesn’t? Yet this feels particularly heavy-handed. Diane Ehrensaft, a California psychologist and author of Gender Born, Gender Made, which advises parents with outside-the-box kids, told the Star that parents should support “gender-creative children.” But it’s not clear that 4-month-old Storm or his/her brothers fall into that category. Are they truly rebelling against their gender, a la Chaz Bono, or are they simply succumbing to the power of suggestion?

Jazz, we learn, wears his hair in long braids and chose pink shorts and pink socks for a recent outing to a park. His parents say everyone assumes he — and Kio — are girls, yet Jazz isn’t happy with that assumption: he insisted his mother clarify his gender in writing to group leaders at a nature center.

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Gender differences are innate, contends Ehrensaft. Give a girl a truck or a boy a doll, and they may not be too interested. Referring to the 1970s, when some parents encouraged their kids to shake off the shackles of sex stereotypes, Ehrensaft notes: “It only worked up to a certain extent. … It was a humbling experiment for us because we learned we don’t have the control that we thought we did.”

Seconding that perspective is Jesse Ellison, who described last year in Newsweek how her parents tried to override her gender by dressing her in overalls as a toddler, withholding Barbies in favor of blocks and snipping her hair into a bowl cut. “But my parents’ little project in gender neutrality (namely, me) was, from the get-go, a total failure. As soon as I could speak, I demanded they replace my overalls with a long, pink, lacy dress. Far from gender-neutral, I was emphatically, defiantly a ‘girl.'”

How long Storm’s parents will be able to keep up their charade is anyone’s guess, but judging by Witterick’s comments, it could be quite a while. “Everyone keeps asking us, ‘When will this end?'” Witterick told the Star. “And we always turn the question back. Yeah, when will this end? When will we live in a world where people can make choices to be whoever they are?”