Trains or Barbies? Pink or blue? Boy or girl? For some families, the answer is 'any or all of the above'. Emily Winstanley's been talking to parents choosing to raise their children without gender restrictions.
Some parents find out their baby's gender at the 20-week scan. Others wait until the baby's born. But there's a new breed of parents who might wait three or more years to find out. Their babies aren't born "he" or "she", but "they". These parents belong to a small but rapidly growing movement called "gender-creative" or "gender-open" parenting, whose kids are sometimes known as "theybies". They're choosing to give their children, and the world they live in, no traditional clues about their gender. No frilly flowered rompers or tiny little digger T-shirts. No bedrooms decorated in pink or blue. And certainly no colour-coded confetti canons at a gender reveal party. Then, when the child is old enough, they can choose if they want to identify as a boy, or girl - or even neither. To be more specific, these parents aren't that interested in the baby's sex, which is what you are assigned at birth. What they care about is their child's gender, which is how they will present themselves to the world.
While it might seem unusual, you'll no doubt start seeing more and more families heading in this direction. Model and actress Emily Ratajkowski has added her name to the growing tide with an essay for Vogue magazine last month, saying, "When my husband and I tell friends that I'm pregnant, their first question after 'Congratulations' is almost always, 'Do you know what you want?' We like to respond that we won't know the gender until our child is 18 and that they'll let us know then." She goes on to say, "I don't like that we force gender-based preconceptions on to people, let alone babies. I want to be a parent who allows my child to show themself to me."
Kyl Myers and her husband Brent are another family choosing a gender-creative world for their 4-year-old, Zoomer. Kyl and Brent don't call Zoomer she or he, instead using "they". Zoomer wears pink ruffled playsuits with dinosaur helmets and, as a true child of 2020, accessorises their rainbow tracksuit with a dog-printed face mask. They are free to wear whatever they like and play with the toys they choose. Knowing Zoomer's sex is on a strict 'need to know" basis - and according to their parents, virtually no one else needs to know.
Sure, doctors or pre-school teachers will find out in the course of their work but it's not openly discussed. However, while details of Zoomer's biological sex are off the table, Kyl is very open about every other aspect of gender-creative parenting, with a blog and Instagram account covering their journey. They were one of the first families open about their gender-creative choices, so Zoomer is - almost literally - a poster child for the movement. Kyl describes gender-creative parenting as a way to let children "come to their own gender identity". She says it also allows them to question gendered stereotypes. "They don't learn that maybe certain toys are for certain kids or certain colours are for certain kids, or certain clothing is for these kids but not those kids."
Kiwi parent Kirsty* took a slightly different route with their child. Originally, they raised the child a boy, but later headed down a gender-creative path. They removed their child's pronouns and obvious hints to their sex at birth. Kirsty themself is a trans woman, so has insight into the struggle some kids have with the idea of gender. Kirsty wanted to give their child the freedom to choose.
"[We did] basic stuff that a lot of people don't realise they can do: asking our child what name they prefer, what pronouns they like and what gender they might like to be - in the same way we might ask them what they want to eat or wear. They usually have stronger preferences about food than about gender."
As their child hasn't expressed a particular preference, the family uses a gender-neutral approach for now. Kirsty says the process has been simple: deciding to use gender-neutral pronouns for their child and letting them have whatever toys and clothes they like. They didn't make any particular announcement to the people around them. Kirsty's found some people immediately caught on and started using "they" and "them" to refer to their child - others either haven't noticed or have chosen not to.
Kyl says it's surprising how little the issue comes up for her these days but for the first six months of Zoomer's life it was a constant conversation. "I never get asked if Zoomer is a boy or a girl now but when they're a teeny baby and you're holding them in a cafe, it's the first question people feel like they can ask you. I think sometimes it's the only question people feel there is an answer to. Instead of asking how's parenting going or whatever."
Kyl is a sociologist and has just written a book about her experience with Zoomer, called Raising Them: Our Adventure in Gender Creative Parenting. For her, there's no shying away from discussion about their lives. On Instagram, interactions include plenty of support and thanks for the inspiration given to other families. There are also genuine queries like, "What does the passport say by sex?" She responds, "We don't share that info because we don't think it's anyone's business." One person uses "she" when referencing a photo of 3-year-old Zoomer, saying, "Yikes. It was just yesterday she was an infant." Kyl gently corrects with, "They are growing up so fast!" Another person isn't so generous. "You're brainwashing this poor, innocent kid. They would have a just as happy and fulfilled life if you called them he/she and raised them as their genetic makeup entails. I think deep down you know that you're confusing them and you're doing it partly for attention and followers." Kyl replies, "You don't know us. I'm not making judgments about you or your parenting. We're a live-and-let-live type of family and giving our child the opportunity to explore gender and find their own identity. I wish you and your family the best of luck."
But despite occasional negativity, Kyl says her experience of gender-creative parenting has been wonderful. Initially, she was worried about how the rest of the world would react. "I was anxious that paediatricians were going to think I was a whackadoodle and not want to take my family on. I was afraid that news reporters were going to hear about us through the grapevine and show up to our house. I was really afraid about a lot of things that absolutely did not happen. I've been on planes with very conservative strangers who sit next to me and the fact that I do gender-creative parenting comes up and even though they're like, 'Oh I do NOT agree with this,' they're still really civil."
Kyl knows it's not for everyone but feels strongly that what we should all be on-board with is the "anti-sexism" facet of gender-creative parenting.
"We could really work on making sure boys are able to express their emotions and letting girls know that they are completely capable and wonderful leaders. We could all work towards anti-sexism whether you assign a gender or not."
It won't come as a surprise that Kyl's not a fan of gender-reveal parties, comparing them to having a party to celebrate a baby's certain hair or eye colour. The parties are a new trend, where parents announce the sex of their as-yet-unborn baby with an Insta-worthy party. They've spawned entire sections of party stores with pink or blue confetti canons, balloons, and smoke bombs. Even the woman who's credited with starting the idea in 2008, blogger Jenna Myers Karvunidis, is now against the idea. On Twitter, she labels herself "that gender-eveal "inventor' telling everyone to stop".
After fireworks at a gender-reveal party started this year's massive wildfire in California, she wrote, "Stop it. Stop having these stupid parties. For the love of God, stop burning things down to tell everyone about your kid's penis. No one cares but you."
Auckland-based Dr Katie Tuck is a developmental and behavioural paediatrician, with three children of her own. While she didn't go as far as gender-creative parenting ("I probably don't have the energy to lean into that one") one thing she has in common with Kyl and Kirsty is she's been very careful to challenge gender stereotypes, both personally and professionally. "I don't want to expect that my girls will be kind and my boy will be brave. I would hope that all my children are kind and all my children are brave."
She says there's a huge amount of subconscious "coaching" that happens to kids. While visiting one of her children at pre-school, she was frustrated to see the teachers telling the girls it was their turn to wash their hands. "Why sort them like that? You would never in a million years say, 'All the Chinese kids can go and wash their hands now.' Instead, they could have something something like, 'If your birthday is in February you can wash your hands.' What would happen, the few times I was there, was all the girls would wash their hands and they'd say to one child, 'No no, you sit down, you're not a girl, you're a boy.' And so there's this real coaching that this is an important part of who you are and an important part of your identity." Tuck says she always felt too big and too loud when she was a kid. As a result, she didn't want her first two children, both girls, to feel limited by their gender.
"When my little boy talks about 'lady doctors' I say, 'Darling, Mummy isn't a lady, she's a doctor.' I don't like the behavioural implications of the term 'lady' for me. I remember as a little girl being told not to do something because it isn't ladylike. My mother would say things like, 'You'll need to learn to shut up if you want a man to find you attractive.'"
But then, her third child was a boy. "All of a sudden, all the little boys' clothes have fossil fuel vehicles on them which I wasn't keen on or images of animals being violent or slogans about being brave or being a superhero. Where was the space for him to be tender? Where was the encouragement for him to be kind and artistic?"
She says it was even hard to work out whether his love of machinery was natural or because the world told him it's what he should be interested in. Tuck says before puberty, a child's biological sex only plays a tiny role in their pre-determined characteristics. To put it another way, it's not the sex a child's born with that influences their interests, as much as the way we raise our kids. She says there's no natural reason that a boy would love diggers or trucks any more than a girl. "I don't think anyone's identified a gene for loving machinery."
She says the idea of gender-creative parenting will feel really uncomfortable to some people. But in a professional sense, she's not worried that it would have any negative impact on kids. "It's potentially introducing a bunch of extra challenges for the child but challenges, in and of themselves, are not a bad thing for children to have. It's a resilience opportunity. At the end of the day we want resilient kids who can face challenges and make choices. My preference for kids is they have the full palette to choose from."
Kyl, who's undoubtedly given her child that full palette, says Zoomer's starting to lean towards a particular gender and is choosing their own pronouns but the family isn't sharing those just yet.
"I don't feel compelled to share that with strangers. I really want to let Zoomer have that part of their story. What I try to do is share how I parent — this is the environment I create, these are the decisions that I make, this is how I talk to Zoomer about things like gender and sexuality."
Kirsty's child still hasn't expressed any preference for a particular pronoun or gender. But they hope letting their child make their own choices will mean they don't feel a gender's been imposed upon them.
"Immediate pay-offs include seeing them happy with all kinds of toys, from construction vehicles to Pretty Ponies. They feel no gendered shame about the simple things that they enjoy in life. For us, that's the most important thing: that they know (all) things are possible."
*not her real name