Last weekend, my husband and I were eating brunch with our toddler when an older woman who’d been waving and making our little one laugh throughout the meal came over to tell us what a beautiful child we had.
“Your daughter is gorgeous,” said the woman.
“Thank you!” I replied.
Just then my little one let out a big yawn.
“Looks like it’s almost nap-time,” I quipped. “He gets a little cranky if we’re not home in time for a good nap!”
The woman immediately looked taken aback, “Oh my goodness, I am so sorry, he just looks so much like a little girl!” she tried to explain.
We’ve all had those foot-in-mouth moments when we realize that we’ve said something very, very wrong, and it was clear this woman thought she was having one. She apologized again and hurried off before I could let her know just how little I cared that she’d mistook my son for a girl.
When I found out I was pregnant, I was sure I was carrying a girl and was giddy with excitement for all the promise a daughter held. I began a list of my favorite female-led kids’ books, I bookmarked little girls’ hairstyles, and I looked forward to being a class mom, girl scout troop leader, and friend.
When I learned that the baby swimming around inside of me was a boy I was shocked both by the sex of my baby and by how little I suddenly cared whether or not I would have a daughter. On the day my little one came into the world, the wisdom that numerous seasoned parents had passed along early in my pregnancy – that I’d love my baby with all my heart no matter their gender – was confirmed.
I also quickly realized that most of the things I’d looked forward to about being the mother of a daughter were really just things about being a parent.
I’m a committed feminist and believe deeply in equality. I work hard to minimize how my son’s sex impacts how I’m parenting him. I’m intentional with my language, I provide a breadth of toys, and his books have both male and female leads. Despite my best efforts at mindfulness, I’m sure that there are many, many subtle and culturally engrained ways I’m raising a boy differently than I would raise a girl.
I’m also more than certain that the way society at large interprets and interacts with my son is shaped by his boyhood. In the thousands of tiny ways that add up to the gendered patterns and undercurrents of our society, being a boy is shaping his life.
It’s no wonder then, with the weight that gender carries in our society, that people go to great lengths to apologize when they’ve mislabeled my son.
That day, my little guy was dressed in gray overalls and a baby-blue shirt, his amber necklace was tucked neatly below his collar. He was carrying both a doll and a model train car, and his blond hair, curly and soft, had just grown long enough to rest on his shoulders. He’s a beautiful child but, at this point, absent any secondary sex characters, my son’s only gendered identifiers are the things he’s wearing or holding.
People judge my boy’s sex based on the clothes he’s wearing or the toys he’s carrying or the way we style his hair. I have no intention of picking more “boyish” clothes or cutting his hair short just so everyone knows he’s a boy.
“Aren’t you worried that he’ll be confused or embarrassed when he realizes people think he’s a girl?” asked an acquaintance after another mislabeling incident.
Nope. I’ll simply explain to my boy that we live in a society that likes labels and categories. I’ll explain that even though a lot of people believe these categories are really important, they’re actually kind of just made-up. I’ll let him know that it’s not his job to make other people feel comfortable and that it’s okay to like one thing today and something different tomorrow.
Though he loves them now, I’ll never force my son to wear headbands or play with dolls. If he stops because other people are being negative, I’ll work hard to help him develop the kind of fuck-it confidence that everyone needs every now and then, and I’ll encourage him to keep on being him.
Being mistaken for a girl is something that happens when you’re a boy with beautiful curls whose mom doesn’t particularly care what gender people think you are. It isn’t an insult or a negative assumption. It’s nothing to be embarrassed or shocked by. If you happen to call my boy a girl, you probably won’t even realize because I won’t correct you.
If you happen to discover you’ve mislabeled, please realize that this mama doesn’t care in the least, and that you owe no apology. I love hearing how my kid is sweet or beautiful or funny. Keep on telling me that and we’ll all be okay.