Gender and Babies

Fred L. Pincus

How did two sociologists, a feminist woman and a gender-sensitive man,  deal with having a child in the early 1980s when the women’s liberation movement was in full swing?  Since Natalie Sokoloff, and I had taught about gender issues for years, some things seemed straight forward.  We would paint the baby’s room a gender neutral color like yellow or beige and dress him/her in gender neutral clothes.  We wouldn’t push the child into gender-related toys, playgroups or sports as we had seen other parents do.

A few years before we got pregnant, for example, we visited a childhood girlfriend of Natalie’s who had just given birth to a son.  As we entered the child’s room, we saw a sleeping infant, decked out in a tiny New York Giants jersey.   Hanging over the crib was a brightly colored furry object intended to stimulate the child’s visual acuity, I presumed.

“Do you know what this is,” said the father, also sporting a Giants jersey.

“It’s some sort of ball?” I replied, quizzically.

“It’s a FOOTBALL!” he said, a little annoyed.

“Oh,” I said. “I didn’t realize that.”

“Don’t you see the Giants logo here?” he pointed

“Sorry, I guess I missed it.”

“My son is going to be a Giants fan too,” he beamed.


“I’m going to teach him how to play football,” he continued.  “They didn’t have little league football when I was growing up but I can’t wait to get him on a team.”

I nodded, thinking, This kid doesn’t have a chance to avoid gender stereotyping!  I wanted to ask “what would happen if he didn’t like football” or “how do you know he’ll be  good at it”, but we had just met ten minutes earlier and I didn’t want to cause a scene.

We got pregnant in early 1982 and Natalie had amneosythesis to determine if there were any genetic abnormalities in the fetus.  The tests also revealed the sex, but we had the choice of knowing or not.  We both wanted to know.  It was a healthy boy.

Suddenly, gender became a major issue – mostly on everyone else’s mind.  On the way back to New York from a Maine vacation, we stopped at Natalie’s brother’s house in Massachusetts to  borrow the baby furniture that Natalie’s nephews had used.  After the usual “How have you been” back and forth, Carol, my sister-in-law, said,  “We’re so glad that you can use the crib but I guess you don’t want the canopy that goes with it.

“We hadn’t really thought about it,” Natalie replied.

“It wouldn’t be appropriate for you,” Carol said.

“Why not?” we asked in unison.

“Because canopies are for girls and you said you were having a boy,” she replied.            “We never used the canopy since we had three boys.”

“I didn’t know that about canopies,” I said.  “Why are they for girls?”

“It’s frilly, I guess,” said Carol in a slightly annoyed tone.  “Everyone knows that you don’t use canopies for boys.”

Although we wouldn’t have wanted the canopy even if we had a girl, I had the feeling that Carol wouldn’t have given it to us if we had asked.  She was protective of the gender identity of her unborn nephew.  This was one of the first of a series of gender-related decisions that we had to make – and he wasn’t even born!

A few weeks later, the clothing issue surfaced.  Natalie’s mother, Charlotte, who had six grandsons, had knitted a lovely pink sweater and hat in the hope that we would produce her first granddaughter.  When she heard we were having a boy, she said:

“You can mail the sweater set back to me.”

“Why, it would be perfect for him to wear during the fall,” Natalie said.

“You can’t let a boy wear pink!” Charlotte replied.  “Send it back and I’ll knit him a blue set.”

“Don’t be silly Mom,” said Natalie.  “Pink will be fine.  You know how I feel about gender stereotypes.”

Charlotte’s pink/blue concern came with a certain irony since she was probably dressed in white or some other gender-neutral color when she was born in 1914, as that was the convention at the time.  The pink/blue dichotomy didn’t become institutionalized in the United States until the 1940s because clothing manufacturers saw this as a way of selling more baby clothes.

We kept the outfit and Josh wore the sweater, without the hat, on the day he came home from the hospital.  We also had some great hand-me-down clothes that were given to us by a Baltimore friend who had two daughters.  She didn’t send along any dresses.

Several weeks later, on a chilly September day, I dressed Josh in the pink sweater and hat, put him in the carriage and set out for the streets of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, steeling myself for the gender wars to come.  Less than a minute after leaving our building, an elderly woman looked into the carriage and said, “What a pretty little girl.  She’s so cute.”

After a few seconds, I said, “This is Joshua, my son.”

“It’s a boy!” she responded.  “Why do you dress him in pink?”

“His grandmother knitted the clothes and they keep him warm,” I replied.

“Oh,” she said, giving me a strange look as she walked away.

A few minutes later, a woman in her forties looked in the carriage and said, “How old is your daughter?  She’s lovely.”

“My SON is three weeks old.”

“I’m sorry,” she said.  “I just assumed…” and she walked away.

On my brief walk around the block, every person that stopped assumed Josh was a girl.  Although I understood the blue/pink gender symbolism, I wasn’t ready for how annoying these gender interactions would be.  I knew that girl and boy infants look alike when their genitals are covered but … Was I defending his maleness even at 3 weeks old?

After talking this over with Natalie, I decided to ditch the pink hat or to use a gender neutral color when I took him out.  I had my limits.  The pink sweater, however, stayed until he outgrew it.

Sweaters and hats were not the only clothing issues we faced.  One afternoon, when we were strolling in The Lower East Side, we saw a cluttered baby store with merchandise displayed on tables both inside and outside the store.

“Josh needs some socks,” said Natalie.  “Maybe they have some inside.

Natalie walked in while I followed,  carefully maneuvering the carriage between the display tables.   “We need some socks for a three month-old,” said Natalie to the woman behind the counter.

            “Is it a boy or girl?” said the woman, matter of factly.

“What difference does it make?” said Natalie, her voice rising.  “We just want some socks.”

“Well,” the woman said with an air of disdain, “You wouldn’t want frilly socks for a boy, would you?”

Seeing that things could get out of hand, I said, “We’d just like some simple, basic socks.  Do you have anything like that?”

“What color?” she asked, while trying to peer into the carriage to get some gender-related hints.

“Just show us what you have,” said Natalie, getting increasingly annoyed.

We finally purchased three pair of socks, neither pink nor blue, and left the store with a little anecdote to share with our friends and students.  The saleswoman, I imagine, also had a story to tell.

During the first year of Josh’s life, I was very fortunate to have a sabbatical leave so I could spend a lot of time with him during the day.  When I took him to the park, I’d usually be the only man hanging out with the moms and nannies.  The terms “stay-at-home dad” and “househusband” hadn’t come into popular usage yet.

As I was sitting on the bench on a fall day, one of the moms said, “How wonderful it is that you spend time with your child.”

“My wife and I are trying to share childcare,” I replied, “so we alternate days being the primary caretaker.  It’s really nice to know that tomorrow will be her turn.”

“That’s great,” said the mom.  “Wait until I tell my husband.  But, how do you work this out with your boss?”

“I’m a college teacher,” I said, “and I’m on sabbatical leave for the year.  I have a lot of flexibility so I take care of him one day and do my research the next day.  Academics don’t get paid all that much but it’s a real privilege to be able to do this.”

“Wow, your wife’s really lucky,” she said.  “I’m definitely going to discuss this with my husband.”

She never asked me if Natalie worked or how she worked this out with her boss.  I’m not sure if I caused an argument at the mom’s home.

When Natalie got home from a long day of teaching, I told her about my conversation in the park.  “No one ever says I’m a great mom because I spend time with Josh in the park!” she said.  “They just assume that I’m supposed to do that because I’m a mom.”

I hugged her and smiled.  “Such is the nature of gender roles.  I cooked you a great dinner.  Sit down and tell me about your day.”

Natalie breast-fed Josh for several months so she would have to get up for middle-of-the-night feedings.  Sometimes she sat in the rocking chair in Josh’s room and sometimes I would bring him to her in bed.  Although I was usually awake during this process, I was cut off from that part of father-son bonding.

Although I find it a little hard to believe now, I eagerly took on the diaper-changing role as my way of bonding with Josh.  Piss and poop can do amazing things for a father.

Our cleaning person, Elba, had a different view of bodily fluids.  A short, slender Dominican woman in her 50s, she had been coming once a week for several years.  When she saw me going to change the diaper, she gently tried to take Josh from my arms and said, “I’ll do it.”

“No, it’s my job,” I said as I gently pulled him away.

“Men don’t know how to change diapers,” she said.  “Let me do it.”

“Elba, I do it all the time” and ending our tug-of-war, I proceeded to put him on the changing table and tackle the dirty diaper.  She watched, first with skepticism and then with astonishment, as I completed the simple task.  She inspected Josh and then nodded her approval.  Maybe I was the first man she ever saw change a diaper.

After a few months of breast feeding, we began to gradually introduce some baby formula so it was no longer necessary for Natalie to get up in the middle of the night.  “I’d like to take the 4:00AM feeding,” I said.

“No, I’ll do it,” Natalie replied.

“You feed him all the time,” I said indignantly. “Why can’t I feed him the formula?  You can get some extra sleep.”

“Feeding him is my job, whether it is breast feeding or formula.”

“I’ll still do the diapers but I also want to feed him during the night.”

We discussed this for several weeks until she finally agreed.  I remember the calmness of holding him in my arms in the quiet of the early morning, rocking back and forth and seeing him happily sucking on the nipple of the bottle.  It wasn’t the same as breast feeding, I suppose, but I felt wonderful.

In retrospect, maybe some kind of new-father hormones caused me to insist on changing dirty diapers and getting up at 4:00 to feed him.  It was a special time.

A few weeks later, I spoke to a conservative friend, John, who had a newborn about the same age as Josh.  He explained to me that he slept in a separate room so that he wasn’t disturbed in his sleep.  I was stunned.

“Really?” I said.  “Is your wife ok with that?”

“Of course,” he said.  “Her job is taking care of the baby.  Why should I lose sleep since she’s doing the feeding?”

“Don’t you want to help out?” I asked.

“Yah, I do some stuff on the weekends,” he replied.  “My job is earning the money and I need sleep in order to work.”

“That doesn’t work in our house,” I said as I explained our shared parenting approach.”

“That feminist shit doesn’t work for me,” he said.  “I’m happy that my wife does all the childcare work.”

“But I get a lot out of taking care of Josh,” I insisted, “even by changing his diapers.”

“It’s not for me,” he replied.  “Shit is shit.”

Wow, we really life in different worlds.  John’s views reflected mainstream thinking that was part of the dominant culture.  Mine represented the views of the feminist subculture that were not yet widely accepted.

Mostly, I felt sorry for John because he was missing out on the father-child relationship.  A small part of me, however, was a little envious.  Sleep is good and, sometimes,  shit is, indeed, shit.

As the winter approached, Natalie came home one day, very excited, and said, “I have something to show you.”  She opened a bag and pulled out a dark pink snowsuit.  “I got this for half-price at that expensive store on Broadway,” she said.  “It’s slightly big on Josh so it will get him through the winter.”

Not again, I thought to myself.  “It’s lovely snowsuit and it will certainly  keep him warm,” I said, “but it’s pink!  We’re going to go through all that crap that we went through with your mother’s pink sweater.  He finally outgrew the sweater and now we’re starting AGAIN.”

“Snowsuits like this can cost $100 [in 1982 dollars],” she said, “and I got it for $50.  That was the only color in his size that they had on sale.  He’s only going to use it for 2 or 3 months and then he’ll grow out of it.”

“That’s all very rational and politically correct,” I replied, “and I know that your mother will be proud of you for getting such a deal.  I just don’t look forward to all of the ‘What a beautiful girl’ comments that we’re going to be getting.”

“It already started,” she said.  “That woman who lives on the sixth floor saw me in the store and said, ‘Who’s the lucky girl who gets the snowsuit?’  When I told her it was for Josh, she said ‘You can’t dress him in a pink snowsuit.  Everyone will think he is a girl.’

“I showed her the mark-down on the price tag,” continued Natalie, “and said that it doesn’t really matter for a three-month old.  Besides, he would grow out of it by the end of winter.  ‘That doesn’t justify getting him inappropriate clothes,’ she said, and walked away.”

“Okay, you win,” I sighed.  “Your economic argument works for me.  We’ll fight pink/blue gender stereotyping for a few more months.  But not more pink after this!”

If I were a true feminist, I guess I’d would have taken on this and other battles with great gusto.  There are many definitions of feminism but the one I prefer is “a movement to end sexist oppression.”  I’ve never called myself a feminist because I don’t want the psychological burden of someone saying, “You aren’t a real feminist if you enjoy looking at attractive women, if you don’t always object to sexist jokes, and so forth.”  I’m not perfect.  I don’t want to fight these battles all the time.   Being a gender sensitive male and an ally of the feminist movement is good enough for me.


Copyright Fred L. Pincus

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