Conversations with my Son About Gender

Conversations with my Son About Gender

By Jennifer Berney


When my son was three, as he sat at the kitchen table playing with his Etch-a-Sketch, he offhandedly asked me the following question:

“When Mommy Kellie was a little boy, did she have an Etch-a-Sketch too?”

The wording of this question reveals a lot about our family. To begin with, of course, my son has two moms. I am his birth mother, and so far have played the traditional role of “Mommy”: I’ve been the breast-feeder, the diaper-changer, the lunch-packer, the medicine-giver. But my partner Kellie goes by “Mommy” too. She’s the one he runs to when one of the handles has fallen off of his dresser; she’s the one who brings him to the dump and stops for hot chocolate along the way. My son has never attempted to call my partner “Daddy” and has never stumbled over gender pronouns. And yet, apparently his understanding of gender categories had some room for variation.

“She probably did have an Etch-a-Sketch,” I answered, “but did you know that Mommy Kellie was actually a little girl and not a little boy?”

My son gave me a puzzled look. “When did she change?” he asked me.

“Well,” I answered, “what is she now? Is she a woman or a man?”

He thought for a good while. “She’s a mommy,” he concluded, apparently giving up on the categories I had offered.

Gender was confusing to me too. Before our son was born, I had ideas about raising him gender neutral, not constraining him to our cultural mandates on what colors he could wear or what toys he could play with.  I didn’t plan to put him in dresses, but I happily bought a pink onesie and enjoyed imagining him in that. Once he was born, I dressed him in it a number of times. He wore it well. But as he grew older I found I had no desire to replace it with pink t-shirts or lavender sweaters.

I did continue to think about gender and explore this through his wardrobe. I bought a yellow girl’s t-shirt that featured a kitten; I cut off the puffed sleeves and replaced them with straight navy blue ones.  On the one hand, it was an act of rebellion: my son liked kittens. Why shouldn’t he be able to wear one on a shirt? On the other hand, it was an act of conformity: I clearly did not want to dress my son in girls’ clothes.

My son is five now, and gender informs our conversations in ways that reveal the values of our culture at large. Recently, after my son had just lost a race to a friend, I tried to explain that winners aren’t by their nature better than losers. I ran this scenario by him: “Mommy Kellie can build a house better than I could ever build a house, but that doesn’t make her better than me, right?”

“No, it just means that she has better skills than you,” he said.

That stung. My partner, an electrician by trade and builder by hobby, offers him a great example of how women can excel at “men’s work.” This is great, but I still worry that our culture has taught him to value her skills above more traditionally feminine pursuits. I tried to explain to him that my skills are pretty awesome too, that making dinner is important, as is teaching grown-ups how to write papers for college (both are things that I do), but I’m not sure he bought it.

In the end, there seems to be no escaping this gender conundrum—no easy way to keep every door open, to convince him that hemming a pair of jeans and installing a dryer vent are both valuable skills and both within his range.

Now that my son is old enough to dress himself, his drawers are filled with Spiderman shirts, Star Wars pajamas, and Transformers underwear. It seems the best that I can do is just embrace and love his boy-identity while trying to make room for balance. Right now balance means that we snuggle in Star Wars pajamas, encourage him to cry when he is sad, and have a “yes” answer on the ready if he ever asks for a pink bike or a Barbie—two things that I’m pretty sure will never happen.

Jennifer Berney’s essays have appeared in Hip Mama, The Raven Chronicles, and the anthology Hunger and Thirst. She is currently working on a memoir, Somehow, which details the years she spent trying to build a family out of donor sperm, mason jars, and needleless syringes.  She lives in Olympia, Washington and blogs at

What Happens in Hawaii Stays in Hawaii

What Happens in Hawaii Stays in Hawaii

By Kim Cooper Findling


Ever go on vacation and wish you’d be someone else for the week? Just really get away from it all, including yourself? Last year, my oldest daughter spent our Hawaiian vacation being a boy.

Seven-year-old Elizabeth, known to most as Libby, announced upon arrival in Honolulu she was now to be referred to as Eli. And that she was a boy, and would only do and wear “boy things” for the entire week of our stay. Given that Libby/Eli has a rather theatrical, forceful personality we’ve all become accustomed to, the transition was fairly seamless. Her sister Maris, age five, gave a brief nod. I gave my immediate approval.

Grandma, who we’d come to visit, took a half-second to get on board, but then she was there all the way. “Eli, would you like to play a game of Rat-a-tat Cat?” she said in a cheerful voice. “It’s gender neutral.”

Libby’s spontaneous decision wasn’t totally without foreshadowing. A week prior to our vacation, she announced, “I want my hair cut like a boy.”

“Are you sure?” I asked her a dozen times. “If you don’t like it, it’ll take a while to grow back.” She was adamant. The stylist gave her an early Justin Bieber. It looked pretty great, actually.

In Hawaii, Eli wore the same clothes every day—those she had brought along that were “most boyish.” Green “Life is Good” tee shirt, black athletic shorts. I’d promised both children we’d shop for new swimsuits in Honolulu. At Macy’s in Ala Moana Center, the sales lady shot us a glance and pointed Maris in one direction and Eli in the other. I followed Eli to the boy’s section where we purchased a crisp new pair of board shorts in blue and white and some sturdy black flip-flops. (Maris selected a fine Hello Kitty floral bikini, in pink, and a plumeria barrette for her hair).

At the beach, my children taught themselves to boogie board. Maris made a new friend named Grace. She introduced Grace to her brother, Eli. The dynamic of being both oldest and male apparently gave Eli even more reason to boss everyone around than usual. The children built a sand city to rival Atlantis, with Eli as chief engineer.

My husband had remained home in Oregon but we had kept up to date by text. I sent him a photo of our girls on Waikiki Beach. They were fresh from the ocean, jubilant, one fist each held aloft, rock star style. Libby’s short hair was slicked back, her hip jutted at an angle in those cool board shorts, her naked chest projecting not so much boy or girl as just child.

“That’s my boy!” my husband texted back.

At our favorite beach bar, where we sat under a verdant banyan tree and ordered drinks with pineapple and umbrellas on top and listened to ukulele-driven covers of contemporary music, the waitress called Eli “sir.” She was elated. “Did you hear that, Mom?” she giggled. I grinned and agreed that it was awesome.

I was slightly less amused when an indignant middle-aged guest wearing a voluminous purple muu muu booted my daughter out of the ladies room a few minutes later. I asked Eli what she said to the lady who’d demanded she vacate the premises.

“I told her I was waiting for my sister,” Eli replied.”You could have just told her you’re a girl,” I pointed out. Eli hadn’t considered that option.

On the last day of our trip, we all went to Chinatown. Grandma wanted to buy the kids a present. There were a lot of pretty dresses in Chinatown. Plentiful flowers and jade jewelry, too. I saw Eli’s commitment to boyhood waver in the face of all of those flowing tropical prints, lush leis and smooth beads.

She selected a fringed sarong, albeit in blue. Unsure what to do with it, she eventually tied it on her head like a bandana. The long remainder fell down her back, trailing on the pavement. Maris’s new cotton dress was adorned with gardenias and lace, and she spun in circles to make the fabric float on the tropical breeze.

On the plane home, we shared small cellophane bags of pretzels and flipped through the photos on my phone. There was one of us hamming it up around a bronze sculpture of a lion in Chinatown, another of my children leaping waves at the beach, another of Grandma with one arm wrapped around each child.

“So who’s going back to the second grade?” I finally asked my seven-year-old, after her little sister fell asleep. “Eli or Libby?” She wasn’t sure.

We had a layover in Seattle, arriving back home in Bend after dark. The cold air was a shock, but it smelled of home.My husband greeted our oldest child as we came through the door of our house, tugging suitcases and boxes of chocolate covered macadamia nuts. “Hello, Eli!” he said.

“Daddy, it’s Libby!” she corrected and threw herself into his arms. Macy’s issued a full refund for the board shorts.

Kim Cooper Findling is the editor of Central Oregon Magazine, the author of Day Trips From Portland: Getaway Ideas for the Local Traveler and Chance of Sun: An Oregon Memoir, a writer/ambassador for Travel Oregon, the sporadically competent mother of two, and a closet rock star. See

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I Let My Twins Cross-Dress

I Let My Twins Cross-Dress

0-11I let my boy/girl twins cross-dress on a regular basis. Not only do they share a closet, they are in the throes of the toddler independence movement, which means what they wear from said closet is a topic of endless negotiation. When you are two and a half, clothes are the way, par excellence, to assert your individuality and control your environment in one fell swoop. Outfits change in our house with the weather or with the mood or with the infusion of unwanted fluids. And when the boy picks the purple pajamas and the girl asks for her brother’s “trousers,” that’s what they each get.

Early gender identity is a fascinating—and complicated—mixture of the genetic and the cultural. There is no denying that some differences between males and females are hard-wired. Most of us who have raised each kind of kid will attest to innate traits that are stereotypically sex-specific. But then there are the soft-wired tendencies, the ones that are generated not by DNA but by society. These are the ones we commonly reinforce in our homes—through clothes, toys and expectations—whether intentionally or not. According to Lise Eliot, the author of Pink Brain, Blue Brain, parental attitudes toward gender are far more determinative of behavior than we give credit for.

I like to consider myself progressive on the soft-wiring front. In a family comprised of three sons and one daughter, our toy selection, for example, is pretty balanced: cars mixed in with dolls mixed in with musical instruments mixed in with tea sets. There are no rules about who can play with what. The boys are encouraged to feed the babies, the girl to wield a lightsaber. The colors that decorate it all are primary, mainly, though the palette has come to include some pinks and pastels in recent years.

And yet, conservatism shows its truest colors in those arenas of change that aren’t even on the radar. My older sons only wore clothes from the boy side of the store: I never thought twice about it. From the time they were tiny, their wardrobes have been Y-chromosome-themed, in the most conventional of ways. The onesies were smattered with trains and footballs, the sleep-suits with various shades of blue. And because they were both male, we didn’t have any “girl” clothes or accessories on offer, had the desire to “experiment” been there.

With my twins, however, the practical (but very compelling) stumbling block of availability disappears. Consider the pair of magenta, alligator-print wellington boots standing in the hall. They were a present from a doting grandparent for the lone granddaughter of the group, but they have caught the eye of grandson number three instead. What’s more, they are exactly the right size. He wants to wear them to the park. What do you do?

At two years old, you let him. Or at least I do. His choices at this age are not reflective of a gender “non-conforming” attitude, nor are they likely to be the subject of merciless teasing. If I were to redirect him to footwear that is more masculine or “appropriate,” I wouldn’t be doing it to protect him. I would be doing it to teach him something. But what is the lesson? It’s hard, I admit, not to feel a cognitive dissonance at the sight of a little boy in pink shoes—especially when that little boy, like mine, has the baby version of a rugby player’s body. That’s my issue, though, not his.

I talk the talk about gender fluidity—and in this instance I let my son walk the walk—but I wonder how long it will last. In the coming months, both of these toddlers will begin to understand, increasingly, what it means that one of them is male and one of them is female. They are already keenly observant of the differences between their legs. Gender is an unmistakable, and important, part of the process of self-discovery. It is a process that reaches a fever pitch at three to four years old, when kids are notoriously swept up in the pre-school wake of “this is for girls” and “that is for boys.”

There is much to be welcomed about the way children naturally make sense of the world by categorizing themselves. There is also much that is artificial about it. Twins are a constant source of illumination in this respect, a reminder of the delicate interplay between the learned and the inherent. Mine have certainly shown me, even at this young age, how malleable conceptions of gender-specific behavior are. The initial interest might be typical or predictable, but where it goes from there is anything but.

My son, for instance, is captivated by the comings and goings of the garbage truck. My daughter has taken to joining him at the window for the daily look-out sessions and you can find them there discussing every manner of vehicle that passes by (Digger! Van! Bus!). My daughter, as soon as she could walk, would push her favorite monkey (“Bobo”) around the garden in a toy stroller, lovingly tending to his every need. My son now pushes his baby tiger (“Cocoa”) right next to her, breaking only to shower him with kisses or change his diaper.

The influence my boy/girl twins have over one another is profound and, in the absence of a parent discouraging the unconventional, they dip in and out of each other’s schemas of play routinely. The same way they dip in and out of each other’s wardrobes. Clothes might seem like a superficial manifestation of a child’s sex, but they are symbolic of a greater divide of skills and opportunity. My hope is that by letting my twins wear each other’s pajamas now, they will feel that bit less restricted by traditional gender roles in the future.

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