During our early pregnancy, without meaning to, I frequently referred to our growing fetus as a "he." When I dreamed about our future baby, it was a boy. I actually felt quite sure that the baby would be a boy. My partner, Josh, and I decided that we would find out the sex of our baby before it was born.
Neither of us were attached to the idea of having a boy or a girl, but both of us wanted to talk through our ideas and worries about what it meant to parent a boy or a girl in our society, in our community and in our family unit. It also felt funny to wait to find out because we didn't want the first impression of our kid to be based on a grand announcement of what genitals they had. So it was decided we would find out the sex, but we would keep it just between us and not tell our friends and family until the baby was born.
The day of our ultrasound the tech kept using male pronouns for our baby as she slid the wand, slimed with the medical gel, all over my belly. “Sorry, he is just moving around so much, typical of a boy. I don't mean to assume," she said. She showed us the baby dinosaur creature on the screen: a big strong head, a steady beating heart, hands posed by the face, and then she asked twice, “Are you sure you want to know what you’re having?" Yes, we did. “Oh ... actually, it’s a girl!” Josh and I watched our daughter swimming on the TV and smiled with tears in our eyes.
Later that night I lay in bed awake and worried. I hadn’t expected to feel too much one way or another about our baby’s sex because I really did just want to know that the baby was safely growing. Finding out the sex was just having access to a little bit more information about this little person growing inside me. But there she was, growing inside me and the not-so-good feeling began to grow too. I realized it wasn't that I was disappointed about having a girl, I was scared.
I was scared that I had been entrusted to raise a girl and worried that I wouldn't do a good enough job. I was scared that the world wouldn't be a safe place for her. I was scared that because I was born a girl who grew up to be a boy that my daughter would grow up thinking there is something inherently wrong with being a girl. I was scared that I wouldn't raise her to be strong enough, or that I would be too preoccupied raising her to be strong I wouldn't nurture her tender side enough. I was scared that she was going to come into the world and everyone would be placing their expectations on her of who she should be and could be and that I wouldn't be able to stop it. I was even more scared that I would place expectations on her and I wouldn't be able to stop it. If I had been told I was carrying a boy I imagine I would have had similar and different worries, but the truth is I felt more nervous about having a girl, more concerned about the responsibility of raising a daughter in a world that can be a very unkind and downright dangerous place to be a girl, a lady or a woman.
So Josh and I talked, a lot, about what it meant to be two fathers raising a daughter. We agreed how important it is to teach her about consent, to model consent in our interactions with her, and expect the same from others in her life. She is our child but she is also her own person; she has the right to have control and autonomy over her own body. We agreed to talk to her about bodies, sex and gender. That includes using and teaching her the words vulva, clitoris, vagina, the proper terms for her body parts; that we should be no more squeamish about saying them than correctly labeling her eyes, nose and mouth.
As queer men I think it is important not to shy away from using the correct terms, to talk openly and honestly with her about periods, masturbation, relationships, sex, etc. I have heard some gay men talk about women’s bodies as if they are gross, as if they can’t even say the word “vagina" without gagging. We agreed never to be those men. We talked about how we wouldn’t joke about greeting her prom date with a shotgun, because our child is not our property to protect.
As we talked through our individual and collective fears, I began to feel a little less intimidated about the prospect of a baby girl. As the months went on it mattered less and less that we knew what parts our baby had; instead, we were busy guessing if she would have hair, what she would dream about, if she would look more like one of us than the other, and how she would fit snuggled between us in bed on a Sunday morning. She slowly started to become our baby, our Birdie, and being a girl was just one part of her we already knew. We were so eager to meet her and learn even more about who she would be and become.
Now she is 16 months old. She is a toddler with a round belly that she likes to poke at with her tiny fingers and giggle. I say to her, "That is your belly! It is round and soft and beautiful. I love your belly." I want her to always love her belly too, whether it is round or flat or somewhere between, whether it is squishy or muscular.
When she touches my belly I don't say what I really think, which is- I think that it is too fat, that it makes me uncomfortable, that I wish it were smaller. Instead I smile and tell her that she grew in there, that I have a uterus and she lived inside of it and my belly got bigger and bigger as she grew to make more room for her. I tell her that I love my belly too.
Sometimes I will ask for her a kiss and she will shake her head no at me. I don’t say, “Oh please, please, please!” or “Just give me a kiss!" She gets to choose whom she kisses, every single time she kisses someone, even her dads.
Some of her clothes are intended for boys, some for girls. All of her clothes, even her dresses, are meant to be comfortable for playing and moving in. We don’t dress her in a lot of pink or very fancy because we personally prefer earth tones. She hasn’t yet expressed she doesn’t like what we have. (If that is the case, I will happily sew her a tutu and help her BeDazzle her Converse sneakers.)
But her clothes aren’t just about our taste. I watch some people treat her differently when she is dressed more feminine. They call her dainty and pretty and stop noticing what a capable climber she is, and how independently she enjoys exploring outside. I don't call her my little princess, I call her my small and mighty Birdie. I call her brave, smart and strong. She is beautiful, we tell her that often, but not just on the outside, on the inside too. I don't make jokes, however harmless they seem, that she will grow up to marry the little boys she plays with. Because we don't assume she will grow up and want to date boys. She might date boys, but maybe she will date girls, maybe she will date both, or maybe she won't want to get married at all.
Those things matter so little. What matters is that she knows we aren't expecting her to be anything except exactly who she is, and only she gets to decide who that is. I don't want her to keep things from us because she thinks she will disappoint us, I want her to know that I don't care who she loves as long as they are kind to her.
We will teach her that she can grow up to be anything she wants, even if what she wants to do or be isn't something that I like or understand. If I don't like or understand her choices I will try and remember that she is giving me an opportunity to grow, to educate myself, to move beyond my discomfort to make space for acceptance.
As we talked about what we wanted for our child, I realized that, though the lessons may be a little different, the message would be the same if we were raising a girl, a boy, or someone who identified with neither or both. Josh and I are raising Birdie based on our collective beliefs, value systems and what feels best and most right for our family. I still feel scared and worried because Birdie is the most precious part of my world, and the very idea of something bad happening to her, or someone hurting her, could keep me up every night if I let it. The very idea of her being out in the world independent of us causes my heart to catch in my throat. But she isn't mine to hold back, so I take a deep breath and try to keep myself rooted in the present. I marvel in awe at this person unfolding before our eyes and I remind myself that, no matter how much we may wish to, we can't protect her from the world, we can only prepare her for it. I hold her close to me and let her feel safe and loved. I whisper to her, "Grow, little Bird," and then I let go.