A Word of Caution on Gender Reveal Parties

Originally published on The Huffington Post

Gender reveal parties are one of the hottest trends among today’s expectant parents. They’ve been going on for at least eight years, but in case you aren’t familiar, gender reveal parties are meant to be exactly what they imply: getting a group of friends and/or family together with the expectant parents for a party, and “revealing” the baby’s gender at one time so that everyone present can celebrate the biological sex of the upcoming birth. The “reveal” portion of the party can be done in a variety of ways, most of which can be unearthed by investing some time into a Google or Pinterest search.

Generally, the whole process begins with the expectant couple going for an ultrasound to determine the baby’s biological sex. Some parents want to know at this point, others don’t. If they want to be surprised along with the party guests, the ultrasound tech writes the baby’s sex on a piece of paper and seals it in an envelope. From there, the message is sent to the appropriate professional who will use it to create a bundle of pink or blue balloons to be released out of a huge cardboard box on the front lawn. Or, the knowledge may be sent to a baker who will use it to create a pink or blue cake hidden beneath piped white frosting. Or, it may be given to a sales associate in a clothing store to box up a gender specific baby outfit, wrap it, and have the couple open it at the party while their guests look on. There are as many variations and ideas of how to do the gender reveal portion as there are stars in the sky.

Often, prior to the gender reveal moment, party guests are subjected to uncomfortable party games. We’re all too familiar with the game of blindfolded baby food taste-testing, or guess-the-type-of-melted-chocolate-in-the-diaper games. But did you know about the game where you have to hold an ice cube containing a plastic baby frozen inside, and in a race to be first, shout,” my water broke!” when one’s ice cube completely melts and reveals the baby inside?

“Wipe Out” is another of these games, which is quite a waste, considering the price of baby wipes. This is a game where each player gets a large pack of wipes and must use one hand to pull out all the wipes from the container. The first player to empty all of the wipes wins. There are even drinking games, such as “who can suck the beer out of the baby bottle the fastest?” Sometimes guests are simply asked to “wear their guess” by wearing something the color of their prediction (pink or blue), place bets, and tally up their predictions. Ultimately team pink and team blue are pitted against one another, sometimes for prizes once the big gender reveal happens.

Typically, gender reveal party themes are involved, in what seems to be an ongoing competition to see which parents can out-cute all the other parents in PinterestLand. These themes run the gamut from saccharine sweet ducks (“Waddle it be?”), to incorporated party games such as gender reveal scavenger hunts, to even more specific party titles printed on invitations such as, “Touchdowns or Tutus,” “Hair Bows or Bow Ties,”  “Wheels or Heels,” “Sports or Sparkle,” “Staches or Lashes,” “Boots or Ballet,” Or – Lord, don’t get me started on these two – “Guns or Glitter,” or “Rifles or Ruffles.”

Now, first I have to clarify that I am all for finding out the gender of one’s child before birth. Some people like to plan, and that’s totally understandable. I attempted to learn the sex of all three of my children before they were born. When my husband and I found out that our first child was going to be a boy, we celebrated the moment quietly with my parents, who gave birth to 3 girls, and up to that point, had all granddaughters. The first boy on that side of the family was something to be sort of excited over, because it was different and new.

I can also understand expectant parents who want to share in this exciting moment with their closest friends and family members. But I guess it’s fair to say that for as many people who actually care what the sex will be, there are just as people who could not care less, and have particular disdain for the gender reveal party. Even Miss Manners, in The Washington Post, once advised against this type of indulgent celebration for the main reason that “not everyone is as excited as you are about every detail of your child’s life, let alone the pre-life.” (Though I’ll be the first to admit how easy it is to get sucked into the “just because it’s important to me, it must be important to everyone” mentality.)

I don’t take issue with the intentions of expectant parents who throw these parties. It comes from a place of goodness, after all. What’s not to love about the anticipation of a new baby boy or baby girl? What’s not to love about shopping for cute outfits, and knowing that the expectant couple wants you to share in that precious moment with them… that moment of certainty? Well, therein lies the crux. What I do take issue with is that notion of certainty. I take issue with how these gender reveal parties are absolutely rife with assumptions, and assumptions often yield disastrous results.

Upon learning that our first-born was a boy, my husband and I felt a sense of pride, a sense of accomplishment. It was the first grandson for my parents, and the first grandchild ever for my husband’s parents. This was going to be a boy – someone to carry on the family name! We couldn’t have been more proud. Also, I couldn’t wait to try out all those early childhood parenting theories and techniques I wrote about in my senior thesis for my Psychology degree. Before my son was born, I already felt well-equipped to handle any possible situation. I read and studied myself silly over Piaget, Kohlberg, and Erikson, to name just a few. I was ready to be the authoritative, democratic, affirming, conflict-solving role model of a mother who doled out only natural and logical consequences to predicted and expected behavior patterns.

Having said that, my first-born son was a colicky, screaming, non-sleeping infant who turned into a feisty, stubborn, strong-willed, radically intelligent toddler. Within a year after birth, he singlehandedly threw my Psychology degree and extensive child-rearing knowledge out the window every time he challenged what I, as a parent, was “supposed” to do. This is the child who caused other adults in the grocery store to look on with disapproval as I attempted to load my produce on the conveyer belt, while simultaneously removing my 1-year-old from it.

Seatbelts in shopping carts? Haha, very funny. This is the same child who managed to, at age 20 months, construct a very efficient ladder that led to the top of the microwave, where he located and picked up a bottle of prescription Motrin, opened the “childproof” cap, popped an 800 mg tablet into his mouth and spit it on the floor with a “pptthh” sound, all in the matter of time it took me to turn my back for 15 seconds to give a recipe to a friend at the door.

This was God showing me a glimpse of the divine sense of humor.

Jack upside down in puddle 2003

Our oldest back in 2003, putting his head into a rain puddle. Because… of course.

Embarrassing public toddler temper tantrums? Oh, I knew exactly what to do. Ignore, and walk away. The child will become frightened because he thinks you are leaving him. He’s still grasping object permanence as he nears the end of the sensorimotor developmental stage, and he’ll come running back to you. Problem solved. Only… that didn’t work with my son. My son threw his first public temper tantrum in the mall on a busy Saturday, at 24 months of age. I stood my ground, refused to let him have the thing he wanted, and the moment he threw his body on the ground, screaming, writhing, and flailing, I took my cue to calmly begin walking away while rationally stating, “Okay, bye-bye. If you’re going to behave like this, Mommy is going to walk away now.”

To that end, my child stood up, looked me defiantly in the eye, then turned and raced off in the opposite direction, down the wide walkways of a very large, very crowded shopping mall. Of course this meant that I went running after him, as fast as my legs could carry me. For the toddler legs may be short, but they are nothing if not agile and unusually nimble. Operation Toddler Meltdown equated to: Toddler: 10. Mommy: ZERO. This child was designed by God to be an outside-the-box thinker, a hands-on engineer, and someone who regularly pushed and tested the boundaries. I had no way of knowing this child would be my now high school junior with a 4.3 GPA in all honors and AP courses. This would be the child who at age 16 always holds doors open for people, and says, “Mom, let me get that,” when he sees me carrying the laundry basket downstairs. I never would’ve guessed.

When we tried to determine the sex of baby #2, on four different occasions, the very experienced ultrasound technician told us that she was sorry, but she simply could not tell. The baby’s legs seemed to be permanently crossed over like a pretzel, protecting the nether regions, hiding them from view from every angle. When our ultrasound tech told us, “I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that it’s probably a girl,” (because in her experience, for whatever reason when the sex can’t be determined it’s often a girl) we got giddy with anticipation. My husband and I further reasoned that her answer made common sense. I mean, it seemed stereotypical enough. Guys are wide open. They man-spread and tend to let it all hang out, while girls are more guarded, dainty, and modest. Or maybe that was just the stereotype we subscribed to back then.

When our second child was born and the announcement “it’s a girl” came, I cried tears of joy because I now had one child of each sex. But, much like my first-born, she challenged my assumptions and tested my preconceived notions. I was so excited to find out I had just given birth to a sweet baby girl. Immediate images of poofy pink Easter dresses, grosgrain hair bows, and cute, tiny patent leather Mary Janes flooded my mind, as well as predictive assumptions of us one day shopping together. We’d stop to share mimosas over mani-pedis while chatting about our current celebrity man-crushes. But, as often happens with time, she had me trained by the time she was age two: hair bows and “dainty” were not going to happen.

On her first birthday, our little girl can be seen on home video repeatedly ripping the tiny pink hair bow from her hair, heaving it in protest to the ground, and instead allowing her growing bangs to hang in her face and completely cover her left eye. The hair-hanging-in-the-face look became such a staple in our household that her best friend at age 8 revealed he had always thought she only had one eye because her bangs perpetually covered the other one.

Kate - punk look

Our daughter, showcasing one of her childhood signature church looks: deviant punk.

This daughter of mine was always fiercely independent, and never was the “hugging, cuddly type.” While all the other girls at church appeared dainty, wearing their Sunday best (long, smocked, linen dresses, with colossal hair bows that rivaled their head sizes, placed atop neatly coiffed and shiny, parted, smooth hair), at age six, my daughter was the complete opposite. She chose to wear to church a black leather biker’s jacket, with rock star tight leggings underneath a dark blue tulle mini skirt, and badly mismatched purple leopard print faux fur collared sweater – the look completed by an uncombed, evolving rat’s nest on the back of her head, and in-flux bangs forever hanging over her left eye.

By now, God was clearly pushing the limits with this sense of humor.

My daughter paved her own way and walked her own path, and I finally quit fighting the clothing battle one day when my husband asked me, “Does it really matter? She’s independently picking her own clothes so that you don’t have to do the extra work of laying them out, and she is dressing seasonally appropriate. Why would you create more work for yourself?” (crickets…) That was the only reasoning I needed to hear. Nothing else mattered from then on. And, as time often does to us, we have been proven wrong that our girl would never free her hair of persistent tangles. I had no way of knowing that this same girl would be my now 14 year old freshman, whose silky, long tresses are the envy of teen girls everywhere. I had no way of knowing this girl would use her fierce independence so responsibly, by volunteering for four years as a preschool theatre camp teaching assistant, or by taking on a regular babysitting job in the summer, working early each morning. How could I have known that this girl would eventually be my solid voice of reason when I’m having a bad day?

By the time our 3rd child came around, suffice it to say we were a little more open to… anything goes. We judiciously picked our battles. “Lose the battle, win the war” was our running mantra. But when we realized that our youngest son’s obsession with princess dress-up, and his dislike of Matchbox cars was not a passing phase, we had yet another light bulb moment. Just when we thought we had experienced the gamut of possible male versus female outcomes, God had thrown all caution to the wind and handed us a gender-creative boy, wrapped neatly in a rainbow blanket, topped off with a glittery bow.

6

Our youngest, gender creative son, in 2009 wearing one of his many princess dress-up costumes.

Loving him has always been easy, but embracing him just as he is, all the time, even in public took some getting used to. Once we embraced it, though, we embraced it head-on and with full force. With his insistence, we now fight regularly for his 10-year-old rights to self-expression, and his protection under the law. But, “gender-creative” is not our youngest son’s only label. He also happens to be, by nature: loving, compassionate, wildly creative and imaginative, good with his hands, open-minded, accepting, honest, loyal, innocent, good, articulate, studious, intelligent, brave beyond words, and just generally a lovely human being.

My husband and I love our little family. We love the uniqueness that each of our children bring to the table. And obviously, we are very accepting of each of them, just as they are. It’s probably a good thing that God warmed us up gently, first with a somewhat defiant boy, then a fairly rebellious girl, and finally a fully expressive gender creative boy. That has been a difficult journey at times, but one that would’ve been all the more difficult if it were laced with assumptions of what it means to be a boy, whether one considers that “snips and snails and puppy dog tails,” or “rockets and rifles.”

Assumptions can have disastrous results. And the first assumption in this case lies within the very title of a “gender reveal party,” for you are not revealing the child’s gender, but the child’s biological sex – something that is totally separate from and independent of gender. Children will reveal their own gender identity and/or expression at some point along the way, whether that is cisgender, gender non-conforming, gender creative, agender, gender-fluid, or genderqueer. And gender is also totally separate from romantic or sexual attraction. Those are just three of many varying factors that make up a human being, none of which are strictly binary, as much as we may have been brought up to believe.

Along with that notion of “revealing” the child’s “gender” before they’re even born is the assumption of all the things that go along with that gender, in other words, the stereotypes. You may indeed have a cisgender, straight boy. But, what if he hates sports, is more in touch with his emotions, or is shy and sensitive – and all the things that male gender assumptions contradict? Likewise, you may indeed have a cisgender, straight girl. But what if she prefers having blue spiked hair and skateboarding with the guys – and all the things that female gender assumptions contradict?

As a liberal mom swimming against the tide, no, I’m actually not asking you to get rid of your “guns or glitter” altogether. What I am asking, is if you do partake in this type of manufactured custom that is the biological sex reveal party, that you might proceed with caution. Please accept that your daughter may refuse to wear glitter and hair bows, or that your son may refuse to like trucks and guns. This is ok; this is healthy. What’s not healthy is pushing our stereotypical, self-indulgent, outdated, or narrow version of what’s acceptable per gender on a child who’s still being formed in the womb. Because no matter how hard you try, your children will at least once do the exact opposite of what you were expecting. That’s a guarantee.

Are assumptions worth celebrating? How about if instead, we alter the dialogue? Babies are worth celebrating. The creation of new life is worth celebrating. Birth is worth celebrating (whether au naturel or with pain relief, via in vitro, surrogacy or adoption, delivered vaginally or by c-section, scheduled or emergency). Hell, even raising a child without injuring it may be worth celebrating. But if you want to celebrate biological sex before the baby is born alive and well, or able to speak for him or herself, go for it. Just be kind to yourself, allow some wiggle room, and remember what ultimately happens when we make assumptions.

One thought on “A Word of Caution on Gender Reveal Parties

  1. Johnny says:

    I totally internalized my feminine fascination as a kid.
    I spose that explains my huge doll collection today.
    I make the outfits, and sometimes I end up making it in my size instead. 😉
    The cool thing about your family is that there is diversity within the family, and permission.
    I can see from just a few images that Charlie’s fashion sense is as developed as mine was, in my late 20s.

    Like

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