According to most major economic and social indicators, we are soon to be living in a post-gender world. In the West, being born with a penis or a vagina is no longer a barrier to wearing certain clothes or doing certain jobs – at least not officially. It is not even a barrier to changing gender and the biological accoutrements to match. Obviously sexism and stereotypes still exist, but we agree that such things are retrograde. Like single-sex schools, men's-only golf clubs and Femfresh Intimate hygiene wash, they're out there, but not for long.
At least that's what I thought until I got pregnant with another boy. Five months gone now and I find myself amazed almost daily at the stuff otherwise liberal people say to me about my unborn child. Did I mention I'm having a boy? A second one for me, biologically speaking, and a third for our family with my stepson.
In superficial terms, this means that our gang is about to join that most pitied subcategory of middle-class breeders: families with three or more children of the same sex. In practical terms, it means that there will be a lot of pee on the bathroom floor. And walls. Occasionally even the ceiling. I get that. But here's the thing: I don't need to be reminded of it at a cocktail party. Especially when I can't have a cocktail.
Earlier this year, a viral blog post on the U.S. site Scary Mommy entitled Ten Things Never to Say to a Mom Expecting Another Boy nailed it. As soon as I announced we were having another lad, people said stuff like, "At least you won't have to buy new clothes/toys," or "Were you disappointed?" and, my personal favourite, "So do you think you'll try again for a girl?" (Um, yeah, I'm a 40-year-old working mom about to have three small children. Obviously getting pregnant with a fourth in the hope of "winning" the genetic lottery is the first thing on my mind – thanks for the awesome suggestion!)
For the first while, I gamely played along. "Clearly God hates us," I'd say, or "Don't worry, we're planning to bring him up as a fully transitioned male-to-female transsexual anyway." I was joking – clearly – but often people did not seem to get it.
Most people, even today, cleave to the notion that boys and girls are fundamentally different, not just in body but spirit. Of course, there are broad differences, but as far as I can see, we are guilty of reinforcing them (if not creating them in the first place) with all the stuff we project on kids from such a young age. Little boys, we say, are born noisy, feral animals while all girls are inclined to sit in the corner glitter-gluing crafts. Later, we insist that teenage boys are "easygoing," while adolescent girls become makeup-obsessed banshees half-demented with hormones.
This is not something I accept. Even if these gender stereotypes are broadly true, it doesn't make them "natural," and I see exceptions to them everywhere I look. Marketing and pop culture are designed to convince us that males and females are essentially different (and thus predisposed to buy more and separate stuff), but when I think of all the sensitive and thoughtful little boys and wise unflappable teenage girls I know, these stereotypes don't stand up. And this is especially true for newborns, who are, let's face it, virtually indistinguishable.
Most of us accept this, ideologically speaking, and yet there remains a disconnect in the way we talk about babies. People who ostensibly believe in gender equality will happily tell you that boys need to eat more or girls are better sleepers, even though not a scrap of evidence exists to suggest this. They'll tell you your morning-sickness symptoms are caused by the boy you're carrying or that it's got to be a girl because of the particular shape of your bump. It's all a bunch of superstitious nonsense, and yet we insist on sharing it.
Here is the truth: There are penises and there are vaginas, but even these are only loosely connected to the ephemeral, constantly shifting concept that is gender in 2016. My son will be born later this year, and I'm not putting much stock in his sex. Just like the religious background of his family or the colour of his skin, it means far less than it did 50 years ago – and that is a good thing.
So when people tell me he's going to be "a handful," I do get a bit weary. I'm not just sick of the implication that boys are somehow more difficult. I am sick of otherwise intelligent people perpetuating the kind of stereotypes that lead to practices such as sex-selective abortion and the wage gap. I am sick of sexism in all its forms, starting with the way we talk about the unborn.
So if you're looking for something to say to a woman pregnant with yet another boy, here's a suggestion: "Congratulations!" It might seem obvious, but you'd be surprised how rarely she may have heard it.