I recently had a conversation with a friend about how I knew, from the second Petra was born, that our family was complete. She said she felt the same way, but, she noted, “We have one of each. You might feel differently if they were both boys or both girls.”
I’m not sure about that. Of course, one never knows how one would feel in a counterfactual situation, but I think that even if I had two children of the same gender, I would still feel like I had “one of each.” When I think of my friends who have more than one of “each,” I see their children as amazingly different from each other. In some cases, I think the kids are more different than they would have been if they had been of different genders, just because they have to work awfully hard to differentiate from each other. When children are of different genders, people assume that they will be different. They don’t treat them the same, so the kids don’t have to work as hard to stand out from each other.
I have, to some degree, sheltered my kids from society’s gendering influences. They don’t watch TV, and have possibly never seen a toy commercial. Most of my friends are committed to letting their children be the boys or girls they want to be, so Silas has boy friends who play with dollies and girl friends who love trucks. We have made sure to keep their toys fairly neutral. They have lots of blocks. They both have dolls–although it seems that all of our dolls are pretty clearly girls, which is something I should work on. They both play in the play kitchen together.
If anything, they defy the stereotypes. Silas is incredibly verbal; JC and I discussed the other day how Petra has fewer words than he did at this age (although she is definitely a better communicator–I remember listening to Silas spout strings of words with no gestures or syntax and being totally mystified). Petra is much better with blocks and balls than Silas was at her age, although I think part of that is the influence of having a big brother. She’s less prone to meltdowns. He has a ton of vocabulary about emotional states and uses it correctly. He also imagines other people’s feelings with stunning perceptiveness.
In public, people often think I have two boys. Petra rarely tolerates any bows in her hair. Although she has a TON of Lillian’s clothes, we often dress her in Silas’ hand-me-downs, too. I used to feel a little guilty for dressing her androgynously, because people were SO embarrassed when they said, “How old is he?” and I casually responded, “She’s six months old.” I felt like maybe I should put a little more pink on her to spare them the discomfort. Then, one day, someone called her a boy when she was literally dressed head to toe in pink. That was the point when I stopped caring, figuring that there was really no winning.
It doesn’t help that we have gender-switched nicknames for them. Their cousin Olivia had a hard time learning the name “Silas,” and would sometimes call him “Sally.” It stuck (interestingly, the other one that took her a while was “Jeremiah,” who became “Jennifer.”). Petra has been “Petey” or “Pete” since the first week. So when we’re in public, I’m sure people overhear me saying, “Let me take your coat off, Petey,” and they see that as a (totally unhelpful) clue.
I’m actually a little glad that people mistake Petra for a boy. I think they treat her differently because of it–they expect her to be more capable of doing things for herself and stronger and braver than they would if they knew she was a girl. I do believe that a lot of gender differences arise from how people treat children, even without knowing it. I don’t want my children to be gender-less (largely because I think that is impossible), but I want them to be themselves, first and foremost, without wasting energy conforming to someone else’s idea about who they should be based on how many X chromosomes they have.
For more informed science on the subject, I highly recommend Lise Eliot’s Pink Brain, Blue Brain, on the level of innate difference between boys and girls.