***None of what follows has been written by me, the text has been written by Kathy Witterick***
Today, the bus driver smiled at me, my three children, the snacks that were rolling in all directions and the grocery bags hung too heavy on the back of the stroller. As always, he said, “You got everyone?” Then he added, “ I haven’t seen you this week!” I was so relieved. “I’m glad to hear that,” I said.
We went to soccer class, played in the park with friends, read books at the library, learned a little bit about dinosaurs and observed the butterflies that only yesterday hatched from chrysalises in our kitchen. Jazz and Kio drew pictures. Jazz wanted to go to badminton at a local gym. An ordinary day.
My name is Kathy Witterick. I’m shy and idealistic, and all my life I’ve worked in the field of abuse and violence prevention. I married a teacher named David Stocker and we have three children. Jazz is five years old. Since he was a young baby, he’s enjoyed colour, texture and vibrancy. When he was 18 months, he loved to wear layers of wildly striped and mismatched clothing and when his grandparents took him to get his very first pair of shoes, he chose the ones with orange toes and pink flowers on the side. When his brother was born, I joked I’d grow old as woman in a man’s world.
As Jazz grew, his love of bright colours (especially pink) and lots of fabric (especially dresses) continued, and he wanted to grow his hair. The older he became, the more he met with pressure from peers and adults to adjust his image and “act more like a boy.” Jazz remained committed to his own style.
I re-read the research and approaches of Alfie Kohn, Barbara Coloroso, and Adele Faber to find ways to support him. The firm rule around self image became: it has to be clean and healthy, but you can choose the colours and the lengths.
When Storm was near arrival, Jazz was listening to Free to Be You and Me on repeat (it was a gift from a friend). He wondered if people would respond differently if they didn’t know the baby’s sex. What gifts would they bring? If Storm was a boy, would he be allowed to wear dresses? Pink? There are these moments as a parent when you wish your child could bring a different issue to the table — but there it is, plop! And if you really mean what you say about being kind, honouring difference, having an open mind and placing limits thoughtfully where they help children develop competencies and be safe, then you better walk the talk. We agreed to keep the sex of our new baby private.
It is true that an infant, at 4 or 5 months is still learning to recognize themselves — to look in the mirror and think, “hey, that’s me!” — and is not ready developmentally to find a place in a gender binary. It is true and demonstrated in research and in the day to day world that strict gender stereotyping causes suffering to both men and women. So surely, we thought, people would understand our five-year-old’s curiosity about why people need to know the baby’s sex. The events of the last week suggest otherwise.
More accurately, we have received many letters that include intelligent, heartfelt, research and experience based support for the idea. We’ve also heard some articulate and meaningful concerns expressed. We’ve witnessed a discussion erupt that could be transformative. It is important to challenge orthodoxies and raise questions, because the discussion that emerges not only “outs” issues (in a rush to pass judgment, people articulate prevailing views, prejudices, and misconceptions), but also has the effect of helping people examine whether they truly do believe the status quo to be the best that we can do. Will these norms grow healthy, happy, kind, well adjusted children?
The strong, lighting-fast, vitriolic response was a shock. These voices demonstrate how much parents are in the world’s critical eye — in particular mothers, who are judged based on little (mis)information and not offered opportunities to share, grow, learn and be supported and celebrated by the community to raise children. The psychologist on the Today Show for example, was willing to make strong, unqualified conclusions about a family (and children) he had never met, based on (generously) one per cent of what there is to know about said family. Will that behaviour help grow healthy, happy, kind, well adjusted children? Ironically, the idea to keep the baby’s sex private was a tribute to authentically trying to get to know a person, listening carefully and responding to meaningful cues given by the person themselves.
This short letter won’t help you to know my family. And to protect our children from the media frenzy that we did not anticipate, we have declined over 100 requests for interviews from all over the world, including offers to fly to New York all expenses paid and to appear on almost every American morning show. We have learning to do, parks to visit and butterflies to care for. But we do feel it’s important to correct clear factual errors in the media, who incidentally have been reporting false information.
Having spent many years facilitating on the topic of abuse and violence prevention, particularly as it pertains to children, I would never tell my children (or anyone) to keep a secret.
Secrets are not safe and healthy. I, like many parents, have taught my children that some things are private matters, and when you want to share them, you need to do so honestly with sensitivity and consideration. If I had to convince my children not to share Storm’s sex (which I don’t because my children simply are not interested at this point) — I would teach them that someone else’s genitals and sense of how they relate to their gender is their private business, to be shared by them or in a context where safety, acceptance and sensitivity are paramount. Storm will certainly need to understand his/her own sex and gender to navigate this world (the outcry has confirmed this clearly!), but there has never been any question that within our family, the issues of sex and gender and the decisions relating to it are open for age appropriate discussion and action.
In my heart of hearts, I squirm when my son picks a dress from the rack (won’t people tease him?), even though I know from experience and research that the argument that children need a binary gender orthodoxy taught to them in order to feel safe is simply incorrect. My children know who they are, through supported and facilitated experience with their world, and I avoid hypocrisy, inaccuracy and exhaustion by saving my energy for non negotiable limit setting related to safety, kindness, self respect, health, fulfilment and fairness.
None of my children are gender-free or genderless (and neither am I). It is true that my oldest son Jazz does not have a traditional notion of what boys should wear, look like or do. It is also true that we believe our children should have the right to choose their clothes and hairstyle. Jazz has a strong sense of being a boy, and he understands that his choices to wear pink and have long hair are not always acceptable to his community. He chooses freely to do them anyway, because he also has been taught to respect difference, love himself and navigate the world in a way that is true to his own voice. Kio also strongly self identifies as a boy, and his choices around behaviours and image are different but have an equal amount of two-year-old integrity.
Storm has a sex which those closest to him/her know and acknowledge. We don’t know yet about colour preferences or dress inclinations, but the idea that the whole world must know our baby’s sex strikes me as unhealthy, unsafe and voyeuristic. Storm is my third child and this is what I know — someday soon, Storm will have something to say about it, so in the meantime, I’m just listening carefully.
Kathy Witterick is the Mom of Jazz, Kio and Storm. They live in Toronto.