Trying for a Boy

Lisa Ingarfield | @tritodefi

At dinner last night, my good friend from graduate school who was visiting from out of town, shared that she is routinely asked whether or not she and her partner will be having a third child. More specifically, she is asked whether they would be “trying” to have a boy. She, like many families, has two girls. As a non-parent, I was shocked that people would ask her this question because it isn’t something I would think to ask. She on the other hand, was miles past shock, and dead center in irritated. Apparently, this is a routine question she and her partner receive frequently.

Sex and Gender

First, let’s be real. None of us can try for a child of any sex since we don’t (yet) have control over the process of fertilization to manipulate a child’s sex at the chromosomal level. Second, a child’s sex assignment (initially determined by their external sex organs) does not also determine their gender. Gender is a social construction laid over the top of biological sex and is based on its presumed connection to the sex assigned to a child at birth. Even if sex and gender were synonymous and gender innate, we come back to point number one: we don’t yet have the capability to manipulate the sex and/or gender of a child. Lastly, since sex assignment is not biologically connected to one’s gender expression or identity, having a boy (XY chromosomes) does not even guarantee that you will also have a child who identifies or presents as a boy as they grow. So no matter how hard you “try,” it will be a largely futile endeavor, and you will likely end up with more children than you had planned for.

This complicated and culturally normalized attachment of gender to biological sex aside, I was quite upset by the implicit connotation of these “are you trying for a boy” comments. When I asked my friend how she responded, she frowned and said she just says “no.” She shook her head incredulously which, combined with her facial expressions, lets you know she thinks being asked such a question is asinine and offensive.

The Heart of Gender Equality

Unpacking the seemingly innocuous and innocent question goes to the very heart of gender inequality. The implicit narrative evoked by asking someone if they would try for a boy after having girls, is that having girls isn’t enough. Somehow, a family with only girls is deficient in some way. Does having a boy mean you complete the set, or something? I have heard people talk about a family out of balance when their children are only of one sex or gender. However, the notion of balance itself is misguided. It assumes for starters there are only two sexes or two genders, or at least an equal number, for balance to be attainable. This perspective systematically excludes intersex and transgender people from the equation. It also rests on the belief that girls and boys are the opposite of each other, which is just nonsense, really. What I, and my friend took from the questions she receives is having a boy is more valuable than having a girl. And only when a family has a boy, can they truly feel complete and satisfied.

The hierarchy between genders - boys at the top, girls below, and transgender people not even on the scale - manifests in a number of subvert and unconscious ways. The privileging of boys over girls is normalized to the extent its normalcy makes this privilege invisible. Why would there be a need for a boy in a family with two girls? I just don’t understand. Maybe this is because I am not a parent, or maybe there is something I am missing. I don’t think so though. I think the questions stem from an acculturative process teaching us to value boys over girls; try as we might, we are all sucked into this narrative in one way or another. And so, we ask seemingly benign questions, which actually send a very powerful message: girls aren’t as good as boys.

Nudge the Needle

So what to do about it? I think parents and non-parents alike can questions folks who ask the “trying for a boy” question. We can raise an eyebrow and challenge the notions of controlling the process and gender balance in single gender families, particularly when your children are all girls. We can ensure our young girls know they are just as valuable as boys through our language and our support of their actual (versus socialized) needs, interests, and goals. And if we all do this, I think we can continue to nudge the needle. We can foster a cultural environment where having one, two, or five girls in a family is unequivocally celebrated.

It’s the little things broads; comments, questions, suggestions, and traditions. It all matters in the larger gender equity landscape. These little things silently thread together to weave a tight blanket, constricting us without our noticing. Be on guard, broads, and (metaphorically) set that blanket on fire.