Raising child 'genderless': Liberating? Misguided?

06/09/2011 12:00 AM

06/10/2011 6:54 AM

A mom and dad in Canada are attempting to raise a "genderless" child, keeping their new baby's sex a secret from everyone except their older children, a close family friend and two midwives who helped deliver the baby.

The parents' decision, detailed recently in the Toronto Star, quickly sparked criticism across the globe. Kathy Witterick and her husband, David Stocker, have been called "irresponsible," "selfish" and "profoundly ignorant." Some have even accused them of child abuse.

All this because they won't answer a simple question about 5-month-old Storm:

Girl or boy?

"We've decided not to share Storm's sex for now — a tribute to freedom and choice in place of limitation," the couple wrote in an e-mail to friends and family after the baby was born. "A stand up to what the world could become in Storm's lifetime (a more progressive place? ...)."

I can't imagine the reaction. I recall a few people being frustrated when my husband and I decided not to find out our children's genders before they were born. Had we kept them guessing for months afterward, I think a crowd bearing torches and pitchforks would have stormed our front door demanding an answer.

For a lot of people, gender is a big deal. Whether a baby is male or female determines much of the child's early existence — the color of the nursery walls, the birth announcements in pink or blue, the ball caps or hair bows in the closet.

And stereotypes don't end there. Unwittingly, even unknowingly, society fits children into boxes based on gender: girls in one, with baby dolls and fashion magazines; boys in another, with toy trucks and math books. It's wrong, but it happens.

So I understand the Canadian couple's lament. They want to shield Storm from what they call the "tyranny of pronouns," let the child become more than just "he" or "she," more than the parts beneath the diaper.

It's the social experiment part of this that baffles me.

The couple's two sons, 5-year-old Jazz and 2-year-old Kio, are in on the secret and, consequently, part of the ruse. At that age, my children couldn't play hide-and-seek for five minutes without leaping from their hiding spot and shouting, "Here I am!" So if Storm's gender remains a mystery much longer, color me impressed.

Then there's the inevitable barrage of questions. I don't know how it is in Toronto, but here in Kansas you can't order a Happy Meal without somebody asking, "Boy or girl?" to see whether you want a Barbie or Hot Wheels.

Witterick and Stocker say their decision to raise a genderless baby will give Storm the freedom to become who he or she wants to be. (I'm reminded of "Free to Be You and Me," the old Marlo Thomas record I memorized as a child, with its messages of tolerance and gender neutrality. Remember William, who wanted a doll?)

"What we noticed is that parents make so many choices for their children," Stocker told the Toronto Star. "It's obnoxious."

Maybe this couple's decision is a well-meaning one. Maybe it's revolutionary. Maybe it's misguided, alienating or cruel.

In the end, it's still a choice. Everything is.

About Suzanne Tobias

Suzanne writes about family life on Thursdays. She has covered local news for The Eagle since 1990. Suzanne is a native of North Carolina and earned an English degree from North Carolina State University.

Find her on Twitter: @suzannetobias

Contact Suzanne at 316-268-6567 or by emailing her at stobias@wichitaeagle.com

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