Friday, July 01, 2005

Waiting for Baby X

There's a new blood test that can tell prospective parents the gender of a fetus as early as five weeks into a pregnancy. The test company's representative gushes about the fact that "the companies that make yellow and mint-green baby items are probably going to be really bummed, because you know, once moms are able to find out if they're having a boy or girl, they can find gender-specific stuff earlier than ever before."

Argh. Is that what we really need? In addition to the important ethical questions about the test being used for gender-specific termination, I can think of several reasons why an early gender test is a bad idea.

Parenting is ultimately about letting go of control, and to me, the mystery of the baby's gender was a good warm-up for this idea. I couldn't impose my expectations on my baby from conception day one. I loved setting up a nursery and shopping for clothes that could be for a boy or a girl. "Baby T" had a unique identity in the womb, one that seemed just right to me for the magical period of gestation.

When Baby T turned out to be a girl, it was one of life's great surprise "reveals". She was no longer our hypothetical child, but our daughter. And by not knowing her gender ahead of time, she had a purple nursery decorated with stars, and clothes that included safari jammies and frog onesies.

What ever happened to the idea that gender stereotyping was something we should try to avoid? I can still remember reading X: A Fabulous Child's Story by Lois Gould when I was about 8 years old. "X" is a fantasy about a family who participates in a "Secret Scientific Xperiment" that explores what happens when a child's gender remains a mystery until adolescence. I loved this story growing up. The whole world gets up in arms about not knowing Baby X's secret, but Baby X grows into a wonderful kid, exploring girl and boy interests.

Thirty years later, in the real world of 2005, gender branding is as rigid and uncreative as ever. You walk into any kid's store and there is a girls' side and a boys' side. Pottery Barn Kids: Girls get pink flowers and doll houses; boys get dinosaurs and blue sailboats. Four year old girls are Cinderella for Halloween, boys are Spider Man. I recently bought two Surprize Ink books to keep my daughter busy on a long trip. There were identical games in each book, but one book's theme was Hello Kitty and the other's was Sponge Bob. Hello Kitty searched for her lost luggage and went shopping; Sponge Bob got to go jellyfishing and play with his friends.

Is the adult world much better? Just this week I was wondering why "Parenting" magazine is subtitled "What really matters to moms."

Back to the early gender test. I can envision a day in the not-too-distant future when instead of a plus or minus, the earliest pregnancy tests come up with a little picture of Cinderella or Spiderman in the results window. Is that what we want? Unfortunately, it looks like we have the rest of our lives to be labeled as boys and girls. Let's give our embryos a few months to float peacefully in the realm of unlimited possibility.

News story: New blood test to determine fetus gender raises ethical concerns
NPR news show, Day to Day, June 30, 2005


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