Baby clothes save us from from gender ambiguity–looking at a chubby, jowly, bald newborn people are hard pressed to determine if it is a baby boy or a baby girl. For many people this confusion is disconcerting, but they are saved by the ruffles or firetrucks, the pink or blue fanfare of baby fashion that announces triumphantly “It’s a girl!” or “It’s a boy!” When an inconsiderate parent like myself dresses their baby in a white onesie with jungle animals on it, the confusion persists. Strangers on the train smile at Morgan, asleep against my chest in his Mei Tei, and ask me if he is a boy or a girl. Often they apologize for not being sure, as if I would be offended that my baby’s gender was ambiguous. Surely gender should be obvious, and the baby clothing industry has enthusiastically stepped in to amend nature’s oversight.
I remember when my high school Latin teacher was having a baby, back in 1996 or so, his family chose not to give in to the lure of the ultrasound. The sex of the baby would be a surprise. Dutiful students that we were, my friends and I set out to buy presents for the as yet unborn baby. At 16, with no personal interest in having children of my own just yet, I hadn’t noticed the excessive gendering of baby clothes. I was therefore shocked at how difficult it was to find gender neutral clothes. I think we finally found some yellow socks.
At 29 when my own baby was born, I am much more aware of pervasiveness of gender pigeon-holing, and am therefore not surprised at the limited choices available. The ubiquity of the pink and the blue is obvious, and doesn’t need much expounding here. At the moment I am more interested in what baby clothes tell us about assumptions regarding parental gender.
In any given baby clothing store, amidst the tiny dresses and little polo shirts, you will find shirt’s identifying the wearer as “Mommy’s little princess,” or “Daddy’s little dude.” In case you were curious, my child’s onesie confidently asserts “Mommy loves me.” A lovely little footed suit in white with green frogs would be a wonderful gender neutral option except that it proclaims that the wearer is “handsome like daddy..” Baby clothes thus reinforce not only ideas about what kind of people like sports balls and who prefers unicorns, they also reflect assumptions about what makes a family: a mom, a dad, and a squirmy little baby.
Imagine the frustration of a single mother shopping for baby clothes who has to screen all her purchases for references to a daddy. A shirt that proclaims “mommy loves me” would be absurd on the child of two fathers. It is possible to find queer baby clothes with slogans like “I love my 2 mommies” or “my dadtdies rock,” but they are available only online and cost considerably more than the mainstream pack of Carter’s onesies available in stores.
While shirts with references to mommy or daddy are not inherently bad or oppressive, their ubiquity contributes to the erasure and invisibility of other family arrangements.