Care and Feeding

Gender Fluidity Is Stressing Me Out

I can’t wrap my head around it.

A woman thinks.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Khosrork/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

As a parent of teenagers, I am trying to wrap my brain around the way teens are using they/them pronouns, identifying as nonbinary or gender fluid, and making other gender choices. I was born in the 1970s and when my (and my friends’) babies were born it wasn’t even in our thinking that they would choose a different gender when they got old enough—or that it would be such a big thing happening in society. In fact, it wasn’t until just a few years ago that I was even aware of the phrase “gender assigned at birth.” So hearing my teens and their friends discuss these things is making my head spin. We have never pushed gender roles on our kids, and we model a very equal household in which both Mom and Dad work and do household chores. And both Mom and Dad are very confident in our gender identities but don’t let them limit us (Dad loves to cook, Mom loves to do electrical wiring). We’ve never pushed dolls on the girl or trucks on the boy: they played with whatever they wanted to.

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The current terminology and emphasis on gender and the idea of gender fluidity are stressing me out. I don’t understand it, to be frank, and I would have a hard time changing my expectations if one or more of my kids did identify as a different gender and take on a different name. I feel like I’m part of an ancient generation that had very different expectations, and I’m having a hard time pivoting to the way the teens think. Where did this come from? How can my teens and I have a conversation about it? What kinds of issues are fueling it? How can I not be hurt if the amazing names deep in family history that we carefully and lovingly chose for our kids end up being discarded if our kids decide to change genders? How do I adjust my expectations if they do? I simply am not prepared for this.

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—Roiling in the Rockies

Dear Roiling,

I’m sorry you’re so distressed. Change is hard. And challenges to ideas that we had perceived as fixed, immutable—simply not up for discussion or question—are the hardest of all.

You feel ancient, I get it—but I’m two decades older than you are, raised in a world in which gender role expectations were far more rigid than they were when you were born, and many if not most people my age raised their own children with rigidly fixed rules about gender roles. If I have been able to hoist myself into the realities of the world today’s teenagers and young adults are living in, so can you.

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And even though change is hard, we humans are immensely capable of it if our hearts are willing and our minds are open. So I’ll spell this out for you and let you sit with it for a while. Ideas about gender, which were once extremely rigid, have become much more expansive and inclusive. This is a good thing. Want to know why? Because anytime our thinking becomes more expansive and inclusive, it’s a good thing. I do not believe for one second that many more young people are coming out as gender fluid, nonbinary, or trans because there are suddenly many more young people who feel this way (or—as so many skeptics suggest—more young people who think they feel this way). There have always been people for whom the designation “male” or “female” doesn’t feel perfectly right—who don’t feel particularly male or female, or who feel both male and female, or who feel neither—and there have always been people who feel strongly and deeply that the gender they physically present as is not a match for their sense of who they are. What’s different now is that societal ideas about all of this have begun to change in a way that allows those who feel this way to speak up about it, instead of hiding or being ashamed of it, or trying to convince themselves that they don’t feel what they feel, that they aren’t who they are. Nobody “decides” to change genders, just as nobody “decides” to be gay. These are not lifestyle choices. And even in a slowly changing society—and a generation (god bless gen Z!)—that is more open to recognizing the complexities and varieties and expressions and understanding and meaning of gender, it isn’t easy or fun to come out as anything other than conventionally male or female. It isn’t a trend. It’s difficult and frightening and it opens one up to the possibility, if not the likelihood, of discrimination, harassment, and violence.

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What I would suggest is that you make every effort to educate yourself about gender, you make every effort to separate yourself from expectations about who your own children are and will grow up to be (this is a good idea in any case, and one that applies to everything, not only gender), and that you recognize that just because you once assumed something to be true, that doesn’t mean it is true. You ask how you can have a conversation with your teenaged children about gender. I’d advise you to let them lead the way, to really listen when they talk, and to acknowledge that you don’t know everything—and that you might be wrong about some things you used to be sure of. Telling teens the latter goes a long, long way with them. Meaning it (I promise you) will make you a better person, too.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m 14 years old, and gay. All my friends and a handful of my cousins know, but I’m not out to my parents. I’m pretty sure they know, though, because I repost a lot of pro LGBTQ+ stuff on my Instagram stories, and I just got back from (arts) camp, wearing some bracelets with different pride flags. How do you think I can start to have this conversation with my parents? I don’t know why I’m so nervous. I really do believe they’ll be accepting—they’ve always told my sisters and me they’ll love us no matter what, and it’s not as if I doubt that they meant it when they said it—but it still feels terrifying when I think about having this conversation. I want to do it, though. I feel like they are definitely the next people I need to come out to. Thanks for any advice.

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—Coming Out is Hard!

Dear COiH,

Coming out is hard, even under the best of circumstances. While it certainly sounds like your circumstances are much better than those of many people your age—and I am very glad for you!—I’m not surprised to hear that you are nervous: it can feel very scary to reveal one’s authentic self to others. And coming out at 14 may feel particularly frightening: perhaps you’re worried that your parents might suggest you’re too young to know for sure, or that they’ll ask you questions you’d rather not answer about how you know you’re gay, or whether there is someone you are romantically interested in. Maybe there is something in their assertion that they’ll love you “no matter what” that makes you wonder if their love for you is going to be shadowed by their adjustment to who (they now know) you are—a sort of “we still love you despite this” attitude, which is not exactly what any of us want. And then there’s this: you happen to be precisely the age when a great many kids feel it is most difficult to talk to their parents.

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For all of these reasons—and because, as I say, being clear with other people about who we are and how we need to be seen can be hard for anyone, at any age—I want you to take a moment to appreciate how courageous and mature and wise you are. You’re right: they are the next people to come out to. You won’t be able to live authentically if your parents don’t know (for sure) who you are. Take some deep breaths. Promise yourself that you’ll give them and yourself some grace if they don’t respond in precisely the way you most hope in your secret heart of hearts (in the moment, they may not be able to find the perfect words; keeping this in mind  may help you if they fumble). Find a time when no one is rushing around or distracted by something that demands their attention. Right after dinner? On a weekend morning? Begin by telling them you’re nervous and that you’re not even sure why, telling them you know how much they love you and that you have always known you can count on them for their support and encouragement and understanding. And then just say it: “I need to tell you that I’m gay.” Good luck. I’m proud of you.

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From this week’s letter, “My Rebellious Teen Niece Is Leading Our Younger Daughters Astray:” “My husband absolutely hates this and wants to cut way back on the visits with Erica.”

Dear Care and Feeding,

I grew up in the foster system, in some nightmare short-term homes. I spent my childhood comforting and distracting younger kids who were scared of the drug-induced violent/sexual behavior of our foster parents, and also baiting adults who were going after the younger kids so they would beat me instead. Thus, I had a grim view of what taking care of kids was like, and assumed I wasn’t mom material. But in college I met the kindest, most caring woman in the world and I fell in love. She was always upfront about wanting to be a mom more than anything, and after years together, I decided I could have kids with her, since I trusted her to have a healthy idea of parenting, listen to my limits, and be the primary caregiver for our children while I balanced shared parenting with the work I loved. This was something we talked about and agreed to. But now we have a 3-month-old daughter, and I have discovered a powerful love I never knew existed. It’s overwhelming how much I love our daughter and how everything about her brings me joy.

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Since my wife’s job is higher paying than mine, and since parenting has become so fulfilling to me, we’ve been talking about me being the one to stay home or work part-time. My wife and I are on the same page about this. But when I talk about this to friends, they are very negative. They say having a baby shouldn’t bring about a whole personality change (which it seems to them this is, for me). They say I am playing into the patriarchal idea that women are meant to be mothers and that career-driven women’s “mixed up priorities” will be magically “fixed” if they have kids and see for themselves how much more rewarding motherhood is. But I’m not making a political statement. It’s just that my daughter is now my priority—I care more about her than about my work. Then again, since my wife—a natural mom—is fine with going back to work if I want to stay home, I’m wondering if my friends are right and what I’m feeling isn’t healthy. Is it normal for priorities and feelings of fulfilment to change so drastically? I don’t want to make any unhealthy decisions that might affect my precious daughter negatively.

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—Is Mom My Whole Personality Now?

Dear IMMWPN,

I don’t think your friends are “right,” though I understand where they’re coming from. But any monolithic idea about what women should do when it comes to being mothers—and how they are supposed to feel about motherhood—is unhealthy. There is no one “normal” or right way to be a mother (or to be, you know, a person). There is also no way to predict what one’s own response to motherhood will be. I was sure about so many things when I was pregnant! I “knew” I would be eager to get back to teaching as soon as I could and cheerily made commitments to writing deadlines just months after my due date; I would nurse for only as long as I “had” to; I would be bored if I spent too much time with a toddler. None of those things turned out to be true. And I’ve known women who were sure they were going to stay at home with their babies as long as they could possibly manage it who discovered that they had to go back to work full time or they’d lose their minds.

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If you want to devote yourself to your daughter right now, if that’s what feels most meaningful and fulfilling to you—and your wife is genuinely in agreement that this arrangement is a good one for both of you—then do it. Motherhood can change people. (For that matter, so can fatherhood.) I would argue that it should: that if we can’t allow ourselves to recognize that the responsibility of raising a child means reconsidering our priorities and allowing ourselves to change in response to new responsibilities, we are unlikely to be good parents.

Finally, let me say this: If it turns out later that the arrangement you and your wife decide on needs to change, it isn’t set in stone. Go ahead and change it—and then keep on changing it as needed. You may feel differently than you feel now when your daughter is six months—or a year, or two years (or four years!)—old. Your wife may feel differently too. Keep talking to each other, keep being honest with each other. And don’t ask your friends to weigh in. They’ll offer their opinions anyway, just as everyone else around you will (everybody has an opinion about how children should be raised!), but that doesn’t mean you have to listen. What’s healthy for your daughter is to have parents who love her, take good care of her, and communicate honestly with each other.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m writing with somewhat of an awkward question. I’m a college student going to school in the same city as my cousin “Fred,” his wife “Ella,” and their son (who’s 10). I didn’t grow up with any of these folks and don’t know them super well, but Fred and Ella have been extremely kind and welcoming to me—hosting me for dinner about once a month, taking me to get dorm room supplies, and including me in their check-in emails after a natural disaster. They are genuinely lovely people. But their son is, in a word, obnoxious. He’s an only child and clearly used to getting all the attention. When I’m over, he’s really hyper and constantly “performing” for me—demanding I watch him play piano or Fortnite, listen to him talk about any number of topics endlessly, or film him while he dances—which is annoying but not nearly as unbearable as his tantrums. Every time I am over there, Fred or Ella will set some limit (for example: no ice cream before dinner) and their son will throw a shrieking tantrum until they eventually give in. At which point he perks up and the cycle begins anew.

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I don’t pretend to know anything about parenting—my parents were fairly hands off with my three siblings and me—and I don’t have any close friends who are parents yet. But this child’s behavior drives me nuts. I am pretty sure some of this is normal for 10-year-olds, and it’s really Fred and Ella whose lack of firm parenting is causing the problem, but that doesn’t make it any easier for me to deal with (and maybe makes it worse, because when I think about this, I get annoyed at them too). The visits are pretty unenjoyable. My instinct is to scale them back until Fred and Ella’s son calms down a little. He will mature as he gets older, right? He’s just recently resumed in-person school, which I thought would help his socialization skills, but he’s only gotten more frustrating since he doesn’t get as much attention at school as he was getting at home. I don’t want to be rude to my lovely cousins, but I am starting to dread hanging out with this kid, which of course makes me feel awful. What should I do?

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—Student in South Carolina

Dear Student,

What you should do is stop going over to your cousins’ house. It would not be rude of you to start declining these offers: you’re in college, you’re busy with schoolwork and other college-based activities, your college friends, your new life away from home. Tell Fred and Ella, kindly and warmly and graciously, how much you’ve appreciated their welcoming you into their home and how much easier they made your transition to college life, but that now that it’s underway you need to really throw yourself into it. And then make that true: throw yourself into it. It’s time. And this has nothing to do with how much you don’t enjoy your visits with your cousins.

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Of course, if for some reason you cannot go home for Thanksgiving or other holidays that make you feel homesick, and they invite you over, say yes to those invitations if you want to go. As to the problem of their tantrum-throwing 10-year-old, luckily this is his parents’ problem to deal with, not yours. Whether or when your young cousin will grow out of this behavior is not a question with which you need to be concerned—and you don’t have to have an opinion about how Fred and Ella are raising him, either. You are under no obligation to spend time with him. Indeed, you have other obligations. And other opportunities, too, of which you ought to be availing yourself.

—Michelle

More Advice From Slate

My fiancé moved in with me and my parents last year. He has a 2-year-old son whom I’ve taken on as my own and plan on adopting as soon as we’re married. Here’s the problem. We have chosen to limit certain things when it comes to our 2-year-old. We don’t want him watching much TV at all. We do not give him a lot of candy. My parents don’t adhere to these rules. What should we do?

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