Care and Feeding

My Friends Want Me to Use Gender-Neutral Pronouns for Their Baby

A swaddled baby sleeping.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Arindam Ghosh/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,

I am a single, childless woman in my early 30s. My friends “John” and “Lily” recently had a baby who was born male. They have decided to give their child a gender-neutral name, “Sam,” and only refer to Sam using the pronouns they/them. John and Lily insist that everyone else does this as well, because “we don’t know what Sam’s gender identity will end up being.” I certainly agree that when Sam grows older, they should be free to choose whatever gender identity and pronouns feel right to them. But it seems strange to me to insist on they/them while Sam is still a baby, and almost like it’s pressuring Sam to not be cisgender. Just based on probability, it’s most likely Sam will end up being cis, so why not start with that and then change as necessary? I’m not planning on saying anything to John and Lily about this; I’m just genuinely curious, especially since I would like to have a child in the future. Is this normal? Should everyone refer to children by gender-neutral pronouns until we are told otherwise?

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—Baby Confusion

Dear Baby Confusion,

To answer your final question first, every parent should do what they believe is right for their kids as long as those parents keep their children safe mentally, emotionally, and physically. Would I personally refer to my children with they/them pronouns until they decide on their genders? No, I wouldn’t. They were born girls and (so far) have chosen to be girls. Does that make my decision the correct one for every parent? Of course not.

You asked if your friends’ behavior is “normal.” I tend to shy away from labeling things “normal,” but is it happening more than it used to? Yeah, I think so. Recognizing a person’s preferred pronouns shows that you care about their feelings and respect how they choose to be identified. In this case, John and Lily are showing respect to Sam to let them decide how they choose to be identified. I’m on board with it—even though I didn’t do the same with my kids.

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From where I sit, what your friends are doing hurts absolutely nobody. If your friends thought it would be a good idea to teach Sam to juggle knives blindfolded, then we would have a different discussion.

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From this week’s letter, “Is It Really Worth Losing Family Over a Vaccination Fight?”: “Now all I can think about is never getting to see them again, and therefore my little one not even getting the chance to make memories with them.”

Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m a stay-at-home mom to 4-year-old twins, and since the twins were born, I’ve done all of the parenting alone. This includes caring for them all day and night, as well as everything else to keep our home tidy. I’m sad and tired due to our hectic daily routine. My husband doesn’t offer any help because he feels that it’s his job to support our family financially, and it’s my job to care for everything related to our home (including all of his needs). I need to truly communicate how I’m exhausted I am—I can’t keep basically living a single mother life.

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He doesn’t help with baths, bedtime, or feeding, and he sleeps until 2 p.m. and ignores the kids and me to watch television. Am I asking too much for him to do his part at home, so that I can have a moment here and there to decompress? He tells me I am being ungrateful—am I?

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—Super Tired

Dear Super Tired,

As a dad, let me clearly state that your husband is being a complete jerk. No, you aren’t being ungrateful for being exhausted after being in charge of two 4-year-old humans 24 hours a day. Anyone would be exhausted in that scenario.

Sure, your husband pays the bills—but why does that mean he gets time off to watch football and sleep until 2 p.m. and you don’t? When my kids were young, my wife and I broke down the tasks 50-50 to ensure we each received the proper rest and weren’t overwhelmed. I’d handle the diaper changing and baths (at all hours of the day and night), and she’d handle all of the feedings. On days where she felt completely exhausted, I’d take the kids out of the house so she could nap and watch television, and she would do the same for me. It’s called compromise and partnership—something your husband knows little about.

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I would remind your husband that right now he’s nothing but a walking ATM. His kids probably don’t have much of a relationship with him, since he’s on the road often, and he ignores them while he’s home. Is that the kind of dad he wants to be? Being a modern dad is so much more than a paycheck, and it’s terrible that he doesn’t get that.

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I’d also tell him that this behavior isn’t OK with you and you need to seek marital counseling to come to some sort of a resolution. I’m sure a guy like him isn’t the “let’s talk about our feelings” type, but who cares? This needs to be done for your sanity and for the welfare of your kids. If he truly cares about you, he needs to attend counseling with you. If he absolutely refuses, then maybe you need to take more drastic measures in terms of potentially ending your marriage.

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This lifestyle you’re living isn’t sustainable, and you need to take action now before you completely lose your mind.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a 2-year-old mini goth. She loves everything black, skulls, and spooky. (She even insists we call her “Spook,” a nickname she came up with completely on her own.) Grandma is a bit out of her depth as a very traditional older lady, but is trying her best to not push pink and frills on little Spook. To that end, she handmade toys and loveys in Spook’s favorite colors—black with a bit of purple for accent. Unfortunately, one of the toys she made was a classic style sock monkey made out of black and purple socks, which—bless Grandma’s heart—looks a lot like an old racist caricature until you spot the tail and feet. It was definitely not on purpose, but to make matters worse, little Spook calls it “Black Monkey” (to go along with “Black Horse” and “Black Blankie”). Not great from a white kid especially. So how do I handle this? Do I try to get her to call it “Sock Monkey” and ban it from leaving the house? Just hope nobody notices or thinks I’m letting my toddler run around with a horrifying piece of slave-era racist propaganda? Do I quietly lose it and hope neither Grandma nor Spook ask about it again? I’m not sure how to tell Grandma that her hard work and love ended up looking questionable, but shouldn’t she know? I just don’t know what to do here.

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—Spook’s Mortified Mama

Dear Spook’s Mama,

If you want to feel even more mortified, you should probably check out the racist meaning behind the word spook. Hell, if I saw a white kid nicknamed Spook with a toy she calls “Black Monkey,” I’d be wondering if her parents were Grand Wizards of the Ku Klux Klan. I know your child’s intent is pure (as is yours), but impact is always greater than intent in situations like these, so I’d highly recommend you come up with a better and less offensive nickname for your kid.

The good news is this could serve as a teachable moment for her. Don’t ditch the toy, but instead mention how the term “Black Monkey” is an insult to people who identify as Black. Going forward, she can simply call it “Monkey” or “Sock Monkey” as you suggested. A 2-year-old isn’t going to truly understand racism, but she’ll understand insults and hurtful behavior. If you come at it from that angle, she will probably change because she won’t want to make anyone feel bad.

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Of course there will be people reading this thinking, “Give me a break! People are so sensitive nowadays!” This isn’t calling someone a nincompoop. This is a term that was used to dehumanize Black people throughout American history, and is still used today. Check out this recent video from a few months ago. Stopping this behavior isn’t being politically correct; it’s being a good human.

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If we’re going to create an anti-racist world, everyone needs to get involved. Even 2-year-old mini-goth girls.

—Doyin

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