I recently attended a conference on sexuality and gender with presenters whose scholarship, professional practice, and presentation styles were so rich and meaningful that I walked away with a mind full of new and enriched content. But, the binary thinking that we all fall prey to when it comes to sex and gender was a conference focal point that I can’t stop thinking about. This is in part because I tussle with this every day in my midwifery practice and am struggling to find ways to push against its force and hazards.
Customarily, an ultrasound is scheduled at almost 5 months of pregnancy to view and asses the fetus’ most life-supporting structures: brain, heart, lungs, stomach, kidneys, spine, and placenta - the stuff that makes us well when it’s working and unwell when it isn’t. When I mention this, most patients say something like: Oh, that’s the ultrasound you do so you can tell the sex of the baby, right? Wrong. It is the ultra sound we do to see if the baby’s anatomy looks normal or if there is a big problem we should be alerted to in advance. Despite my explanations and emphasis on this and my telling them that ultrasounds can be incorrect and/orthat the fetus may not be in a position that makes determining its sex possible, parents will persist; they ask when the scan will be repeated if the sex can’t be determined. Before their baby is able to sustain itself outside the womb expectant mothers and families have already determined aspects of selfhood based solely on their child’s genitals.
I had my own attachments to what my baby would be during pregnancy and for this reason I asked not to know its sex beforehand or at delivery. For about 15 minutes after birth, my newborn was completely sex and gender free. I wanted my mother’s love to solidify in that moment based solely on the baby being human, healthy, and mine. I sensed this was critically important but I couldn’t fully explain why.
What the conference speakers clarified for me so many years later is just how mutable identity can be at any time in life. Boy or girl, Straight or Gay, able or disabled, strong or frail, beautiful or homely. None of these are necessarily fixed nor should they be defined by anyone other than the individual themselves.
As a midwife, I am doing my best to remind people of what’s most important: human, healthy, safe in loving arms – the welcoming of a new member of the family. I can feel the burn of this uphill climb, but I know it’s entirely worth it.