So I was talking to my ex-husband the other day, and I was asking him how his new baby was doing (he just got remarried about a year ago) and he said she was fine, and then he said, “You know, she’s so sweet.”
“Aww,” I said, cause it was expected of me, and also, she really is a cutie–I ran into her and her mom at the grocery store the other day.
“Girls really are different,” he continued on enthusiastically. (He and I have two boys together.) “I mean, right from the beginning. They’re just so much, you know–”
“Girlier?” I suggested.
Some dryness may have been apparent in my tone, because he immediately began elaborating–”Just, gentler. And just daintier. And calmer, you know?”
I had no interest in debating his assertions–she’s his new baby, I’m not gonna argue with that kind of infatuation! And I don’t know the specific kid beyond a few brief encounters. But after we exchanged a few more pleasantries and hung up, the conversation returned to me and got me thinking…is there really a perceptible difference, on any level other than genital, between girl and boy babies? Especially girl and boy babies that young?
I’d never really thought so. My sister was born when I was ten years old–my mother developed pre-eclampsia and nearly died during the delivery, something which no doubt planted early one of the seeds that has helped me flourish into the ardent pro-choicer you see before you today.
But I digress! Point was, Mom was a mess for quite a while afterwards so I pretty much raised my sister for the first few years of her life. I did everything for her but breastfeed her (Mom did that, of course–she had to. My sister would flatly have nothing to do with any bottle. Had no idea what her problem with them was!! but there you have it). I gave her her first solid foods and she took her first steps into my arms; I had her potty-trained (mostly!) by age two.
When I was thirteen, for various reasons I went to live with my aunt and my grandma, who were also raising my aunt’s newborn son. She was a single working mom and Grandma was in poor health, so wouldn’t ya know it, I was back on the baby train…I only lived with them for about six months–the baby was probably less than two months old when I arrived and going on nine months when I left. Now, I admit I wasn’t LOOKING for gender differences…however, you’d think if they were really that noticeable, I’d have noticed them. Well, I did notice that changing my
cousin’s diaper was a lot riskier experience for getting the “hose” treatment–when my sister peed during a changing, it just made a wet spot under her; my cousin made a wet spot all over ME! But other than that…well, babies that age poop, pee, barf, eat, sleep, cry, wave their limbs around and stare at stuff at lot, basically. Not much else goin’ on. Really. As they get older they start smiling, writhing purposefully, then attempting locomotion, and also start exercising their little voices in attempts at speech-y sounds, but…um. They do that the exact same way regardless of whether they’re a girl or a boy. And if you’ve got one laying there in front of you in a diaper and nothin’ else, they don’t even HAVE a gender.
But apparently lots of other people disagree. Usually the first question out of anybody’s mouth, if the kid isn’t color-coded, is “Is it a BOY or a GIRL?” and once that’s identified, the cooing begins, segregated quite sharply by gender–”He’s so BIG!” “She’s so PRETTY!” “What a handsome little man!” “What a sweet little girl!” and so forth.
So I thought I’d casually research the topic. As it turns out, apparently there was a fairly well-known study (Rubin, Provenzano, and Luria) in the mid-70′s that found the following:
The parents in that study rated and described their newborn infants in gender-stereotyped terms, with the fathers being more extreme than the mothers in differentiating between sons and daughters. The parents as a group rated girls as softer, finer featured, littler, and more inattentive than boys; the fathers were more likely than the mothers to rate girls as softer, finer featured, more awkward, more inattentive, weaker, and more delicate than boys. The parents also verbally described their daughters as little, beautiful, pretty, cute, and resembling their mothers, and described their sons as big.
The only problem with this is, this doesn’t prove the babies weren’t different due to their genders; it just proves that the parents really thought they were. However, I found a more recent study (1995) that asks the following questions:
1) Has gender stereotyping among parents declined in the years since the Rubin et al. (1974) study?
2) Do fathers continue to stereotype more than mothers?
3) Do parents’ gender-stereotyped perceptions of their newborns decline with increased exposure to their infants, as parents acquire additional information about the unique features of their infants?
And they concluded that:
The results of this study suggest the following answers to the three questions posed earlier: First, contemporary parents continue to hold a few gender-stereotyped perceptions of their newborn infants, but fewer than those held by the parents studied in 1974 by Rubin et al. Second, the fathers in this study did not differ in any notable way from the mothers in their perceptions of their newborns, unlike the fathers in the Rubin et al. (1974) study. Third and finally, parents’ gender stereotyped perceptions of their newborns persist for at least a week after the parents take the infants home from the hospital.
Despite this apparent decline, some gender stereotyping persists and is consistent across studies. The parents in all three studies rated female newborns as finer featured than male newborns, and the parents in both the present and the Sweeney and Bradbard (1988) studies rated female newborns as more delicate than male newborns. Thus, parents seem particularly likely to perceive their female and male newborns as differing on physical characteristics. These differences were perceived even though there were no observed physical differences between the male and female infants in this or the previous studies.
The third major finding of this study, that the identified gender-stereotyped perceptions were stable across a 1-week period, suggests that parents’ gender-stereotyped perceptions of newborns’ physical characteristics are robust and not easily modified by exposure to the infant. In fact, most of the individual differences in parents’ ratings of their infants were stable across the study period.
Just had that conversation, yep.
It really makes me wonder…are we ever going to be able to resolve the nature-vs.-nuture question in regards to gender when stereotyping begins THIS early and is THIS pervasive..? Should I take heart from the fact that parents do less of that now than they did a few decades ago? Is that curve becoming steeper or is it leveling off?