I didn’t think I was going to have a daughter. Six years ago today, I was extremely pregnant, waddling through the holidays and singing Christmas carols to the little boy in my tummy. I was planning, imagining, and eagerly anticipating the year and the lifetime ahead as the mother of a son.
My husband and I considered ourselves to be progressive, open-minded, and forward-thinking people. We had taken that sociology class in college where you learn that boy babies are carried facing outward, thrust assertively into the world even as infants, while girl babies are held with their faces snuggled gently and protectively into their mother’s soft breast. So we knew that gender was highly socially constructed. But we also knew that some mysterious thing called “gender” felt… well, “natural” to us. Even though I’m not a very “girlie” girl, I still felt very comfortable being labeled as a woman; my husband felt very steady in being identified as a man. I had always identified with other females – with the way we communicated, with the games we liked to play as girls, the movies we chose to watch. And my husband had always identified with “guy stuff” – comic books and Legos in childhood, action movies and martial arts as a teenager, a “male” career in technology as an adult. And based on these experiences, we expected certain things from the child – the male child – that was about to arrive.
And then, shortly after Christmas six years ago… she arrived. We didn’t know yet that she wasn’t a boy, of course. That came a few years later, when she got a hold of a pink Tinker Bell nightie and wouldn’t take it off for weeks. And then there was the announcement, shortly after her third birthday, that she was actually a girl.
The holidays are thick with family traditions. In my family, we always dressed up for the big Christmas party with our relatives. One year, my Norwegian grandmother returned from a trip home to Oslo with matching dresses for me and my younger sister. They were traditional Norwegian bunod dresses, with long black skirts and embroidered red bodices. My brother didn’t get one, of course. This was a girl thing. We loved those dresses. They were exotic and beautiful and though we would not have been able to put it into words, we knew that those dresses represented something important about our heritage and about what it meant to be a woman in our family. The relatives oohed and aahed at the wonder of us – two little women carrying on something ancient and vital.
When my aunt emailed me the details for this year’s big family Christmas party, I remembered those dresses. I tracked them down – an older cousin had them in her closet. Her daughters had worn them a few years ago. I hadn’t thought of them until now. I hadn’t thought I’d need them because I had a son.
I don’t know what it means that M. is a girl, frankly. Perhaps all that matters is that she feels she is one, just like I do. I asked her if she wanted to wear the bunod to the family party. I told her that I had worn it when I was her age. I told her she could choose what she wore. There was also the pretty velvet Christmas dress my mom had bought her. I was a bit surprised when she didn’t hesitate to choose the bunod. Perhaps she understood, just like I had, that it represented something important. Or maybe she just thought it was pretty. It sure looked beautiful on her at the party. The women of the family oohed and aahed at the wonder of her, and she knew without a doubt that she was one of them.