Just the slightest adjustment in language can make all the difference in perspective.
Heteronormativity is "the belief that people fall into distinct and complementary genders (man and woman)... It assumes that heterosexuality is the only sexual orientation or only norm, and states that sexual and marital relations are most (or only) fitting between people of opposite sexes."
This means that heteronormative parenting is when parents do not provide their children with a variety of gendered options for toys, clothes or activities so their kids can "exercise some agency in how they express their gendered sense of self."
But it takes a conscious effort to back away from what I was raised with and what I see around me, from what is provided for us and staring us in the face. It requires forethought to present the alternatives.
Here's the thing — there's obviously nothing wrong with heterosexuality, but there's also nothing wrong with homosexuality, or bisexuality, or any sexuality on the queer spectrum. I don't care who my kids will eventually be attracted to; I only care that they are one day in loving, caring, consensual relationships that bring them joy.
And I want them to know that. I want them to understand that I'll accept them regardless of who they choose to have relationships with.
The best way I can think of to make that clear is to lay the groundwork now. To make sure that I use inclusive language. To make sure that I refer to their futures in terms that leave room. But it's surprisingly difficult.
It's such habit for most of us to refer to futures that involve wives for our sons and husbands for our daughters. Even referencing my children's potential future marriage without directly addressing partners is tricky. Marriage — thankfully — can be applied to many relationships in numerous states and countries now, but not all.
I want to tell my kids that I support them. I want my children to know that girlfriends and boyfriends, wives and husbands, ALL partners will be welcome in our family. I want it to be obvious to them that I love them and accept them and am proud of them, always.
But we're all smacked in the face all day long with the assumption of cisgender heterosexuality. It is assumed by most that my boys will have crushes on little girls, will date girls, will one day marry women. In general, people don't seem to consider alternatives until they're confronted with them and by then, I worry, the damage has been done.
Even in the most open, loving families, heteronormative parenting makes children who fall outside of cisgender heterosexuality feel different. Abnormal. Wrong. This is my biggest fear. I don't want my children to ever, ever feel that way. Certainly not at home with their family. I want them to feel embraced and loved and accepted exactly as they are.
I don't make assumptions about my children's sexuality, so I try to refer to future partners in neutral terms. We talk about families in all their forms. But most books still feature moms and dads. Shows are usually moms and dads. Media promotes heterosexuality as THE way. And one of the most difficult parts of leaving room is trying to be authentic.
I don't want to seem forced or awkward or performative when I add "or boys" on to family members' proclamations that my sons' smiles will draw in "all the girls." I don't want them to feel like I'm faking it when I talk about future wives or husbands or partners. And I don't want to shame anyone by jumping in and leaving room. But I do want to leave room. I need to be intentional about it. My kids deserve that.
I constantly hope for a superhero story where the girl saves the girl or the boy saves the boy. I'm waiting for the fairytale where a princess falls for a princess or the prince for another prince. I want one of my kids' television shows to prominently feature same-sex parents or a teenager who dates boys and girls.
I'd love for my children to read a book about a child who was born a boy, but decided she was a girl. I'm waiting for that, and I hope it'll happen soon. But in the meantime, I need to be deliberate about the words I choose. I need to carefully choose my pronouns. I need to gently expand on assumptions of heterosexuality for my kids. I make no assumptions.
And frankly, I'm not concerned with whatever their sexuality or gender turns out to be. The only thing I'm concerned with is doing everything I can to help create a life in which they can be happy, feel accepted, and feel truly loved. That's what I want to give them: Respect. And for that they need room to be.
For now, this seems to be a bit of a controversial take. I don't know a lot of parents doing this right now. But I hope it's something they'll consider. Just the slightest adjustment in language can make all the difference in perspective. And if we all want our kids to be happy, isn't it worth the effort?
Shannon Brugh is a feminist, essayist, and mother whose work can be found in Brain, Child Magazine, The Huffington Post and The Manifest-Station. She founded Smarty Mommies, and is a regular contributor to Rattle and Pen and at Luna Luna Magazine, where she is a staff writer and curator of the column Feminist Mutha.
Luna Luna Magazine is a daily diary of culture, dialogue, personal essays, literature, sex & the dark side.
This article was originally published at Luna Luna Magazine. Reprinted with permission from the author.