It seems like a very Swedish thing to do – what with the Swedish government handing out Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's We Should All Be Feminists to every 16-year-old in the land, and encouraging Swedish dads to take 90 days of paid leave off work for every baby they make. With that in mind, it's no surprise that the first gender neutral pre-school, Egalia, opened in Stockholm in 2010, funded with money from the municipality.
But raising your children gender neutral is not an exclusively Swedish thing: Beck Laxton and Keiran Cooper are Britain's most famous gender neutral raising parents, having appeared in the media about the subject and maintaining a blog about it for a while. A very short phone call I had with the couple made it pretty clear that they didn't want any media attention. On her blog, Beck Laxton writes that the couple got "accidentally splashed all over the media after innocently giving an interview to a friend of a friend who was working for Cambridge News" in January 2012.
But there are quite a few Facebook groups for parents who want to raise their children gender neutral and that's where I found Dani, who was willing to talk to me. Dani, from Dartford, Kent is the stay-at-home parent of a five-year-old, who identifies as agender. I talked to Dani and Miranda, as well as Lotta Rajalin – the founder of Swedish gender neutral pre-school Egalia – about what it means to raise a child gender neutral.
For both Miranda and Dani, their parenting philosophy doesn't feel like a radical change: "My ideas on gender were already part of my life before I gave birth, so that was just an extension of what I believed and practiced," Dani explains. Miranda tells me she sees it as a basic feminist notion to believe we're all limited by gender roles and the expectations that go along with these roles.
According to Dani, gender neutrality is not about finding a gender neutral middle but about offering a child the option to whoever they want to be – without feeling obliged to choose blue over pink. "We love all colours, we love the rainbow. The world is colourful," Dani says. For their children, they try to mix toys and clothes meant for both sexes. "Whether my child wants to wear a something pink or a shirt with superman on it, it's all fine," Miranda explains. Which doesn't sound very radical, but Dani says people do take Mathilda for a boy every now and then, when she's wearing a blue shirt. Which doesn't bother Dani, nor Mathilda.
Miranda and Dani both say the way they were raised influenced them in their own parenting. Miranda's mother was, as they say, a bit of a tomboy. "My mother was worried she wouldn't naturally do girly stuff with me, so she actively took me to ballet and horse riding. But I hated it." Dani's mother was different: "My mother loved red so that's what she dressed me in. She didn't like the fact that I cut my hair short, but I grew up in East-Germany in the 1980s, so it wasn't as big of a problem as it might have been here in the UK these days."
There are a lot of non-traditional families – a lot of children who are raised in a family with two fathers or mothers – and even within traditional families, gender roles are changing. We're preparing children for that.
When they found out they were pregnant, they both decided they did not want to know the sex of their baby before birth. Miranda says: "I noticed that when people hear you're pregnant, the first question they ask is whether it's a boy or a girl. I really didn't care myself – why were other people so eager to figure out my child's genitals?"
Miranda doesn't call her child a he ["han"] or she ["hon"], but she uses the gender neutral pronoun "hen", that officially exists in Swedish since last year. She also doesn't use the traditional pronouns when she reads to her baby. "Stories in children's books contain a lot of gendered clichés, and I'd like my child to remember the characters and actions without connecting them to a sex." She gave her child a unisex name, so the name won't influence the child's sense of gender either. "I'm just being honest about what I know and what I don't know. My baby is just two-and-a-half, how much can we know about its gender?" she exclaims.
Critics say the effort that goes into gender neutral parenting is a form of unnatural indoctrination – that there's simply a biological difference between men and women, and that that difference starts even before birth. But Miranda feels she's actually liberating her child from the gendered indoctrination society pushes on people. "It's ridiculous to say that gendered behaviour is purely natural – it's cultural. Representations of men and women throughout history have been so different, and I'm just trying to liberate my child from that mold. People say I indoctrinate my child, but I'm really not the one doing the indoctrinating."
Lotta Rajalin, the director and founder of Egalia, tells me she received a lot of hate and threats when the pre-school opened. Apparently, the hate is gone: "There is actually a long waiting list now," she says.
I ask her if she thinks that Egalia are preparing kids for the real world or not, and she says she thinks they do. "The world is changing so fast: There are a lot of non-traditional families – a lot of children are raised in a family with two fathers or mothers – and even within traditional families, gender roles are changing. We're preparing them for that." She adds that a lot of people think that there are no toy cars in the pre-school. "But why shouldn't we have toy cars? We don't limit anyone, we find a way to play with cars that can interest everybody."
Despite living in Stockholm, Miranda's child isn't going to Egalia. "I think people who send their kids to Egalia need help in raising their kids gender neutral. I don't. My child and I are surrounded by people who already identify as queer. Besides, that pre-school is in Södermalm – a upper-class, white neighbourhood. I don't want my child to grow up in an environment dominated by white people." She also did not ask the pre-school she did choose to treat het child gender neutral: "I'm not a utopist, but I just want to offer one environment where my child can feel free from gender roles".
Reactions on their parenting philosophy are mixed – split fifty-fifty, according to Dani: "Some people agree with me, but some people around me ignore it and keep buying Mathilda girly stuff."
Miranda, on the other hand, feels she has inspired some other parents: "They start to wonder why they wanted to know the sex of their baby." According to her it's mostly the older generation, who have difficulties accepting her lifestyle. "When older people want to give a compliment to a child, it's often expressed within a gender stereotype. They say stuff like 'You're my big strong boy' or 'Aren't you a cute little princess?'" Her family, however, respect her decisions and try to avoid addressing her child that way. "The world is changing and adapting to new gender concepts – it just needs time to catch up," she concludes.