The Core Gender Identity
Although the proud father doesn’t know it when he brings a ballerina doll or a football to the hospital for his particularly precious newborn, he is contributing to the infant’s core gender identity—the basic, primitive sense of maleness or femaleness that is the foundation on which later sexual attitudes and understanding are built.
According to psychiatric researcher Robert Stoller, this complex phenomenon results from a confluence of biological, environmental and psychological factors and attitudes. In utero, a mixture of female and male hormones bathe the brain and determine the appearance of the external sex organs. At the moment of birth, all eyes are riveted on the genital area, ready to exclaim, “It’s a boy!” or It’s a girl!”
Instantly, powerful conscious and unconscious forces are set in motion in the primary caretakers that cause them to continually bombard the infant with the message “You are a girl.” or “you are a boy.” Under normal circumstances, this process continues into the second year of life, resulting by eighteen months in a deeply engraved, unalterable sense of maleness or femaleness. The first step toward adult sexuality has been taken.
The Young Child’s Understanding of Sexuality: Later, as the five year old builds his or her theory of sexuality on oral timbers, the resulting architecture is strange and faulty by adult standards. Mommies get pregnant by swallowing seeds. Babies grow in the “tummy” and come out through the belly button or anus. Adults who attempt to counter these misconceptions with the truth run into the stone wall of intellectual and physical immaturity; the young child lives in a world of misconceptions and half truths. Only as mind and body mature, do the secrets of adult love and intimacy become clear.
My patient, five-year-old Stan, brought a packet of seeds into the office one day and asked if we could put them into a flowerpot that already had a plant in it. “Sure” I said. As he planted, I asked Stan about his sudden interest in gardening. He explained that he had asked his Father where babies came from and he was making a baby of his own. “Oh, I see” I said.
At the next parent conference, I asked his Dad what he had told Stan about where babies came from. In an attempt to be clear and straight forward, but misunderstanding Stan’s ability to comprehend, Dad had told him, with considerable stumbling around for words, that the man puts his penis in the woman’s vagina and plants a seed.
The explanation was clearly beyond Stan’s ability to comprehend, but he did get the idea of planting a seed and was intent in being able to do the same thing that his father could. A less anatomical explanation might have satisfied Stan’s curiosity and made Dad more comfortable. No harm done. Stan would learn the true fact of life, and undoubtedly many misconceptions, soon enough from, as columnist Art Buchwald put it, “his gutter snipe friends.”