Love & Wisdom

Papa and His Pronouns

A parent works to adjust to his young daughter’s preferences

By Christopher Harris November 27, 2023

abc_blocks_pronouns-16-9-2000x1125-min

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2023 issue of Seattle magazine.

I love my daughter. Although I’m not sure she’s my daughter. I now call her my child. My little monkey. Sparky. Love of my life. My kiddo. But never, ever, my little girl, even though she attends Seattle Girls School. Because when Valen turned 11 last year, she told her mother and I that she wants her pronouns to be “he/him” and “they.”

(In this piece, I’ll refer to them as one of the names they’ve taken on, “Valen.”)

I knew that having kids later in my life meant that I’d be a culturally challenged Daddy. But I never imagined I’d be navigating pronouns. It’s been tough enough shedding the almost incalculably inappropriate words and phrases that 1970s Ohio imparted in me growing up, and even the Pacific Northwest as late as the 1990s. It never felt hateful. It was just how we talked.

Valen’s a sweet, charming, critter-loving angel. As with their 15-year-old brother (also a blessing), I don’t care who they love or what they want to be called, as long as they keep calling me.

I never thought I’d ever be accused of “misgendering” someone. But I have, often. Largely it’s just been me doing a clumsy crawl through what a lot of people my age find a minefield of new language rules. For me, it’s often counter-intuitive. I’m a journalist and someone raised by parents to speak “the King’s English.” My mother was a first-generation American jazz singer and my father a Britain-born radio broadcaster, a play-by-play man for a college basketball team. My brothers and sisters and I were groomed for grammar, corrected whenever we misspoke. We were taught to observe, and speak unambiguously to what we see. Now I’m being taught to speak to what others see. And I know this is how it should be. But it’s still a steep learning curve.

My 59-year-old brain simply cannot properly process today’s pronouns. Mostly, I struggle to refer to an individual, one person, as “they.” Plural gender-neutrals are my thorns. Personal gender pronouns, PGPs, are my kryptonite, the thing that keeps me from being Superdaddy.

It’s particularly complicated to be a parent and have a kid who goes by “they.” We got a report once from Seattle Girls School that Valen had had a grumpy day. Nothing serious, but SGS is great about keeping us up to speed on everything. “We had a little incident today at school,” the teacher wrote. “Valen was upset about something, and they came over to Ms. O’Malley and said …”

At that point, my head began swimming. I called Valen’s mother. “Who are ‘they’? Who was Valen with? Was she pack hunting?” She just laughed.

So, what does a well-intentioned, fairly progressive father do? My brain seems to recalibrate on the fly. I find myself repeating a kid’s name several times in a sentence, tiptoeing through that minefield, and coming up with my own gender-neutral workarounds. The most important thing I try to do is just remain engaged, keep trying to learn this new language, and to communicate my intentions as I always do to my kid, telling her that people like me are on her side. We’re part of the solution, not the problem. We’re doing our best.

I ask Valen to have patience with me, and to be careful to understand that the movement this generation is leading is all about inclusion, freedom, and living without fear. Sometimes, older constituents like me, the people you hope to bring along, can feel excluded, unfree, fearful of being cold-corrected, just for using the wrong word. The movement can never become what it set out to stop.

I won’t always talk good. But that doesn’t mean I’m not crazy about my kiddo, my little monkey, my Sparky, the love of my life. The rest are just words.

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