In early 2020 we began using gender-neutral pronouns with our oldest child, Ember. A year later, we are still adjusting. We actively have to think about using they/them/their pronouns when talking to them and about them.
Because we had already been through a pronoun change with our youngest, we thought this time would be easier. We were wrong.
We had spent twenty-six years referring to our oldest child using one set of pronouns. Those pronouns had formed a muscle memory, like when you learn to ride a bike or write cursive. We didn't have to think about saying them. Our brains just used them when referring to our child.
Now, suddenly, we were asking our brains to re-learn how to refer to our child. Not only did we have to learn what pronouns to use, but we also had to think carefully about how to speak about our child. We could no longer use the term son, and the words "nephew, grandson, and brother" were also off-limits.
Learning new pronouns is like learning anything else. You have to practice. You have to be intentional about them at first. You have to go slow and think about what you will say. The more you practice, the easier it gets.
When I'm tired, angry, or emotional, it's hard to use the correct pronouns. My brain reverts to what it already knew.
This was the same experience I had when Leo came out as transgender. He was 19.5, so my brain had fewer years of muscle memory built up, but it was still there. After six years of using he/him/his pronouns with Leo, this is no longer true. So I know that in time, this will not be true with Ember.
Until then, I will do the best I can. I use Ember's pronouns whenever I can, even with people who don't know them. I correct people who misuse Ember's pronouns. Even if it's for what feels like the ten-thousandth time. I apologize for getting them wrong, no matter who I am talking to. I try to set a good example of how to speak respectfully about transgender people.
Not all non-binary people identify under the transgender umbrella.
Ember does, and I know this because I asked them. Not all non-binary people use gender-neutral pronouns. Some use they/he or they/she, and some use exclusively female or male pronouns. There's no one way to be non-binary, and it's up to each individual to decide what feels right for them.
It's best not to make assumptions about a person if they disclose to you or you discover they are a non-binary person. If you are unsure which pronouns they use, a safe bet is to start with gender-neutral pronouns. Then, ask them which pronouns they use when you get a chance.
I feel grateful that Leo had friends who used gender-neutral pronouns when he was in college. He modeled what using they/them/their pronouns sounded like. When Ember said they were going to use gender-neutral pronouns exclusively, I didn't feel like I was starting from scratch.
Does someone you know use gender-neutral pronouns? Have you found it to be a difficult adjustment? I'd love to hear about your experience. Feel free to share about it in the comments.
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