"I Want Her to Feel the Freedom to Just Be"—a Mom on Raising a Gender-Free Child

jesse sullivan—gender-neutral parenting

Trevor King

It's impossible to describe the boundless, wild, and untamed love you feel for your child. The moment this tiny human enters the world, your heart practically bursts inside your chest. As it pounds up against your rib cage, it feels like it could have doubled in size, which is almost true as now it beats for two. Los Angeles–based actor, model, designer, and devoted mom to 9-year-old Arlo, Jesse Sullivan knows that feeling intimately.

"I define love as the ultimate release of ego," she tells me. "I think love is seen in the moments when we'd normally put ourselves first, yet it fills us up and makes us act selflessly. When you're a parent, this is intensified because you feel a love for your child that doesn't compare to anything else. All of a sudden, you realize you'd give your last dollar, the last sip of water, or last breath to that child." While most parents can identify with this sentiment, there is a deeper bond and spiritual connection between Jesse and Arlo that inspired us to share and celebrate their modern love story.

While they still use female pronouns for "convenience purposes" both Jesse and Arlo identify as gender fluid. "I sort of leave Arlo to be whoever she wants to be and guide her with a gentle hand along the way," she says. "If Arlo woke up tomorrow and said, Mom, I want to become a Buddhist, I would reply with, Okay, let's do some research. So I try not to set standards that are absolute in our house because I believe it creates too much room for the feeling of inadequacy. I try to leave the world as an open book, and if she makes a decision about something, I want her to be informed."

While raising Arlo as nonbinary in a world that asks us to check a single box hasn't been without its challenges, it's also been incredibly rewarding. Over 170,000 people are in awe of their indelible bond on Instagram and applaud her for starting a conversation about parenting and gender fluidity that's still widely misunderstood.

So for our inaugural Love Issue, we share this special story and how their genderless approach to family life will change the world. Because, as Brené Brown wrote in her wholehearted parenting manifesto, "who we are and how we engage with the world are much stronger predictors of how our children will do than what we know about parenting." Everyone, meet Jesse and Arlo, and learn about their incredible story, as told to Sacha Strebe.

jesse sullivan—gender-neutral parenting
Trevor King

When I found out I was pregnant I remember…

feeling stunned. Let me give you some context. I was number seven of eight children in a very religious household. I was in high school and academia was very important to me, and my plans were to leave the chaos of my family and live in an artist's loft in the city. I never felt a strong connection to femininity and subsequently motherhood. The idea of waddling around with a pregnant stomach seemed alien. But—and I remember this as clear as day—this intense calm came over me.

I remember the sound of my family eating dinner in the other room, all my siblings were home that night. I had snuck the test from the bathroom to my room where Arlo's father was waiting and pulled it out of my sweatshirt to see if it was ready. I instantly read "pregnant," and after a few moments of feeling stunned as I mentioned, I just felt calm. I felt like this was all going to be okay. I remember almost immediately thinking, "I could do something really great here." Her dad, on the other hand, looked like he had seen a ghost. Haha.

But motherhood has taught me…

what more than 10 lifetimes of being single would have. And I am not taking away from women who don't want to be mothers. I think their journey will be just as enlightening if that is their desire. But for me, being a parent has changed me so drastically. I mentioned that before Arlo, I didn't want to be a parent, but now that I get to spend every day in the presence of her brilliance, there is not a moment that goes by that I am not thankful for being a "stupid teenager."

Not only has she taught me how to love selflessly and unconditionally, but she's taught me patience and, get this, letting go. I think letting go is one of the hardest things for us humans to achieve, and I'm not saying I'm there 100%, but I've definitely learned that worrying about things you can't change is the biggest waste of time. It distracts us from what is in front of us, and if it distracts us from that, then what are we even doing here?

gender-neutral parenting
Trevor King

However, it can also be challenging because…

God, everything about parenting is challenging. And anyone who says otherwise is an alien. That doesn't mean it isn't more rewarding than challenging, but it just is challenging. Your life has now become about protecting and teaching another human so that they can grow into a healthy, happy adult. Do you know how hard it is to be a healthy happy adult? Haha. It's not an easy feat. And if you view parenting as I do, then there's the added pressure of wanting to turn that child into someone who changes the world.

And everyone has an opinion about…

my parenting style. People feel strongly about it because they perceive it as me forcing my child to be a gender-fluid, nonbinary millennial monster like I'm Dr. Frankenstein and she's my new age creation. But the reality is that when you raise children in an open and free environment without things like forced gender roles or religious beliefs, they tend to be very much themselves rather than a reflection of you, and their preferences and choices echo a free mind.

For instance, if I raised Arlo in a household where I said all girls are ballerinas and you will be a ballerina because I was a ballerina and my mother was a ballerina etc., then Arlo would be a ballerina. Whether she enjoyed it or not would be up for debate. But in comparison, if I raised Arlo in a household where I said kids are either ballerinas, soccer players, or musicians, then Arlo would have a little more room to decide which of those she wants to be. Now imagine instead of three possibilities I left it open to the hundreds of thousands of possibilities all over the world. What would Arlo be? Who would she be? Most likely whoever she wants without prejudice.

Arlo isn't mirroring me. She is a human melting pot of the endless rainbow that is this world. People also feel strongly about me putting Arlo on social media, but I strongly believe young people need to have a platform in which they realize they're not alone, especially in areas of the world where oppression reigns.

I want to say too that I get more support than anything, and it doesn't go unnoticed. In fact, it drives me each and every day. I've had hundreds, if not thousands, of young people reach out to me thanking me for inspiring them to be themselves. How amazing is that? By showing that Arlo and I are comfortable in our skin, it has helped others do the same.

gender fluid
Trevor King

Identifying as gender fluid isn't what you think because…

if you asked Arlo, "Do you identify as gender-fluid?" she'd say yes, but it would almost be like asking her, "Do you identify as a human?" For people like me raised in conventional households, the absence of gender became an identity. And that's important. But for someone like Arlo, who has never been forced or exposed to gender in a conventional manner, it's just being. She's only aware of the impact because of how the world perceives her. We still use female pronouns for convenience purposes.

I noticed Arlo starting to become genderless around 4. But in reality, she was never overly feminine or overly masculine. At 2, her favorite thing in the world was Star Wars, yet she'd be watching it in a Cinderella dress, which I think shows the ridiculousness of gendering things like that for children. Maybe she liked the dress because it was blue. Maybe she liked Star Wars because it had silly characters. It was never this one moment; it happened slowly over time.

I noticed a physical transformation when she started to change how she dressed and the types of toys she played with. She was becoming the human she was meant to be. Maturity brought her a sense of self, and I believe that's when we begin to realize where we sit on the gender spectrum. I've honestly never seen anything like it. As dresses were left for pants, this side of her that felt locked away had finally come to the surface and there was a physical change in her. She became more active and even rowdy like she had a burst of energy and confidence.

I think any parent whose child identifies as gender-fluid or transgender will see an extreme change in them when something as simple as their clothing or hair matches their insides. My goal in raising Arlo was to cultivate an environment that left her with the room and freedom to grow in any way she pleased.

If you want to raise nonbinary children too…

don't make a big deal out of it. Support them fully, but just let them be. Because you want them to be able to change their mind as they grow. The other day Arlo said, "Mom, let's go buy a dress." I said, "Okay, let's do it." I want her to feel the freedom to just be. It's not about wearing "boy clothes." It's about being herself. And that's what being genderless is—the absence of a box.

gender free parenting
Trevor King

Since today's society is still binary, I feel…

completely normal every single day being who I am in my own skin. On the inside, I am just a person drinking my coffee like everyone else, but then I look up and my eyes meet the eyes of people around me, and I realize I am being looked at as different, and it reminds me that to masses, I am not normal. It may seem insignificant, but sometimes I wish people could feel what it feels like to constantly be stared at because society has been told to see things as black and white, and if you're a rainbow, they don't know what to think.

And I see Arlo becoming aware of this, too. She always points out how people stare at us. And it doesn't help when people ask her, "Is that your brother?" There are challenges everywhere with being different. We handle them as they come. She's heard homosexual slurs being yelled at me, and she's seen judgmental eyes sway back and forth as heads shake in disgust. But we discuss it together, and it always ends in [this sentiment]: All the world needs are more love and compassion.

Finding non-gendered clothing can be really difficult in general, but even harder is finding non-gendered underwear. They are so extremely girl or boy it's almost silly. But Arlo finally began picking out boys' underwear. Why? Because they were basic colors or had sharks on them. Haha. At the end of the day, she's just a kid who likes things like sharks, the color blue, and Star Wars. You wouldn't have believed the difference in her when she put her first pair on. She couldn't stop dancing around.

I do think more people are identifying as gender-fluid because…

there's an increasingly open discussion about the ridiculousness of the world subscribing to two genders. Sometimes you just have to put a name to something or have a discussion about other possibilities for people to realize that they feel the exact same way. Social media has been great for that. It creates a platform for community and like-mindedness. Helping someone realize they're not alone is priceless.

I think it will reshape society into an equal playing field. Humankind is full of differences, but those differences actually expose a togetherness within the differences—sort of like "we're all weirdos." If you see things as a spectrum of gender and sexual orientation and race and culture, you realize no one's better than the other. We're all just a bunch of animals with different preferences and beliefs.

Humankind is full of differences, but those differences actually expose a togetherness within the differences—sort of like "we're all weirdos."

Trevor King

I wish people knew that being gender fluid doesn't mean…

you're masculine. Which is why I do not use the word "tomboy." It means you just don't subscribe to a black-and-white view of gender. Your gender is queer. It's everything in between and nothing in between at the same time. I think gender-fluid people don't view clothing or toys or colors as belonging to one gender based on what society has prescribed.

Anyone can wear anything, any child can play with any toy, and colors are just colors. I also think one of the most misunderstood ideas in the world is that gender and sex are the same things. Your sex is the chromosomes/sex parts you're born with; your gender is how you display yourself in the world.

This is where solidarity is important. I think when you can create togetherness and a community of people who are fighting for the same thing, you give the individual the confidence to stand up and not shy away from who they really are. And when you get enough people doing that, the line between "normal" and "abnormal" begins to blur away. Just show more compassion for one another. I mean, come on. More compassion.

I hope my daughter grows up to be…

happy and healthy. God, I could write this long answer about how I think she'd make a great president or politically inspired musician, but really, I hope Arlo treats everyone with love, kindness, and compassion. I hope she's the kind of adult who gives her last few dollars to the hungry person on the street. I hope she never settles for uniformity. She's special, and I really believe that people who aren't scared to be themselves can change the world a little bit at a time.

Jesse Sullivan—Arlo Sullivan
Trevor King

Follow Jesse and Arlo and their incredible story on Instagram @JesseSulli.

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