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Secretly Sad: Overcoming Gender Disappointment

The first words out of my mother’s mouth when I told her I was having a boy were, “Better luck next time.”

My husband and I called her with the news from our cell phone after getting our 20-week ultrasound. I was so relieved the baby was healthy that my mother’s comment did little to damper my happiness. But by the next day a quiet yet growing sense of disappointment had crept over me.

At first, I attributed the feelings to the usual letdown that can follow an exciting event (this was the first time I had actually “seen” my baby since he was a tiny smudge on my fifth-week ultrasound). But soon, the mild sadness intensified into an overwhelming feeling of depression and loss.

Realization

Then, a few days later while shopping at IKEA, it hit me. I was in the toy department when my eyes zeroed in on a beautiful little girl sitting with her legs tucked neatly underneath her, quietly playing with a small wooden horse. Kicking up a storm beside her was her little brother, who was noisily trying to shove a square puzzle piece into a round hole.

It was at that moment that I realized everything I had been looking forward to in having a child was intricately tied to having a daughter. Dressing her in frilly clothes, braiding her hair, eventually helping her plan her wedding, and spending countless hours chatting over mimosas at fancy day spas—all of it gone in the instant it took the technician to cheerily chirp “it’s a boy.”

Also, the prospect of having a girl eased my fears of motherhood. I truly believed that our shared chromosomal makeup would guarantee me a magical and effortless connection to my child. But with a boy, I didn’t have the foggiest idea of what to do or expect. I had little experience, and even less interest, in sports, action figures, and video games. Instead of filling me with joy, the prospect of parenting a son left me feeling like a first-time explorer without a road map.

Dealing with the Guilt

Of course I couldn’t admit this to anyone. My secret preference for a girl filled me with guilt and shame.

Unlike my sister-in-law, who had endured nearly two years of agonizing infertility treatments, I had become pregnant quickly. The weeks preceding my ultrasound were relatively free of the nausea, fatigue, edema, and stretch marks that can come with pregnancy. And most importantly, my baby was healthy.

“The big statement is: ‘As long as it is healthy,’” says Joyce A. Venis, RNC, director of nursing at Princeton Family Care Associates in Princeton, New Jersey, and president of Depression After Delivery Inc. “If you in any way, shape, or form have a preference for either sex, it is interpreted as you are not being a good person, that you are not a good mother.”

Reaction of Others

Celia, a New Jersey mother of two, remembers sharing her disappointment over having a boy with some coworkers.

“Everyone I told either didn’t react at all, or they told me how horrible it was that I wasn’t happy with whatever I got,” says Celia. “That made me feel worse.”

Similar reactions from her husband, mother, and friends compounded Celia’s feelings of isolation and despair to the point that she even considered terminating the pregnancy. Fortunately, Celia found a therapist who helped her understand the devastation she felt over having a boy.

Dealing with Disappointment

“It is very validating for a woman to hear that what she actually has to do, in terms of healing, is understand that there is a loss involved,” says Karen Kleiman, MSW, clinical director of the Postpartum Stress Center in Rosemont, Pennsylvania, and author of This Isn’t What I Expected: Overcoming Postpartum Depression. “It’s almost like ‘my daughter has died,’ the potential for my mother-daughter relationship is gone.”

The day Gail, a first-time mother in Kansas City, found out she was having a boy, she broke down and cried.

“I remember saying to myself ‘Oh my gosh, I don’t know what I’m going to do with a boy,’” Gail recalls. “I really had a bad time with it. For weeks, I felt terribly guilty until I realized it was a natural thing to be disappointed when your dreams don’t come true.”

“We all have fantasies about what kind of mother we are going to be and what kind of baby we are going to have. And some people deal with fantasy better than others,” says Kleiman. “Depending on your life circumstances and the support that you have, it can be a bigger deal for some people than for others.”

Simply admitting your feelings to someone you trust, such as your partner, a friend, a relative, or a medical professional, can greatly reduce future complications with your baby. According to Venis, secretly harboring these feelings can manifest themselves as anger or disappointment toward the child, lack of interest in the child, or an exacerbation of postpartum depression.

“Husbands and partners should encourage [the mother] to talk about her feelings and to listen,” Venis suggests. “Let her say things like ‘I won’t be able to play Barbies with him’ or ‘The clothes for boys out there are just terrible.’ Don’t interrupt and say things like ‘But they have such nice things in the boys’ department at Macy’s.’ It isn’t the same, and this is just denying her feelings.”

Outside Pressures

Even if a woman has no personal preference for a boy or girl, external pressure to produce one or the other can cause feelings of loss, disappointment, and depression.

Ali, a mother of two living in New Jersey, remembers an overwhelming sense of failure when she learned that her first child was a girl—even after she had suffered three previous miscarriages.

“My first reaction was ‘I let everybody down,’” says Ali. “My husband’s brothers and sisters all had girls. I knew that no one else in the family was going to have any more kids, so I felt like I better produce a grandson.”

According to Venis, many new moms and dads are highly vulnerable to their parents’ preferences for a grandchild of a particular sex.

“People think, ‘If I have a boy then my mom will be tickled pink,’” says Venis. “Or ‘My mom always wanted a granddaughter, so if I have a boy, she’s going to be disappointed in me.’ They personalize it, like they somehow have failed.”

Compounding Gail’s sadness about having a boy was her mother’s obvious disappointment over the news.

“She had visions of the three of us girls going shopping together,” says Gail. “She said she couldn’t believe that the three of us were never going to be able to sit around and talk girl talk together.”

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