Secretly Sad: Overcoming Gender DisappointmentAndrea Elovson
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.
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.”
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.”
Preconceived Notions of Gender
Preconceived notions about males and females can exacerbate disappointment over having a child of a particular sex. These ideas can come from a variety of sources, including one’s family, personal experience, and stereotypical depictions of men and women in the media.
For Gail, having a son meant being forgotten on Mother’s Day and cut off from grandchildren by some future daughter-in-law. For Celia, it meant being excluded from her son’s life due to her lack of interest in sports. And for me? Let’s just say that the steady stream of male serial killers and emotionally crippled corporate go-getters in the media have done little to quell my fears about my son’s future.
How to Avoid Disappointment
Considering the innumerable societal, familial, and personal issues surrounding children, it is no wonder many women suffer varying degrees of sadness, isolation, and depression over the sex of their baby.
So what can women do to avoid, or at least ameliorate, these feelings?
Dr. Ruth Wilf, CNM, PhD, a certified nurse midwife at Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia, suggests that expectant parents reconsider finding out a baby’s sex through an ultrasound or amniocentesis.
“I think one of the problems is that it puts too much stress on gender,” Dr. Wilf says. “You get told this one isolated fact and it gets blown out of proportion. Once the child is born, you will fall in love with the individual baby and then the sex doesn’t matter as much because little boys and little girls all have varying attributes. After a while, you can’t imagine that you could have any other baby than this baby.”
If you have opted to find out the sex of your baby during pregnancy, don’t despair. According to Venis, now can be a good time to work through these emotions before the added stresses of new motherhood set in. Doing so can clear the way for a healthier postpartum period for both parents and baby.
But whether you choose to find out the sex of your baby before or after birth, don’t be surprised if the news fills you with something other than unadulterated joy.
“I tell patients that feelings are not right or wrong, good or bad, they are just feelings,” Venis says. “And you are entitled to those feelings. It’s what you do with them that really counts.”
“What’s helped me more than anything is realizing that it is not the actual baby that I am disappointed in,” says Gail. “It’s about letting go of my own dreams and fantasies. That doesn’t stop me from feeling bad every now and again, but it brings me back and helps me feel better.”
Both Celia and Ali found that the trepidation they felt during their pregnancies quickly subsided after the birth of their babies. Getting to know their newborn’s individual personalities—while gaining confidence in their abilities as first-time mothers—transformed their initial negativity into satisfying and loving relationships with their children.
In the three months since that fateful day at IKEA, my own ambivalence about having a boy has eased significantly. Support from my husband and family, as well as speaking to other parents about how they worked through similar feelings, has been invaluable.
But the biggest turning point came to me by chance. I was visiting my in-laws one evening when they popped a tape of some home movies in the VCR. There was my husband as a baby, a sweet and curious little person exploring the world around him. I cheered when he managed his first steps and laughed when he crawled into a basket full of puppies and nuzzled their bellies.
Sitting beside me on the couch was the man this little person had become. By far, my husband is one of the most compassionate, patient, and insightful people I have ever met, male or female. Seeing that video convinced me that if our son grows up to be anything like his father, I won’t be needing any “better luck” next time.
- Don’t censor or deny your feelings. It is OK to feel angry, disappointed, guilty, or depressed. Admitting these feelings to yourself is the first step to working through them.
- Talk about your feelings with someone you trust, such as your husband, your partner, a family member, or a healthcare professional like a midwife or therapist specializing in women’s mental health.
- Let time help you heal. Pregnancy and the first few months after birth can be an emotional and physical roller coaster. Hormones, sleep deprivation, and adjusting to an entirely different lifestyle can make you especially vulnerable to disappointment and depression.
- Your feelings will come and go. Even with support and help, feelings of disappointment over the sex of your baby may be triggered every now and again. Remember that this is normal, and don’t be hard on yourself when it happens.
- Find creative ways to give. There are plenty of children and teens who need you. Volunteer to coach a peewee football team or buy a prom dress and donate it to a teen who can’t afford one. A good place to start is the Big Brothers and Big Sisters Association of America.
- Pass it on. There is very little clinical literature or formal resources for women grappling with disappointment over the sex of their baby. Let people know that you would be willing to talk to other women about their feelings. Pregnancy and parenting websites such as BabyZone.com have chat rooms and bulletin boards where women can lend support and advice on a variety of topics, including gender disappointment/grief.
- Get more help if you need it. An estimated 50 to 75 percent of new mothers suffer from the baby blues after the birth of a child. Symptoms of baby blues can include crying, impatience, anxiety, and irritability that set in usually within three to five days after birth. The baby blues usually disappear within a few days to two weeks after delivery.More intense feelings, including anger and resentment toward your child, thoughts of hurting yourself or your child, insomnia, fear of losing control or “losing your mind,” or uncontrollable crying, may be a sign of postpartum depression (PPD), a less common but more serious condition affecting 10 to 20 percent of women. Unlike the baby blues, PPD usually lasts more than two weeks and can appear within days of delivery or gradually over time, sometimes up to a year after the baby is born. If you suspect you are suffering from PPD, take it seriously and seek help immediately. With proper treatment and support, this is a treatable condition.
- Postpartum Support International: Treatment of a wide range of postpartum disorders including postpartum depression, postpartum anxiety, and postpartum psychosis. Includes a list of national resources and links. Call 1-800-944-4PPD (4773) or visit www.postpartum.net.
- The Postpartum Stress Center: PSC provides counseling, resources, literature, and Web links to a variety of resources for PPD. Call 610-525-7527 or visit www.postpartumstress.com.
- The US Department of Health and Human Services: Articles on clinical studies, links, and resources on a variety of mental health issues. Also lists resources in Spanish. Call 1-800-789-2647,
TTY: 1-866-889-2648, or visit www.mentalhealth.org.
- National Women’s Health Information Center (NWIC): NWIC lists information and resources (in English and Spanish) for a variety of women’s health issues including depression and pregnancy. Call 1-800-994-WOMAN, TTY: 1-888-220-5446, or visit http://www.womenshealth.gov/.
- The National Mental Health Association (NMHA): “The country’s oldest and largest nonprofit organization addressing all aspects of mental health and mental illness,” NMHA has hundreds of affiliates and offers information, links and help on a wide variety of topics. Call 1-800-969-NMHA (6642), TTY: 1-800-433-5959, or visit www.nmha.org.