I hadn’t yet caught my breath after my second son was born when the midwife proclaimed, “Looks like we’ll be seeing you back here when you try for a girl”. She was a fine midwife but she was off the mark. Difficult as it might be to fathom, I was quite happy (deliriously so, actually) with my two healthy sons.
Midwives, with their front row seat to women at their most raw and vulnerable (birth will do that), know this isn’t always so. Especially when it comes to a second or third child, parents’ hopes are often pinned on one gender, usually the opposite of their first.
Women are unlikely to admit to so called ‘gender disappointment’, one of the great taboos of birth and motherhood, because the preference for a particular sex baby bears the implication you will love them less if they fail to deliver and, while that’s rarely the case, it’s a shameful tendency. As a recent Lateline story on gender disappointment found, women would only speak on the topic on condition of anonymity, fearful of the backlash for airing their deepest desires.
My friend, Lisa, was like this. She’s happy to be named now because it all worked out but, she tells me, her pining for a daughter was so palpable it caused her anxiety, exacerbated by the birth of her two much loved sons. “I was faced with the realisation that it was possible, probable even, that I may never be the mother of a daughter”, she says. “I was plagued by envy observing other mums with their tutu-clad little girls and I became haunted by the fact that my husband may never be the father of the bride, and every other gender cliche that I could possibly latch onto”.
Lisa admits to “great guilt and shame” as if she was being ungrateful for her two “beautiful boys”, especially when so many women struggle to conceive. Afraid of the stigma of her discontent, she told no one and consulted a therapist (and a clairvoyant) to help her “accept” her situation.
As it happens, Lisa got her wish, with not one but two girls, identical twins for her third pregnancy.
I always assumed I would have a girl too, but here I am a mother of boys and I wouldn’t have it any other way. The way I see it, the gender of our offspring is one of the few things left in life that’s beyond our control, a synchronicity of sorts determined by nature, as if forces greater than us know what’s good for us. Rendered choice-less by fate.
“People who are disappointed should count their lucky stars they have a healthy child at all”, says a mother of three boys.
But, chuffed as most of us proclaim to be with the hand of destiny, our righteous proclamations of gratitude risk silencing the genuine anguish of women who are struggling with mixed emotions.
Is our disapproval of mothers who pine for daughters (or vice versa) any worse than censoring talk of miscarriage or abortion (as we have done for centuries)? Or finding motherhood easy (which I found out the hard way is equally contentious)?
Similarly, these women describe acute feelings of grief and longing, the fear of unrealised dreams and ideals. Their propensity towards a particular gender might seem superficial, but the motive is usually far more significant, like the woman who told me she wanted to experience the “unique bond” of a mother-daughter relationship, one she didn’t get with her own mother.
Lisa (or any other gender disappointed mother) couldn’t have intervened even if she’d wanted to as gender selection is illegal in Australia except on medical grounds (although it’s currently under review by The National Health and Medical Research Council). It is legal but astronomically expensive in the US and other countries, which doesn’t deter some desperate couples from taking the trip in the burgeoning ‘genetic tourism’ industry.
Another friend (anonymity requested) who had IVF in the US says she didn’t request gender selection but believes her doctor did it anyway. “He knew the sex of the embryos, he knew how badly we wanted a girl and that we already had a son. And we got a girl”.
She says if she’d had another boy she would have “accepted my lot”, but admits she would have been disappointed. “Having a girl is like having a mini-me around”, she says.
What of the woman I know with four daughters who’s husband longed for a son? “Besotted” as he is with his girls, he did find out the fourth baby’s gender at the three month scan so he could “prepare himself”. “He didn’t want to spend six months wondering ‘what if?’”, says his wife.
I still get asked, even now, if I would have preferred a girl.
No, I wouldn’t. Really. But it doesn’t mean I take issue with those who do.
This article was first published on Daily Life on 9th February 2017