Have You Had a Baby Who Was the “Wrong” Gender?

The revealing emotions and thoughts around our secret desires for our families.

Posted Apr 23, 2012

Everyone says they “just want a healthy baby.” But, whether we admit it or not, we have a certain vision for our families. And when that vision isn’t fulfilled, it can be profoundly disappointing.

When I was writing The Impatient Woman’s Guide to Getting Pregnant, I wasn’t sure at first that I’d include a chapter on choosing the sex of your baby. The only thing that works nearly 100 percent of the time is embryo testing with IVF, and Impatient Woman is about natural conception. There’s a sperm-sorting technique called Microsort that’s about 80 percent successful, but they’re not taking clients anymore. So that left “at-home” methods, which I’d heard didn’t work.

When I researched the question further, it turned out it was worse than that: The most popular at-home method, championed by Dr. Landrum Shettles in his book Choosing the Sex of Your Baby, is actually more likely to produce a baby of the OTHER sex than what parents wanted. Shettles says sex close to ovulation is more likely to result in a boy, and far away for a girl, but the studies published in journals actually found the opposite – here’s one example (and here with cooler graphs). In Impatient Woman, I explain how to time things right to tilt the odds toward a boy or a girl and also review other "gender swaying" techniques such as diet – all with the caveat that you could still get a child of the other sex.

Shettles’ book has sold 1.5 million copies. So a lot of couples have gotten bad information, and a lot of couples are intensely interested in how they can have the family they want.

So: In this era of relative gender equality, why do we care so much whether we have a boy or girl? Ironically, the same modern trends (like individualism and technology) that brought us gender equality have also brought us the idea that we can control things. But something so big – the gender of our children – is out of our control.

Boys and girls still wear different clothes, behave differently on average, and often have different interests. Most parents want the experience of parenting both genders.

When I was pregnant with our third child, people would ask if I knew the sex of the baby. I would answer, “It’s girl #3.” More often than not, the response was “That just means you’ll have to have four!”

And, the weird thing is, I’ve actually considered it, even though three kids are already a challenge with both of us working. But it’s tough to think that I will never parent a boy, and that my husband will never have a son. Never is a difficult word. I’m sure there are at least a few other parents who feel this way, too, but it’s a somewhat taboo subject. Among other things, we don’t want our children to see our disappointment. (Maybe why many parents find out the sex of the baby before he/she is born?)

Fortunately, I am very happy to have girls. When I was pregnant with our first and found out she was a girl, I yelled, “YES!!” My husband was happy too – until he looked worried and said, “Oh no. What if she’s hot?”

Our third girl is a very sweet, and very cute, baby. I am extremely happy to have her. But I admit I was disappointed to find out I wouldn’t be buying blue baby outfits this time.

Gender preference is a contentious issue. In some countries, third girls are aborted at extremely high rates – a practice that makes me so angry and sad that I can’t even figure out how to express my rage in words.

Preferring one gender over another is also, at essence, sexist. It means we place more value on one than other. When I lecture on sex and gender in the social psychology class I teach, I often ask the students to answer the question “If you could have only one child, would you want a boy, a girl, or would it not matter to you?”

For wanting a boy, most students mention carrying on the family name and playing sports. Then, inevitably, a young man will say he wants a boy … because he doesn’t want a girl … because he was a teenage boy recently, and he knows how they think about teenage girls.

At base, that’s sexist – who’s to say a girl needs to be protected any more than a boy? Yet, given rape and unwanted pregnancy, it could be seen as practical. Same for women preferring to have a girl so they can do “girly” things together, even if you could get a boy to go to ballet class or wear a pretty dress, he’d probably get beat up on the playground for it.

So ask someone if they want a boy or a girl, or if they’ll have another child so they can try for at least one of each sex, and you’ll get an earful of thoughts, attitudes, and emotions. Gender preference cuts to the heart of who we are, as individuals, and as a society.

Did you feel “gender disappointment” in any of your children? Did that make you feel guilty? And should we allow technology that would enable couples to choose the sex of their next baby?

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