Gender disappointment can affect more mums than we realise Here, we look into…
15 02 2022
Gender disappointment can affect more mums than we realise. Here, we look into how it feels, why we haven’t been talking about it, and how to help overcome gender disappointment.
When you’re expecting a baby, one of the first questions you’ll be asked is “do you know if it’s a boy or a girl?” But that simple question is heaped with meaning and can often be the gateway to a barrage of more: whether you want a boy after having a girl; how you’ll manage with another son; how nice it would be to have a daughter if you already have a son…
These questions are seemingly part and parcel of being pregnant and in most cases come from an innocent curiosity about the new addition to your family. But for some mums-to-be, batting off queries like this is the tip of the iceberg, as they experience gender disappointment (or GD) and can’t help but grieve the son or daughter they anticipated.
Sophie is one such mum. With two sons at home already, she’s spoken to Mother & Baby about the feelings of gender disappointment she experienced on discovering she is having a third boy.
“It genuinely felt like a form of grief, the stages I went through. I was upset realising I wouldn’t be going shopping with a daughter; or planning her wedding and all the other things I had pictured. I think a lot of mums can end up in such a dark place from feeling so ashamed. I have allowed myself to feel low. I always thought I’d have two children, a boy and a girl. Sometimes life isn’t how you picture it and I think it’s important to get your head around that.”
“You are grieving the loss of something you thought you would have.”
Dr Lindsay McMillan, Clinical Psychologist at
suggests why we hear very little about gender disappointment. “Gender disappointment is often described as a taboo topic. Yet, questions and comments from others in pregnancy or when newborns have arrived are often about the sex, or gender, of baby. Of course, all parents want their baby to be healthy. But that doesn’t mean the longing or worries about having daughters or sons can’t, or don’t, exist. There are lots of misunderstandings about GD: that it means parents are being ungrateful. This just isn’t true, often distress is linked to the loss of opportunity to ever parent a daughter or a son.”
There is often an assumption that GD is a superficial issue. But, as Dr McMillan reveals, these feelings aren’t just about wanting to fulfil stereotypes, for example having a son to play football with or a daughter who will do ballet.
The reasons to prefer one sex over another can be complicated: “There is often deeper personal meaning to the parent, sometimes tied up in previous trauma. For example, wanting to experience, a mother-daughter relationship after losing a pregnancy, baby or even a parent, or perhaps experiencing difficulties in significant relationships and wanting the opportunity to have try to do things differently with their own child.”
While many mums-to-be can have a brush with GD, sometimes it can leave women feeling extremely low. Sophie opens up about how news of a third son brought with it crushing feelings of disappointment.
“I felt a lot sadder this time when we discovered the baby’s gender. I got myself in quite a dark place: I did even go through the motions to have an abortion because I got that low. I was roughly 16 weeks when I contacted the abortion services, and they couldn’t offer me an appointment until I was 21 weeks. By then, I still felt low, but I had a bump and was having lots of movement, we’d had the 20 week scan where we saw our healthy baby and it was then a moral decision where I thought, I can’t possibly do this. If I had gone through with the abortion, I would have had to live with it for the rest of my life. I still have days when I struggle but I am getting better.”
The expectations of others
There’s no timeline for gender disappointment as Dr McMillan explains: “Having sons or daughters can hold significant personal meaning and the grief of never having the daughter or son you longed for can last.
Others have written online about how their GD disappeared when their baby was born. Distress can be fleeting for some and really intense for others. Significant times for mums coming to see me in therapy for support with GD is when they stop having children or when they have experienced gender-related distress with previous children and want to prepare themselves for having another baby.”
For Sophie, accepting her feelings has been a vital step as well as looking into the future at who – not what – the baby will become.
“I’ve been trying to understand that it’s okay to feel like this. I have never doubted that my third little boy will be loved just as much as my other two. Some people feel ashamed – you aren’t crying about the healthy baby you are carrying; you are grieving the loss of something you thought you would have. I have listened to a lot of podcasts and audio books which really helped. I started to realise that gender doesn’t define who the baby is going to be or what they are going to like. Little boys can be obsessed with musicals and want to dress up while girls can refuse to wear dresses and hate pink.”
Society is often at the root of our expectations when it comes to GD. For instance, the idea that girls remain emotionally close to their mothers or pressure – often meant well – from grandparents who are keen for a grandson to ‘even up’ the grandchild quotas.
Sophie’s experience echoes this: “A lot of gender disappointment stems from what other people think you should have. I feel as though everyone expected me to have a girl after two boys. Obviously, I’d love a girl but looking more deeply, it’s also down to people saying things like “Oh, three boys, what a handful.” Whereas three children are a handful! People aren’t saying these things to be malicious, but pregnancy seems to mean people think they can comment on you publicly.”
How to overcome gender disappointment
While there aren’t figures to tell us how many mums are affected by gender disappointment, an estimated 1 in 4 new mums will experience mental health difficulties. Dr McMillan tells us, “Gender disappointment is not a diagnosable mental health condition. It is a parenthood experience which has the potential to impact on mental health. It’s really important to convey that, as a parent, whatever experiences you go through or difficulties you face, GD or otherwise, your emotions are valid and acceptable and there is support available to help you find your way through.”
When it comes to accessing support, there are options as Dr McMillan explains, “If any parent is finding GD is impacting upon their mental health or emotional wellbeing, for example if you are feeling very low or anxious, if it is causing difficulties within important relationships or you are struggling to bond with your baby, seek support. Your GP, midwife or health visitor will be able to discuss local NHS services. Other private psychologists or therapists may be able to help – do check that they have experience of working perinatally and you can ask if they have worked with GD in their practice before.”
It might sound like a huge cliché, but Sophie swears that with every passing week, her feelings of disappointment are easing: “As much as it’s annoying to hear the advice time is a healer, it really is. The most important thing is not feeling guilty: you’re not annoyed because you are pregnant with a healthy baby, you are grieving the fact you won’t have the girl or boy or family balance you had pictured. The more time passes, the more you get used to the idea. Now, I’m in a completely different frame of mind.”
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