ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED JULY 2020. When we imagine having a baby, our minds create narratives about the hoped-for child. Along with the child we envisage raising, we hold scripts about the kind of parents we hope to be.
Then we become pregnant, and these fantasies intensify.
The narratives we hold are formed by our past, and by the meaning we derived from the relationships we’ve experienced and observed. We unconsciously amass information and draw conclusions about parents and children, family compositions, siblings, and the meaning of gender within these relationships.
When we find out the sex of our baby (whether in utero or after birth), this intricate web of preconceived ideas springs to the surface. Stories about ourselves, our relationships, our fears, our regrets, and our desires. Some or all of these things can be wrapped up in our perceptions about the sex of our baby.
Not everyone has a strong preference for the sex of their baby, but for some women (and less commonly, men), the gender of their baby is steeped in personal meaning. When the baby is not the hoped-for daughter or son, some people experience mild to extreme disappointment, grief, and even depression.
Before you judge with “surely a healthy baby is all that matters”, let’s make it clear that a healthy baby is the wish of all parents. But for some parents, the meaning of their baby’s sex is so deeply-rooted in their psyches that the loss of their hoped-for child can be devastating.
To truly understand gender disappointment and the grief women can experience, we need to respectfully understand the particular meaning for the individual. People’s reasons and stories differ uniquely. However, there are some common themes.
From the vast response I received to my Facebook post (both publicly and privately), there were some noteworthy themes.
1. Gender disappointment appeared to be more commonly experienced by women. A small proportion of women spoke about their male partners’ gender disappointment (equally in relation to wished-for boys as compared to wished-for girls).
2. The majority of women’s gender disappointment was in relation to the preference for a girl. This was followed by the preference for one of each sex. And less commonly, by the preference for a boy.
The wish for a girl was associated with the following narratives:
The wish for one of each was associated with the following narratives:
The wish for a boy was associated with the following narratives:
“Why can’t you just be happy to have a healthy baby?” (A common judgement)
As indicated by the women who responded to my post, gender disappointment does not negate their appreciation and gratitude for a healthy baby. Nor does it (in most cases) preclude loving the baby who was born.
The disappointment and grief is about the baby who was not born, the baby who had been yearned for and mentalized, in some cases from as far back as a woman can remember.
Extrapolating from the many reasons women offered for their gender disappointment, I propose that these feelings can be understood by three types of projections:
Women seek to replicate what they experienced or witnessed, because it was positive.
Women seek to repair what they experienced or witnessed, because it was negative.
3. REFLECTION OF SELF
The wished-for child is a reflection of the woman’s perceptions of self (identity, regrets, hopes, fears, dreams).
The grief associated with gender disappointment is real, and can run deep.
When the sex of one’s child is opposite to that of the wished-for child, and the family composition differs from the imagined picture, there is a loss of a strongly held ideal. An ideal that may sit alongside one’s self-identity (including one’s cultural identity) and one’s amalgamated past. When this is the case, the depth of grief may be intense.
Sadly this grief tends to be disenfranchised. Most women believe that other people don’t understand their distress (and indeed, many people do not), so they grieve alone or minimise their feelings to reduce cognitive dissonance.
Women often feel ashamed and guilty for their feelings of disappointment. They judge their feelings as unjustified because they haven’t lost a ‘real’ baby. And when they have lost a baby or have experienced fertility difficulties, the guilt and shame can be worse.
Beneath their shame there may be questions like these:
The grief from gender disappointment needs time for reflective processing to acknowledge and work through the feelings and layers of loss.
How does therapy help?
In some cases, the feelings can be overwhelming and may affect a woman’s mental health and her capacity to bond with her baby. Therapy can be a helpful way to learn to see and appreciate the arrived baby for the unique individual they are, whilst recognising that it’s okay to mourn the loss of the idealised baby.
Therapy can also help women to examine their assumptions and biases about gender, and the meaning they’ve attributed to it through the lens of their past.
The truth of the matter
The truth is that our narratives are not truths. Our narratives are stories we’ve compiled over the course of our lives. These stories are based on subjective conclusions we’ve drawn about boys and girls, sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, in the context of our own history.
As we parent the children we have, we grieve many idealised images or expectations along the way. There are all sorts of things parents wish for in their children that may not come to fruition. Who they are, how they think, what they do, can differ considerably from what we had hoped for and from who we are.
Once again, our unconscious wishes to replicate, repair and reflect ourselves, stem from the experiences and meaning derived from our pasts.
In essence, parenting is a constant process of recalibrating what we wished for in accordance with what we have. Ultimately, when we are not blinded by our projections, we free ourselves to accept and cherish our children for the unique individuals they are.
This doesn’t mean we don’t have pangs of sadness, wondering what life would be like with that dreamed for little girl or little boy. But when we acknowledge our grief and accept our reality, we can more readily foster the kinds of relationships and experiences we value with our children, irrespective of their assigned sex.
This article was written with stories shared both publicly and privately on the Facebook page of the Antenatal & Postnatal Psychology Network.
Compiled and written by Dr Renée Miller, with gratitude to the many women who shared their feelings and experiences on this deeply personal topic.
Principal Perinatal Clinical Psychologist
Antenatal & Postnatal Psychology Network