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The Boy-Girl Blues: Dealing with Gender Disappointment

woman holding an ultrasound picture of the baby

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Right around your 20-week appointment, people ask: "Are you hoping for a boy or a girl?" You say you simply want a healthy baby, even though you're secretly wishing for a particular sex. Then the ultrasound reveals the results, and you pretend to be thrilled despite the fact that you're heartbroken. It's a feeling that Katherine Asbery, author of Altered Dreams: Living With Gender Disappointment, knows well. She had hoped her second child would be a girl but instead she had another boy. Before she got pregnant for the third time, she tried tactics that she found online to help her conceive a girl. She ate yogurt to try to change her pH balance, and she made her husband take hot baths to alter his sperm. When she discovered that she'd be having another boy, she "cried and cried and cried," she says. "Then I felt guilty." Like Asbery, many women have sobbed during their big ultrasound, but there are ways to deal with your mixed feelings -- and get excited about the sex of the child you're having.

 
Accept Any Emotions

The first step toward moving forward is to recognize your disappointment and be honest with yourself, says Stephan Quentzel, M.D., a psychiatrist specializing in pregnancy and childbirth issues at Mount Sinai Beth Israel Medical Center, in New York City. "It can sound ugly to say, 'I wanted a boy and not a girl,' because you're expected to love the child no matter what," he says. But it's normal if you're not immediately thrilled; soon enough you will be.

Moreover, don't feel ashamed if your sadness shows. "Many women make sure they dry their eyes, fix their makeup, and plant a smile on their face before they leave the ultrasound room," says psychiatric nurse Joyce Venis, author of Postpartum Depression Demystified. But if you don't eventually let your emotions show, it'll be harder to keep your negative thoughts under wraps. "Feelings aren't good or bad or right or wrong -- they're just feelings," Venis says. So acknowledge them out loud to yourself and to your partner, and let him do the same. If you're unable to discuss this with him, consult a therapist or confide in a nonjudgmental friend instead.

 
Work Through Your Concerns

Ask yourself why you feel the way you do. Are you upset because you grew up with brothers and pictured living-room wrestling matches and games of flag football with a son? Did you imagine going shopping and doing crafts with your little girl? Keep in mind that the daughter you're having might be a rough-and-tumble gal who's a standout on the field -- or perhaps you'll give birth to a creative, art-loving boy who's disinterested in sports. What's more, even if you had gotten the gender of your choice, your kid still might not grow up to have the interests or personality that you expect based on his or her sex.

Perhaps your letdown stems from doubts that you'll know how to be a good parent to the child you're having. "A lot of it is fear -- stuff like, 'I don't know how to play baseball, so how can I teach my son?' " Venis says. "You don't have to know, and you don't have to like playing with Barbie dolls to raise a girl. You will learn what you need to as you go along." If you're really worried, make plans with friends or relatives who have kids of that sex, so you can explore the experience that's ahead of you, Dr. Quentzel suggests. For example, if you're having a boy, make an effort to spend some one-on-one time with a friend's son. And ask your sister plenty of questions about how raising her son has been different from raising her daughter. Unsure how to handle the daughter you're about to have? Invite your niece to spend the weekend at your place.

Trust Your Ability to Love

Finally, realize that any discontented, guilty feelings you have now won't last forever. During pregnancy, all you know about your baby is his or her sex. Once your little bundle arrives, you'll have the whole package -- which includes a personality and quirky traits. "Gender disappointment typically only lasts until your child's birth day, when you finally meet each other," says Diane Ross Glazer, Ph.D., a psychotherapist at Providence Tarzana Medical Center, in Tarzana, California. In fact, oxytocin, the powerful hormone that your brain releases during labor, helps you fall in love with your baby. This was certainly true for Asbery. "My children are a blessing to me," she says. "Each of my boys is different, and each of them brings something fantastic to our family."

Boy or Girl: How Genetics Determine Your Baby's Gender
Boy or Girl: How Genetics Determine Your Baby's Gender

Originally published in the May 2012 issue of Parents magazine. Updated March 2015.