The sonographer at my doctor's office stands over me smiling and asks, "Will we be learning the sex today?"
I look down. Beneath the jelly she's squirting on me, the paper towel protecting my maternity jeans, and the stretch marks from my first pregnancy, there's a new baby, and this baby has a secret. I'm alone at this appointment; my husband just started a new job, and we thought it best that he not take the time off.
During my first pregnancy, my husband didn't want to know the baby's sex. Even though I was curious, I agreed that he was entitled to make at least one of the decisions over the course of nine months. His opinions on what I should eat or how much I should exercise were certainly not welcome. So I gave him that. Yet, at 16 weeks, in much the same position I am now, I was seized with the utter unfairness of my doctor knowing something so definitive about my baby while I remained in the dark. Right in front of my husband, I boldly asked my Israeli obstetrician in Hebrew the sex of my baby (my husband doesn't speak the language). And that's how I learned we were having a boy.
Expecting the Unexpected
The word boy had a cold, ugly, foreign feel to it. As I processed the news, I was shocked and even sad. I had never imagined having a boy. I'm one of four girls. My mother is one of two girls. Her mother was one of two girls. The men in my family--the husbands, the fathers--were surely aberrations. I thought that I, too, was destined to produce only girls. I pictured my daughter and myself swaying together at baby ballet classes and picking out cute sundresses. In my mind, I had already been to her dance recitals, dressed her for the winter formal, and watched her walk down the aisle as a bride.
Now the daughter of my dreams was suddenly replaced with...my son. What's the opposite of ballet lessons? Something violent, I was sure. I had visions of living with a spider-obsessed child who refused to bathe. I pictured his bedroom closet crammed full of camouflage clothing. I imagined dinner forks being turned into guns and swords.
I'm always amazed at the women who look at me smugly and say, "We're not finding out the sex--it's one of the last great surprises left!" Really? Managing to fit a baby through your tiny opening won't be a surprise? Discovering that you and your baby made it through delivery alive isn't astonishing? As if finding out the sex any time isn't surprising. Spread it out, I say.
I lasted four weeks without telling my husband the news. In the middle of the night, after having yet another dream in which I was delivering my baby, and crying when I saw for sure it was a boy, I woke him up. I could no longer hold this secret. At first, he thought it had been nothing more than a dream. "You don't know what it is," he reminded me. "We didn't find out." Once he understood that, yes, I had betrayed him and learned the sex, he cried and hugged me.
My husband didn't cry because he had wanted a boy. He cried because he was happy to know something, anything, about our baby during this mysterious process. The sonogram machine metes out little secrets such as measurements, position, and sex like a miser who will give you only crumbs from her plate. But I didn't want crumbs. I wanted a full piece of pie.
Learning As You Go
And that's what I wanted to say to the smiling sonographer standing above me: You can tell me the sex, but you can't tell me if my two children will get along. You can't tell me if my VBAC attempt will succeed. You can't tell me if I have the stamina to take care of and love two children equally and whole-heartedly.
These are the things I want and need to know. The whole picture. But the sonogram machine isn't a crystal ball. To be sure, it can reveal serious conditions: Will my child have spina bifida? Is there a hole in my baby's heart? It can even allow me to count the fingers and toes. But once those questions are satisfied--and yes, questions of health are the crucial ones--it can't help solve the mysteries I am most curious about. I look at my toddler and even though I knew his sex before he was born, I had no idea that he would like giraffes more than spiders. That he would love guitars and would call noodles "doodles." These are the things we can't see on a sonogram, the idiosyncratic details that make up who a person is.
I look at the kind sonographer's smiling, hopeful face. She's seen things go wrong that I can't begin to imagine. She possibly even understands that I don't want to know only the sex. I want to know everything. And still, this woman's reassuring grin seems to say: "Don't worry. We'll take it step by step. Finding out the sex is just another step, a step you don't even have to take if you don't want to."
Nine months is so long to go without knowing as much as possible about someone who will eclipse almost everyone else in my life in importance. I decide that I'd like to know what I can, even with the understanding that learning the sex is perhaps like knowing my child's blood type or hair color: a single piece in a gigantic puzzle, one I will spend the rest of my life putting together. Each piece is important, no one more or less than the other.
It's a boy.
Originally published in the May 2011 issue of American Baby magazine.