I was really looking forward to being dumber than my daughter. For the first 20 weeks of my pregnancy, my husband and I spun a collective daydream about our wise little girl: We pictured her walking through life with confidence and long, wavy hair, a perfect combination of my curly and my husband’s straight. She’d be his willing partner at museums, so gifted in math she could do her homework without my help. The dumbest, basest jokes, our favorite kind, would make her roll her eyes.
The afternoon of my 20-week ultrasound, I left work early and got on the wrong train. I was late, my husband even later, and we were silent in the waiting room, answering work emails. Following the technician down the hallway, I felt wobbly and unsure: less This is it! than Oh, is this it? We knew we might be wrong, but there hadn’t seemed much harm in hoping. What was wrong with wanting the girl with long hair, so smart, annoyingly smart, just like her dad.
In the aquarium glow of the ultrasound room, the technician held the wand over my bare stomach and asked if we wanted to find out.
“Yes,” my husband and I said at the same time.
“You will have …” she said, adjusting the wand, “a baby boy.”
Gender disappointment is not a term I was familiar with, but one I quickly learned. Parents magazine points out that there are “ways to deal with your mixed feelings.” A blogger for the New York Times’ Motherlode emphasizes her luck at the health of her child, while Babble recommends being open about your gender-related feelings, whatever they are. Katherine Asbery’s 2008 book, Altered Dreams … Living With Gender Disappointment, devotes 135 pages to struggling and eventually coming to terms with her unfulfilled desire for a girl. (???? my husband texted me, after coming across the copy I bought to research this essay.)
From what I can tell, not many people in the parenting realm have spent much time considering the gender part of the term’s construction. What we see on an ultrasound screen isn’t a fetus’s gender — it’s the sex, the purely biological difference based on genitalia. Gender is the set of traits we’ve decided as a society to associate with those genitals. But when discussing disappointment, no one ever says “I am grieving the penis I so vividly imagined” or “I was hoping my daughter would have a vagina just like mine.”
What they do, instead, is exactly what I did: mourn the image of a child that they’ve constructed based on the way we expect little girls or boys to behave. Writing for Babble, Andrea Elovson describes what she thought having a girl would be like: “Dressing her in frilly clothes, braiding her hair, eventually helping her plan her wedding, and spending countless hours chatting over mimosas at fancy day spas.” But what if her daughter had been a tomboy? What if she didn’t want to wear frills or drink bubbly cocktails?
My husband and I shared a daydream that was incredibly specific — and I believed that meant it avoided simplistic gender norms. When relatives asked about the baby’s sex before we knew it, innocently wondering whether to buy pink or blue, I chastised them. It doesn’t matter, I wrote. We believe it’s fine for a boy to wear pink! Meanwhile, I spent my lunch break haunting the window displays of expensive baby-clothing stores. If I felt brave enough to go inside, I fingered the $300 dresses in demure plaid and petal pink, the useless ballet slippers with bows, and imagined her learning to read.
Once we found out we were having a boy, we cringed over new visions: video games. Mud, chaos. Boring and time-consuming sports. Haircuts, I confess, that I could not care less about.
No matter how evolved I thought we were, it turns out I wanted a girl, badly, and not for reasons I’m proud of. Do I want a boy who’s smarter than me? Not really. I already know plenty of men, young and old, who think they’re smarter than me. But I think when I yearned for this intelligent little girl, what I truly wanted was a better version of myself. This little girl would be sophisticated enough to appreciate visual art. Because it had already happened to me, this little girl’s 13th birthday would pass without her contracting meningitis that would leave her forever a little fuzzy on trivia, a little slow with math. (You know that’s not how probability works, right? my husband helpfully contributed.) It’s a generous and unfounded conjecture, but maybe this is why men are more likely to take paternity leave with sons: the desire for a do-over.
Gender-disappointment texts often assure mothers they’ll love their children once they actually appear. I definitely didn’t need anyone to reassure me that I’ll love my son — the summer I spent barfing on his behalf seems like testament enough. But I came up short when searching for probable reasons to like him, this mysterious person whose toenails have only just started to form, when all I knew about him was that he was a boy. It seems stupid now, but all I could picture were the stereotypical-boy characteristics.
Talking to a friend a few weeks ago, I told her yeah, I knew, and yeah, it was a boy, shrug. “I’m sorry,” she said. But as our conversation went on and I described a tiny ballerina I’d seen on the subway, she helped me realize: There’s no reason my son can’t be a tiny ballerina. There’s no reason I can’t sign him up for a class, even if it is full of little girls. The next day I went out and bought him some useless pink ballet slippers, with bows, in the hopes of having a child who is a better version of me after all.
But for all I know, he’ll hate them. Or like them for a month, and then move on. It’s anyone’s guess, just as it’s anyone’s guess how the girl child I might have had would have felt about ballet.
I think in turning out to be a boy, this baby did himself — and any theoretical future children I might have — a huge favor. That ultrasound revealed two things: the nature of his genitalia and my sexism. It also forced me to realize there are a thousand, a million things about him that I don’t know yet, and that perhaps I won’t ever know. It seems I won’t be getting a do-over after all, and not just because it’s a boy.