Family, Parenthood

How To Handle Gender Differences

We often tell our partners, families, and friends (and ourselves) that all we want is a healthy baby. But whether we want to admit it or not, we often have a preference for having a male or female child. While we often use the term gender to denote a boy or a girl, the more accurate term to use is sex.

For some, the discovery that their little one isn’t the sex that they had predicted or hoped for—what’s commonly referred to as gender disappointment—sends them into a tailspin of negative emotions. While it can feel like a taboo topic, it is important to recognize that your feelings are valid. If you or someone close to you is experiencing gender disappointment, there are steps you can take to address and process your emotions so that you can welcome your baby with the happiness and excitement that you both deserve.

What Is Gender Differences?

The term gender differences describe the feelings of sadness and disappointment, typically followed by guilt and shame, a parent might experience when they find out that the sex of their baby is not what they were hoping for, says Danielle Forshee, PsyD, LCSW, a doctor of psychology and licensed clinical social worker.

“Sadness and disappointment oftentimes occur because before the sex reveals, you and/or your partner had ideas and fantasies about what life would be like if your baby was the sex you preferred,” says Dr. Forshee.

“This happened to me when I was 13 weeks pregnant and had a CVS/genetic test and found out the baby was a boy,” says Louann Brizendine, MD, a neuropsychiatrist and professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco. “Until that moment I hadn’t realized I preferred or was more comfortable with a girl. I felt confused and a bit guilty for my reaction.”

Emotions You Might Experience

In most cases, the feelings associated with gender disappointment follow a pattern: first expectation, then disappointment, followed by guilt.

For example, it’s common for expectant parents to form narratives about their future offspring. They might imagine what their child will look like, what their personality might be, or what activities they might enjoy doing. Someone with a sex preference might imagine specific outfits or even only come up with potential names for their desired sex.

“Once these ideas and fantasies have been created, they begin to take a life of their own,” explains Dr. Forshee. “Hope has then transformed into an expectation, and as with any expectation we hold in life—when expectations aren’t met, we feel disappointment.”

Sarah Brithinee, a lifestyle blogger and mom-of-one from Michigan, had hoped her baby would be a girl. When she discovered she was carrying a little boy, she says she burst into tears. “I was shattered,” says Brithinee. “I had convinced myself it was a girl because I wanted one so badly.” Shortly thereafter, she felt guilty about how she felt.

“Guilt occurs in gender disappointment when the negative emotions are in direct contradiction with the positive feelings you previously had up until the reveal,” explains Dr. Forshee. “These feelings then directly conflict with the overarching belief and expectation (internal and external expectations from ourselves and society) that all [people] and partners should be happy and grateful to be pregnant and have a healthy pregnancy.”

Punishing yourself with the question of why you can’t just be happy to be having a baby is unhelpful. The source of the desire for one sex over the other is usually steeped in personal meaning and shouldn’t have to be dismissed.

Reasons You May Be Disappointed

A common misconception of gender disappointment is the assumption that the reasons for preferring one sex over another are purely superficial. In reality, there is a myriad of reasons that can include cultural or societal pressures, previous trauma, or a feeling that you can connect with one sex better than another.

Someone who’s endured a previous loss might have been vying for particular sex to separate this pregnancy from a prior experience or to forge a deeper connection to the baby you lost. Cultural or societal pressures might have you leaning one way or another. In short: Your reasons are personal and valid.

Dr. Brizendine admits that she was initially worried that she wouldn’t be able to relate to a boy. “After all, I was a girl and raised as one and would know what to do, but a boy? Not so much,” she recalls. “My experience having a son turned out to be wonderful but challenging, and I am still growing from all the lessons he brings me.”

How To Cope

The sadness some expecting parents feel over the sex of their child evaporates once they lock eyes with their baby. However, one study found a link between gender disappointment and postpartum depression, so it’s important to address and acknowledge your feelings.3 The best way to do this is to verbalize how you feel to either a loved one, an online support group, or a therapist.

Talk To Someone You Trust

Your temptation might be to try to ignore and bury your feelings, but this can lead you to be consumed by guilt and shame, warns Dr. Forshee.

“Shame and guilt are quite heavy negative emotions that often result in emotionally beating ourselves up and secret-keeping behaviors,” she explains. “If anyone is experiencing these feelings, the very first thing to do is share your secret with someone you trust and who you can count on to be an active and non-judgmental listener.”

Opening up to your partner, close friend, or other trusted individual can be helpful. Additionally, online support groups are a useful, judgment-free space to share your feelings. You will likely find comfort knowing that you aren’t the only person experiencing gender disappointment.

“If shortly after giving birth you find yourself continuing to struggle with gender disappointment or find yourself having difficulty feeling attached to or having loving feelings toward the baby, it would be recommended to seek professional help,” says Dr. Forshee.

Determine Why You Feel How You Do

There is likely a deep-rooted reason as to why you held a preference for one sex over the other. If it isn’t immediately clear, speaking with a therapist could help. Talk about your thoughts, feelings, expectations, what you fantasized about, and what was meaningful about the sex you had in mind, advises Dr. Forshee. Unearthing why you held a preference is the key to moving past your gender disappointment.

Reframe Your Feelings

Once you have opened up about how you feel, the next step in overcoming gender disappointment involves reframing your feelings and actively shifting your thought patterns surrounding the sex of your baby. If you had been imagining doing one thing with your child, such as having spa days, going on camping trips, or cheering them on at their ice hockey games, remind yourself that you can still live out those dreams with the child you are expecting, regardless of their sex.

“Just as you fantasized about all of those positive things about the sex you preferred, do the exact same thing about the sex you did not prefer,” advises Dr. Forshee. “For example, fantasize about what they might look like [and] how their personalities might be. Changing the way you think about this will help you get through it over time. Be mindful of the fact that you will likely still feel disappointment while working on this step, and that is OK.”

For Britain, imagining what kind of mom she wanted to be for her son and imagining what hobbies they might enjoy together was an important step in conquering her disappointment, as was naming him. “We immediately started testing out names and calling him some of them,” she says. “Once we had his name I called him that all the time to humanize him.”

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