This post is not meant to criticize parents who make different decisions, just to explain our point of view.
“Do you know what you’re having?” I am in my last month of pregnancy, and oh, how tired I am of that strangely-phrased question! I just smile and say, “It’s a baby!” Of course that doesn’t stop the interrogation, because what people want to know is whether it’s a boy or a girl. The more reasonable way to ask this question, in my opinion, is, “Did you find out the sex?”
This time around, my answer to that question is a bit more complicated than it was in my first pregnancy, when we did not know our baby was a boy until he was born. My policy is still the same: If I am having testing for medical reasons that also happens to reveal the sex of the baby, then I want to know what it says. I don’t like the idea of hospital personnel knowing when I don’t. But I would not have a test primarily so that we can know the sex before birth. In my first pregnancy, the only medically indicated ultrasound was too early to tell the sex. I did not have any further testing because there was no reason to think anything was wrong. This time, because I’m 40 and therefore at higher risk of some birth defects, I decided to have a 20-week ultrasound and non-invasive genetic testing. So we know the sex, but we’re keeping it a secret from most people. Some people like the suspense, and others are badgering us, hoping to get us to slip up.
Why not find out, and why not tell everyone when we know?
- Ultrasound is not completely risk-free. Yes, it’s pretty safe, but it is bombarding the fetus with sound waves, and the fetus does have ears. In fact, the one clear photo from my 20-week ultrasound shows my little “Thumper” with hands over the ears! I’m glad my unborn child was already clever enough to protect its hearing, but seeing that made me feel bad about disturbing Thumper’s peaceful sanctuary inside my body. Daniel and I feel that if we were meant to be able to see what’s going on in the womb, it would have a window, and since it doesn’t we shouldn’t be peeking in there just for fun. We don’t feel that ultrasound helped us bond with our baby: Daniel didn’t even want to see it (he finds it kind of creepy, like an X-ray) and although I was interested, I didn’t recognize most of the body parts I saw on the screen, and most of the identifiable ones were bones; I’m proud of my ability to make a perfectly shaped ulna, but preparing to love and care for my baby doesn’t really connect to thinking about its skeleton.
- It doesn’t really make a difference. This is our baby, girl or boy. When we meet our baby in the outside world, we will be meeting a new little unique person, and very few of the traits that person has when born are determined by sex. Other than what kind of body parts we are cleaning when we change diapers, it just doesn’t matter at first. By the time our child’s behavior is really related to being a girl or a boy, we’ll have known which it is for quite some time. There’s no need to know before birth.
- Not knowing helped us avoid pre-judging. We had thought we’d only have one child and really wanted a girl, so it was helpful to me to bond with Nicholas as my own special little buddy without thinking of him as A Boy so much until I got used to the idea. Dressing him in gender-neutral clothes in those first hazy days helped me keep my focus on my beloved baby as a special individual instead of part of a certain group. I suspect that if I’d known he was a boy four months before he was born, I would have been more upset and negative and spent the rest of the pregnancy trying to get over my disappointment; instead, during that time I was building up love for my Thumper that wasn’t connected to gender. Now I find myself feeling the same way about my current Thumper, even though I know the sex.
- We just don’t have to tell everybody everything. It’s our baby. While it’s growing inside my body, I do feel kind of private about it. I appreciate people being excited for us and eager to know all about our new family member, but some of the details can wait until the baby is a separate person making its way in the world.
- If we tell people the sex, many of them will give us sex-stereotyped gifts. We’re not totally against “girl clothes” and “boy clothes” even for babies, but it’s entirely possible to go too far with that sort of thing. Of the people who sent gifts to Nicholas after he was born and they knew he was a boy, about 90% sent blue outfits featuring doggies, dinosaurs, or trucks. Many of these were cute, reasonable outfits that looked good on him, but we were glad that he already had lots of gender-neutral clothing as well. Variety is the spice of life! Nobody should have to wear blue or pink all the time. These days it’s not just clothing–practically every baby accessory, from bottles to car seats to toys, is available in “girl” and “boy” versions–and that’s just silly!
- Many people treat a baby differently depending on whether it is presented as a male or female: They’ll talk about a boy being strong and tough, while they’ll tell a girl she’s pretty, and so forth. Enough of these stereotypes come our way in life without starting the judgment before we’re even born!! As a social psychologist who commutes by public transit with my kids, I think it’s interesting to see what triggers strangers to assume a baby is a boy or girl vs. what makes a neutral-enough look that they’ll ask. Nicholas had a lot of yard-sale clothes that were intended as “girl clothes” but that seemed neutral enough to me (solid purple shirts are for everyone!!) and in late infancy he had long eyelashes that some people saw as girly–and it was shocking how differently some people treated him when they thought he was a girl! Our new baby will have these experiences, too, once out in the world. For now, we don’t want to hear about what random strangers think having a daughter or having another son will mean to us.
- The ways mainstream Americans talk about and show off their unborn children’s sexual organs already disturbed Daniel and me years before Nicholas was born. We’ve had many experiences of being shown ultrasound images quite casually, for instance by co-workers who carry the picture around the office making everyone look at it and then tack it on their bulletin board or office door. Sometimes these are just pictures of the baby-shaped blob, but sometimes they’re pointing out, “Look! It’s a boy!” How do they not realize they are SHOWING EVERYONE THEIR CHILD’S PRIVATE PARTS?! (And although it’s more abstract, they are also showing part of the mother’s sexual organs.) Why is this not considered inappropriate and crude in our society? To us, it is a violation of the child’s privacy without a shred of consent.
It’s gotten even stranger with the recent trend of “gender reveal parties” where people do all kinds of bizarre things to announce whether the baby expected a few months hence will have a vagina or a penis. Not all of these parties are lewd and/or horrifying, but some of them are–hand out paper babies whose diapers scratch off like lottery tickets, cut the cake and see what color frosting splorts out, bite into a diaper-shaped biscuit and see whether it contains a sausage or–oh, I can’t bear to go on! Even if we were going to tell everyone the sex of our baby before birth, we wouldn’t make it a gimmicky party, just state the fact and move on. Parties are nice. Let’s just have a party where the food isn’t loaded with dye and doesn’t resemble anyone’s genitals, please.
I feel that not knowing the sex of my first baby helped me to avoid forming preconceptions about his personality, and this time I’m kind of in the same groove even though I do know the sex. I look forward to finding out what kind of person it is, but that’s about so much more than sex. In nine years of being Nicholas’s mother, I’ve learned more than I knew before about the complexities of gender and personality and some biases I didn’t realize I held, and I’ve enjoyed watching him find his comfort level with clothes and personal items and hairstyle he likes that are “boy-ey” enough to avoid social awkwardness as he grows toward being A Real Man. Our second child will teach us even more.
Keeping quiet about my unborn child’s sex works for me!