Being pregnant can be an exciting time, but it can also be an extremely stressful and daunting one, there’s so much to buy and plan, and sometimes there are health concerns or relationship breakdowns. These are all issues that are commonly discussed amongst friends, in articles and on forums but something that is rarely discussed is what happens when you find out that your baby is not the gender you were expecting? Is it normal to feel shocked or maybe even disappointed? Gender disappointment is a conversation, like most hard conversations, Mummy Village’s Jaihden Mourtzis is not afraid to have.
In the Journal of Medicine Health Care and Philosophy, Hendl and Browne (2019) describe Gender Disappointment as ’the feeling of sadness when a parent’s strong desire for a child of a certain sex is not realised’ and while it sounds pretty self-explanatory, it is something that comes with a lot of big emotions that if left unpacked can lead to feelings of shame, guilt and loneliness. As Jaihden’s guest and very own psychologist, Lettitia Gorgas explains, ‘gender disappointment is something that can happen anytime during the perinatal period when we find out that we are carrying a baby whose gender was not our first preference’. She goes on to say that it, ‘is something that she sees very frequently in her practice, often in mums but also in dads. Often the mum has an expectation that they would prefer a girl or a boy because they might have a history around a beautiful relationship with a sister and they might want their children to have two girls or they have a terrible relationship with their sister and so they’d like a boy and a girl to not repeat that generational trauma. That’s one scenario, expectations from in-laws or parents is another.’
Mummy Village host and mum of two Jaihden Mourtzis, mum of two (with one in the oven), corporate leader, and champion dancer Stacey Wild, and mum of three, and Swivel Media Producer Alexandra Whittington share their own experiences with gender disappointment.
As Jaihden explains in the podcast, she experienced gender disappointment, or gender grief as she describes it, in her pregnancy with her second daughter Maria. ‘I was so convinced I was having a boy, I had done the Chinese Birth Calendar, and I was completely convinced, we were even calling him baby Yani.’ It was at her gender reveal party in front of friends and family when she saw the pink confetti burst from the balloon that the disappointment hit her, saying that she was so shocked that she ‘just wanted everyone to leave’. Part of the reason she was so disappointed was because of an encounter she had had years previously where she was told that one day she would have a relationship with her father through a boy, this, she says had her ‘convinced that I was finally going to have a relationship with my father through a son’. Though now she is able to look at it from the other side and feels grateful that her daughters have a special sister relationship that she never got to experience as an only child, she admits that she is scared to fall pregnant again because she really wants a boy and is scared to share this with people because she feels a lot of judgment. Today, Jaihden says that ‘although I look at Maria and think that ’she is the best little person in the world and love her to pieces, it took quite some time to reconnect with my pregnancy, as I really lost a little bit of connection from that, it was a month or so before I was able to reconnect.’
In cases where there is a known risk of gender disappointment, Lettitia says that ‘we as psychologists often encourage people to find out the gender of their baby, so that we can work with the grief before the baby is born so we can then get an optimal attachment happening’.
For Stacey Wild, Jaiden’s guest on episode 6 of Mummy Village*,* Dealing with Gender Disappointment, it was a two-pronged reason for feeling disappointed when she learnt the gender of her baby, ‘for one it was this internal idea that I had about the family I wanted and two I suffered really badly with some external pressures’. She goes on to explain that ‘from a personal perspective I grew up as one of four sisters, I loved my sisters, they are my best friends in the world, we grew up in a very girly household, my mother owned a dance studio, we were all dancers, we played netball, went to girls brigade’. This led her to believe that, that is how her life was destined to play out, all girls, all the time so it wasn’t that she didn’t want a boy, she just didn’t think it was on the cards for her. As for the external pressures, Stacey explains that while she loves her in-laws very much, they did put a great deal of pressure on her to give them a granddaughter, even going as far as to declare this desire and expectation in their speech at her wedding. For this reason, Stacey began to experience panic attacks throughout her pregnancy, wondering how her in-laws would feel about her child if it was a boy, the continuous commentary throughout the pregnancy only made things worse and Stacey admits that ‘for a split second when my little boy was born, I was devastated that I had let my in-laws down but as soon as I held my baby all of those feelings disappeared’. Stacey experienced the same feelings with her second pregnancy and found herself ‘googling gender disappointment’ to see if there was anyone else in the world that felt the way she did, saying that she found ‘a small amount of peace knowing that I wasn’t alone’ when she came across thousands of women and so many men who had experienced the same thing. This time around, now that Stacey is pregnant again, with her third boy she decided to find out the gender so that she could prepare herself better and guard herself against the negative comments, ‘I’ve had people offer their condolences rather than congratulations that we are having a third boy’. She has also sought professional help to deal with these complex emotions of disappointment, guilt and shame, and realised through doing the work that a lot of the expectations she has put on herself have come from wanting to make everyone else happy.
‘Seeking professional help is really brave’ explains Lettitia, ‘it means that you can make sense of what it means to have the gender of your choice, what the deep meaning behind why you want that expectation, why does that fit into your dream of how your life is meant to look? Is it because you are trying to change a history, is it because you are trying to create something new or is it just that you feel more comfortable with a certain gender? Sometimes it is very deep and has to do with generational trauma and it’s trying to do something different.’
Falling pregnant with my second child was no easy task, after a miscarriage, and a painful stint on fertility medication that ended with a hospital stay, over a year and a half later I was overjoyed to finally be with the sonographer getting my twenty-week scan. My husband and I had bought our three-year-old son along so that he could see his sibling and be there when we found out if it was going to be a boy or girl. I had always seen myself as a boy mum, having had an amazing bond with my little brother growing up and really feeling like so far with Oscar, I was nailing it. Regardless, I didn’t think I minded either way, I was just so happy to be pregnant after everything I had been through. So when the doctor said those three little words, ‘it’s a girl’ I was completely blindsided by my own reaction. I was immediately consumed with so much panic that to this day I don’t remember the rest of the scan. After a discussion with my husband in the car, we came to the conclusion that the reason for this reaction stemmed from my fear of passing my own issues on to a little girl. There is a deep history of eating disorders and depression among the women in my family and I was sure that there was no way my daughter would escape that. The anxiety grew so bad that my GP suggested I see a psychologist to work through these feelings before my daughter was born. It was the best thing I could have done, during the sessions I was able to work through these issues with an amazing psychologist who gave me the tools that I needed to firstly, address the feelings as they arose throughout the pregnancy and beyond, and secondly the confidence that I needed in my own ability to raise a girl and guide her through any difficulties she may face. However, even though I was able to work through it the first time around, the feelings of guilt and shame were amplified again when I found out that my third baby was going to be a boy and I felt a huge relief. I really had to go back and access all of those tools so that I could work through it all over again.
As Lettitia explains, ‘there are a lot of different scenarios that people experience, but it’s not an uncommon problem, although a lot of women find it really hard to admit to it because they feel ashamed’ which is what we can see through the three stories that have been shared, though they are all different, the common themes are those feelings of shame and guilt. Through sharing these stories, the way that Jaihden often does, people can identify these feelings of grief and disappointment in other mothers’ journeys and feel less alone, knowing that there is nothing to feel guilty about or ashamed of. As Jaihden explains ‘it’s not disappointment in your child and wishing that they were someone else, it’s having that expectation and then going oh that’s not what the universe wants, let’s try and adjust now to this new situation’ which is a sentiment that Stacey echoes, ‘I don’t feel disappointed in my children, they are so loved and wanted, where my disappointment lies is knowing a little girl is not in my future’.
As Lettitia has seen in her own practice, gender disappointment ‘is a big process of acceptance’ and that when dealing with gender grief, ‘everyone needs to understand that grief can be worked through, it is a growth process and beautiful things happen as you work through this, you appreciate what you’ve got. Sometimes gender disappointment is like an interruption to the life that you thought you were going to have, but as you work through it you can change your story. In all of my years of working with gender grief, I’ve not seen one parent not work through it.’
Lettitia Gorgas is a psychologist with many years of experience in perinatal mental health and other areas of adult mental health including anxiety, depression, life transition and adjustment, with a special interest in working with adults who have a history of complex trauma and helping them transition and navigate the complexities inherent in the adjustment to parenthood. You can find her at The Castlecrag Psychology Practice.
For support dealing with gender disappointment or any other perinatal or postnatal-related mental health concerns follow these links: