I dreaded announcing my fifth pregnancy to the world. I was sure people would just stare, offer some fake congratulations or boldly pronounce what everyone was thinking: “You’re crazy!” And most of that did happen, though some people were visibly more excited and less … confused. There was a fair share of “But why?” and plenty of jokes about how babies are made, if I know how to use birth control and other overused lines. But what I didn’t expect was that a few weeks later, upon announcing I was having a girl after four sons, the conversation abruptly changed.
Suddenly, my chaotic crazy life made sense to people, who told me, “You are finally getting a girl!” and “She has so many older brothers to protect her!” Balance seemed restored for the naysayers. Of course, I’m thrilled as well, as I’ve never had much fun shopping for boy clothes, and the idea of a daughter conjures up lots of great memories of my mother and our relationship. But, unlike the onlookers, I had been fully prepared and excited to have a fifth son as well. I was shocked at how, now that it was a girl, my choices seemed valid to them and more deserving of congratulations.
In spite of how far we’ve come with gender norms in society, I realized just how much further we have to go the moment someone said, “Now you will have someone to take care of you when you’re old.” Huh? What was I thinking, envisioning my sons *gasp* doing that very thing? I chatted with psychologist and parenting expert Reena Patel, who points to quite a few causes for our lack of progress in this area: “A history of societal expectations. The double standard of having a male offspring. A more balanced family unit as we have seen watching old television shows (think of even The Brady Bunch).” She says the pressure still exists, even when it’s not as overt as I experienced, to have at least one baby of each sex. Statistics support it being pretty rare to have had those four boys in a row — only just over 12% of people have four back-to-back kids of the same sex, so I see why the comments happen.
I turned to my mom tribe online to see if this was a common problem they’d experienced too, and came across some seriously unacceptable responses. “I had a boy after two girls and someone said, ‘Wow, the curse is finally broken,'" Lauren Wellbank, a mom from Lehigh Valley, Pa., told me. As a fellow mom of four boys, Jennifer L.W. Fink in rural Wisconsin shared that she was so fed up with “stupid comments and looks/expressions of disappointment” that she didn’t reveal the fourth baby’s sex until the baby was born. But the strategy didn’t work completely. “We still got plenty of stupid comments, including, ‘What’s wrong with your husband’s sperm?’”
Patel says some of these shenanigans go way back to the idea of passing down the family name through boys’ bloodline, but that it’s harmful to comment. “It leads to shame ... and parents feel they may have controlled it or done something wrong,” she says, adding that it causes some parents to make unhealthy comparisons to other families. Online mom groups are brimming with parents asking how to deal with “gender disappointment” themselves, likely a reflection of not only their own dream family dynamics but society reflecting back to them what they “should” have. I get it — it’s definitely an emotion I’ve been through myself, as I used to wish for a daughter before going through miscarriage and switching to just hoping for a healthy birth.
But the real issue continues to be the free-for-all that is commenting on fertility journeys, from trying to conceive, through postpartum. How is this still happening? Why, when we have manners in the rest of our lives, and heaven forbid, boundaries, are these topics somehow all available for commentary? As someone who generally sees the good in people, I like to think they get caught up in the excitement — and yes, it is exciting to have a girl after four boys. But the implication that there’s something “wrong” with my husband who makes (mostly) boys seems far over the line. In addition, the idea that my sons can’t head to the nail salon with me (they do) or that I wouldn’t love planning a son’s wedding just as much as a daughter's down the line (I will) are outdated and bizarre.
“It’s a [stereotype] to think boys can only run family businesses, girls the household, play certain sports, etc.,” Patel says. The more boys we had, the more “are you trying to build a basketball team?” comments we got, confirming her idea. But having a girl is a new chance to challenge our own gender assumptions alongside those with too many outlandish comments. It’s exciting to shop for frilly girl clothes, but I also have in mind that she might very well prefer her brother’s hand-me-downs. And with every comment, as I have since my miscarriage, I take the chance to remind myself and others how lucky we are to simply be having kids — who are healthy, so far — in our wild ride through parenthood.
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