There’s something incredibly sad about a foetus being a disappointment to its mother before it has even drawn its first breath, simply because he is a boy. But it happens – and a lot more frequently than you might think.
A recent survey by ChannelMum.com found that a 39 per cent of mums wanted daughters, while only 18 per cent wanted sons (don’t feel sorry for boys, by the way – the survey found that fathers are still more likely to want sons).
Of the 2,189 mums polled, over a third didn't tell anyone they had a gender preference, just under half confided in their partner, and only a third admitted their feelings to their own family.
An even more shocking statistic published by Reproductive Biomedicine Online says that a whopping 70 per cent of mothers opting to choose their baby’s sex are opting for girls.
The fact is, the almost obligatory parent-to-be cliché that “we don’t mind what it is as long as it’s healthy’’ is just a big fat lie in many instances.
The phenomenon is so common that the mental health world has given it a label (‘gender disappointment’). There are websites devoted to it, forums filled with it and acronyms named after it (SMOGS are Smug Mothers of Girls). It’s not about mothers being ungrateful – these are loving mothers who are delighted to find out they are pregnant, but who can’t help feeling devastated when they find out they are having a son.
Dr Tara Wyne, clinical psychologist at LightHouse Arabia (lighthousearabia.com), says she can see how mothers might become attached to the idea of having a daughter. She says, “We’re socially wired to expect that parents want sons, because of the whole legacy thing. But when I think about mothers wanting daughters, what occurs to me is that women often feel that daughters are for them.
“They might think, ‘I’ll have more emotional intimacy with a girl and the bonding will be easier. And when she is older we will be able to relate to each other.’ Then if she finds out she is having a boy, there could be a sense of loss of the strong relationship she envisaged having with her daughter.”
Mother-of-two Emma Maynard* says that when she found out she was having a second son, this is exactly how she felt – robbed of a lifelong relationship with a daughter. She says, “When I was growing up, my father and brother weren’t around most of the time, so it was just me and mum... I guess I wanted to recreate that experience.” The first time around, finding out she was having a son wasn’t too upsetting.
“It’ll be nice for her to have an older brother,” she thought, already imagining her second child would be a girl. But the second time around, the news of a boy hit her hard. “I just always assumed I would have a daughter. When I found out I was having another boy, I burst into tears. One day I drove to work, parked my car and sat outside the office crying for two hours before eventually going home. I knew I would love the baby no matter what, but I couldn’t help feeling cheated.”
The last taboo
This is not a very easy topic for mums to talk about. Most pregnant mothers say they don’t mind what sex it is as long as it’s healthy – and to a certain extent (and for some), this might be true. But for others, they feel pressure to say they don’t mind, when deep down they do – perhaps out of fear of embarrassment if it doesn’t go their way.
Siobhan Freegard, the founder of netmums.com, says, “Almost every mum and dad say they don’t mind what they are having as long as the child is healthy. But the statistics uncover the real truth – that parents actually have very strong preferences on their baby’s sex. Sex preference is one of the last taboos of parenting, with many mums and dads reluctant to admit how they feel.”
With the high-tech fertility technology now available, it is possible to choose the sex of your child before pregnancy in some countries, including the UAE. Fakih IVF for instance offers ‘Family Balancing’ packages through gender selection, which involves all of the same invasive ovarian stimulation and egg retrieval process required in traditional IVF, which just goes to show the extent that some couples will go to in order to be able to choose the sex of their child.
The taboo nature of gender selection is clear, though, from the fact that the use of gender-selection technologies has been banned in several countries, including Australia, Canada, India, China and the UK, leading to the trend for ‘reproductive tourism’, whereby citizens from these countries travel abroad for their treatment. Additionally, both the UN and the WHO have said they are against gender selection for non-medical purposes (such as to avoid the passing on of a genetic disease), citing the potential for moral and social problems as a result.
But although there may be no medical reason for gender selection, for many mothers the yearning for a girl is a huge issue for them – just look at the deluge of angry, upset, frustration being vented anonymously on parenting websites and forums. On in-gender.com, a website devoted to sex preference, one woman wrote, “I really thought this was my girl. But I told people I was sure it was a boy, because I didn’t want to feel disappointed when I know I should be happy. But this is so hard. I’m angry and frustrated and devastated that I’ll never get a girl. I don’t want to feel this way and I’m really trying to overcome these feelings, but it really hurts a lot. Sorry everyone. Just really needed to get that off my chest and I really don’t like to unload on family as I feel too guilty for feeling like this.”
A girl for me
So what is it that mothers expect from a daughter that they don’t think they can get from a son? Surely it can’t all be about pretty clothes? Dr Tara says, “On some level, having children is about seeking a type of relationship. Something more bonded, more attached, than other relationships. The mother-daughter relationship is unique in the sense that you have this feeling of passing on your wisdom. How many times do you hear women say they called their mum for parenting advice? And how many times do you hear men say it?”
Dr Tara also points to the fact that, when sons marry and have children of their own, their wives become the main woman and mother in his life, as being part of the story. She says, “With daughters there’s no threat of that happening.”
Another reason for a mother’s preference for daughters could be to heal the pain of having a bad relationship with her own mother, says Dr Tara. “A lot of mums seem to want to replace a strong relationship they think they are missing – to fill a gap in their life. They feel that having a daughter will rectify previous losses; that by having a strong relationship with a daughter, they will get over the fact they never got on with their own mother, or that their mother passed away.”
This is a theory Emma can relate to. She believes losing her mum a few years before having her first child made her desire to have a daughter even stronger. “I want a girl because I feel like I want that mother-daughter relationship,” she says. “I want to pass my mum’s jewellery down to my daughter, not to my daughter-in-law.”
Have a word with yourself
The experts believe that ‘gender disappointment’ is a strong indicator of potential pre- or postnatal depression. Dr Tara advises starting to work on sorting out your feelings long before the birth – not just to reduce the risk of postnatal depression, but also because feeling negative during pregnancy can have a serious effect on your baby’s personality, she says: “Have a talk with yourself. Give yourself a shake. You could be creating relationship baggage before the relationship has even begun. Your children are a blank slate. Rather than being fatalistic about gender roles, and about what you think it will be like to have a son, give your relationship space to unfold. But if you have had strong feelings like this for longer than a few days, seek help.”
Siobhan agrees and offers some hope. She says, “The good news is that even when the baby wasn’t what they were expecting, the vast majority of parents fall head over heels in love with the new bundle of joy. Remember, your child isn’t just a sex... So pink or blue, embrace your child and get to know them.”
Read more: 'How to teach gender equality to your kids'