I never thought I’d be patient enough to have a mystery baby. But by the time it came to our third child, we did. My husband wanted a surprise because he’s a traditionalist at heart, but my reasoning was more modern. If gender is a spectrum, rather than binary, then what’s the big deal anyway?

Plus, research has shown that we unconsciously reinforce gender stereotypes even in utero (mothers have been shown to talk more to female foetuses for example).

However, it turned out to be more different than I expected, not knowing. Family members whined that we were being boring; strangers were incredulous; while one doctor called us ‘unicorns’ for our apparently unique decision. What surprised me most is how it affected my experience of being pregnant.

On the one hand it was so much more exciting. Old wives’ tales about baby gender became thought-provoking as I vacillated between blissful ignorance and an irresistible curiosity that had me googling for hours.

And yet, there was a lot I felt I missed out on, too. My third baby-to-be felt somehow nebulous and surreal in a way that the others hadn’t. There were no concrete names, no future family dynamics to imagine, no way of putting imaginary flesh on the wiggling amorphous mass inside me.

Tabitha with husband Richard and their two boys, Raffy, age 3, and Max, age 5 (Photo: Barefoot Dubai)

Although after two boys I secretly would have loved to have a girl, I kept saying,  “I just want a healthy baby,”. I had reconciled myself with the idea of being a mum of three boys – I even embraced it.

When I finally went into labour, I was having butterflies of excitement that we’d finally be solving our baby mystery. I used hypnobirthing, which requires intense visualisation, and I realise now that I had put a male face to our child in spite of myself. Inside the water-birthing pool, one final push sent a tiny, purple little body out into the water and up into my arms.

But instead of a first cry, the silence was deafening.

The doctor placed a towel on us to keep us warm and all I could hear was the wet, rhythmic pat of the midwife’s hand on the baby’s back as I rubbed and kissed and rubbed and kissed my newborn all over, praying for a sign of life.

Richard and Tabitha with their daughter Ophelia, born in May 2019 (Photo: Stu Williamson Photography)

Finally a wail rang out, and I was so overcome with relief that it was a good ten minutes before I remembered we hadn’t found out the gender. “Oh my god, it’s a girl!” I shrieked, lifting her up in the air. A pinball machine of emotions followed, jerking from elation to disbelief to, strangely, a guilty sense of grief for the little boy of my imagination who actually never was.

Does gender matter? In some ways: yes, it can make more of a difference than I ever imagined it would. But in another, very real sense: no, not even a little bit.