Disclaimer: Throughout this article, we use common terms like “gender reveal” and “gender disappointment.” However, we acknowledge and understand the difference between the biological sex someone is assigned at birth and the social construct of gender.
We’ve all seen the videos on social media or have witnessed firsthand a grand gender reveal. Balloons stuffed with pink or blue confetti, cake with strawberry or blueberry filling, or some other cute schtick offering expecting parents a visual unveiling and allowing outsiders the opportunity to witness the looks of surprise and happiness on the parents’ faces. These big announcements always seem so jovial and celebratory—leaving the parents who experience disappointment at discovering whether their new baby is going to be a boy or a girl feeling isolated and guilty.
Like many things in parenthood, there is a certain expectation when we learn our baby’s sex. We are meant to be excited and grateful because a baby is a baby, right? There will be a little bundle of snuggles in your arms soon, so who cares if it’s a boy or girl? Well, some of us really do care, and even if society doesn’t think we should have hope and preference for a certain gender, some of us do, and when that dream doesn’t come to fruition, it can be sorely disappointing.
What Is Gender Disappointment?
Gender disappointment is “the feeling of sadness when a parent’s strong desire for a child of a certain sex is not realized.” There are a variety of reasons this can happen. For instance, for parents in some cultures, it is preferable to have a baby boy or for a boy to be the firstborn, while for others, it simply comes down to personal preference. Gender disappointment has been linked to postpartum depression, showing how influential a child’s sex can be for a family. In some cases, parents undergoing in vitro fertilization (IVF) are given the option of sex selection, allowing them to avoid gender disappointment altogether.
Personally, all I wanted were daughters. That’s not to say I don’t think little boys are the sweetest things or that I am immune to the adorableness that comes with a toddler dressed up like a tiny dapper gentleman (eek—so cute!), but I have always had a natural, overwhelming desire to mother girls. It felt out of my control. Because of this, with both of my pregnancies, I had to mentally prepare myself for the news that we were having a boy; I was convinced that by doing this, maybe it would hurt a little less if it were true.
I lucked out because I had two little girls, but not everyone’s story ends like mine. Lindsey Konchar, a licensed graduate social worker and mom of two, also wanted daughters, which she says is specifically why she opted not to do gender reveals. When she learned her second little one was a boy, she felt the painful sting of disappointment and was happy that she could process those initial feelings in private. As a mental health provider and advocate for honest conversations around motherhood, Konchar is open about her story and offers advice on navigating the feelings of gender disappointment.
How To Cope With and Move On From Gender Disappointment
“It is absolutely normal to feel disappointed when you discover your baby’s gender,” assures Konchar. Some reactions she says you may experience include fear, sadness, and even grief.
“[A] surprising reaction to gender disappointment is grief,” she says, “It’s very normal to take time to grieve the loss of the life you once dreamed of having.”
Konchar acknowledges that parents are under societal pressure to “only care about having a ‘happy and healthy’ baby,” resulting in an added layer of guilt on top of the feelings of gender disappointment. “But here’s the deal,” she says, “We get to care about more than [just having a happy and healthy baby], so don’t isolate yourself in grief.”
She notes that this expectation is especially true for parents who have struggled with fertility. “Fertility is a really delicate subject … so when you actually have a baby in your belly, it’s easy to minimize your own emotions and think, ‘Well, I get to have a baby, so I should just be happy.’” In this case, she says, it’s important to remember that there is room for both. “It’s not an either/or situation; it’s a both/and situation. ‘I’m really happy to be having a baby and I’m really disappointed my daughter won’t have a sister.’ ‘I’m grateful to have another child and I wish I had the opportunity to raise a son.’ ‘I’m overjoyed that we’re expecting and I feel disappointed that it’s a boy.’”
After honoring your feelings, Konchar says a good way to cope with the negative emotions and move forward is by talking about what you’re experiencing. “Talk about it with your partner, a trusted shame-free friend, your mom, whoever won’t judge you. Explain your feelings of disappointment.”
She also stresses the importance of giving yourself time to process the gender of your baby. “Often we feel gender disappointment because we have built this imaginary dream life in our heads, and now we don’t get to live out that dream,” she says, adding, “That dream wasn’t built in a matter of minutes, and coping with the reality of gender disappointment will take time, too.”
Can Gender Disappointment Be Avoided?
If you have a strong gender preference, you likely won’t be able to avoid feelings of disappointment entirely, but there are things Konchar says you can do to prepare and protect yourself as best as possible.
- Skip the gender reveal party. You don’t want to have to hide your disappointment if you find out you’re having a baby of your not-preferred gender in front of family and friends.
- Be transparent with your partner. Konchar says she was open about her desires with her husband from the start, so when they found out they were having a boy, “he knew exactly how to support” her.
- Opt for early gender testing (if possible). If you have the option to do early genetic testing or the financial means for a voluntary gender test (either a blood test or elective ultrasound), that will give you more time to cope with and process your new reality than if you wait for the standard 20-week anatomy scan.
Once baby arrives, chances are you’ll forget all about your initial preferences and expectations and fall in love with your tiny little bundle of joy regardless of their assigned sex. And keep in mind that gender is a state of mind, and your child may identify as either gender or none at all. But when expecting a baby, gender disappointment is something many parents experience, and it’s important that we talk about it more often. These feelings are real and valid, so allow yourself the space to grieve and cope however you need to.