Dealing With Gender Disappointment: a Judgment-Free Guide
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We’ve all seen video clips of gender reveals gone awry, where a parent-to-be’s reaction to the blue confetti or pink cake slice is, well, less than enthusiastic. While these parents are often bombarded with finger-wagging comments, the truth is, “experiencing gender disappointment is actually quite common,” according to Shara Brofman, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in reproductive and perinatal mental health. That holds true whether you decide to find out the sex of your baby during anatomy scan or right after your baby enters the world. If you’re asking yourself questions like, “Is it okay to be sad about baby gender?” and “How do I get over my disappointment about my baby’s gender?” keep reading. Here’s all you need to know about gender disappointment.
A quick note about gender vs sex: We’ll be using the term “gender disappointment” to talk about this issue because it’s more widely used, but it would be more accurate to say, “sex disappointment.” That’s because sex describes the physiological characteristics assigned at birth, whereas gender refers to characteristics and behaviors that are socially constructed.
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, according to research in the journal Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy.
Why do people experience gender disappointment?
“Gender disappointment is not really about the child at all, but a person’s very specific fantasies and wishes about how they envision their journey as a parent,” says Dr. Brofman. There are many reasons why a parent-to-be may feel let down or sad upon learning that they’re expecting a different sex than they had envisioned, including:
Prior traumatic experience
Fear of the unknown
Desire to replicate a parent/child relationship they had
Desire not to replicate a parent/child relationship they had
Worry about one’s ability to connect with or relate to one sex over another
Want to experience parenting both sexes
What is gender essentialism?
A 2019 report concluded that gender disappointment is often grounded in gender essentialism. But what exactly is gender essentialism? Essentially, if a parent’s pension for a particularly gendered child is grounded in gender stereotypes—or the belief that only children of a specific sex are capable of certain actions, determined by biology rather than culture—that’s considered gender essentialism. In other words, it’s when you connect having a girl with being able to engage in “girlie” activities like ballet classes or arts and crafts. Or your desire to toss the football and talk about cars hinges on having a boy.
Shame and Gender Disappointment
“People often feel a tremendous amount of guilt and shame around gender disappointment, particularly those who have previously dealt with loss, infertility, or trauma,” says Dr. Brofman. The reason: Feeling disappointment isn’t how the “idealized ‘good mother’ is [supposed] to feel,” according to that 2019 report in Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy.
"Parents know that the narrative is ‘you should be happy,’ ‘you should be grateful,’ so they often keep their disappointment to themselves,” says Dr. Brofman, who notes that there’s a general lack of understanding—and societal recognition—that there could ever be negative feelings surrounding one’s baby expectations.
But bottling up or minimizing those less-than-rosy feelings can leave many parents feeling alone and disenfranchised. According to psychologists, the guilt and shame often associated with gender disappointment, can lead moms-to-be to ask themselves:
Does gender disappointment mean I won’t love my baby?
Am I the only one who thinks this?
Do these feelings make me an awful person?
If I express my disappointment to others, will they think I’m a horrible mother?
If I share my feelings, will folks think that I’m judging the sex of their child?
If these thoughts sound familiar, take heart. “Whatever feelings you’re having is okay,” says Dr. Brofman. “Know that you don’t get to be in a relationship with anyone—including your baby—without some disappointment. It’s actually quite normal to have disappointment, and that might manifest in a variety of ways. It just so happens that gender disappointment is a particularly powerful one.”
How to Deal With Gender Disappointment
“Remember that you are not alone!” says Dr. Brofman. “So many parents-to-be experience these feelings, even if they’re not widely sharing them.” To help deal with feelings of gender disappointment, try to…
View gender disappointment in terms of a loss. “It’s important to allow yourself to experience a sense of loss of a particular expectation,” urges Dr. Brofman. It’s normal to fantasize about your role as a parent and the baby you’ll be parenting. When your dreams don’t mesh with reality, it’s a loss.
Find a trusted person to talk to. Remember, what you’re feeling isn’t unusual. Consider speaking to a supportive partner, a family member, or a friend who you suspect will be non-judgmental and helpful. You can also join a parent support group or turn to a therapist for a caring ear.
Tap some self-compassion. Try your best to swap any negative self-talk for self-compassion. Instead of, “I should be grateful to be expecting a boy,” think: “Having a girl was important to me because…” This is not you talking yourself into changing your disappointment, it’s offering yourself grace.
Get curious about your feelings. Ask yourself questions like, What does it mean to be a parent to a girl or a boy? And, What experiences did you hope to have with a boy or a girl? “When you start to dig deeper to understand where your feelings come from, you can use that information to learn what’s important to you as a parent,” says Dr. Brofman
Challenge your own gender stereotypes. “Look at your own gender scripts, norms, and stereotypes and ask yourself: Can these activities, rituals, and traditions be experienced with either sex?” says Dr. Brofman.
Don’t ignore your feelings! While there’s not a lot of research on the subject, one study in the Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiolog did find a link between gender disappointment and postpartum depression (PPD). If you feel you’re at risk for PPD, check out The Happiest Baby Postpartum Mental Wellness Toolkit for warning signs and reach out to a healthcare professional.
I’m worried about potential gender disappointment.
If you aren’t planning to learn the sex of your baby before birth—or it’s too early to find out—but you’re worried about possibly experiencing gender disappointment, have a plan. For some, learning a baby’s sex at birth can help minimize gender disappointment. For others, being prepared prior to birth—and working through your feelings in advance—can be more helpful. Consider your personality and specific coping style and strategies before making your decision.
If you know that you or your partner has a strong desire for one sex over the other, it might be a good idea to skip the now-omnipresent tradition of the public gender reveal party. “If you suspect that you might struggle with gender disappointment, I suggest reconsidering learning the news in a public or shared setting,” says Dr. Brofman. “Instead, it's likely a good idea to consider another kind of ritual or tradition to mark this experience.”
How to Deal With Grandparent Gender Disappointment
Sometimes it’s not the parents-to-be who are dealing with gender disappointment, but the grandparents-to-be! While parents and in-laws certainly have a right to feel disappointed, they also have a responsibility to respect your boundaries. After all, “a person’s feelings are one thing, but their behavior is another,” says Dr. Brofman. Remember, your in-laws or parent preferences do not reflect on your worth or the worth of your baby-to-be. (Learn more about setting boundaries with grandparents.)
To help curb the gender preference commentary, try out some of these lines:
“We really appreciate your excitement about the baby, but we’re focused on ____ not the baby’s sex.”
“It’s hard for me to hear all the ‘we want a girl’ talk. I’d appreciate it if we could focus on something we have control over...like preparing for the baby’s arrival.”
“Moving forward, can we agree to celebrate our baby’s upcoming arrival, rather than focusing on their sex?”
“We’re thrilled to be having a boy and hope you come around and share our excitement.”
“We want our child to be loved and accepted for who they are, regardless of their sex.”
“We believe our child will bring us all immense joy and happiness, regardless of their sex.”
Final Thoughts on Gender Disappointment
Accepting your baby’s sex—and subsequently, overcoming your gender disappointment—usually comes with time and understanding. It’s often not even that much time. “Generally speaking, new parents are often very overwhelmed emotionally during the postpartum period, which leaves a little room to hold conflicting feelings about your baby’s sex,” says Brofman. Translation: Gender disappointment is often lost in the wind when the realities of parenthood hit. That said, if feelings linger and leave you feeling distressed, don’t hesitate to reach out to a mental health professional for support.
More on Preparing for Baby:
- Gender Prediction Traditions From Around the World
- How to Build a Strong, Early Bond with Your Newborn Baby
- Baby Name Ideas Galore!
- Gender Reveal Ideas to Celebrate Your Exciting New
- Who Can I See for Prenatal Care?
- World Health Organization (WHO): Gender and health
- Is ‘gender disappointment’ a unique mental illness? Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy. December 2019
- Oxford Reference: gender essentialism
- Antenatal & Postnatal Psychology Network: Gender disappointment: Grieving the idealised child
- Psychosocial risk factors to major depression after childbirth. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology. August 2005
- Gidget Foundation Australia: Gender disappointment
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Disclaimer: The information on our site is NOT medical advice for any specific person or condition. It is only meant as general information. If you have any medical questions and concerns about your child or yourself, please contact your health provider.