When second-time mom Nicole King walked into her 20-week ultrasound appointment, she sent a text message to her closest friends: “Think pink.” They all knew what that meant. Nicole and her husband already had a 2-year old son, and were clearly hoping their second baby would be a girl.
“This pregnancy felt completely different from my first,” said Nicole. “At one point I thought I had food poisoning because I was so sick. This never happened with my son.”
When the ultrasound technician announced that Nicole's second child was a boy, she wanted to cry. “I was really disappointed. I think everyone in my family was disappointed too, except for my husband. It’s hard because you want people to be excited when you tell them the news, and when you think they’re unhappy, it becomes less exciting for you, too.”
Some women feel a momentary twinge of sadness when they find out the gender of their baby. For others, the disappointment cuts deeper, and can even turn into depression. This phenomenon, known as “gender disappointment,” is rarely discussed yet common among expectant mothers.
“We assume gender disappointment is quite a hidden experience, yet extremely common especially in certain cultures” says Dr. Louann Brizendine, a neuropsychiatrist at UCSF and author of The Male Brain and The Female Brain. “As many as 1 in 5 women express at least some disappointment about the sex of the child they are carrying.”
One couple recently took the risky step of finding out their baby's gender live on TODAY; judging from their reactions, "It's a boy" was good news, especially for dad. But not everyone has the same experience.
Jamie Crosier, mother of three, believes every expecting mother has a preference on gender whether they admit it or not. “Every woman is on one side of the fence or the other, even if you say that all you want is a healthy baby.”
When Jamie was pregnant with her second child, she felt like she was just getting the hang of being a mother to her daughter. “When I discovered that I was having a boy, I was shocked at my disappointment. When I was in the ultrasound room and the technician told me it was a boy I actually cried. After the appointment I called my parents with the news and cried again. Hormones are nuts!”
Dr. Brizendine says that many mothers feel guilt and shame over feeling disappointment about their baby's gender, so they suppress their sadness and keep it to themselves.
“We had a gender reveal party, with a cake to reveal either pink or blue frosting inside,” shares Amy, a San Diego native who asked that we only use her first name. “When we finally cut into the cake and saw the pink frosting, I felt sad. Honestly, I think I would have felt sad either way. It was almost like I had to mourn the loss of the potential boy before I could celebrate the actual girl. I was really surprised by my reaction and totally faked the 'yay!', then went into the kitchen to be by myself for a few minutes. It really only took several moments away from the party and another day or so of readjusting to our news before I was excited about our little girl, but I was surprised it took any time at all.”
It's a ... girl? Sometimes the "gender reveal" can reveal more emotions than a mom-to-be expected.
For Nicole King, a random encounter with an acquaintance helped her start to see the benefits of having two boys. “My friend has a boy and a girl that are extremely close in age. She told me that in her experience, when siblings of different genders are so close in age they have less in common. It got me thinking about things differently.”
This coping mechanism, known as “active reframing,” is the most common approach to dealing with gender disappointment.
“When a mom finds out she’s having the opposite gender desired, she starts telling herself little stories about why this gender is going to be a good thing. Like how, if they’re having a boy and they wanted a girl, they get to avoid the dreaded teenage years” explains Dr. Brizendine. “It’s called active reframing and it starts immediately. If there is any real disappointment, it often barely rises to the surface and the woman doesn’t even realize it’s there.”
With hormones raging, feelings of gender disappointment mid-pregnancy can feel heightened, but may be even worse if you leave the gender a surprise until delivery.
“These days, only about 10 to 20 percent of my patients keep the sex a surprise,” says Dr. Laura Cha, a New York City based OB/GYN. “But for those patients that have a very obvious preference, I tell them to find out their baby's gender as soon as possible. The last thing you want is a patient who has spent the last nine months convincing themselves they’re having a boy, only to find out they’re having a girl.”
Most of the time, Dr. Brizendine says that any sort of gender disappointment disappears once the baby is born. But if you find the disappointment lingering, before or after delivery, there are healthy ways of dealing with your emotions.
“First, try to get to the root of why this issue of gender is particularly important to you,” suggests Dr. Brizendine. “Then, talk to another woman who has gone through the same experience. If you continue to struggle, make three sessions with a therapist to help reprogram the news of the gender so it’s not so disappointing to you.”
When Jamie Crosier’s son Cash was born, the disappointment over wanting a second daughter disappeared immediately. “The moment my son was born I was totally in love with him and never had a second thought about it. He's such a momma's boy and I just love it!”
Nicole King knows this will be the case for her, too. “Now that I know I’m having another boy, I’m not disappointed anymore. I know with all of my heart that once I hold our baby for the first time, I’ll love him just as much as I love my first son.”
Morgan Brasfield is a television producer and freelance writer. She lives in San Francisco with her husband Tyler, 11-month old son Ben, and furry-child Cooper.