I Had Gender Disappointment & This Is What It Was Like
"It's a girl!," the sonographer said. I can still remember the excitement I felt as I lay on the bed with goo all over my just-about-to-pop pregnant belly at my 20-week ultrasound. My partner and I held hands and I stared up expectantly at the screen waiting to hear what our baby was going to be. But when the sonographer said those three words, my brain glitched. "Really?" I asked, my voice too high, too loud, injected with false enthusiasm. I looked to my partner to see what he thought but — like always — I couldn't quite read his reaction. I had been positive, 100 percent sure — there had been no doubt in my mind — that I was having a boy. But there, in black and white, was the proof that I was not. I had gender disappointment and as the feeling settled over me, and it left me feeling so many emotions: ashamed and confused, but mostly terrified.
As we drove home from our ultrasound, I continued to put up a happy front. We called my parents from the car and told them the exciting news. And I wondered aloud to my partner at all the things I could do with our daughter. But in my head and in my heart, all I could feel was a horrible shame. Shame that I was disappointed with my child for something she had no control over. I wondered what kind of mother could be disappointed in their child's gender? And the only answer I could come up with was: a bad one.
I'd known in my core that I was having a boy. My baby felt, inexplicably, like a boy. So, how could I have been so wrong? How could my body have betrayed me? How could I be disappointed in her when I already loved her so, so much?
The dam broke once we got home. I stood in the shower, clinging to my partner, giving a voice to all the fears that were bubbling up inside of me: I didn't know how to raise a girl. I wasn't "girly." What if she liked him more than me? What if she hated me — as many teenage girls are want to feel about their mothers at some point in time? How could I protect my tiny baby from all of the pressures, the expectations, the threats, and the fears that come with being a girl?
He did the only thing any non-gestating human can do: he held me and told me everything was going to be OK. But I couldn't believe him. I'd known in my core that I was having a boy. My baby felt, inexplicably, like a boy. So, how could I have been so wrong? How could my body have betrayed me? How could I be disappointed in her when I already loved her so, so much?
When we told friends and family, some people laughed. "Good luck," they said. "This is payback for when you were a teenage girl," they said. It was all good natured; light-hearted and jovial. But I internalized everything. Their jokes validated my fears. All I could wonder was, just how badly was I going to screw this up?
I can't pinpoint the moment in my pregnancy when I stopped being disappointed that I was having a girl. But I can pinpoint why I was so scared at the prospect of navigating motherhood to a little girl while believing motherhood to a little boy would somehow be "easier." It wasn't having a girl that scared me. Having a girl simply means having a baby with female sex organs. What scared me was gender.
I went to a store that sold locally made, hand-crafted chocolate penises and vaginas (or vulvas, if we really want to be anatomically correct) and bought them out of their female stock. At our party that night — it just happened to be New Year's Eve — we placed our vaginas-on-a-stick around the buffet table to reveal to all in attendance that we were having a (biological) girl.
I have a pretty big bone to pick with the word gender. In North American society, we often use it when what we really mean to say is: sex. The often celebrated Gender Reveal Party is a perfect example. When we gather together to cut into a cake or open a box full of pink or blue balloons, we are supposed to be revealing and celebrating a baby's gender. But to do so assumes that the baby in question will be cisgendered, or identify with the gender assigned at birth. According to GenderSpectrum.org, one's biological sex includes physical attributes — external genitalia, gonads, sex hormones, internal reproductive structures, and and sex chromosomes. Gender is "one's internal sense of self as male, female, both, or neither," according to the site. So really, what we should be calling these "Gender Reveal" parties are Sex Organ Reveal Parties.
In fact, that's exactly what I called mine. Instead of revealing our daughter's sex by revealing an arbitrary color assignment, I went to a store that sold locally made, hand-crafted chocolate penises and vaginas (or vulvas, if we really want to be anatomically correct) and bought them out of their female stock. At our party that night — it just happened to be New Year's Eve — we placed our vaginas-on-a-stick around the buffet table to reveal to all in attendance that we were having a (biological) girl.
I was scared of having to explain the expectations of her gender: Be skinny. But not too skinny. Smile. Don't be a b*tch. Be educated. But not more educated than a man. Be independent. But not so independent that you can't get a guy. Guard your virginity. But be sexually appealing. Get married. Have babies (because what else is your vagina good for?). Maintain a work-life balance. Lose the baby weight. Lean in. Do it well — for a woman.
I have since realized that I wasn't scared to have a girl. I was scared of how I was going to navigate raising a daughter in a society that assigns impossible-to-achieve standards to her gender. I was scared of the expectation of dressing her in pink dresses and frilly bows simply because she is a girl. I was scared of the misplaced notion that girls are supposed to be quieter than boys, better behaved; sugar and spice and everything nice, and the subtext that the nursery rhyme implies. I was scared my baby's chubby thighs will one day be expected to have a sizable gap between them. I was scared of the everyday sexism she will most likely encounter; the condescension, the harassment, the embarrassment, the micro-aggressions that have been a constant companion to most women's life stories. Because we live in a world where, the UN estimates, 200 million girls are missing because of gendercide. Because we live in a country where one in four women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime.
I was scared of having to explain the expectations of her gender: Be skinny. But not too skinny. Smile. Don't be a b*tch. Be educated. But not more educated than a man. Be independent. But not so independent that you can't get a guy. Guard your virginity. But be sexually appealing. Get married. Have babies (because what else is your vagina good for?). Maintain a work-life balance. Lose the baby weight. Lean in. Do it well — for a woman. Listen when men are talking, sweetie. Age gracefully. Dress appropriately. In other words: Fulfill your gender role.
All those fears I had, that I wasn't "girly" enough, that I wouldn't know how to raise a girl, were created by my own purchase into the gender binary and all the harmful identities and attributes that come with it. In order to stop being afraid I had to stop believing in the power that the idea of gender had over me — because that is what gender is: an idea. So, I dress my daughter in pink clothing. But she also wears every other color in the rainbow. I don't use bows, not to buck gender standards, but because they'd only last about 30 seconds before she'd pull them out.
When she's old enough to dress herself, I'll encourage her to wear whatever she wants. I will endeavor to support my daughter's love of insects or superheroes or baseballs or any other traditionally "blue" toy. If she decides she wants to wear ribbons and dresses and pink, I will help her pick out matching shoes. If she decides she wants to play princess and have tea parties, I will make her a sparkly, pink fascinator and I will make one for myself to match. But I will also ask her if she is playing with those toys or wearing those clothes because she wants or because she thinks that she should.
I will tell her that she can define her own roles because if gender is a social construct than she is free to construct or destroy it however she likes. And I know now that if I'd had a boy, it wouldn't have been easier or harder. I simply would have been teaching all of these things to a person with a penis. Because I wasn't disappointed I was having a girl. I was disappointed in gender.