with Clinical Psychologist Dr. Renée Miller
WHAT YOU’LL LEARN
- Defining Gender Disappointment
- Gender Disappointment vs. Sex Disappointment
- Causes of Gender Disappointment
- The Impact of Gender Disappointment
- Working Through Gender Disappointment
When you first learned you were expecting a baby, did you have a preferred gender in mind? Some people do and for a variety of different reasons. It can be hard to admit, but you may have even experienced some sadness if you learned the baby wouldn’t be your preferred gender.
This is completely okay and more common than you might think. But since it can be hard to admit, it can also be hard to work through. Dr. Renée Miller has spent her career helping parents overcome gender disappointment, and she’s here today to help us unpack this concept.
Defining Gender Disappointment
“Gender disappointment is grief. It ranges from mild to extreme in people, and it happens when we find out the sex of the baby we’re having is not the sex we had hoped for,” Dr. Renée explained.
Gender disappointment can occur while we’re pregnant and learn the sex of the baby is different than we’ve been planning for. Or if we opt not to know the sex of the baby, it can occur once we’ve delivered a baby and realized it’s not what we were planning for.
I always imagined I would have a daughter and even had a name picked out. I turned out with three boys, and there was some processing around that. When we decided our family was complete, it was like closing the door on something I’d always expected to happen.
We sometimes find it hard to express our feelings of disappointment around gender, because we feel like we shouldn’t be disappointed. But gender disappointment isn’t a lack of gratitude for a healthy baby.
It’s more that we had hopes and dreams for the baby we thought we were having, and those are gone. It doesn’t mean we don’t love and value the child we have, but our plans have to change. And those initial dreams are gone.
It can be very isolating to keep these feelings to ourselves, but this is something moms do a lot. “Oh, I don’t have it as bad as this other person. What right do I have to feel bad?”
Dr. Renée compared it to thinking of a friend with fertility problems and thinking, “I should just be grateful for what I have.” She explained this diminishes our lived experience, and just acknowledging it could be more helpful.
“The deeper the drive or narrative of a child of a particular sex goes in terms of a woman’s life experience, the more disappointed she will be,” Dr. Renée said. She went on to say there would often be more to work through too.
Causes of Gender Disappointment
We often decide we want a child of a particular sex based on our own relationships or relationships we’ve seen. “I put together this idea that people either want to replicate something, they want to repair something in their lives that wasn’t so great, or it’s a reflection of the self,” Dr. Renée stated. She explained she came to this after finding people who experienced gender disappointment tended to fall into one of these three camps.
Maybe you were closer to your sister than your brother and so you hope for a girl to replicate that relationship. Or you were close to your mom and think you’ll have the same relationship with your daughter. In both cases, we’re trying to replicate a relationship we valued.
You could also be trying to repair a relationship. Maybe you know someone who has a horrible relationship with a child of one sex and are hoping to avoid that.
Or you feel your brother is closer to your parents and has an easier relationship with them. Because of this, you may feel a boy child will be closer to you than if you had a girl. Or you may not want a girl to move through life feeling like she’s not as connected to her family as her brother is or would be.
If you had a horrible relationship with a parent, you could be hoping to heal that wound in the relationship with your child. For those that have experienced loss, they might be thinking, “I’ve lost a boy, and so I don’t want to feel the next baby will replace the one who died, but the converse can be I want the same sex,” Dr. Renée said.
Overachievers who have been successful and take care of their parents or grandparents while their brothers have horrible habits and aren’t worried about success might hope to reflect themselves in a girl child. This is an example of reflection.
“For all of those examples, I’ve seen the converse happen in real life,” Dr. Renée said. “But you can see, these sorts of beliefs go deep. They’re about people’s experience in the world and their assumptions about gender.”
Even if we got the gender we were hoping for, it doesn’t mean that the dreams we had for this kid will come true. They may be very different from what we expected.
Gender Disappointment vs. Sex Disappointment
“It is the incorrect term, but it’s the commonly used term,” Dr. Renée said. “But gender disappointment in and of itself is a set of feelings of grief around feeling disappointed that what we’re having is not our preferred sex.”
I think I experienced a mild to moderate form of this when I found out the different genders we were having. It took some processing and didn’t really make a major impact on my mood, but gender disappointment exists on a continuum. People can have a more severe experience.
“The reason it’s called gender disappointment is because all we’re talking about is the genitals of the child,” Dr. Renée said. “But the way it’s conceived of is around gender and expectations around gender.”
Think about gender reveals. If we’re announcing a boy, everything is blue. We throw balls around or may decorate with motor vehicles and dinosaurs. If it’s a girl, everything is pink with glitter and rainbows. We immediately begin to form stereotypes about this child who hasn’t come into the world.
The Impact of Gender Disappointment
Gender disappointment affects some people more than others. “Some people just feel things more strongly,” Dr. Renée said. “But if you drill down it speaks to the level of experience and feelings the person carries and holds that have formed their assumptions and preference.
“What is it actually about? Because it’s not about the sparks and getting your nails done,” Dr. Renée said. If your gender disappointment revolves around things, it may actually be you’re looking for connection.
But once we get past the preconceived ideas of things we thought we could do with a child of a particular sex, we can find connections in other ways. I wanted a girl to go to the Disney princess castle with me. I don’t think my boys will be interested in that but I love connecting with my oldest son through his creativity and artwork.
There is also the distinct possibility that a child who isn’t the gender we thought we wanted is actually still interested in the things we wanted to do with a kid of that gender. Children don’t have to fit gender stereotypes, and we don’t have to teach them. How do you actually know your boy doesn’t want to dance—or whatever thing you wanted to with a girl—until you’ve tried it?
Dr. Renée once worked with a client who wanted a boy, because she grew up with parents who spent more time and energy on her brothers. She didn’t want another girl to experience what she did, and she had no idea how to protect a daughter. For her, working through gender disappointment meant forgiving her younger self.
The pattern here seems to be we have to get to the root of what we’re actually grieving to work through it. That could be different for everyone.
Overcoming Gender Disappointment
“Just accept your feelings and try to move away from the shame and the guilt,” Dr. Renée said. She explained this is the first step to working through gender disappointment.
“Your feelings are your feelings and you’re having them because you hold meaning in certain things,” she said. “It’s important to open your mind to working through the layers of loss.”
This is another “Name it to tame it” situation. Working through this begins with accepting your feelings, having someone you can talk openly and honestly with about the disappointment, and working through some of the other issues we may have developed around how we view gender.
Once we’ve accepted what we’re feeling is gender disappointment, we can begin the work of processing through those feelings. That often means understanding that things we attribute to gender may have nothing to do with gender. It means recognizing our child is or will be their own individual person whose gender identity may not even match their biological sex and has agency over how they connect with us.
That can be a lot to process. If you’re feeling disappointed or a little unsettled that you’re having or have a child, not of your preferred gender, reach out to the Happy as a Mother Wellness Center. We can connect you with a professional to help you process these feelings.
Dr Renée Miller is a perinatal clinical psychologist who runs the Antenatal and Postnatal Psychology Network in Melbourne, Australia. Renée’s doctoral research was on postpartum depression, anxiety and stress in first time mothers. Her clinical work is focussed on supporting pregnant and postpartum women and couples through the difficulties associated with conception, pregnancy, and becoming parents.
Over recent years, Renée has developed an interest in women’s experience of gender disappointment. Renée conducted informal research on the topic of gender disappointment, by inviting followers of her Facebook page to share their experiences of gender disappointment. As a result of this research, Renée authored the article “Gender disappointment: Grieving the idealised child”.
- Gender disappointment: Grieving the idealised child (Article by Dr. Renée)
- The Sibling Plan
- Happy as a Mother Wellness Center