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Gender Disappointment: A hidden shame

Sleeping newborn
Credit: iStock.com/kieferpix

While social media streams are swamped with videos of parents celebrating gender reveal parties, there can be a hidden shame for those parents who are experiencing gender disappointment.

“Gender disappointment is the disappointment in the gender of the unborn or newly born baby, beyond a preference,” says Dr Bronwyn Leigh, Clinical Psychologist and Director of the Centre for Perinatal Psychology.

“It’s when the expectant parent or parents have a desire for the opposite gender and they feel, not only disappointed, but robbed and angry.

“It is about being highly invested in what you imagined and grieving for not getting it.”

Dr Leigh points out that the topic is under-researched due to the stigma surrounding gender disappointment, often silencing parents.

“It’s not a well understood area in terms of the extent of it or how often it happens, whether mum or dad experience it more, or if there is a preference for girls or boys,” she says.

What leads to gender disappointment?

Dr Leigh outlines four pathways that could potentially lead parents to experience gender disappointment.

“The first is about imaginings,” she says.

“For some people, they create quite complex, rich fantasies about themselves as a parent and about how family life will look and be.

“If there is significant investment in that fantasy and there is not a lot of flexibility, then that can really set people up to have gender disappointment.”

Dr Leigh explains that for some, those fantasies can develop over a number of years and can be quite detailed, causing them to feel that there is a ‘right’ way to have a family, whether it is the gender of a child or even the gender order of their children.

The second pathway is around the feeling of competence as a parent.

“Someone can feel they can better relate or parent one gender over the other,” says Dr Leigh.

“That feeling can be related to a fantasy they’ve created, or it may be based on their own experiences growing up in a family.

“For example, ‘I can parent a girl better than a boy as I know girls, I have sisters, I have female cousins, lots of Aunties, I just don’t get boys’.”

The third pathway can be because of a previous loss.

“If someone has had a late-term genetic termination or a still birth, they may have a gender preference for the subsequent pregnancy,” Dr Leigh explains.

“It’s a very common feeling.

“They may want the same gender to have that closeness with the baby that was lost.

“Or they may desire the opposite gender so that they have a clear separation from the baby that passed away.”

For some people, they create quite complex, rich fantasies about themselves as a parent and about how family life will look and be. If there is significant investment in that fantasy and there is not a lot of flexibility, then that can really set people up to have gender disappointment.
Dr Bronwyn Leigh

The final reason for preferring one gender over the other can be the result of a history of physical, emotional or sexual trauma, with childhood abuse being the most common.

“In the clinical setting, we hear of this more from mothers where their perpetrator has been male,” she says.

“The gender preference can be for a female infant as a male infant may be frightening to them and/or they may fear the male infant will grow into a perpetrator himself.

“For these women, having a male baby can be a trigger for past unresolved trauma, which requires psychotherapy.”

Dr Leigh says that there is a constellation of feelings around gender disappointment.

“They can feel shame, guilt, angry, robbed – feeling like parenting this child’s gender is not what they signed up for,” she says.

“They may isolate themselves or they may feel isolated in their parenthood journey.

“For parents with any history of loss, or difficulty in conceiving, these feelings are intensified as they tend to believe they shouldn’t complain but instead be grateful no matter what.”

Dr Leigh points out that an unintended consequence of gender disappointment may impact the parent-infant relationship.

“If a parent with gender disappointment is unable to bracket off their feelings while they are being with their baby, it may well impact their interactions,” she says.

“Babies need parents who are physically and emotionally available, who are attuned to their needs, sensitively meeting their needs and a capacity to delight in them. 

“A parent who is preoccupied with their own feelings and state of disappointment will find it more difficult to be present and available to the needs of their little one. 

“This, in turn, can affect their developing relationship.”

Dr Leigh says that it is important for parents to seek support so they can have a connected experience with their infant and enjoy their role as a parent.

How to get through gender disappointment

Dr Leigh emphasises that it is never too late to seek help, whether the parent is still pregnant, or their child is three years old.

“Thinking of the mental representation of the imagined baby and grieving the loss of that baby is important,” she says.

The first step, according to Dr Leigh, is to acknowledge the gender disappointment feelings and allow yourself to feel those feelings without judgment.

She says, the next step is to understand the reasons behind the desire for a particular gender.

The final step is to grieve the loss.

She recommends seeking help from a perinatal and infant psychologist who would be experienced in helping parents with gender disappointment.

When it comes to the couple, Dr Leigh highlights that while the shared experience might be comforting for parents both experiencing gender disappointment, it may be more difficult to help each other.

For couples where only one member is experiencing gender disappointment, she advises that, if possible, the non-grieving parent not be critical or dismissive but to accept the feelings of their partner as real and valid and to allow them to adjust to that disappointment.

Australia’s stance on sex selection

The procedure of sex selection, a practice using medical techniques to choose the sex of the foetus, is considered unethical by Australian standards and illegal in some states.

In 2017, the Australian Health Ethics Committee (AHEC), reviewed the Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART) guidelines and found that sex selection is not supported unless for a specific medical reason, such as “reducing the risk of transmission of a genetic condition, disease or abnormality that would severely limit the quality of life of the person who would be born”.

A spokesperson for the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) says that, “AHEC’s majority view was that there is an ethical difference between a desire to introduce variety to the existing sex ratio of a family and the desire to design the sex of the offspring based on the preferential selection of a particular sex due to an individual’s or a couple’s cultural or personal bias, influences or desires.

“At the same time, AHEC acknowledges that the motivations of those seeking to use sex selection for non-medical purposes cannot be easily identified.

“What is presented as a desire to introduce variety could conceal cultural and/or personal biases.

“AHEC does not endorse, nor wish to perpetuate, gender stereotyping, or cultural or personal biases based on biological sex.”

The ART guidelines remain in place until a wider public debate on sex selection is had and/or a state or territory introduces sex selection within their legislation.