‘Another boy,’ I replied, smiling.
‘Oh shame,’ she said.
I’d barely had a chance to register before she put her hand over her mouth.
‘I’m so sorry, I don’t know why I said that.’ She was flushing. ‘I’ve got two boys myself. I guess it’s just people always expect you to want one of each.’
Expectation is a strange and complicated emotion. I remember my certainty that I was carrying a boy in my first pregnancy. I felt it in my gut (must have been Ezra’s soccer kicks) and when the scan confirmed it, I was filled with joy. Although I would have been equally delighted with a girl. The most important thing was that my baby was healthy.
I was slightly more ambivalent the second time around. I wanted Ezra to have a little brother to rough and tumble with. But I also wanted a girl. I’m hardly a pink and flowers chick myself, but I did start fantasising about shopping in the pretty section. I imagined chick flicks and gossipy lunches when she was older – all that vaguely meaningful but essentially superficial stuff.
When the scan technician pointed us to the screen and asked if we could ‘guess’ what we were having, my husband and I both started laughing. There it was plain as day. Another boy. It was such a sweet, funny and thrilling moment. After an anxious early pregnancy following a recent miscarriage, we couldn’t have been happier. Our boy was healthy and, most importantly, alive.
So it was with mixed feelings that I watched a rerun of 8 Boys and Wanting a Girl, a Cutting Edge documentary following four women dealing with the psychological condition of ‘Gender Disappointment’.
As the title suggests, one couple had eight boys and had spent 21 years trying to have a girl. One had four boys and had successfully completed a sex selection treatment known as PGD (illegal in Britain) to produce two little princesses. Another mum was pregnant for the fifth time and we watch her sobbing when she discovers that baby number five is not the girl she had hoped for.
My hubby was disgusted. He couldn’t understand what kind of longing would drive these women to such an extreme.
Across internet forums, the programme has stirred up everything from shock to outrage and even name-calling. But a few voices have spoken out in support. Some admit they too shed tears over the boy or girl that never was.
It’s hard to let go of a dream. I’ve got relatives on both sides of the family with four boys or five girls each.
‘I’m sure you’ll go for a girl,’ one in-law, a mum of three boys, told me just after Jed was born. She’s now on pregnancy four.
My hubby, now a dad of three boys (two different mums) and one of five boys himself, jokes that he doesn’t have a girl in him.
But he has expressed a desire for a daughter and in my heart of hearts, I would like one too. Would I go round after round, chasing strange and expensive treatments in that pursuit? Hardly. But there’s nothing wrong with wishing.
Scratch the surface of almost any parent and you’ll uncover many shades of feeling on this issue. One mum at playgroup confessed she was over the moon when she found out she was having her second son. She was one of four sisters and had grown up in a house filled with bickering, competition and envy. ‘I didn’t want a girl,’ she said flatly. ‘I would have been crushed if it wasn’t a boy.’
It’s easy to dismiss Gender Disappointment as some petty affliction of Westerners with nothing better to worry about. But gender preference is nothing new.
After my father’s funeral, my sister overheard a stranger remarking how sad it was that my dad had left only one child behind.
‘But he has three children,’ said my uncle.
‘Yes,’ said the mourner, ‘but only one son.’
In many traditional societies, your wealth is still determined by how many boys you have. Here in the West, the talk of the day is about family balancing.
Call me trite, but I don’t know a single family that’s balanced. There’s no guarantee that having two or more of both sexes will make your life complete. It was interesting in the programme to hear the mum who got her twin girls talking about how her family is now perfectly together – while herself looking decidedly unhinged.
There are some heart-wrenching moments in 8 Boys and Wanting a Girl, such as when one mother’s final attempt at PGD fails. But what’s really heartbreaking is when you weigh up the effects of this obsession on the rest of the families, particularly the youngest. After all, one of the most difficult things for any child to bear is the weight of your parents’ disappointment.
If I had my way, I would send each of these mums on a life swap experiment with someone who couldn’t have kids, someone raising sick or disabled children, someone who had suffered loss. Because sometimes all any of us needs is a simple shift in perspective.