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March 10, 2020

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Sad about having a boy not a girl? Your distress might be real but gender disappointment is no mental illness.


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In an age of gender-reveal parties, baby bumps on Instagram, and hyper-gendered toys and clothing, learning about a baby’s sex is big news.

But having a boy rather than a girl, or vice versa, makes some people sad. Some label this “gender disappointment”.

Our research looked at what’s behind this sadness and whether gender disappointment is a mental illness, as some people say.

What’s ‘gender disappointment’?

In many societies, an ideal family is still a very gendered project. We see people wanting the son or daughter they’ve dreamed of or being congratulated for a “gender balanced family” with at least one boy and a girl.

Parents who do not achieve this ideal can feel they failed at something important. And some parents want to use IVF to choose their child’s sex.

Gender disappointment is often portrayed as a mental illness, similar to depression, in the media and on online forums, where prospective parents discuss their desire for, or experience with, sex selection.

Parents who have been interviewed about choosing the sex of their baby via IVF have also described gender disappointment as a mental illness.


Read more:
Choosing children’s sex is an exercise in sexism


What’s behind this phenomenon?

Our research found no evidence gender disappointment is a mental illness.

Instead, we argue that at the heart of many testimonies is the belief only children of a certain sex can do certain things, or have particular traits. The problem with such “gender essentialism” is there’s no strong evidence for it.

Contemporary research challenges the idea there are two distinctly different male or female brains, personality types, behaviours or “natural inclinations” towards particular activities.

But there is mounting evidence of how society creates, fixates on and reinforces gender differences.


Read more:
What’s the point of sex? It frames gender expression and identity – or does it?


Sex Vs Gender

Parents reporting gender disappointment also seem to confuse sex with gender.

Sex refers to the various biological and physiological bodily characteristics, whereas gender relates to the socially constructed characteristics and roles associated with individuals of a particular sex. And both sex and gender are less binary, more diverse traits than commonly thought.

When parents speak about gender disappointment, they say they’re sad about missing out on particular activities, relationships or experiences with their child, not physical attributes associated with sex.

Yet, there is no guarantee an individual child will identify with the gender assigned to them at birth or develop the desired attributes. There are also no reasons to believe the parent couldn’t have the desired experiences with any child.

Could parents be overreacting?

Some people might argue parents’ anguish is an overreaction, a disproportionate response to the news of their baby’s sex, a failure in some sort of psychological process.

But is there a process specifically concerned with adjusting to the sex of your child that is somehow faulty in people who speak about gender disappointment? Not likely.


Read more:
Monday’s medical myth: you can control the sex of your baby


What seems more plausible is the distress parents experience is a form of depression or adjustment disorder, which a psychological examination could address.

But if there is no unique cause of the “disease” or unique treatment for parents’ distress, it is hard to see the point of classifying it as a unique mental illness.


Read more:
We’re overdosing on medicine – it’s time to embrace life’s uncertainty


What can we do about it?

So, we’re back to the issue of how parents who speak out about gender disappointment tend to overestimate the role of biology and underestimate the role of society in the process of acquiring gender roles and attributes.

With society being so gendered and gender essentialism so widely shared, such a view among parents is hardly surprising.


Read more:
It’s not just the toy aisles that teach children about gender stereotypes


If society gave up those beliefs, parents might also stop assuming their parenting experience will be vastly different based on their child’s sex. The associated disappointment should then also disappear.

But overcoming ingrained societal beliefs is a long-term struggle. In the meantime, what can we do to help parents in distress?

What Can Parents Do?

Counselling to dispel some of the beliefs underlying their suffering would be a good start. Should parents have depression, or think they might have, their GP can help. But someone doesn’t need to be labelled with a mental illness for their distress to be addressed.

If this article has raised issues for you, or if you’re concerned about someone you know, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

  • I couldn’t imagine being disappointed by the what sex the baby is. We didn’t find out the sex of either of my children because it didn’t make any difference as to how excited we were to be having a baby.

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  • Of course you would love to have one of each but you get what you get. I have two boys and when I found out my second was another boy sure I was initially a little sad I wouldn’t have a girl but I wouldn’t change my boys for the world

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  • A lot of people secretly want one gender or another especially if you have one gender already

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  • I think it’s normal, but I’m the end all we all want is a happy and healthy baby

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  • It is true…..I was upset when I was having my third girl. I grieved, then got over it and welcomed her lovingly. 7 years later I actually had my first and only boy, only because I became clucky again.

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  • I understand that parents want a son to pass on the family name but I don’t agree with it. To me as long as my children were born healthy was something to celebrate. I didn’t care about the sex of my child and I still don’t. They are my kids and they are healthy and happy and that’s the best I would wish for.

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  • Sorry – I was just so happy my children were born and were all OK – full fingers, toes, etc. and were happy that they were alive, no matter their gender.

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  • Any baby is a blessing!! I truely don’t understand how someone could be disappointed over your babies gender.

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  • Wow! I’m sorry we have to give this a name. It normalises it and makes it a big deal. I just desperately wanted a healthy baby. How can you be disappointed about someone you’ve not yet met. That says more about the parents than an innocent child that has the possibility to be and do anything.

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  • You only get one or the other so you have to deal with what you get. Normally gender disappointment disappears after a while.

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  • I am happy with either as long as they are healthy and well

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  • I was happy with what I was blessed with and had no gender preference. I come out of a family with 5 girls. My mum always hoped for a boy for my dad but my dad was happy with us all

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  • It can be hard having all your children one gender and people ask so when are you going to one of the opposite sex. I loved my three sons very much and considered it was to be. i was told no more children as it might kill me next time. I had just over an hour cuddling my little girl before she died in my arms and after that was glad the next two babies were girls. My youngest at that time was 16 and a surprise came along and I was happy to have another boy as long as it was healthy. She was healthy but a tom boy, not into girly things, that was ok. Knew how to bring up boys. Then bang when she was 9 another surprise came along, this time I made sure no more surprises as bed rest is not fun. Twins a boy and a girl, My son from that is more into girly so called things and his twin sister loves outdoor stuff and loves working on engines. So yes it is a real thing as I really wanted a girl the first time and most everyone was saying I was carrying a girl and I grew to believe it.

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  • I fall under the so long as my baby is alive I’m happy, category. The gender is not important to us. We wait until the baby is born to find out if boy or girl and are happy either way. I get that some people want a specific gender for their own reasons. I have a friend who really wanted a girl because she imagined herself doing things with a girl (she is quite girly herself). She loves her boys but really wanted the girl and got upset when everyone was telling her she should just be happy to be able to have kids. I’ve had other friends who only wanted girls because they didn’t know what to do with a boy or how to take care of one, not having the male parts. All seems weird to me, but each to their own

    Reply

  • We didn’t find out what we were having, I did really want a girl however when the baby was placed on me and he was a boy I was so overwhelmed with love I didn’t even care if the baby was a boy or girl

    Reply

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