I don’t often feel inclined to slap people, particularly pregnant women, but the other day I came across a worthy candidate. I found myself sitting next to her at a party, watching a small pack of children – among them my two sons and her own boy – charge about in high spirits. I knew her only a little, so followed the usual talking-to-a-pregnant-person etiquette: congratulations: when was she due; how was her pregnancy etc. Then I made my mistake. Did she know whether she was having a boy or a girl? “Oh yes, it is a girl this time,” she said, smugly. “I am so lucky to be having one of each – that is what everyone wants.”
“Oh?” I replied, “Is it? Actually I am completely happy with two boys.” And I got up and walked away before the twitch in my hand became uncontrollable.
Perhaps, to be charitable, she had forgotten that I have two sons (unlikely, given that I had introduced them to her moments earlier). Most likely she just didn’t think. She could have said: “I am so lucky to be having one of each because it is what I have always wanted”, which would have been fine. Instead, in one loaded sentence she inferred that it is inferior to have two sons. She was also ignorantly implying that I, as the second of two daughters, was a disappointment to my parents.
It was the most tactless comment of its kind I have ever experienced, despite the number of people who felt it appropriate, during my second pregnancy, to tell me that I must be “hoping for a girl this time” (Must I? I guess I missed the antenatal class covering that one) and later, when the Spare was born, to speculate that O. and I would now want a third, to “try for a girl.” I was deeply offended by the implication that I should, or even could, be dissatisfied with my second gorgeous, healthy son.
Until I had the Heir and the Spare it had never even occurred to me that, in modern liberal society, there might be considered an “ideal” gender division among your children. If I thought about it at all it was to count myself lucky that I don’t live in an age or culture where my entire pregnancy would be dominated by the pressure to produce a son. However, conversations with other parents have shown me that my experiences are depressingly common. In fact, I got off lightly compared to some. The near-universal theme is that other people (friends, family, a random stranger encountered in the supermarket) assume parents must want one baby of each gender. One mum even had someone buy her a book on “choosing the sex of your baby” when she was planning a second child, because “of course you want to have one of each.”
Mothers of a boy and a girl have been treated to such delightful comments as “you can relax now because you have one of each” and “now that you have a boy and a girl your family is complete” (because parents of same-sex siblings have incomplete families, right?) I know of more than one mum who had people suggest her third pregnancy must be a mistake as she already had one of each.
Turns out there is a further complication: the absolute best way of doing it, apparently, is to have a son followed by a daughter. A good friend has been told that she has “done it right” not only by having one of each but by having her son first. Another friend was assured how “clever” she was to have had a boy and then a girl.
Often the pressure for gender preference comes from the older generation, for whom tact isn’t always a concern. One grandfather, himself father of two girls, said to his pregnant daughter: “if it’s not a girl I’m not interested, I won’t know what to do”, while conversely another dismissed his third in a line of granddaughters as “another bloody girl”. Again, there is often a much-voiced desire to have a “pigeon pair” of grandchildren, even if the parents themselves have no preference. This weight of expectation can be daunting, worrying and downright harmful – I spoke to one mother who believes that pressure from her partner’s parents contributed to her severe postnatal depression as she felt she had “let them down” by having another daughter.
I would have imagined that, for those who have struggled to conceive or carry a baby to term, gender preference seems an unimaginable luxury. But it turns out that it isn’t always negated, particularly among concerned others. One friend, pregnant through IVF after years of disappointment, had no personal preference but her parents-in-law, despite knowing how hard-got this baby was, still insisted on telling her how much they wanted a grandson (which they didn’t get).
There is a prevailing feeling in my social circles that, if you have to have two the same, then having multiple daughters is somehow preferable (never, however, from people who have exclusively sons of their own). Some comments are downright offensive. I know mums whose second or third sons were greeted by “poor you”, “never mind” and “what a shame”. Another reported an acquaintance saying to her “I’m so glad I’ve only got girls, I’d hate to have boys”. Sons, it would seem, are perceived to be harder work. Well guess what? Parenting is hard work, irrespective of whether you have sons or daughters. Boys and girls? Swings and roundabouts.
Probably because we had no real preferences either way, O. and I never found out our baby’s gender during either of my pregnancies. Many people do, however, and say that if you have a strong preference it is helpful to come to terms with the gender of your child as early as possible. One mum confessed that, upon finding out her unborn child was third boy, she subjected her family to “a weekend of hell with me swearing and cussing that I was going to be surrounded by testosterone and penises…” before becoming reconciled and falling instantly in love with him. Indeed, almost everyone I know who was initially disappointed by the results of a prenatal scan claims to have been completely accepting by the time the child was born.
Unsurprisingly, our own childhoods influence our feelings on this topic – the desire to repeat positive experiences and avoid negative ones. I am so close to my sister that I was with her during her labour, which has definitely made me look favourably on same-sex sibling bonds. (I did secretly used to want an older brother – firstly so he could be like Julian from The Famous Five and later so I could date his friends – but I would never have swapped my sister for him.) Equally, many people who have bad relationships with their brother or sister prefer a different gender balance than the one they endured themselves, in case of history repeating itself. Additionally, what you want before you have children may change according to what you have first: a second-time parent is influenced by what sibling they want for their firstborn.
I believe that a great deal of gender preference comes down to stereotypes. Over and over I hear women say they want girls for the enduring quality of the mother/daughter bond. But there is no reason that a mother and son cannot be equally good friends. I have a strong relationship with my mother, but I don’t in any way feel bereft because I won’t have an identical one with a daughter of my own. Having a girl doesn’t guarantee a close friendship, any more than having a boy means you won’t be looked after in old age. The Spare’s favourite colour is pink and, age three, he enjoys trying to walk in my high heels. I find this amusing and I certainly don’t tell me he can’t because he is a boy, but I am not secretly hoping it means he will be gay (although if he is that is fine) in order to be my “substitute daughter”.
The pregnant woman at the party angered me with her tactlessness, but ultimately it didn’t really matter because I am absolutely thrilled with my boys. I never felt an overwhelming desire or any pressure from my nearest and dearest to have a daughter in preference to, or as well as, a second son and I certainly don’t feel my family to be “incomplete”. No two children are alike, be they boys or girls, so perhaps it would be helpful to focus on a baby as an individual rather than a gender. Ultimately, whatever the parents’ thoughts may be, it is never appropriate for others to voice anything other than enthusiasm for a baby of either gender.