When to seek help for gender disappointment

When does gender disappointment become more serious?
When does gender disappointment become more serious? Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK

It's difficult for her to admit, but Hannah Clark's* initial reaction upon discovering she was having a second boy was disappointment - followed by a sense of sadness and loss. 

"It was strange to think I'd never have a daughter," she explains. "I really wanted to have a girl and hopefully have the same relationship with her that I have with my own mum."

And the fact that expressing disappointment over the sex of your baby is still taboo, made it even harder for Ms Clark to process the grief. "I felt like I couldn't talk about it with anyone," she adds. 

For Claire Martin*, it was her husband who was initially devastated when the pair discovered they weren't having another daughter. "He was terrified about raising a boy in today's world," she says. "A world that needs to but has not yet properly tackled toxic masculinity."

But while gender disappointment isn't uncommon, (a 2017 survey by Channel Mum found that a quarter of parents admitted to feeling disappointed if their baby wasn't the desired sex) most mums and dads will find that their feelings pass once baby arrives. For others, however, the grief can render them almost unable to function.

That's the scenario one concerned father-to-be has shared in a Reddit thread, after he and his wife discovered they were expecting a boy. "My wife is 24 weeks pregnant with a baby boy," he wrote. "She made it very clear from even before she was pregnant that she really wanted a daughter, and she made the odd joke about "sending it back" if it was a boy."

But while the expectant father thought the jokes "all seemed lighthearted" he believed she would change her mind if they had a son.

"Fast forward to our 20-week scan," he continues. "We go in super excited and nervous. I don't mind about the gender, my wife is crying with excitement as she had a feeling it was a girl." But when the pair found out they were having a boy, the mum-to-be couldn't stop crying. "I hold her hand, knowing immediately that she was disappointed and putting it down to the pregnancy hormones," he wrote. "She doesn't stop crying the whole day."

But a day turned into a month and the mum is still crying whenever anyone mentions the baby. "She's refusing to do anything with the nursery and won't discuss anything pregnancy related. Family are starting to think it's weird, but she said she doesn't want people to judge her for how she feels. I told her she needs to get a grip. I felt awful but I feel like nearly a month of this is ridiculous."

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While no one but a trained clinician can diagnose the mum-to-be, many commenters suggested that she might be experiencing antenatal depression and that her husband should support her in seeking help and treatment as soon as possible. Others, however, slammed her for her feelings. "How selfish do you have to be to centre your life around birthing an unconsenting individual into the world then having the audacity to be mad when it isn't the sex you wanted it to be."

The comments reflect the fact that gender disappointment is an incredibly divisive topic. But while many feel it's ridiculous and ungrateful to be sad about the sex of a baby - particularly those struggling with infertility - it's impossible to ignore that those affected experience a very real sense of grief and loss. 

While research around gender disappointment has been limited, some studies have found a link between not having a child of the desired sex and postnatal depression. In one study of Australian mums there was a "significantly increased risk" for PND.

And, a 2016 study of British mums who wanted daughters concluded: " results indicate that 'gender disappointment' is a pervasive and multi-faceted phenomenon which left the participants feeling isolated from their families and society, grieving for something they could not have, and feeling out of control of their bodies, thoughts and emotions."

That said, in the longer-term, another study found no difference in the psychological health of those who desired a boy and a girl and didn't have a pigeon pair, versus those who didn't mind whether they had all boys, all girls, or one of each. "Those who valued a mixed-sex composition but did not obtain it did not report more depressive symptoms, poorer life satisfaction overall, or less satisfaction with family life than those who did not value the mixed-sex ideal," the author wrote.

Dr Nicole Highet, founder and Director of the Centre of Perinatal Excellence, says that feeling disappointment about the gender of your baby is not uncommon, and certainly nothing to be ashamed of.

"It's important to acknowledge your feelings. Understanding that these feelings are the result of unmet hopes and expectations or even grief, can allow you to understand that these feelings are natural and like other disappointments or times of grief, this will resolve with time"

Dr Highet also explains that it's important not to make things worse by being  too hard on yourself for feeling the way you do. 

"Experiencing gender disappointment does not mean that this feeling will persist nor that you will not love, or be able to love your baby," she says. "In fact often these feelings usually disappear as the pregnancy progresses or after the baby is born, once you come to accept the situation, adjust your perspectives and your mothering instincts kick in. Your experience with your baby once they are born also can lead parents to come to the realisation that there can be other benefits to having a baby of the gender, or that the current gender of your baby is not so aligned with your reasons for initially preferring the opposite gender.

If feelings of disappointment do persist, however, and begin to impact on your ability to accept and emotionally connect with your baby, Dr Highet notes that it's important to seek professional help.

"Here sometimes it can be helpful to explore your reasons and feelings with a professional who will not judge your reactions, but rather provide understanding and help you to come to terms with the situation, and provide strategies to promote acceptance.

"Like grief at other times in life, acceptance usually comes with time.  Acknowledge your feelings, don't be hard on yourself and give yourself time."

Lifeline 13 11 14

PANDA National Helpline (Mon to Fri, 9am - 7.30pm AEST/AEDT) 1300 726 306

*Names have been changed