I Always Wanted a Daughter but Ended Up with Sons
Here’s what I’ve learned from my ongoing struggle with gender disappointment.
“You’re having a baby boy,” the technician announced unceremoniously less than a minute into the 20 week ultrasound of my first pregnancy. “And there’s no doubt about it,” she added, pointing at the screen, where the baby was angled to give us an unobstructed full-frontal.
She proceeded to take all the necessary measurements and talked my husband and me through various things, but I couldn’t focus. My mind was racing—did she really say I was having a son?
As a pit was forming in my stomach, I realized that I’d never imagined that possibility. I had always assumed I would have a baby girl. When I pictured my future child, it was always a daughter. I wasn’t against having a son, but simply for reasons I had never fully considered, I never pictured anything but a daughter.
I was one of two girls. My sister already had one daughter and another on the way, and it seemed only natural that I, too, would have a little girl of my own.
As we walked back to the car from the ultrasound room, my husband acknowledged my evident disappointment and then made a comment about feeling relieved that everything was looking healthy with the baby. But I was still too shocked about the gender of the little human inside me to respond. An unstoppable lump was forming in my throat.
Disappointment was an understatement—having a son felt like an injustice over which I had zero control.
Over the next couple of days, I cried several times. Each set of tears was immediately followed by horrible feelings of guilt—shouldn’t it be enough that I had a healthy baby? And what about the baby’s feelings? How would he feel knowing that his mother hadn’t wanted a boy?
I was afraid to admit these thoughts to anyone, even my closest friends, for fear of judgment that seemed to me not entirely unwarranted. Over the next few weeks, as I cycled between sadness, frustration, and guilt, I kept telling myself to get over it, to pull myself together and stop being ungrateful.
I spent the rest of my pregnancy trying to get comfortable with the idea of a son. When he finally arrived, I was too busy surviving life with a newborn to think any more about it. I loved him heartily and unconditionally, and yet in the back of my mind, I held a secret consolation: if all went well, our plan was to have two kids, so there was still a chance for me to have a daughter.
Then came my second pregnancy. Early on, my husband and I had both agreed that two kids would be our limit. So when I learned I was pregnant with another boy, it felt like a particularly hard blow. My long-time vision of one day having a daughter imploded in the thirty seconds it took a nurse to reveal the baby’s gender to me over the phone. (This time it was via blood test.)
It didn’t matter that my love for my first son was all-encompassing—I knew I would love a second child with the same intensity. It was the finality of the situation that stung so fiercely.
I realized that I would be the only female presence in my household—indefinitely.
My thoughts immediately jumped to some stereotypical “girly” things I worried about missing out on. Who would be my future shopping buddy or collaborator on in-depth craft projects? Who would want to have heart-to-heart talks with me or get excited about elaborate cookie-decorating sessions? But then some deeper fears surfaced, like whether I’d feel lonely without another female presence in the house, someone who would have one day become my closest confidante, our closeness based on our common existence as women. I have enjoyed this bond with my mother, and it saddens me that I’ll never have it with a daughter of my own. After all, it’s a bond whose unique strength even science can attest to.
According to a Journal of Neuroscience article, mother-daughter relationships represent the strongest type of parent-child bonds, based on similarities in their brain anatomy.
Because of these reasons and likely more that are difficult to identify, I once again found myself going through the same sadness-guilt cycle as I had after the first gender reveal. No gender reveal party needed.
I tried my best to move on, this time without the consolation of what a future pregnancy might bring. And while we briefly entertained the idea of having a third child, my husband and I ultimately agreed that having more children than we want simply in the hopes that one is a girl isn’t the right path for us. This meant I was now officially going to be a “boy mom.” While it was a hard pill for me to swallow, it was my new reality, and it was time to find ways to embrace it.
At this point, I started sharing the disappointment I had tried to suppress during my first pregnancy. With a second baby boy on the way and no other recourse but acceptance, I felt a strong need to vent, and I did so with some close family and friends. While it helped to talk openly about these feelings—and in the end, I never felt judged—I found little consolation in the usual response: “That sounds hard now, but I’m sure you’ll get over it by the time the second baby comes.” I knew my feelings wouldn’t be resolved so easily—it hadn’t happened when my first son arrived, and I didn’t see it happening with the arrival of the second either.
My boys are now one and three, and while I am completely enamored with them and can’t imagine my life without them, I still have these lingering feelings of sadness at not having a daughter, almost like there’s a void that will never quite be filled.
Recently I learned there’s an official term for feeling like this about having the opposite gender than expected: gender disappointment. Collins English Dictionary defines it as “a feeling of depression or anxiety experienced by an expectant parent when the sex of the baby does not match his or her preference.” Obviously, I could relate.
My feelings of disappointment have lasted well past both pregnancies, and their resolution is a work-in-progress.
Over the last few years, I’ve attempted to work through my disappointment with some success, though challenges still remain. What has helped the most is trying to be in the moment with my kids as much as possible, allowing me to see a thoughtfulness and sensitivity develop in them that I had naively thought was reserved for girls.
Thinking of fun ways to start sharing my hobbies with them has also helped, since I’ve realized that there’s no reason why boys can’t enjoy things like crafting or baking or other "girly girl" things that we so often assign unnecessary gender roles to. (My first child is actually becoming quite the sous chef!)
What doesn’t help so much is the most common reaction I get after telling people for the first time that I have two sons. First, it’s an apologetic, “Ooohh,” usually followed by a pity-filled, “You must really have your hands full.” And finally, in an uplifting tone suggesting a solution to what must be a problem, “Will you try a third time for a girl?”
I hear this line of commentary on a regular basis and, however well-meaning, the implication that life with only male offspring is an undesirable hassle can be frustrating. I recognize that while these feelings will likely fade over time, they may never go away completely—and I’m learning that’s okay too.
In the meantime, I regularly remind myself how lucky I am that I am a mother to two kids who are happy and healthy. I am focused on tackling the unexpected and sometimes unfamiliar territory of boyhood to build the strongest bonds I can with my boys. I also have two adorable nieces and will work to cultivate close relationships with them and the other women in my life to fulfill my long-term need for female companionship.
I’ve realized that at the end of the day, what concerns me the most about my daughter-free existence is that I will miss having a deep, built-in connection with someone who can relate to the condition of womanhood.
While my sons and I will share other meaningful connections, they won’t be able to provide that particular kind. As time passes, however, I am starting to see that instead of lamenting the lack of female presence in my nuclear family, I can work to fill this emotional void through my relationships with the wonderful women who are in my life already. Because while I may not have birthed them, that doesn’t mean we can’t have profound, life-long bonds.
Julia Shafer is a graphic designer and mother of two, splitting her time between logos and Legos while dreaming up future baking projects and family-friendly travel adventures.