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GENDER DISAPPOINTMENT: What it is, how it feels, how to handle it (LINK)

MEET OUR NEW INTERN! Dee Shaffner (Merritt) is a first-time college student at Cayuga Community College in Fulton New York. Dee is currently workings towards her Associates’s Degree in Liberal Arts with a concentration in Psychology. She is a single mother to 3 wonderful (and extra silly) little boys, Lucas, Logan, and Liam. In addition to being a mother and a student, Dee also works at Mother Earth Baby and is a La Leche League volunteer.

We are thrilled to welcome Dee for a remote internship in blogging over the course of several weeks. She will be researching and writing on topics related to motherhood, gender, pregnancy, and breastfeeding. She hopes to gain additional insight from her research and share that knowledge. Her desire to support other mothers stems from her personal motherhood struggles as well as from questions and concerns, friends, mothers, even strangers have approached her about through the years, She will share some of her perspectives as part of her internship for MOM.

GENDER DISAPPOINTMENT: What it is, how it feels, how to handle it.

The day of the gender reveal during pregnancy can be an exciting one! When I went in for mine, I was so confident I was going to have a girl. The ultrasound technician concentrated on my belly as I lay under the thin cotton blanket on the table. Then, suddenly, pointing to the grainy image on the ultrasound screen, the tech announced in an excited voice that we were having a boy. My heart sank. This was not anything I was prepared for, no one ever mentioned to me that I could feel devastated about the gender of my baby, I felt so ashamed. All I could think of was how I was told in classes, and from other mothers, that all the effort and pain from pregnancy and labor goes away and nothing else matters when you hold your baby in your arms for the first time. But, I could not imagine holding a baby boy. I felt shattered.

Lying on the table, hearing the technician’s words, I squeezed my partner’s hand and forced out a smile. After I got dressed and left the room, I convinced myself there could be a mistake. The images were so blurry. There was still a chance my baby would come out a girl. Months later, during the labor and then as my baby was delivered, I heard excited voices announcing, “Congratulations. You have a baby boy!”

I felt a wave of disappointment and a surge of shame. These were the same feelings of shame I felt the first time I was told I was having a boy. I didn’t dare say anything out loud. I forced a smile.

This happened to me 3 times. Yes, I am the mother of 3 boys. Over the years I hoped the desire for a daughter would disappear. I love my children and this is not something I need to defend, but my heart still aches for other possibilities. Gender disappointment by definition is when an expectant parent experiences depression or anxiety when the sex of a baby does not match their preference. As I find myself continuing to struggle with my emotions, I have since learned many mothers and fathers also have gender disappointment. Though the journey is different for everyone, complex feelings, sadness, and feelings of longing are all part of this syndrome.

Admitting to gender disappointment can be hard for anyone. A person may feel hesitant to say much about it because they do not want to be judged by others and be seen as ungrateful or neglectful parents. For myself, feeling ashamed was a heavy weight on my shoulders, I love all my boys, but the love did not come at first sight. I had to learn how to love them. Since exploring this topic over the years, I have come to find out that my experiences were not unique. While expressions of gender-fluid behavior are prevalent in contemporary culture, and a mother can still teach her son to sew and a father can teach his daughter how to hunt, some parents continue to experience a lack of connection. They worry that they will never be able to fully bond with their child.

Social pressure on expecting parents can add even more depressive weight. Hearing from a stranger in the grocery store who says things such as “you already have 3 boys, so you should just give up on trying to have a daughter,” makes my blood boil. I have come to assume that these people, in an attempt to make small conversation, just do not really know what to say and they just repeat what has been said in the past, to them.

Other examples, of perhaps well-intentioned individuals wanting to insert themselves into an individual family narrative, can ultimately be unhelpful or even hurtful. A few of these are:

(You do not have any children.) “Oh, when are you going to have children?!”

(You have 1 child.) “Oh, when are you going to have number two?!”

(You have 2 same-gender children.) “Oh, well your next one will be the opposite gender!”

(You have 3 children.) “You are going to have to even those children out!”

(You have 4 or more children.) “Oh goodness! Your hands are full, you should stop having children!”

The comments can hurt. I would always get so bothered when people would tell me, I am a “boy-mom,” no, I am not just a boy-mom, I am fully capable of being a mother to girls too, I am just not one, yet. And, I may never be, but whether I am, or I am not, the deeply personal decision to have a child or not have a child is not something that is up for public scrutiny, nor are the complex feelings many parents grapple with.

Thankfully over the years, there is more support and literature for parents struggling with gender disappointment. We all love and care for our children intensely. But for those of us going through this experience, these emotions might not ever go away. As a mother of boys, I focus on finding ways to bond with my children even if I am not a big fan of dirt, trucks or farts. I also recognize that as humans develop the nuances of sex and gender do not necessarily follow a binary path. I seek moments of abiding joy and acknowledge the importance of seeing every child for who they are, apart from their gendered behavior.

For me, seeking professional help was also very beneficial, Facebook has supporting group pages, there are articles on a variety of websites that share personal experiences. The book Altered Dreams…Living With Gender Disappointment, written by Katherine Asbery, was a source that had helped me at a time when Google had “no related search.” I have come to realize that it is okay to feel gender disappointment, even if it does not feel right to feel that way. Finding others to talk to about these emotions, cultivating a sense of humor, and reaching out for additional resources are all ways to navigate the complicated terrain of motherhood. It is important to not feel alone on this journey. That is why I am sharing my very personal story here.

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