I don’t know about you, but it seems like a lot of people I know are having babies. Three people I know have given birth in the past several months; another couple I know found out they were expecting a few months ago . . . baby to arrive in February.
One thing that has surprised me about all of these couples: they ALL decided to find out the sex of the child before it was born.
I find this both surprising and alarming. On one hand, we are allegedly living in a time and a place where we are open-minded, egalitarian, and unbiased about gender . . . so parents should not care whether they are having a boy or a girl (and I’m sure if I asked them they would say the would be delighted with either) and having that information should not have any significant bearing on the pregnancy or getting ready for the child arrival. This is why I am surprised when so many parents opt to find out in advance. (Some parents even throw ‘gender reveal’ parties for friends to announce what sort of genitals their kid is expected to have . . . thankfully none of my friends did this to my knowledge.)
However, parents ARE opting to find out the gender . . so this seems in indicate that the above assumption isn’t true. The sex of a child apparently is important information to find out because it seems that parents think it will impact their ability to bond and prepare for the child. This alarms me. Because it means that we are not practicing what we preach and that our society is really not much further along with its preconceived notions about gender than it ever was.
One couple I actually asked why they decided to find out, and I was told, “They just wanted to be prepared.” The follow up question I wanted to ask (but didn’t) was: Ok, so what exactly do you have to prepare?
If you are not planning to gender stereotype your child, any clothes or toys or decor that needed to be purchased (or received) should be the same whether it’s a boy or a girl. Any aspirations, fears, and expectations you might be contemplating should be the same whether it’s a boy or a girl. After talking with my mom about this, the only thing we could come up with was that you would be able to choose the name. My solution to this was that you prepare one boy name and one girl name; but my mother explained that some people get into big fights about what to name a child. So that is one problem that it seems knowing the sex of the child in advance would help resolve.
Yet, in my opinion, the dangers of knowing your child’s sex before they are born (and telling everyone) far outweigh the benefits of avoiding some arguments with your spouse/family about baby names. Much research exists that shows that we begin gender stereotyping our children before they exits the womb, and this only intensifies once they are born. People’s attitudes, talk, and assumptions about your baby drastically change when you dress them in gender neutral clothing . . . perhaps greatly impacting the sort of environment, culture, and expectations your child will group up in and in which her/she will develop and learn his/her attitudes, identity, and behaviors.
As mom Joanne O’Connor writes for the Guardian, “Although a certain amount of curiosity is natural and we all indulge in daydreams about our future children, the fewer assumptions we make before the baby comes along, the better.” Why would you not want to postpone the gender stereotyping of your child as long as possible? Because you don’t want to squabble about baby names? That seems like a tiny price to pay.
Even if you operate under the assumption that you yourself won’t gender stereotype your child or begin setting up gender-based dreams and expectations for them, you definitely can’t expect the rest of the world to operate like this. Your family and friends will likely be contemplating gender-based dreams and expectations for the child and for your relationship with him or her. You also may be painting yourself into a corner as you start to receive gendered gifts. Not knowing and not announcing your baby’s sex in advance would avoid all of this and allows your child a greater chance of developing into who they are without having to navigate as many pressures from the adults in his/her life.
My sad conclusion is that regardless of what sort of vague and euphemistic explanations people give, finding out a child’s sex reveals a lot about the parents’ true values regarding gender, parenting, and placing expectations on who and how a child will be. This research study for example (unfortunately focused only on mothers) indicates that women who opt to find out the sex of their child score high for parenting perfectionism (setting unrealistically high standards). It also suggest that these women may be opting to find out the sex of their child in order to relieve anxiety around the pregnancy and future parent responsibilities. Women who choose not to find out are much more likely to have egalitarian, contentious, and independent attitudes, and to be “open to experience.”
I was happy to hear that upon the birth of their child, one couple that I knew received a boy instead of the girl they were expecting to have. The parents seem just as delighted with their baby boy as they would have been with a baby girl. But I was quite pleased that their baby had scuttled any gender stereotypes that have previously been evolving around him, and I barely avoided congratulating the new parents on having such an brazenly gender-stereotype-defying child!