I had decided on the daughter I would have, like I could write her into existence; a gender-defying rascal who’d fuck with the status quo and fight the patriarchy. She’d wear a tutu over a superhero costume and stomp around the place, all bossy and curious. In comparison to this trailblazer of a daughter, a boy just felt so pedestrian, so privileged. So I decided not to have one of those.
Then, during the 20-week scan, he waved his penis at us. I cried. I felt mocked by my naivety. It hadn’t occurred to me that I wouldn’t get what I wanted. I walked around John Lewis that afternoon and stroked miniature dresses, saying goodbye to them and to her. It felt like a loss and I was aware how strange it was to grieve something I never had.
“Even as we start our fertility journey, expectations begin. We create a fantasy lifestyle before we’ve met our child.” I’m discussing how I felt with Dr. Rachel Andrew, a psychotherapist specialising in motherhood. “And often no child can live up to the fantasy we create; you can’t just project a personality and a future onto a person.”
Even if I’d been pregnant with a daughter, who is to say she would have been up for fighting the patriarchy? Her favourite colour would have been pink to spite me and she’d have idolised Cinderella, I’m sure of it.
“If the gender of your unborn child causes you sadness, you should try and understand why you wanted a girl or a boy. Often in the absence of any real information we create a child from stereotypes,” Dr. Andrew continued. “Try to understand what gender stereotypes are affecting you and make conscious decisions to challenge those."
I had definitely thought girls seemed easier. My little brother was naughty – he set things on fire and jumped off school roofs – and I guess I’d based my knowledge of all young boys on the only one I’d known well.
Crying at the sexing of my baby made me question my identity as a feminist. I desperately want to be someone who doesn’t believe there is a difference between the genders. And ultimately I still believe either gender can be whoever they want to be, so why did I have such a strong preference? It felt like an internal longing, less driven by the head and more by the heart. It made me realise how ingrained our beliefs are about gender. In a society rife with labels, even the most pragmatic of us can’t escape the stereotypes.
Also bafflingly, much of my grief focused on the clothes. I cried in Gap, I cried in John Lewis, I cried in Liberty. Boys' clothes are boring. If the clothes made for baby boys predict the men they are to become, then we’re raising suburban, rugby club supporters: thick-striped, long-sleeve polo shirts, corduroy trousers in various mossy colours and hoodies with occasional nods to urban culture that get it as right as the designers at Desigual. The clothes on offer didn’t feel like my child's.
When I fought this and dressed him in clothes from the ‘wrong’ department I was accused of using my son to fight my own agenda. Society, it seemed, wasn’t as accepting of a boy in fairy wings as they are a girl in a Spiderman costume. Masculinity is still held up as a virtue for both sexes, but femininity is an undesirable trait for young boys. Along with the clothes I was sad about the names. Boys' names felt boring and apologetic, not celebratory and flamboyant like girls' names.
These were surface things I hadn’t realised I’d fallen for until I was told I couldn’t have them. Perhaps if it had taken longer to get pregnant it might not have felt this way. Perhaps if I’d had to wait my turn and suffer a few more failed months, I might have felt more grateful for getting what many women wish for every day. Oh, the shame at feeling disappointed about a healthy baby.
But my son, my beloved son who is now two, taught me an important lesson. He taught me that motherhood is all about being vulnerable to the unexpected. He taught me humans are multifaceted beings who can’t be boxed into stereotypes. He taught me that we’re all more than our gender. I once comforted a friend when he found out his kid was a girl. He’d hoped for a boy because his father had disappeared when he was a kid and he wanted to experience a father-son bond. It’s only now that I have a child I realise what a huge expectation that was for any child to carry.
In unpacking why I wanted a girl I also learned a lot about myself. I learned I’m not as unbiased as I thought I was. I learned about the limitations I put on gender and the expectations I put on motherhood. I think if my son, Cass, had been a girl and all expectations of my future child had been fuelled, then having a newborn would have come as a greater shock.
Parenting is a constant calibration of expectations vs. reality. Cass isn’t particularly boisterous. I gave him a girl's name and he wears his hair long. He defies gender stereotypes as often as he conforms: he’s never happier than when pushing his pram to the local building site so he and his cuddly fox can scream "digger" for two minutes at construction vehicles.