WHEN MY HUSBAND AND I tell friends that I’m pregnant, their first question after “Congratulations” is almost always “Do you know what you want?” We like to respond that we won’t know the gender until our child is 18 and that they’ll let us know then. Everyone laughs at this. There is a truth to our line, though, one that hints at possibilities that are much more complex than whatever genitalia our child might be born with: the truth that we ultimately have no idea who—rather than what—is growing inside my belly. Who will this person be? What kind of person will we become parents to? How will they change our lives and who we are? This is a wondrous and terrifying concept, one that renders us both helpless and humbled.
I like the idea of forcing as few gender stereotypes on my child as possible. But no matter how progressive I may hope to be, I understand the desire to know the gender of our fetus; it feels like the first real opportunity to glimpse who they might be. As my body changes in bizarre and unfamiliar ways, it’s comforting to obtain any information that might make what’s coming feel more real.
It occurs to me that as a younger person I’d almost automatically imagined myself having a daughter. I remember playing as a child, holding baby dolls and picturing myself with a future best friend: something like the American Girl doll I owned, who had brown eyes and brown hair to mirror my own features, a smaller version of myself.
When I bring this thought to my therapist, she explains that this is relatively common. Psychology du jour, she says, touts the concept that people may have children to “redo” their own childhood. They want to fix themselves and their traumas by trying again with a fresh start and a mini version of themselves.
“To be perfectly honest,” I tell my husband over dinner, “I’m not sure that I even know that I want a girl. I guess I’d just never really thought about having a boy before. ”
“I do worry a girl will have a lot to live up to as your daughter,” he replies. “That’s a lot of pressure.” I wince and think of my own mother and her tales of being homecoming queen, the way I knew the word jealous at the age of three (I pronounced it “jealoust,” telling my mother that her female colleagues were “just jealoust” of her), and the early understanding I had of how beauty could equate to power. I prayed for beauty, pinching my nose tightly on either side before falling asleep, willing it to stay small. I think of the other physically beautiful mothers I’ve known—the stage moms with their own mini-mes. The way their daughters, even as young girls, seem to know their own beauty, as if they have already lived entire lives in a grown woman’s body. I think about how women compare one another constantly, doing acrobatic calculations in their heads: In this way I’m similar to her, in this way I’m not; in this way I’m better, in this way I’m not.
“I remembered playing as a child, holding baby dolls and picturing myself with an imagined, future best friend: a smaller version of me”
“I’ll never let that be an issue,” I tell my husband, but I can’t help worrying. I still fight subconscious and internalized misogyny on a regular basis, catching myself as I measure the width of my hips against another woman’s. Who is to say I’d be able to protect my daughter from it?
My husband likes to say that “we’re pregnant.” I tell him that while the sentiment is sweet, it’s not entirely true. I resent that his entire family’s DNA is inside of me but that my DNA is not inside him. “It just seems unfair,” I say, and we both laugh. It’s kind of a joke, but just like the remark we make about our child’s gender, there is truth behind it. Pregnancy is innately lonely; it’s something a woman does by herself, inside her body, no matter what her circumstances may be. Despite having a loving partner and many female friends ready to share the gritty details of their pregnancies, I am ultimately alone with my body in this experience. There is no one to feel it with me—the sharp muscular aches in my lower abdomen that come out of nowhere while I’m watching a movie or the painful heaviness of my breasts that now greets me first thing every morning. My husband has no physical symptoms in “our” pregnancy, another reminder of how different a woman and man’s experience of life can be.
INSTAGRAM KNOWS I’M pregnant before most of our close friends or even my parents do. My timeline is filled with targeted ads for maternity clothes, and my explore page is all pictures of babies, bellies, stretch marks, signs that say 12 weeks, and tips for expecting mothers.
One night I embrace the algorithm and lie in bed, scrolling through suggested videos: a series of gender-reveal parties. In them, anxious couples stand a few feet apart, looking awkwardly at a large cake or a suspended balloon. I’m taken aback by the pressure these videos capture. Even though I can’t see them, I can feel the presence of their audience—the family members and friends behind their iPhones—as the couple smiles nervously, bracing themselves before they strike. Watching them feels impolite, like I’m peering in on something intensely private.
After the couple punctures the balloon and pink or blue confetti cascades down onto them, or the slice of the knife reveals the interior of a cake, dyed a pastel shade, I start to notice a pattern. Often these couples do not embrace immediately. If blue confetti rains down, the father almost always seems instantly relieved; he walks a few steps away, his eyes wide and his hands behind his head. Maybe he jumps in the air. The pregnant woman, dressed up for the occasion in uncomfortable-seeming heels, looks to her gleeful partner and watches the excitement wash over him. She smiles politely before turning away from him and glancing at the crowd. Are girls universally terrifying to fathers? And mini-mes so universally appealing?
I think about my husband and what a son would bring up for him. Is he secretly yearning for a boy? When I ask him, he refuses to give me an answer, swearing that he doesn’t have a preference. But one Sunday as he’s watching football he makes a remark about how it’d be fun to have a little boy to watch with.
“Girls watch football too!” I shoot back. He shrugs his shoulders and laughs.
“True,” he says. I look up to the screen and watch a quarterback run as if his life depends on it before he is surrounded and pummeled by the opposition’s giant players. I raise an eyebrow.
“I sure as hell don’t want my son playing football,” I tell him.
“It is brutal,” he says, and I remember the list of injuries he suffered playing in high school. I think of his mother and what it must’ve been like for her to watch her young son’s body get brutalized.
We are headed back to Manhattan from the beach one night as a car of teenage boys zooms past us on the Kosciuszko Bridge. “Boys think they’re invincible,” my husband says, sighing. “I thought I was invincible.” He isn’t the type to analyze his childhood, often telling me he doesn’t remember a lot of it, but I do know he remembers being difficult as both a young boy and a teenager—frustrating his mother to the point of tears, defying curfews, and being generally prone to rule-breaking. I realize that it must be terrifying for him to be faced with the prospect of a younger version of himself, his own mini-me.
I’m scared of having a son too, although not in the same way. I’ve known far too many white men who move through the world unaware of their privilege, and I’ve been traumatized by many of my experiences with them. And boys too; it’s shocking to realize how early young boys gain a sense of entitlement—to girls’ bodies and to the world in general. I’m not scared of raising a “bad guy,” as many of the men I’ve known who abuse their power do so unintentionally. But I’m terrified of inadvertently cultivating the carelessness and the lack of awareness that are so convenient for men. It feels much more daunting to create an understanding of privilege in a child than to teach simple black-and-white morality. How do I raise a child who learns to like themself while also teaching them about their position of power in the world?
“I’m scared of having a son too, although not in the same way. I’ve known far too many white men who move through the world unaware of their privilege”
My friend who is the mother to a three-year-old boy tells me that she didn’t think she cared about gender until her doctor broke the news that she was having a son. She burst into tears in her office. “And then I continued to cry for a whole month,” she says matter-of-factly. After a difficult birth experience, she developed postpartum depression and decided that she resented her husband more than she’d ever imagined possible. She told me she particularly hated—and she made an actual, physical list that she kept in her journal, editing it daily—how peacefully he slept. “There is nothing worse than the undisturbed sleep of a white man in a patriarchal world.” She shakes her head. “It was hard to come to terms with the fact that I was bringing yet another white man into the world. But now I adore him and can’t imagine it any other way.” She also eventually learned to love her husband again. The sound of his perfect sleep next to her at night is now tolerable.
Despite my apprehensions about having a boy, when I call my best friend to tell her I’m pregnant, we both immediately agree on our shared instinct: I’m carrying a boy. “I’m picturing a dark-haired son,” my friend tells me over FaceTime, “I don’t know why; I can just see it.” I nod and study the red fabric of my couch, trying to imagine a baby boy’s tiny body lying next to my thigh
EVERYONE HAS OPINIONS on what to expect from a boy or a girl. “Boys develop slower. They’re more work than girls as toddlers, but they love their moms so much!” one friend tells me, winking. “Girls mature faster but are so sensitive!” another adds. According to friends and strangers alike, even my pregnancy itself seems to be affected by the gender of my child: where I’ll carry (Boys are low! Girls sit higher and make you sick in the first trimester!), what I’ll want to eat (craving sweets means a girl!), and even what will turn me on (carrying a boy means more of a sex drive!). A makeup artist applies mascara to my eyes as he tells me that carrying a girl takes the mother’s beauty away.
I don’t necessarily fault anyone for these generalizations—a lot of our life experiences are gendered, and it would be dishonest to try to deny the reality of many of them. But I don’t like that we force gender-based preconceptions onto people, let alone babies. I want to be a parent who allows my child to show themself to me. And yet I realize that while I may hope my child can determine their own place in the world, they will, no matter what, be faced with the undeniable constraints and constructions of gender before they can speak or, hell, even be born.
I used to call myself superstitious, but now I understand it another way. The idea that I could “jinx” something or the belief that I could project my thoughts in a particular way to bring about a certain result is actually called “magical thinking,” a coping mechanism one develops to make oneself feel more in control.
I used to use magical thinking whenever I wanted something to go a certain way. Now, though, I don’t try to envision a pink or blue blanket in my arms. I’m too humbled to have any false notions of control. I’m completely and undeniably helpless when it comes to almost everything surrounding my pregnancy: how my body will change, who my child will be. But I’m surprisingly unbothered. Instead of feeling afraid, I feel a new sense of peace. I’m already learning from this person inside my body. I’m full of wonder.