Parents are openly grieving the sex of their babies. What fuels gender disappointment?

an illustration of expecting parents at a gender reveal party experiencing gender disappointment.
Illustration by Kellie Simms for LGBTQ Nation.

On September 17, 2023, a video went viral of a pregnant mother bursting into tears at her own gender reveal event. Millions of people watched the anguish wash over Kendra Evens’ face when she learned she was having her fourth girl — or at least a fourth child who’d be assigned female at birth. 

The clip shows Evens keeling over with sadness beside her husband and three daughters as the family observes pink fog emerging from a jack-o’-lantern. It has been viewed a whopping 5.5 million times and has reignited an impassioned debate about whether parents like Evens have a right to this kind of disappointment. 

In the comments, thousands of viewers validated Evens’ feelings, expressing empathy and commending her for being honest about something many parents conceal due to shame and stigma. Others suffering from infertility said Evens should just be grateful she could conceive at all. Some shared concern for how the baby may feel when she someday sees the video. 

But Evens had no shame. In fact, she posted the video to TikTok with the goal of normalizing her emotions. She wanted to highlight a phenomenon commonly experienced yet rarely discussed in the parenting space: gender disappointment.

Gender disappointment (GD) is a feeling of profound grief that afflicts expectant parents on learning the biological sex of their baby.

“Gender disappointment comes up all the time,” psychologist Emma Levine, founder of Connecticut-based Perennial Wellness, which specializes in therapy focused on family and parenting, told LGBTQ Nation, “and more than most people think it does when it’s their unique, intrinsic experience because it’s not socially and culturally normalizing.”

Mental health experts like Levine are quick to clarify that GD does not mean a child isn’t loved or wanted. It just means that in addition to that love, there is also a loss. 

Evens made this clear in the caption of her post: “Gender disappointment is real so dont judge us,” she wrote. “Little did we know our nellie would complete our family & we couldn’t be happier to be raising our 4 daughters! Couldn’t imagine life without that sweet girl.”

@dailydoseofmygirlgang Gender disappointment is real so dont judge us, little did we know our nellie would complete our family & we couldnt be happier to be raising our 4 daughters! Couldnt imagine life without that sweet girl #girlgang #fourdaughters #girlmom #sahm #pumkinhead #thisishalloween #fall #genderreveal #daughters ♬ Oh Klahoma – Jack Stauber

But as gender norms continue to topple, what does it even mean to have a “boy” or a “girl”? 

A clear tension exists between the ever-increasing queerness of younger generations and those holding tight to long-standing conceptions of what sex signifies. Members of Gen Z — those born between 1997 and 2012 — are identifying as LGBTQ+ in droves, with one study finding that 26% identify as “something other than straight,” a significantly higher number than for previous generations. 

Demonstrating an increasing turn toward gender and sexual fluidity, the study also found that Gen Zers are more likely to use umbrella terms like “queer” or “pansexual,” rather than words like “gay” or “lesbian,” to describe themselves.

“Particularly among members of Generation Z, there’s this opening up of queerness,” Phillip Hammack, the director of the Sexual and Gender Diversity Laboratory at the University of California, Santa Cruz, told Business Insider. “It’s inclusive of basically anyone who is challenging cisgender, heterosexual, or heteronormative thinking.”

So why does learning the small fact of our baby’s genitalia still have a deep effect on so many of us and on our assumptions of who that child will become, especially when there’s a nearly 2% chance a child could be intersex, meaning they may have reproductive organs that do not easily fall into a “male” or “female” category anyway?

Many point to gender reveal parties as at least part of the problem, arguing they place too large an emphasis on sex and perpetuate gender stereotypes. Not only that, but our collective obsession with throwing parties for our babies’ genitals is literally killing people and causing wildfires

Blog posts and op-eds abound, decrying the endlessly popular tradition. Even the person credited with inventing gender reveal parties, Jenna Karvunidis, believes they’ve become a problem. In 2019, she told NPR it’s all “become a bit of a nightmare.” 

“Who cares what gender the baby is?” she wrote in a Facebook post. “I did at the time because we didn’t live in 2019 and didn’t know what we know now — that assigning focus on gender at birth leaves out so much of their potential and talents that have nothing to do with what’s between their legs.” She added, “PLOT TWIST, the world’s first gender-reveal party baby is a girl who wears suits!”

These celebrations are especially problematic for LGBTQ+ people and others who do not conform to stereotypical gender expectations. The parties, usually fraught with depictions of pink dresses for girls and blue trucks for boys, create expectations around what the child’s sex means for their future. 

Gender disappointment is another side of the same coin, fueled by expectations around what a child’s chromosomes indicate about who they are. Only unlike gender reveal parties, GD isn’t planned or public, and it usually cannot be controlled. 

Which is why GD afflicts LGBTQ+ people, too. 

“You’ve had to work so hard to get here, and you’ve had to invest so much more resources and time and practical and logistical energy. So the pressure to not feel the very healthy, full range of feelings that come up when we find out the sex of our baby is amplified.”

Psychologist Emma Levine

Levine said folks endure increased shame when afflicted with GD after difficult fertility experiences, something that is especially common among LGBTQ+ people. 

“People who have navigated more complex fertility journeys, as is often the case within the LGBTQ community, often experience a kind of amplified pressure, both externally, kind of culturally, but also self-imposed,” Levine said. 

“You’ve had to work so hard to get here, and you’ve had to invest so much more resources and time and practical and logistical energy. So the pressure to not feel the very healthy, full range of feelings that come up when we find out the sex of our baby is amplified.”

There is also the additional pressure LGBTQ+ people no doubt feel to immediately accept their baby’s sex as irrelevant. After all, who better than queer folks to understand that gender is a social construct?

“There is an expectation that there is more radical acceptance and openness,” Levine said. “As if there’s a malicious assumption in this, right? That to be disappointed means that I don’t love and accept.”

Shame, shame go away

An illustration of a pregnant mother discovering the sex of her baby with her hands on her face, experiencing gender disappointment.
Illustration by Kellie Simms for LGBTQ Nation.

“I didn’t even know what I was crying about,” marriage and family therapist Jennie Steinberg told LGBTQ Nation about the moment she learned she was having a boy. “I didn’t know I had hopes and dreams about this. I didn’t know I had a preference.” Logically, Steinberg — who runs the California-based Through the Woods Therapy Center and is also a certified perinatal mental health professional — understood she had a 50/50 chance of either sex, but emotions are rarely governed by logic.

Like many, she felt pressured to live by the standard adage: “I just hope my baby is happy and healthy.” It’s a philosophy that not only angers those with disabilities but also one that parents are almost required to display to the outside world.

Steinberg is not queer herself but said most of her friends and clients identify as such. She operates by staunchly progressive principles, and from 2017 to 2021, she also ran Through the Woods as “a social justice-focused, strength-based, feminist-oriented, queer-affirming, anti-racist group practice,” as described on her website. She believes it has become “increasingly clear that gender is made up,” which is why it was especially difficult for her to experience such profound gender disappointment. The sadness piled on top of itself, the grief over having a boy combined with a deep, deep shame. 

“Why do I feel like this? I shouldn’t feel like this. I worked so hard to have a healthy baby, and I should be celebrating. There were so many shoulds.”

Marriage and family therapist Jennie Steinberg

“I always imagined that whether I had a boy or a girl, I would parent that child in the same way,” she said. She was especially shocked at her feelings since her pregnancy was the result of a long and painful IVF process. By the time she found out she was pregnant, she’d endured uterus surgery, invasive shots, egg retrieval surgery, and seemingly endless doctor’s appointments.

“To finally be pregnant with what looked like it was going to be a healthy baby, and just have like, a meltdown … [I kept asking] why? Why do I feel like this? I shouldn’t feel like this. I worked so hard to have a healthy baby, and I should be celebrating. There were so many shoulds. It definitely adds a layer of guilt around it … You’ve been working on this for so long.”

No matter how the sex of one’s baby is revealed to them — whether by a doctor, a cloud of smoke, or a slice of cake — a simple Google search reveals that thousands of parents experience genuine grief on learning they will not be having a child that is the sex they were hoping for.

The grief can assault anyone, even those who don’t initially believe they have a sex preference. As Levine pointed out, GD afflicts the uber-progressive — including LGBTQ+ folks — as much as it does those staunchly entrenched in gender norms. 

So how can we approach these feelings in a nonjudgmental way while still working toward eliminating the gender norms that fuel them?

Judgment, experts say, only alienates people, bringing guilt and shame to those feeling these uncontrollable emotions, those who know they love their children no matter what but still can’t seem to shake the sadness. 

The antidote to GD is obvious: Dismantle the gender binary and educate folks on the idea that the sex of a baby does not in the slightest determine the person they will become or the interests they will have.

Easy, right?

Coming to terms with all of this takes a lot of work on the part of the parents. “I had to do a lot of deep inner work as far as, like, why is that something that I care so much about?” Lindsey Konchar, a licensed mental health professional who currently works as a financial therapist, told LGBTQ Nation. Konchar experienced a profound sense of sadness on finding out her second child was a boy, as she had dreamed of giving her daughter a sister. “A lot of it was really facing my own biases,” she said. Konchar documented her experience on her website, Coping with Lindsay, where she provides resources on maternal mental health, among other things.

Steinberg said for her, the work centers around meeting people where they’re at. 

“I have these conversations with people who are in my social circle and on my caseload who generally are very social justice–minded and who are ready for that conversation and ready to challenge the gender binary. Then I have these conversations with people who don’t live in that space. For them, it’s a gentler conversation; it’s the same idea that what we’re doing is challenging the binary, but I can’t just be like, ‘Gender is made up.’ Because they’re going to be like, ‘Wait, what do you mean? I don’t agree with that.’ ”

For these folks, Steinberg begins with softer questions, asking them to explain why they feel what they imagined for their child is no longer possible. They may lament that they can no longer put their child in pretty pink clothes, and she’ll tell them about her son’s Disney princess phase. They may express a wish to have a sporty child, and she’ll remind them that girls play sports, too.

Life never looks how you think it will when it comes to kids, anyway. No matter their sex or gender, they will develop into their own people — often people their parents never could have expected.

What the grief is masking

An illustration of an interracial LGBTQ+ couple rejecting social norms about sex and gender. Arrows pointing at them say "societal pressure," "gender norms," "stereotypes," "societal perceptions," "sexism," "gender biases," and "privilege"
Illustration by Kellie Simms for LGBTQ Nation.

Gender disappointment does not always stem from the desire for a particularly masculine or feminine child. For many parents, it’s actually fueled by fear. 

Due to their own biases and experiences, some people don’t feel ready to parent a child of a certain sex. The worry for these parents is not about whether they’ll be buying frilly dresses or monster trucks. Rather, they are asking themselves, Am I equipped to do this? 

For Steinberg, it was all about realizing she actually would have to parent a boy differently than a girl if her goal was to push back against stereotypes.

“The more I digested the information, the more clear it became to me that the world was going to treat a child differently depending on their sex chromosomes and genitals. I would have to parent differently because I’d have to emphasize different things I need to teach — an AFAB [assigned female at birth] kiddo to speak up for herself and to be assertive in a world that tells her not to be. But with an AMAB [assigned male at birth] kiddo, I have to teach them how to listen; I have to teach them how to be gentle and empathic in a way that the world doesn’t encourage them to be.”

While it is conceptually true that a baby’s sex does not indicate the type of person they’ll become, children can’t escape the influence of what remains a deeply gendered global society. No matter how much parents try, the world will teach their kids to believe that there are innate gender differences and that they are expected to act and be a certain way due to the genitals they have. 

The United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) Gender Social Norms Index, released in 2023, shows that we have not made as much progress on gender equality as we may think. The index, covering 85 percent of the global population, reveals that close to 9 out of 10 men and women hold biases against women. Data from 75 countries revealed that over 40 percent of people think men make better business executives, and about 50% think they make better political leaders.

The report also shows that gender social norms persist over time and have stagnated over the past decade, indicating “little overall progress, despite powerful global and local campaigns for women’s rights.”

So, for many, the grief comes from knowing how society will treat their child and accepting the fact that, as parents, they’ll have to learn to push against it all.

Steinberg, in particular, feared the responsibility of teaching her white son — who she knew was also statistically likely to be straight and cisgender — how to walk through the world without feeling like he owned it. 

“It was like, oh my God, I am gestating the most privileged creature on earth,” she said. “How do I teach him to own his privilege while also enforcing his worthiness?”

She had to reimagine her concept of success for a male child. 

“I needed to revisit some of the narratives I had about what gender means in this world,” she said, “and realize that my job as the parent of a boy is going to be to build a better boy.”

Konchar also feared how her own biases would dictate how she raised her son. “I don’t want to feel any type of biases towards what he can or can’t do,” she said, adding that the same goes for her daughter. “I can’t snap my fingers and change societal expectations. If the world is harsh because of these preconceived ideas of what is right or wrong, or masculine or feminine, then it’s my job just to be there and hear them.”

The parent in the mirror

An illustration of an interracial LGBTQ+ couple with their baby and balloons that are decorated in the colors of various queer pride flags to representing different identities.
Illustration by Kellie Simms for LGBTQ Nation.

Another potential source of fear that comes with learning one is having a child of a certain sex: childhood trauma. Levine spoke about a patient she worked with who was terrified to have a daughter “because she didn’t have a healthy model of what a secure mother-daughter relationship could look like.”

“Beneath the disappointment was actually fear,” Levine explained. “She felt insecure, she felt afraid. She didn’t want to re-create an intergenerational dynamic.”

Steinberg added there can be similar trauma responses that come with raising boys. “They realize they have to face up to their experiences of misogyny with so many of the men they’ve encountered in this world. There’s so many layers you can peel back and peel back and peel back.”

One lesbian mom-to-be confessed in a Reddit channel to 413,000 followers, “I discovered the child I was carrying was not the child I had thought I’d wanted. I am a woman raised in a home with only my sister and my mother. My relationship with my father has been complicated and spotty at best. I have known I was gay since 10 years old, men had really never been part of my equation.”

And a gay man shared on the parenting site Mamamia, “I wanted boys and only boys. Mainly because I’m a gay man and was nervous about raising a girl without a female role model in the house … I had painted a picture in my head of what my family would look like. Anything other than that would come as a shock. So when we had a daughter, I wasn’t upset. I was just really worried.”

In these situations, Levine says it is especially vital to be easy on yourself.

“This disappointment is actually directly proportionate to the part of you that’s fiercely protective of the relationship you want to have with this unborn baby,” she said. “When we can reframe disappointment to understand the adaptive function, then the disappointment softens. We can start to really heal and build some coping skills to understand what a healthy, secure attachment looks like.”

In the end, no matter your child’s sex or gender identity, you will have almost no control over who they become. A boy doesn’t guarantee an athlete, and a girl doesn’t guarantee a shopping buddy. And even those hoping for a gender-bending, stereotype-busting nonconformist may find themselves raising a girl who loves pink or a boy who can’t watch enough football.

Steinberg says parenting is an exercise in facing one’s own mortality. Parents need to come to terms with the fact that they are raising fully independent humans, and dismantling expectations around sex and gender is often the first step.

So much of good parenting is letting your kid tell you who they are and following suit. Anytime we’re determining our kids’ entire future while they’re still in utero or very young … we’re doing them a disservice,” Steinberg said.

“When you become a parent,” she continued, “the hardest thing is not the sleepless nights. It’s not the temper tantrums, or the toddler stage, or even the teenager stage. It’s that you have to do your own work. It teaches you things about yourself … Being confronted with the sex of your child is like the first piece of news that tells you that you have to start healing.”

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