Q: I have four beautiful children, all boys, aged eight, six, four and 14 months, who are all doing well. I know I should be happy with my lot, but I am constantly obsessing about not having a daughter, which I always hoped for. I became very depressed after the birth of my third boy and I put this down to being disappointed at not having a girl. We went on to have a fourth child and this was down to me pressurising my husband to try again. He was initially dead set against having a fourth, but gave in when he saw how much it meant to me. When my fourth son was born, I coped better with my feelings, though recently I found myself continuing to obsess about having a girl.
I notice baby girls wherever I go and am looking constantly at girls’ clothes in shops. I feel terribly guilty about how I feel and I know I should just be happy with my four boys. I do realise how lucky I am – my older sister has one child and would dearly love another but is having problems conceiving. I can’t really talk to anyone about this as I know they will think I am being selfish, but my obsession does not seem to go away. It is putting pressure on my marriage because I asked my husband last week if we could try again and he went ballistic, saying I was going against what we agreed. How can I just move on and accept things as they are?
A: As boys and girls are brought up so differently in our society, many parents have strong feelings and expectations about the gender of their children. Whether this is a father hoping for a boy who can share his interests, or a mother wanting a girl who she can confide in as they grow up, many couples don’t just plan to have a baby, but often have fantasies and hopes about the gender of the newborn. Sometimes they may not be even aware of these feelings before the baby is born.
In addition, most parents wish for a gender balance to their family and hope for the opportunity to parent both boys and girls. As a result, many experience gender disappointment on the birth of their children.
As parents are expected to be delighted with a “healthy baby”, these feelings are taboo and are often repressed, which can lead to depression either just after the baby is born or later when there is no longer an option of having another baby of the desired gender.
The first step is to try to accept your feelings, to realise that they are normal enough and that you are not alone. Your unfulfilled desire to have a girl does not mean you do not love your boys any less, or that you do not appreciate your good fortune to have them.
As it is hard to discuss these feelings with most people – and given that you feel it is becoming an obsession for you – I would suggest that you might seek the help of a counsellor to give you a space to talk.
It might help you to take time to understand the source of your feelings. What is it about having a baby girl that you fantasise about? Where does this desire come from and how specifically do you think parenting a girl would be different? These are questions worth exploring in counselling that might help you move forward.
You might also want to search online for support. Many parents on the online parenting forums raise the same questions about gender preference that you raise. You may gain an insight into how to cope and solace that you are not alone in how you feel.
It is unfortunate that your feelings are putting pressure on your marriage, as the support of a spouse in dealing with such a personal issue can be a great benefit. It might help if you can separate out your desire to have a daughter from the decision to try for a new baby. Your husband may be more able to listen to your feelings once he knows that you respect that trying for a new baby is a joint decision and only possible if he is completely happy.
Whatever you decide, be wary about trying for a fifth child in the belief that it will end your obsession about having a girl. Of course, this might not happen in reality, meaning you are back to square one with dealing with your feelings. Even if you are blessed with a girl, this may not meet all the hopes you have pinned on this event.
For this reason, I would suggest you take time to understand and talk through your feelings, ideally with the support of your husband and possibly with the help of a counsellor.
As well as helping you understand the source of your feelings, counselling might enable you to learn strategies for moving on and reducing the obsessive quality of your feelings.
This can start with making simple practical choices such as avoiding girls’ clothes shops or learning to gently challenge your obsessive thoughts when they emerge.
Learning to communicate and to talk compassionately to others about how you feel can also help – “Yes, I would have liked a girl, but I’m so delighted and lucky to have my boys.”
With support and over time you should be able to move on and to put your feelings in perspective. You might discover that many of the hopes you have pinned on having a daughter are still possible to achieve in parenting your boys.
Gender is one thing, but children’s individual personalities are often far bigger factors. Enjoying and valuing each of your boys uniquely will put your feelings in perspective and help you to move on.
Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, February 2012. John writes in The Irish Times Health+ every Tuesday.