It's A . . . Disappointment!

I admit it. I would have liked a daughter. Not someone who would play with dolls (because I never had), but someone who would bring all her stuffed animals to a tea party. Someone whose hair I could comb, and whose hair I would let flow long and loose (because I never had). And--even though I'd been the organizing member of the "Tomboy Tree Club"--someone whom I could dress in all those gorgeous, lacy, frilly clothes. Pink ones.

What I have instead are two wonderful sons.

We all have an idea of how we want our family to be. We want that son to carry on the family name. We want that daughter to be our best friend when she grows up. We want that boy or girl because we've got the other and the "perfect family" has "one of each."

Despite the fact that just about everyone has feelings about what they'd like to have, talking openly about our hopes--and our disappointments--remains largely taboo. Part of the reason is that it's a luxury to think about gender at all. With so many couples struggling with infertility, or trying to cope after a wrenching loss or serious illness, how dare we admit that we're disappointed with a perfectly healthy baby? But parents who are willing to talk about their feelings--and how they worked through them--help the rest of us discover an interesting truth about gender preferences: they evaporate almost instantly when that child is born.


A Child of Her Heart

Plymouth mother of three Gail Milstein dreamed of a girl after her first son was born, in large part because of her close relationship with her mother.

"When I had a second boy, to be honest, I was upset," she admits, "primarily because it flew in the face of my expectations. I couldn't help thinking, 'Now it will be the boys and my husband. I'll be left out.'"

Compounding the disappointment, her close friend gave birth to a girl a few weeks later. "After talking to her, I hung up the phone and sobbed. I felt that what had happened to me had been a mistake."

In addition, she felt guilty and ungrateful for having negative feelings when she knew she had a beautiful, healthy child.

But something happened after second son Nate was born that surprised Milstein.

Her disappointment over not having produced a girl quickly turned to joy for the child she had. Over the course of the first year, Nate's personality emerged, and she began to marvel at the delightful child he was growing to be.

"Nate's different than the rest of us--very open, very easy, very affectionate," she says. "He completely captured my heart. I was valuing the wrong attributes. Your relationships with your children are only in a small way about their gender; the important thing is who they are as people.

"The doctor said, 'It's a boy,'" Milstein continues. "What he should have said was, 'It's Nate. You have Nate.'"

In the end, Milstein did "get her girl." After receiving the amniocentesis results for her third child, she called back the office to ask, "Are you sure you didn't make a mistake?" It was an unexpected treat for me." Still, Milstein says that she was already at peace with whatever the results would be. "Who our children are is about their soul," she says. "[And] that sort of unfolds."


Four of a Kind: Boys

Milstein's experience can also be viewed as a lesson in sex-role stereotyping. The qualities that are often attributed to girls, easygoing temperament, cooperative nature, as compared to the aggressive, loud, rough-and-tumble nature of boys, are just those, stereotypes.

Betsy Hedding, the mother of four boys, says that having four of the same sex has taught her that lesson well. While she believes there are "inherent differences" between the sexes, having so many of one gender allows her to see "how much variety there [actually] is."

Hedding, whose boys range in age from eight to fifteen, and who works at a junior high school, clearly loves kids, and loves to have her house full of them. As the boys enter adolescence, their household is becoming distinctly testosterone-heavy; she describes the mounds of sweat-drenched soccer clothes, the constantly emptying refrigerator, the male voices of her sons and their friends. "We even have a boy puppy," she notes with a laugh.

Hedding admits that she would have loved to have had a girl; she, too, enjoys a close relationship with her mother and sisters. "I had an ultrasound [with] my fourth and they said, 'We think it's a boy.' I cried. But it gave me enough time to resolve it."  

Hedding does find opportunities to hang out with girls, from spending time with her nieces to serving as a confirmation guide for girls at her church.

"You are given what you're meant to have," she says. "Now, I can't imagine not having four sons. It's a novelty, but I can't imagine it otherwise."


Triple Play: Girls

Sometimes gender runs so strongly in an extended family that it becomes a running joke. As Lisa Heimer explains, "On both sides of our family, all the grandchildren have been girls--a total of ten." There's even a great-grandchild--who's female.

"Whenever any of [my siblings or Greg's siblings] gets pregnant, we say, 'It's a girl,'" Lisa says with a laugh.

"The theory was, from the way Lisa was carrying them and from the ultrasounds, the first two should have been boys," recalls Greg. "When I heard 'It's a girl,' it was kind of a shock."

Greg always wanted a son, and very much wanted a boy the second time. Instead, they got Robyn (to follow Samantha). By the time Kristina, their third daughter, came along, he'd changed his mind. "We would have had to do boy's and girl's soccer," he jokes. "And there is a comfort level that one achieves with one sex."

The Heimers also deny any sex-role stereotyping. Band and sports currently have the family on the go from morning to night. Greg takes the girls camping and fishing. And, as for male role models, Lisa notes that they have lots of male friends and relatives, including a godfather who attends the girls' soccer games.

How does Greg feel now about being the father of three girls? "I love it, wouldn't change it," he affirms. "As long as you are involved in their lives,give them support, help them with direction and questions, it doesn't make a difference."


Cultural Differences

Certified Nurse Midwife Amy Lange, who works at Planned Parenthood and previously delivered babies for twelve years, never recalls seeing parents not bond to their new baby. Still, she says that women express strong preferences about the sex of their children--and that these preferences can be culturally determined.

While her observations are entirely anecdotal, Lange says that many of her U.S.-born white patients tend to want their first babies to be girls. "Maybe it's because we 'know ourselves.' Maybe because we grow up playing dollies. When women are pregnant, they think about their mothers. I've seen women [who've said they wanted] only two kids and being on number four wanting that girl. I've had patients in tears with their third or fourth boy," she continues. "They're not grieving the child they've had. They're grieving the baby they've always imagined they'd have. It's the loss of a dream. Women identify girls with themselves," she concludes. "Women look into their baby girl's eyes and think, 'This is me.'"

Lange adds that gender preference tends to be the opposite among immigrant women, especially those who have recently arrived in the United States from countries where women are devalued. "One Vietnamese woman I was very attached to really wanted a boy because she had suffered so much as a girl."


Should We or Shouldn't We?

Over the years, a funny thing happened to me. I no longer wanted a daughter.

Perhaps, as the kids grew older, memories of my own, female adolescence began coming back to haunt me in all-too-vivid detail. Maybe it was the fact that our two boys got along so well that it was a source of embarrassment at playground discussions of sibling rivalry. It certainly wasn't that I had a ready source of hand-me-downs, since my boys were so different in body type (and general appearance, and temperament, get the idea). It's just that we decided to stop at two. But not before I had asked myself, "How would it feel to know that I was carrying another boy?" And the answer came back quickly and clearly.

That would have been just fine with me.

How Reliable--And Wise--Are the New Sex-Selection Techniques?

Used to be, back in the good old days, we'd wait with bated breath to find out the sex of our baby. We'd look for signs: Carrying high? Carrying out front? Strange cravings? Today techniques ranging from the pretty good (ultrasound) to the certain (amniocentesis) make answering that question nearly moot. Of course, these procedures were not developed for the purpose of sex-identification. But they are widely enough used to make one of the most frequently asked questions for expectant couples not "Do you know what you're having?" but "What are you having?"

Sometimes the knowledge medicine offers causes more problems than it solves.  

Melissa, who asked that her real name not be used, discovered through amniocentesis that she was going to have a second son. She was dreaming for a daughter, and the news was nothing short of heartbreaking. Then her son was born and she was overwhelmed by love for her new child. Now, years later, she says the modern technology was a "disservice" that led her to spend months ruminating over something that, in the end, was unimportant. Had she waited to discover her son's sex at the moment of his birth, she says she would have been presented with the news and a real baby at the same time, a baby precious and needing her love and care.

People have always sought ways to choose the sex of their children; not surprisingly, a vast array of folk remedies have been developed. In recent years, Dr. Landrum Shettles has popularized his techniques in the United States in his book How to Choose the Sex of Your Baby. These low-cost, low-tech methods involve timing intercourse based on the woman's ovulation, sexual positions, and other factors.

Other techniques are more expensive and invasive. Dr. Ronald J. Ericsson offers an artificial insemination technique costing up to $1,100 and claiming, according to a recent New York Times Magazine story ("Getting the Girl," by Lisa Belkin, July 25, 1999), a success rate as high as eighty percent.

The latest option on the scene is Microsort, detailed in the New York Times Magazine article, which suggests that the procedure represents a breakthrough in sex-selection technology. The process involves taking the man's sperm and--using a flow cytometer, fluorescent dye, and an ultraviolet laser--sorting it into X (female) and Y (male). The woman is then impregnated using artificial insemination. It's not cheap; it costs $2,500 per try, with the average pregnancy requiring three tries.

Jon Pryor, M.D., associate professor at the University of Minnesota and director of the Center for Men's Health and Infertility, agrees that Microsort is something different. In contrast to previous methods that have not worked remarkably well in general, he says: "I'm pretty convinced this one works."

His concern, however, is that the long-term safety of the dye used in the technique has not been tested in humans; it may have effects we won't know about until these children reach adulthood.

While Pryor is uncomfortable with the idea of using technology and resources for sex selection--perhaps because he witnesses the suffering of infertile couples who can't have either one--he acknowledges that people do have strong emotions about gender.

Jeffrey Kahn, Ph.D., M.P.H., the director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Bioethics, takes less issue with the ideas of gender preferences. "Wanting one sex over the other is not inherently an evil desire," says Kahn. "People have always had children for other than altruistic reasons, for instance, to help out on the farm or to continue their legacy or--in spite of the jokes--for tax deductions."

Neither is he terribly concerned about where Microsort sits on the slippery slope of potential misuse: sorting sperm is not a refined technique and can't be use to select for other traits.

Kahn points out, however, that sophisticated technology already exists that ensures 100-percent guaranteed sex-selection--plus selection for any other traits we can genetically identify. He thinks that's where the ethical debate really lies.

The technology, called pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), involves taking an eight-celled embryo created in vitro, explains Kahn. "After genetic testing, the embryos lacking disease and/or carrying the desired trait(s) are placed in a woman's uterus, hopefully for implantation and gestation." While invasive and expensive, it's becoming more readily available.

With PGD, Kahn says, "we can potentially select for IQ or sexual preferences or risk of mental illness or to repair or enhance [certain qualities]. We are talking about technology with much more potential for abuse."

Still, he is optimistic that with so much new technology on the horizon, we as a society are pushing ourselves to talk about ethical, legal, and moral issues in advance. "You can always identify potential misuses of new technology, medical or otherwise," he says. "The trick is to help draw distinctions between acceptable and unacceptable uses."

As for sex selection itself, ethicists have voiced concerns about its use in parts of the world where girls are considered undesirable. That doesn't seem to be an issue in the United States, however, if the Microsort data are any indication. According to the Times article, 83 of the first 111 Microsort attempts were for girls. Still, many women are uncomfortable with the idea. While Betsy Hedding, the mother of four boys, admits to having tried a few "low-tech" methods to conceive a girl, she doubts she would have ever used a procedure like Microsort. "I don't know if I would go to that length, in part because of my faith. It's tinkering with something that maybe we weren't meant to tinker with. God has a plan for my life. I was given the opportunity and privilege of raising fine young men who will be good fathers and husbands."  

Besides, as Gail Milstein, the mother of two sons and a daughter says, "We're so sure we know what we want and we're so sure we know what we need. Sometimes you don't get what you want. But really, it's better."

Deborah Sugerman is the happy mother of two sons, ages 15 and 12.

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