When you're dreaming with a broken heart Then waking up is the hardest part You roll outta bed and down on your knees And for a moment you can hardly breathe Wondering was she really here? Is she standing in my room? No she's not, 'cause she's gone, gone, gone, gone, gone.... -John Mayer
Gender and Identity
Gender plays an enormous part in who we are. Being a man or a woman makes a significant difference both in how we see ourselves and how we see others; for many, gender is the root of their identities. From the moment we enter the world, being a boy or a girl will have a profound effect on who we are, what we accomplish, and how we interact with others.
Gender plays a huge role in our lives, affecting our identity, our relationships with others, and our views about the world. […] There is no doubt that, right from birth, our lives are affected by our sex. Boys and girls are almost always treated differently, encouraged to pursue divergent interests, and socialized differently by parents, peers, and societal institutions. […] It is typical for women and men to wear different clothes, to have mostly same-sex friends, to use separate bathrooms, to watch different television shows, to play sports separately, and so on – gender is an enormously influential “gate” to specific environments and activities. […] Indeed, there is evidence that gender is the characteristic that is used more often than any other characteristic to spontaneously categorize people we encounter (Fiske, Haslam, & Fiske, 1991; Stangot, Lynch, Duan, & Glass, 1992). Gender seems more basic even than age, occupation, or ethnic category. Thus, more than anything else, we categorize people as men and women, boys and girls.
Because of the substantial role gender plays in our lives, it only follows that it is an important characteristic to us when we imagine parenthood and our future children. We picture both their persons and our interactions shaded by their gender. And for many, this coloring can lead to a very specific desire to raise a certain gendered child, or even disappointment when we learn the child we will have is not the gender we have hoped for and imagined.
Gender Disappointment (GD)
Loosely defined, gender disappointment, or “GD”, is feeling saddened or disappointed due to the sex of your child or the apparent inability to conceive a child of a certain sex. It can range from a mild desire to raise a child of a certain gender to a full-blown depression in the sex of your baby. Many discover these feelings when their ultrasound reveals their child is not the anticipated sex, and others find these feelings growing when it seems that there is something – or someone – missing in their families. While parents recognize that the health and happiness of their children is of chief importance regardless of gender, many still have profound reasons to want to raise a child of a certain sex.
GD is not an officially recognized mental health disorder; it is not included in the DSM-IV. However, the lack of official status does not mean that it is not a real issue that many individuals are dealing with. For many, GD involves elements of depression (major depressive episodes, antenatal depression, postpartum depression), anxiety, grief, fear, PTSD, and/or other possible conditions. GD certainly does affect the mental health of those dealing with the issue.
It is likely that GD does stem – at least somewhat – from gender stereotypes and essentializing of the sexes. While gender does play an important part in who we are or who our children will become, we also bring with it certain expectations. We believe our daughters will care about interpersonal relationships and our sons will be assertive and clever. We fear our daughters will be drama and our sons aggressive. And superficially, we may long for ballet classes and braided hair or baseball practice and Legos. Because of these ideas that we bring with us about gender, GD can be difficult to overcome without support.
Unfortunately, because of the shame that many are instructed to feel over having particular feelings over their children’s gender, the issue is closeted and all longing or suffering is done in silence. Yet many of these feelings are common and allowing yourself the freedom to discuss them – with close friends, an online community, or a mental health professional – can be liberating and healing.
The GD Spectrum
There are a wide range of feelings that comprise GD. While the media has recently sensationalized the idea of Gender Disappointment – bitter and depressed women lamenting their lack of a daughter into old age or stone-hearted men encouraging their wives to abort their daughters – it is not often so shocking and affects a large number of parents.
- Gender Desire. Gender Desire (GDe) is simply the wish to raise a child of a particular gender, although no “disappointment” exists in having the other gender. Often affecting parents that have multiple children of one gender, those with GDe have the longing to raise a child of the other gender (e.g., a mother of three daughters may have GDe to have a son with her next pregnancy). Of course, even those who have yet to have any children may have GDe for a particular sex child as they imagine who their child will be and what activities they will engage in together.
- Gender Disappointment. Gender Disappointment (GD) is the sadness that results in learning that your child is not the hoped-for gender. For some this is the mild disappointment that lasts for a few days as they adjust their expectations, and for others this can last for a significant amount of time as they deal with letting go of their dream of a son or a daughter and what that means for their family.
- Extreme Gender Disappointment. Extreme Gender Disappointment (EGD) includes feelings of grief and despair over a child’s gender that seem to be unnaturally severe. Although a very small subset of those encountering GD, those dealing with EGD may be considering drastic measures to overcome the pain they are feeling, including: adoption, abortion, wishing for miscarriage, abandonment of their family, or even suicide. Although apparently and significantly disproportionate to the news of a baby’s gender, those dealing with EGD often have past issues of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, substantial loss, severe parental neglect or abandonment, or other markedly painful histories that have been associated with a certain gender.
 The terms gender and sex will be used interchangeably in this section. Although we understand in academic literature that sex involves physiological characteristics and gender relates to social construction, for our purposes the use of either term will simply mean “being male or female.” As the term “Gender Disappointment” was coined years ago to relate to this issue, and has been used extensively in the media and online, we will continue with the use of this phrase for clarity.  Breckler, S. J., Olson, J. M. & Wiggins, E. C., Social Psychology Alive, 2006. 177-178.