By Laine Munir
In the early 1980s, when I was born, using ultrasounds to determine a baby’s sex in utero was just becoming common practice for American doctors. It was a technology hailed as a harbinger of the Biological Revolution, a concern for pro-choice advocates who were troubled it could humanize fetuses—and it created a thought-provoking decision for the first cohort of parents to have it as an option. My mother once called her decision to not learn my sex before birth the best one she’s ever made. The months spent wondering who I was, she said, were “the most profound and beautiful” mystery of her life.
Thirty-five years later, I face the same quandary. As with many things, I’ve come to see my mother’s wisdom.
I am a member of a generation of women who largely view the disclosure of their baby’s sex as a standard step in prenatal care, who have benefitted from previously inaccessible scientific information about our health and that of our unborn children. However, we are also party to the gradual dissolution of the gender binary, as evidenced by the battle over intersex healthcare coverage, the transgender bathroom debate, and the “third” gender option on some state identification documents. Women today of childbearing age are navigating this new social terrain, which presents the question: Is learning a baby’s sex before birth actually helpful?
The decision not to find out my unborn child’s sex is perhaps the most intimate and important one I have made, and I imagine it feels the same for others. It seems like an initial step towards shaping my parenting ideology and is the first tangible determination my partner and I made together about the person we are creating.
My children will spend their entire lives having their genders constructed for them by others. If I am honest, this will also include me, despite my best efforts. I want to give my child the freedom to be whoever they choose, but I, like everyone, receive constant messages about gender that I consciously and subconsciously reproduce. I don’t know if it is possible for me to know my child’s sex and truly conceive of him or her as a blank slate. I don’t need to hasten this process by unintentionally falling into gendered lines of thinking while pregnant, and I certainly do not want those around us to exacerbate it. I’d like to let my children be just people as long as they can, even if it’s only for a few extra months before they are born.
The more external pressure I encounter from others to reveal the sex, the more clearly I see that we want to remain ignorant not for the baby’s benefit but for ours. Gender categories are comfortable. They feel necessary because they organize our social realities and give form to grouping structures that feel natural. These categories are seductive because they appear to make life easier.
Yuval Noah Harari argues in Sapiens that humans have an innate need to simplify their world because it is an evolutionary advantage. It is helpful to know that the blue berry is safe and the red berry is not, that this warrior is from a friendly tribe and that one is not. We are hardwired to think like this and it surely gives power to some innate need to make certain that people fall into the simple cognitive boxes we understand. But, in the modern world, my child actually benefits from having those boxes be as weak and collapsible as possible. Without them, my child’s expectations for an education and career, for who he or she can love, for how he or she should treat others—and be treated by others—are improved.
I suspect social media now plays a significant role in our desire to know a baby’s sex early. It creates for women a need to, in the words of Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “perform pregnancy.” Scroll through the social media feed of anyone expecting a child and you will find an endless photo stream of captioned sonograms, gender reveal parties, and arrangements of blue or pink onesies announcing a pregnancy. Gender gives us just the frame we need to create aesthetically appealing images of our unborn child; including the sex of the child in these images increases their information value, pulling in viewers.
The main reason I hear for learning a baby’s sex is to prepare, but I am not convinced glimpsing my child’s sex before birth helps me do that. There is a misnomer that having more information is always better. More data can actually overload us in a way that does not contribute to more favorable decision-making. Babies obviously benefit from pre-natal information that indicates health conditions. But, the sex does not influence these vital decisions related to health and well-being.
There is a philosophical, even mystical, element not finding out the sex before birth. People have lain awake at night wondering about their child’s sex for millennia. It is perhaps the final vestige of a shared parental experience across time and place. I worry that ascertaining the sex will separate me from this ancient and global experience. For all its innumerable benefits, technology also destroys some beautiful mysteries in its unending quest to answer every question.
Parenting entails a lifetime of the unknown. We cannot know what our child’s gifts or flaws will be. These mysteries are a large part of what makes parenting transcendental, and why it requires great faith. I think most people, if asked if they wanted to know how their kid’s life would unfold beforehand, would say that letting their child construct a destiny for themselves is a part of the journey. I wonder then why we commonly cut this mystery short by learning a part of our child’s identity before they are even born.
And, I just really do love a good surprise.
Dr. Laine Munir is an academic researcher of African conflict based in Seoul, South Korea. Her next great project will be parenting her soon-to-arrive twins to be gender-aware and globe-exploring world citizens.
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