Pros and Cons of Learning the Sex of Your Baby


One of the first decisions new parents face is whether or not to learn the sex of their baby. Here are two sides to the story:

No, I Didn’t

“If we knew,” Bill said, “we could spend half as much time picking out a name.”

“If we knew,” I said, “people would swamp us with pink or blue before the kid even showed up. Besides, I like a surprise.”

“Me too.”

And so, at my ultrasound, we didn’t ask our baby’s sex. I was never sorry.

True, I got sick of the question that everyone in the world seemed to ask: “Do you know if you’re having a boy or a girl?” I also got sick of my smart-aleck reply: “We’re definitely having a boy or a girl.”

{C}But I never tired of what happened next. More often than not, people would give me an appraising squint. A once-over. A confident smile. Then out would tumble the predictions: “It’s a girl. I can tell from how high you’re carrying.” Or “It’s a boy. You don’t look pregnant from behind.”

Now and then, their methods were more involved. My friend Eric solemnly tied his gold ring to a chain and held it over my open palm, a tradition of his Chinese-American family. The chain swung straight, then in a circle, then straight twice more. It was settled, Eric said. I would have a boy, and later — if I got pregnant three more times — I would have a girl and two more boys.

My mother performed a similar ritual handed down by her English-Swedish mother. She tied my wedding ring to a piece of thread, then dangled it over my swollen belly; we held our breath. It swung straight. “Ha!” she crowed. “You’re gonna have a little boy. A hairy little boy. I know it. The ring trick is always right!”

I took this with a grain of salt. Ditto for every other homespun gender-revealing test. “So why do you go along with them?” Bill asked. “Because it’s fun,” I said. Fun to pretend, fun to confer, and, above all, fun to have those intense little moments with everyone from relatives to supermarket clerks.

{C}Why did I prefer such moments to anything science could dish up? Maybe I wanted “a rite of passage into motherhood,” as an anthropologist once told me. “Technology doesn’t give you that.” Good point. When a lab technician looks at a computer screen and states, “You’re having a girl” or “You’re having a boy,” that’s it. But when friends, family, or neighbors take time to predict your baby’s sex, they’re saying a lot more — that having a baby is a big deal and so is becoming a parent. They want to be involved and invested in your life. In your baby’s life too.

I found that unspoken pledge very comforting, since I knew almost nothing about babies and was going to need all the help I could get. Plus, I enjoyed the feeling — also not available in the lab — that I was part of something ancient. Probably since caveman days, people have tried to guess the sex of unborn babies (“You crave mammoth leg again, Unga-it must be girl!”). I was joining a long and colorful continuum.

As I’d predicted, our shower guests stayed away from boring pink and blue in favor of teal, gold, red, purple, and plaid. On the other hand, Bill and I did spend an awful lot of time debating names.

“We could just go with Chris or Pat,” he said. “Then we’ll be set either way.” “We could just wait until after the baby’s born and see if we’re inspired.” We kept debating right up until labor. At least it gave us something to talk about besides the shooting pains in my back. Then one bright spring morning, we had new things to discuss — like how amazing it was to be actual parents. And how beautiful our baby was.

And how the ring trick had been right.

Melissa Balmain’s son, David, is 4 years old.Yes, I Did

My husband was adamant: “I want it to be a surprise,” he kept saying. “After the baby’s born, I want to call my parents and say, ‘It’s a boy!’ or ‘It’s a girl!’ and have it be real news.”

“But it’ll be a surprise no matter when we find out,” I’d shoot back. “It’ll be real news whenever you make that call.”

It’s a perfectly logical argument, but Haywood wanted no part of it. When you’re dealing with primeval feelings and ancient traditions, he said, logic is beside the point.

But my own feelings, though certainly less tied to ancient tradition, were equally primeval: This baby was growing in my body. This baby was transforming my heart. This baby was going to be one of the great loves of my life, and I wanted to learn as much about him or her as soon as I could learn it.

It wasn’t about planning the nursery or buying baby clothes. I just wanted to know — in the same way I wanted to know whether my child would have a lot of hair like Haywood’s dad or my Dumbo-like ears, if he or she would be even-tempered and calm or passionate and volatile. An ultrasound couldn’t tell me such things. But it could tell me whether my baby was a boy or a girl.

{C}Who cared if it was a break with ancient tradition to get a peek between the legs a few months early? It’s not like we were doing anything else in any sort of ancient way. We would be having our baby in the hospital, with high-tech monitoring devices and all the pain medication I’d need to get through labor.

“You can find out and just not tell me,” Haywood suggested. But I wanted us to enter parenthood in unison, so when he announced to the sonographer that we didn’t want to know the baby’s sex, I didn’t peep — even when the sonographer asked, “Are you sure? I’ve got a great view here.” I nodded and squeezed Haywood’s hand.

I was squeezing his hand again four months later when the doctor exclaimed, “It’s a boy! What’s his name?” Haywood choked out, “It’s Sam,” hugged me, and cried.

Four years later, expecting again, we took the same positions, but things were different. I’d had two miscarriages since Sam was born and was on bed rest with preterm labor, praying my baby would make it. So, early on I’d made up my mind: I’d find out the gender and not tell Haywood. This time there was an added urgency: If I wasn’t going to have the chance to see this baby grow up, at least I could think in terms of him or her.

At my 20-week ultrasound, Haywood held up Sam so that he could see the shadowy baby waving and kicking. When the sonographer asked, “Do you want to know the sex?” I shook my head. “No thanks,” I said. “We want it to be a surprise.” Then Haywood left to let Sam run off some energy in the hallway and I asked, “Is it a boy or a girl?” The sonographer looked startled. “Are you sure you want to know?”

“Yes. Anything you know, I want to know.”

It turns out that Haywood and I were both right. For him, the surprise was worth the wait. For me, when that sonographer said, “It’s a boy!” the words sounded as magical as they had the first time I heard them: in a delivery room, four years before.

Contributing editor Margaret Renkl is the mother of three boys, ages 4, 6, and 11.