Personal Stories

Yes, I would like to know the sex of my baby - a short, but eternal, journey of sex assignment (June 2011)

In 2008, I gave birth to a tiny little baby. The entry into the world, however, was met with an immediate question mark over the sex. As the doctor handed me my baby asking me if I wanted to know the sex, I yelped with excitement, 'A boy!' The anesthetist, however, responded that I should look again, as he had a bit of a look and a prod. 'Of course it's a boy', I laughed, 'he has his bits'. The paediatrician agreed and he was laid back on my chest. Later (after quite significant looking and hushed discussions), the same paediatrician tried to explain this discussion to me, but I was too tired to understand and too naive to even make sense of it. 'What do you mean you are unsure about the sex? He's a little boy, are you daft?' I dismissed him completely and he stumbled off, a bit embarrassed. I think he just really struggled to explain what was going on, and in the light of my blanket refusal to accept what was happening, he gave up.

The next morning, after a tough night of incubators and intensive care, I was taken into a small room by a Doctor who sat me down and explained that my baby urinated from a different place. I sat there as she explained this to me, 'yup, aha, yes'. I was still completely oblivious really to what she was trying to tell me. And then she just hit me with it. And so they would need to 'confirm' the sex. There was a chance, 'a very small chance', she reassured me, 'that your baby might not be a boy'. They would need to take images of his internal reproductive system, along with a series of other tests to establish sex. They would also need to do a chromosomal test which would be the 'ultimate' confirmation. If the tests came back with 46 XY chromosomes, it would mean my baby was genetically male. If it was 46 XX chromosomes, it would mean genetically female. It could come back as 'chromosonally confused' which means there would be both XY and XX chromosomes. Now, generally, she reassured me, even if it does come back mixed it tends to mean mainly male or female genes so there would be no real impact on the baby's life. There is a very small possibility, however, that it may come back with no real demarcation of sex.

'So I would advise you not to name your baby at this stage. I would strongly urge that you not register the birth at this stage either.' These words hit me with every single letter being 10 tonnes of steel. With all the force they just whallopped me and I completely collapsed. I wasn't even sure what she meant at first. All the usual coping strategies I had, like denial, excessive positivity or negativity, or inappropriate humour just dissolved and I was completely ripped out of reality into this completely surreal world. That was when I just broke down into a flood of tears. I was no longer able to dismiss and deny the previous attempts to explain this to me, and I was forced to try and understand what was happening to my baby.

It should have been the happiest days of my life and in lots of ways it was. The first time I fed him or held him, for instance. Even the first time I changed his nappy was amazing for me. But in other ways it was undoubtedly the most traumatic period of my life. And I do genuinely mean traumatic, for there is no other term to describe this. My baby was in an incubator, which, believe me, was bad enough, but here was some doctor telling me that my baby boy might not be a boy after all. It is so difficult to explain the force of that. I was completely skinned with grief. 'You can't just call him "the baby"', my mum said, but what choice did I have? My little boy might not be a boy and for the next four days I wouldn't know and couldn't name him. I understood that advice, and in a self-protection measure I tried desperately to think, act and relate in gender neutral terms. I removed all elements of 'it's a boy' exclamations from my hospital room (thankfully I was moved from a general ward, away from the other new babies and mothers!!). I was extremely careful to talk about the baby, or my baby, never him, he or boy. I tried so hard not to let the concept of male and female come in to this relationship I was developing with this tiny little 5lb bundle.

I also had to deal with the management of that news. I told people who knew that I hadn't decided on a name and never told the rest of my friends and family any news of the birth. For those four days I told only my mum who was at the hospital with me and allowed her permission to tell only my sister. I could not tell anyone else. It wasn't that I was ashamed, it really wasn't. I just knew that I couldn't actually physically explain this to anyone else. It was so difficult though. I would speak to my dad and a few others on the phone, and he would ask how he was and have I got a name yet (as you do) and I would respond, yes, the baby is fine and no, I still can't think of a name. And through this I would be desperately trying not to cry because that would let them know something was going on and I was no where near ready to explain. Three things everyone wants to know when a baby is born: sex, name and weight. I mean the first introduction to my baby was via the question, 'do you want to know the sex of your baby?' That is how important it is to our whole experience of birth and child bearing. Even my sister asked about a name and she knew there was a question mark over the sex. It is just one of those automatic things you say when there is a new arrival. My baby had no name. My baby had no sex. And because of this it felt like my baby had no identity.

So I didn't tell people I had even gone in to labour. I didn't let anyone know what was going on. I felt isolation was the best way to keep things gender/sex neutral. And I became very practical. I started thinking about strategies for 'damage control'. The friends who knew who wanted to come up and see me and the baby were put off. I kept thinking, if it turns out my baby is a girl then I can explain it by saying that, 'no, I said it was a girl, you must have got it wrong'. I would have to explain to them (if needs be) but I could ask them to play stupid and tell others that they must have got it wrong. If they saw the baby though and spoke to me then that wouldn't be feasible because they would have spoken to other friends and talked about him. I had to think about all these scenarios and attempt to create cover stories to prevent further questions or revealing the uncertainty. It all sounds so covert and somehow shameful but it wasn't about shame, it really wasn't. It was about not even being able to explain this whole thing to myself let alone others. And I didn't know what else to do. I needed time and space to get my head around it. I think the nurses on the ward thought I had no friends or family because, despite being in hospital for 10 days, we had very few visitors for the first week. I couldn't bear it. In a period where I felt so alone, I felt being alone was the only viable strategy.

But with this de-sexing and isolation came excruciating and very real grief. My baby had ended up in an incubator and on oxygen, so I spent the first night crying because I was worried I would lose my baby. I spent the second, third, and fourth night crying because I worried I would lose my boy. And that was really what it was about for me. I gave birth to a boy and because of this I expected to be raising a boy. But there was this possibility that my boy was actually a girl! I knew I was a mother, but I just didn't know that I was a mother to a boy or girl. Now to some this distinction might not actually seem important. When pregnant most of us say it doesn't matter what we have, as long as they are happy and healthy etc. But here I was sitting alone in my room sobbing my heart out because it was important. It was absolutely and fundamentally crucial. Because through all of this, my main concern was that I would lose my boy. And that sense of loss was very real and terrifying for me. It felt like there was one baby but two potential people; a boy or a girl. I felt no connection with this baby as a girl, but at the same time I desperately tried not to connect with my baby as a boy. I knew I might gain a girl, and I also knew that I would embark on this remarkable journey of raising my girl should this be the case. But through that gain, I knew that there would also be a huge, terrible and painful loss. I wanted the boy I gave birth to and I remember crying to my mum regularly that 'I just want my little boy!' I know that some may question this and there may be many debates on genderless identities and how it is the person we love not the sex. I have to say though, it was not like that for me and it truly shocked me that sex was so important.

So in those days I wandered around in a daze. I couldn't feed him for the first few days and I barely got to hold him so establishing a relationship with my baby was very difficult. Writing about this now reminds me of how difficult it actually was. I also now realise that there was a real disassociation from my baby at that time which contributed to my difficulties bonding with my baby. Combining the physical separation from my baby (him being in an incubator) along with a psychological, social and emotional separation, I think those early days marked a distance from my baby that took months to close. And the emotional and psychological ramifications of that period of uncertainty still mark me yet. I feel the pain of those days even now, three years later.

There was no professional support to help me during this time, so I was very much dealing with this on my own. There were some very sympathetic medical staff and one nurse was so great and she held my hand whilst I blubbed away and spilt out what was happening. And on a medical level people were generally sympathetic. But there was no-one to help me come to terms with what was happening. There was no professional support to help me articulate or contextualise this. I was never offered any counselling or any advice on the psychological impact this might have. I was offered absolutely nothing in those days of waiting or afterwards, and I have to say, this contributed to that severe sense of loneliness I felt. When my brother and his wife found out their baby had a cleft lip and palette, they were immediately supported and became part of support groups before the baby was even born. They were given advice on how to explain to other children and what the ramifications might be for their child. They entered into a strong peer and professional support network. I was quite envious of that. If I had received a quarter of that support during that time, it might have been less traumatic. A few years later, I sought counselling through my work to try and deal with some of the trauma I felt. If I could change one thing about my experience it would be this. Some form of professional support such as counselling or even peer support should be offered to all parents of children with DSDs. And this is especially important when there is a process of sex assignment happening. Because in helping parents cope with these issues, we can help our children understand and accept them.

The nicest thing anyone did for me in that whole stay in hospital, was the night when I got the chromosome test results back. I came down to feed my little boy and here he was lying on a blue sheet. It sounds such a small thing but to me it was so massive, I just cried with tears of happiness. It was this small gesture of celebration by the staff that finally, my baby was a sexed, gendered being. It celebrated me getting my boy back. And on this blue sheet I lay a small blue dog that I had bought from the hospital shop in my own celebration that my boy was my little boy.

My wait was over. It was only four days but it felt like months. I have found out since then that many parents have to wait longer still to establish the sex of their child. I know now we were the lucky ones!

(Note from dsdfamilies (July 2011): The little boy in this true story was diagnosed with Hypospadias. He is now a bright and energetic three year old. The mother who wrote this story is currently exploring how best to work together with her local hospital in offering peer support to affected families).

Eva’s birth story (January 2012)

Turning a corner – or about the time when I explained to my 8 3/4 year old daughter that she would not be growing babies in her tummy (July 2012)