* Editor’s note: Marion is taking the week off. This column first appeared in slightly different form in 2005.
“My friends look at me like I’m crazy, like it’s almost a sin or something,” said my niece, Traci, at her baby shower last weekend. “They ask me, ‘How can you stand not to know?'”
“Everybody in my birthing class knows,” added her cousin, also very pregnant, reporting on 12 couples. “Well, two don’t know. Not many.”
What are these young women talking about?
They’re discussing the biggest change in motherhood since I became a mother: knowing the sex of your unborn child.
Call me an old fuddy-duddy, but I don’t like this change.
I grew up with the movie-inspired image of the baby issuing from the mother’s womb to be held aloft triumphantly by a white-coated male doctor who triumphantly announces, “It’s a boy!” or “It’s a girl!”
By the time I had my first child, this picture had changed.
In particular, the pre-natal period had become almost as dramatic as the birth itself. Older mothers like me were referred for high-stakes genetic testing, due to our greater risk of a baby with Down syndrome.
The test had the side effect of revealing the sex of the baby, but most parents didn’t focus on that. (The big issue was whether it was OK to have an abortion if a genetic defect was discovered.)
After our baby tested normal, my husband and I debated whether or not to ask the sex. We chose to be surprised, in part because the old fantasy scene sounded so good.
(In fact, the sex of our baby was announced by a green-garbed female midwife instead of a white-coated male doctor, but we got the thrill — it’s a girl! — as we hoped.)
By the time we had our second baby, genetic testing was widespread, and everybody had figured out that it was a huge practical advantage to know the baby’s sex.
This being America, a lot of this was about shopping. Why buy green and yellow outfits when you can purchase pink or blue? Why miss the chance to buy a baby-sized football or a first Barbie? Why not furnish the nursery in the appropriate color?
Curiosity and impatience play a role, too. At the point where you can find out the sex, most commonly at 20 weeks, another 20 weeks of pregnancy feels like forever. For our second child, we chose to know what was coming.
Nowadays, you don’t have to be 35 years old and eligible for genetic testing in order to learn the sex of your child. Ultrasound is routine, and it almost always answers the question.
My niece and her husband got into some friction about this, he clinging to the romance of the surprise and she feeling like this was a Christmas present she couldn’t wait to open.
I’m glad he won, and she is now, too.
“In the second trimester, it was driving me crazy not to know,” she said with a smile at her baby shower. “Now that it’s only 12 more weeks, I can wait. Actually, I’m looking forward to the surprise after nine months of dreaming and guessing.”
All this talk about knowing or not knowing led me to think about the other unknowns in our lives.
There are small numbers of big unknowns like “Will I find Ms. Right?” and “Will I be happy?” and big numbers of small unknowns like, “Will the steak taste good at this restaurant?” But there aren’t very many of the baby variety: an important unknown that lasts for more than a day but less than a lifetime, say, nine months.
I’m living with the one unknown that’s just as important as birth: I wonder when my father, who is 88 years old and mentally infirm, will die.
Not knowing the answer leads to lots of worries. Will his money last? How often should I visit? Should I force him to move closer to me? Some days, I shake my fist at the sky and say, “Why can’t I know when it will happen?”
Compared to that situation, the other unknown, the sex of your baby, is a picnic, a joy, a delight perhaps not to be missed.
It’s entertaining to watch people get involved as they guess “boy or girl.” It’s fun to get gifts in lots of colors. There’s pleasure in fantasizing the next 18 years of life as a parent of a girl and then starting all over imagining them with a boy. Even choosing names for both sexes helps you get through the long nine months.
It makes me sad that these pleasures have been snatched away from a new generation of young people, in exchange for what? The ability to shop more efficiently?
But what’s done is done and we can’t go back.
People who remember the old way will eventually die off. Knowing the sex of your baby will be as normal as having a TV in your living room, a computer in your den and a camera in your cell phone. Death will remain the great mystery and birth will remain not quite as suspenseful as it used to be.
— Marion Franck lives in Davis with her family. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org