Longing for a Son?
I never wanted a boy. At least, that's what I thought when our first child was conceived. In the fifth month of the pregnancy, a routine blood test indicated abnormal results, so our doctor scheduled an amniocentesis. When we received the results, I was relieved to find out that our baby was healthy. Then I got more good news: We were incubating a little girl. I know that many expectant fathers root for their wives to produce a boy, if just to carry on the family name, but that isn't me.
The truth is, I've never fit the model of a stereotypical American male. I remember all too well the public humiliation of being picked last for the baseball team in phys ed and then being assigned to left field (it took me another ten years before I found out the reason was that no one hits there). Then there was the annual trauma of the President's Physical Fitness Test, when I would invariably score in the zero percentile on the softball throw. Even now, when the conversation among a group of men turns to sports -- which it invariably does -- I try to blend in with the nearest wall. What would happen if I had a boy? If I'm missing the sports gene on my Y chromosome, wouldn't it pass him by too? Or, worse yet, what if it just skipped a generation and he turned out to be an All-American? I can imagine myself on the sidelines on Saturday morning about as easily as I can imagine myself skydiving or bungee-jumping.
So when it came time for baby number two, I thought that another girl would suit me fine. But in the three years since our firstborn, Madeline, had arrived, the idea of a boy had lost some of its emotional baggage. For one thing, all those tights, frilly dresses, and shoes with multiple buckles were taking their toll. I can remember more than one morning arriving at the breakfast table, daughter in tow, proud of myself for having gotten all the various pieces in place (jumper, blouse, tights, hair clip), only to be politely informed that Madeline's dress was on backward. (Excuse me, but what Houdini-inspired designer put buttons and zippers on the back of clothing?) Another reason for my about-face was that during my time in the preschool circuit, I met a lot of sweet little boys who, contrary to my expectations, didn't show up at playdates toting bats, balls, or semi-automatic weapons.
Suddenly I found myself mulling over boys' names, saying them out loud to see how they'd sound to college-admissions boards or to girls in his class. (Eugene Levine would be staying home on Saturday nights, I decided.) As the months passed, I somehow convinced myself that our baby would be a boy.
Because my wife was over 35, her obstetrician wanted her to have a "routine" amnio. So there we were again, waiting for the results. But this time, I'll admit, I was just as concerned about the baby's sex as its chromosomal health. My wife got the call from the doctor's office, and after she hung up the phone she reported that our baby was healthy. Naturally, I was grateful. But when she proceeded (with some trepidation) to tell me that we were expecting another girl, I could barely process the information. A girl! I had been double-crossed -- literally. At first I thought my disappointment was with my own faulty intuition. But as the days went by, I fell into a funk that surprised me -- and worried my wife.
Like most fathers, I had a tough time bonding with my babies while they were still in utero; when the vital organs being pushed and kicked aren't yours, it just doesn't seem real. But this time it was even more difficult to make an emotional connection because the invisible being I had pictured didn't exist. And then there was the guilt I felt because I couldn't hide my disappointment from my wife.
During this time I was haunted by a host of thoughts that surfaced from the depths of my melancholy; the most alarming was the fear that this baby couldn't be nearly as special as our first. After all, I had reveled in the daddy-daughter relationship for more than three years. Would I be able to forge such a special bond a second time? The truth is, there was a part of me that was already convinced that there couldn't be anything interesting about another girl. As the due date approached, these feelings, combined with having a very demanding 3-year-old around, made it difficult to look forward to the birth.
Then, as often happens where babies are concerned, the delivery turned all my expectations, feelings, and worries upside down. Ellie was born in what seemed like record time, so there was little opportunity to brood about her not being a boy. And, as with the birth of her older sister, my absolute astonishment at seeing a living, breathing baby emerge from my wife's body and the incredible feeling of holding that creature for the first time washed away all of my anxiety about whether she was animal, vegetable, or mineral, let alone girl or boy.
My buoyant attitude kept my spirits up for most of Ellie's first year. As infancy turned into toddlerhood, however, the nagging ache for a boy returned, and I found myself at family gatherings wishing I was the one with the cute "little man" dressed in miniature cords and matching vest. I even began to resent the sight of other fathers carrying their sons high on their shoulders (both of my girls hate that), looking real guyish together.
As much as I love Madeline and Ellie, I've come to realize that having girls means bonding from a distance. On a certain level I know that I'll always be an outsider in my own family. Even at 7, Madeline pulls my wife aside to whisper things in her ear that she feels aren't appropriate for Dad. And as the girls get older, I'll be more marginalized, until the door finally slams shut sometime around puberty. I figure I've only got a few good "Daddy knows best" years left, in which I'll be their special guy and the role model for the men they'll meet later. (Over my dead body!)
Funny thing is, despite my recurring ambivalence and wistful musings, Ellie has turned out to be a Daddy's girl. (And ironically, she's already showing signs of having a great throwing arm.) She's my sidekick on Home Depot trips and my host at tea parties where she anxiously awaits my approval of her invisible brew. And just the other day I received the ultimate compliment: She asked me to get her a "daddy Barbie doll." It's as if Ellie, playing in her fantasy world, refuses to let me linger in mine, knowing that if I did I'd miss the best reality has to offer.
Former BabyTalkeditor-in-chief Frederick G. Levine lives with his family in western Massachusetts.