I was 18 weeks pregnant, lying on my back, my bladder about to burst, waiting for the technician to arrive for my routine ultrasound.
I was nervous. But it wasn't the shape or size of the fetus that had me so jittery, or whether the individual parts were developing all right. For some reason, I had an amazing amount of confidence about these things, a strong hunch that the baby inside me was healthy. What was I nervous about? That the baby might be a boy.
From the time my husband and I thought about having kids, I knew I wanted a girl. It had been a vague wish, something felt more than articulated—until a few weeks before the scheduled ultrasound, when we took a trip to Cape Cod, and I realized how strongly held my preference really was.
It was near the end of the season, and there was plenty of beach available, but we steered away from isolation and parked ourselves among the families with their rafts and sunblock and towels, animal crackers in small plastic bags, brightly colored shovels and pails. This would be our first baby; we wanted to get a glimpse of what was in store. So we sat looking and listening, day after day, our thick novels spread open on our knees, the pages not turning.
I saw a girl who again and again chased the tide as it shrank into the ocean, and then about-faced and ran to higher ground, squealing, as the cold water rolled back in. I saw a girl who leaned her back up against her father's shins and flipped through the pages of a magazine, her mother's sunglasses sliding down her nose, her hair a cascade of auburn curls. I saw two sisters who sat face-to-face on their heels and piled a mound of wet sand between them, their voices crisscrossing in the air, mixing with the screeches of gulls. There were boys on that beach, too, of course, but nothing about them engaged me. I noticed them there, but it was the girls I couldn't stop watching. Why?
On one level, the pull was purely visual. I loved the way their bellies pushed out, the way their wet bathing suits clung to their butts, the way they held themselves, a certain softness and grace entering whatever they did. There was something about their long hair, the sheen of which a day in the wind could not fully conceal, that made me want to lay my hands gently upon their heads, something about their eyes that made me wish they would look my way. Never mind that, as my husband jokingly pointed out, their beach clothes were a whole lot cuter.
Still, I knew enough to recognize that aesthetics are subjective, that they are dictated by something much deeper. There was no inherent reason one little girl's high ponytail and clam diggers would grab me, while her older brother's football jersey turned me off.
What Little Girls Are Made Of
Girls have more mellow energy, I decided after a few days of observation. They're more willing to converse. Their play is contemplative. It doesn't involve tearing around at full tilt, limbs flailing. It doesn't include violence, a piece of driftwood transformed into a gun, a schooner on the horizon suddenly an enemy ship.
Girls read books, they collect shells, carefully picking through hanks of ragged seaweed, attentive to hidden, tiny worlds. I found that even their shrieks of delight had a kind of bubbling delicacy; it was a quality I wanted to touch with my fingertips, to hold onto.
I knew, of course, that I was stereotyping. I could recognize that the boys and girls on that beach probably weren't really all that different, that I was choosing to see different things in them. Gender stands out; it's an aspect of identity that registers before hair color or personality. Maybe, because I am one who prefers conversation to activity, who thinks hard and wonders often, who finds the pattern of waves infinitely more interesting than the experience of riding them, I assumed these girls—simply because they were girls—had those qualities, too; and I gravitated toward what I thought I saw.
Perhaps it was something beyond that, too: I think that in the brown-haired 4-year-old who grew tearful when her sand castle disappeared beneath a surprise wave, I may have seen myself as a small child, and the darkness of my own uncertain world.
In my youth, it seemed, things toppled and sometimes there wasn't much I could depend on to hold steady. My older brother drew me in with his affection and then, in an instant, turned cruel; my parents sat across from each other at the dining room table, and there was a coldness between them I couldn't explain; we drove by a smashed bird in the road, and I wanted more than anything to bring it back to life. In yearning to comfort this little girl on the beach, I may have also been wanting to comfort myself, to pick my way through the broken pieces of the past, return to all the ruined sand castles and rebuild what I had long since lost. Maybe mothering a daughter would become a way to be mothered, too.
Whatever the complexity of reasons, I knew this: Every time I saw a girl, something inside me twisted and surged, a longing so profound it felt like pain.
The Moment Of Truth
"Do you want to know the sex?" the technician asked, rolling the wand over my belly like it was a Ouija board, something to predict the future. We did. My husband, having no particular preference, was simply curious. I happen to be intolerant of secrets. Besides, I reasoned, if the baby was in fact a boy, I didn't want the birth itself to be tainted with disappointment. I wanted, as much as possible, to get that part out of the way.
The fetus looked fine, the technician was telling us. There were hands and feet, she said, there were kidneys and a liver, and there was a heart that had four chambers.
"That's the umbilical cord," she said, pointing with her cursor. "And that dot just below it—that's a winkie." She tapped on her keyboard, moved in for a close-up, click click. "Yup," she nodded, "that's a winkie, all right."
"Wow," I said. I tried to smile. I didn't want the technician to think I was ungrateful, or just crazy. "Wow," I heard myself say again.
On the drive back home, I was in tears. "Healthy is what I want," I had heard other pregnant women say. "Beyond that, I don't care." I envied them. I felt guilty, too, having hoped so hard for a particular outcome, having taken the baby's apparent health for granted. So many women struggle to get pregnant; so many times, the joy of pregnancy is shadowed by confusing test results or, worse, confirmed health problems.
"It'll be okay," my husband said. "You'll love him anyway. You'll love him so much you won't even believe it."
But I couldn't keep my disappointment in check. And I was a little afraid, too, fearful of all the wild energy I assumed—rightly or wrongly—that this thing growing inside of me possessed.
I'm a moody person. Sometimes I struggle for equilibrium. I didn't need that sense of chaos and disorder on the outside, too—a toddler running circles around a couch, a 7-year-old falling out of trees. I lacked the inner stability, I thought, to withstand it. What I wanted on the outside, instead, was peace and quiet: a girl coloring at a table, humming softly.
All I could think of, as we drove along the highway, my head pressed against the window glass, were toy trucks banging against walls for hours on end, fist fights, dirt and bugs and screaming.
I spent the next couple of months in a panic. I worried, despite my husband's assurances, that I wouldn't be able to love my son; I could imagine the damage I would do to him, being a mother who always wished he were something other than what he was.
For a long while, I harbored a hope that the technician had made a mistake, that what she thought was a "winkie" was actually some other body part she hadn't accounted for. I kept picturing the moment of birth and the midwife announcing, "It's a girl," and the feeling of having been blessed with a miracle. And to be honest, I still have moments, well into my third trimester, when I wonder, What if?
I feel conflicted, it's true. But isn't so much of motherhood about ambivalence, no matter who your child is, no matter her size and shape, his preference for violin or football? I have realized this more and more as my pregnancy has progressed. There are always second thoughts, twinges of regret. Already, part of me is in mourning. My breasts will no longer be my husband's and mine to explore. My schedule will be dictated by someone else's demands. I will have so much—too much?—responsibility.
In those early months, it was easy for me to blame all those fears and concerns on the one concept of gender. As gender became the focus, it obscured the universality of my doubts. I could almost trick myself into thinking that if only the boy were a girl instead, I would be riding high day after day, without reservation or remorse. I know now that's not true. I also know that my regrets about not having a girl are real. They may have masked my other worries about motherhood earlier on, but they have their own weight and validity.
But I have, over time, opened myself up to ambivalence. And doing so has allowed me, paradoxically, to open myself up to love, too. Sometimes I feel such a strong connection to this creature that the time I have to wait until I actually get to hold him seems like torture, and the days pass at an unbearably slow pace.
And maybe he will surprise me. Maybe I am wrong about the way that boys are; maybe the stereotypes are just that. Maybe my son won't ram trucks into walls, maybe he won't always be running and doing, a streak of muscle zooming from room to room, no time to reflect and consider. Maybe he will want to color, take walks in the woods, talk to me about what he is thinking, sit by my side and read.
But maybe I will surprise myself instead. I don't want to make this my child's burden; I don't want to saddle him with the responsibility of bending his sturdy body to my wishes, of tamping down his exuberance to accommodate my sensibilities, my fragile wiring. Maybe I will discover that there is nothing more fun than putting on bright red rubber boots and jumping with full force into a mud puddle, that a lion's roar reaches down and finds the power inside you the way a kitty-cat's tame meow never could.
Maybe those are things I used to know myself but then forgot, as I learned to be what people expect from a little girl, as I figured out what made my own parents happiest. Maybe when my son runs around the house with his friends after school, his tube socks sliding off his feet, the color rising in his cheeks, and he accidentally knocks a vase off the mantel, I will hear chimes in the shattering of glass. I will not feel broken myself. I will see danger in those hundreds of sharp-edged parts, yes, but I will also see a bright new surface: something twinkling, lovely.