Friday, July 07, 2017

In which I discover that gender disappointment is diagnosable and has a name

When we found out Squishy (the Duke) was a boy, I was totally thrown by how gutted I was.  The (distinct) impression I was basing my life on since 2009 was one of 4 boys and 2 girls.  Still outnumbered, but still a mother of girls.  It felt like a compromise and I shook mental/spiritual hands with it and moved forward.

It meant about 4 more pregnancies than I really wanted to live through, but I learned after Sir O was born that it was possible to feel like it was worth it, once it was over.  And at the point I got pregnant with Squishy (the Duke) (pregnancy #5) I had 3 boys and 1 girl, so if I was 'expecting' one more of each, it didn't much matter which, right?  Only every time you have more of one gender/sex, your actual statistical odds of having more of that gender/sex increase.  So to find out I was having a boy then meant the chance of that last girl coming got slimmer.  So I struggled. I floundered, I surprised myself at how unnerved I was.

(I will interrupt myself here to aside that I am fully aware that being capable of birthing healthy children is a blessing.  Like really, really, really, shamefully aware.  It's a thought that beats me up about every 5 minutes of my life like a playground bully and threatens to punch me in the face every time I have a less-than-grateful feeling (over which I have really very little control.) Like so many things in life, it is possible to live with seemingly contradictory truths here.  Cognitive dissonance is my permanent roommate.  For life.  Get comfy with it. I cannot find a way around it.)

I have been saying since before this pregnancy that it REALLY needs to be my last one.  As much as I've become a pro at rolling with punches and lowering the bar, the bar is at rock bottom.  For the sake of my older children, I really need to be able to step up and parent more whole-heartedly.  Which is nigh unto impossible to do when one is mired in the pseudo-food-poisoning knockout known as the first half of my pregnancies, or the depressed and anemic quagmire known as the second half of my pregnancies.  Despite my apparent fertility, I am not a seamless baby making machine.  Every pregnancy kills me a little, in the very most literal sense. By my estimation it takes me 2 years postpartum to recover fully, which means I have recovered fully all of 1 time in the midst of 6 pregnancies.  My body and my mind are quite literally worn out, and to keep doing this would without a doubt shorten my lifespan significantly, to say nothing of the implications for my quality of life.

SO it has been, and has felt like a very real, very valid and valuable sacrifice on my behalf to try to live up to that 6 child impression from 8 years ago.  I felt like I was expressing my faith by cooperating with it when it was so hard for me.

Today ultrasound # 6 showed boy #5.  Not only that, but the ultrasound tech said, "that's a boy all day long..." just to let me know that there was not an iota of room for doubt.

Remembering how the rug had been pulled out from under me last time, I had been trying to prepare for this possibility for months.  I had never once allowed myself a verbal expression of a hope for a girl.  Despite the dozens of inquiries about my preference (because what else do you talk about with a sick pregnant lady?) I had firmly stuck to my "you can't have a baby because you want a boy or a girl, you have to just want a baby" mantra.

But the truth of the matter is that the moment Squishy was revealed to be a boy, the words that popped into my head were "well, I guess the girl will have to come next."  As hard as that day was (and it was hard, and I cried then too), there was still an open, if unlikely door.

Today, as hard as I tried to avoid repeating that struggle, the door appears to have actually closed.  And it's totally eclipsed the struggle I had last time.  This time, it actually feels like someone died.

Do you have any idea how much shame lies inherent in feeling like you've miscarried when you're actually carrying a perfectly healthy baby?  To be swallowed by these huge and awful and unexpected feelings and to be shocked and horrified by them?  The compounding, complex awful emotions that swallow you whole, and you rock violently from one to the other?

So today has been a relentless ride on waves and undertows of sorrow.

That daughter, that I hoped would give me the peace of mind that my journey through rough pregnancies was an acceptable and complete offering to God, is gone.  She doesn't exist.

That impression of my completed family, on which I based my willingness to go through the most excruciating months (accumulating to years) of my life, is shattered, is false.

My faith in God is stout enough that I'm not totally thrown overboard, but I'm shaken.  This is the 3rd such experience in 4 years that has left me totally upended regarding my relationship to and interpretation of divine influence in my life.  Today I totally get the idolic interpretations of deity as capricious characters willing to play cruel games with men and women's lives.  (Looking at you, Aries) In the thick of it, as things are happening that just can't be made to not hurt, it's the only easy way to make sense of the pain.  God has betrayed me, made a fool of me, let me make a fool of myself.  I know all those feelings will sort out over time, and that it's even possible that I'll arrive at a place where having only one daughter will make sense to me.  You know, before I die.  But today I'm not banking on it.

So today, as I quickly realized that Mr Renn is good for many things, but he's not much good for emotions so complicated that you can't even talk about them out loud because you cry so hard, I found through the wonder of the internet, that I am not the first person to ride in this horrid boat.  It's so common that it has a name and is considered a consistent and relatively common factor in postpartum and antenatal depression.  Gender disappointment is common enough to be shortened to an acronym: GD.

Unfortunately for me, the majority of discussions around it revolve around parents of only a single gender (i.e. mothers of all boys) and don't address the huge heaviness I feel about my failure to give Bunny a sister.

I know it was pinning all my hopes on the agency of others, but I had hoped to give all of my children, through siblings close enough in age, a support system of people who'd be going through similar stages of life through adolescence, adulthood, and hopefully to sustain them once I'm gone someday.  While Bunny can still have a great relationship with her brothers, they will experience life and the world differently than she will.  While I have hope that the world will continue to treat women better in her lifetime, there will be a difference.  She may have stellar relationships with sisters-in-law someday, but she may not.  She will not have a sister who will have shared the quirky family background and know her from the ground up.  It's something I would have given blood and guts to have provided for her.  And I tried.  But it's not happening.  It's a huge, heavy thing to grieve.  She may be fine, this may not be something that even matters to her.  But I've been lonely for a sister my entire life.  ( I got a sister when I was 13, we lived in the same household less than 5 years, and we've never yet been in similar stages of life, so we'll see if we get closer as we age).  Having someone to reach out to who was already permanently invested in me would have made a world of difference in my life thus far, and I'm not charismatic enough to have filled that void with friends or mentors. So this is a grief I feel for Bunny's future that is far heavier than my own personal disappointment in not getting to have a group of girls to do girly things with.  (Though that's real too.)

So yes, there's this nonexistent girl who's lived in my head for 8 years, who was going to signify so many things for me.  My girls were going to take care of each other.  My family was going to feel peacefully complete.  I was going to get to have "girls" and amidst the ferality of our wild boy house, we were going to put on plays and have high tea and wear aprons and watch foreign films .  Poof.  Gone.

So yeah, nobody died, but it's a grief like someone did.

It's not like there's nothing to salvage here.  I have to start the really painful process of peeling off charred skin and evaluating the carnage beneath to evaluate what can be saved.  What's actually not necessarily incompatible with my real life?  Where can I graft?

I tried to look up ways to enjoy being a mother of boys, and I didn't get the kind of answers I was hoping for.  The advice this kind of search gets you is to find the beauty in their wild, forgiving, fiercely alive ways.  And I've been playing that game for years now.  I've got to figure out which of my "girls" daydreams can be transplanted into my real life where there's a "strong-willed girl surrounded by a grundle of boys with wildly different temperaments".  There can still be baking, and if I can get my health and stamina under me, there could still be plays (probably with more gore), and I can share Hedgehog in the Fog with all of them.  It will just take more work than I was planning on.  And I will have to learn to go with the flow of their personalities and interests, which is a fact of parenting regardless of boys or girls.

I have never properly bonded with any of my babies before birth, and sometimes even then it's taken a day or two.  The ultrasound has always helped though, to make them seem more human to me.  I was alarmed when that didn't happen today.  This boy baby didn't feel any more a person for having seen him and his parts move.  I'm attributing that to the ultrasound tech showing and announcing his boy-ness before even sharing his profile with me.  I had to put up my "I'm totally cool with this" guard right off the bat, which stifled my vulnerability and bonding mojo.

The other clincher is the weird, societal anathema of being pestered to make a public announcement of some sort of "gender reveal."  This would have been easy if it'd been a girl.  Tada!  Our family is complete and makes sense and everyone is excited and happy and aren't we cute?  Pop a confetti-filled balloon and call it a day.

But this is my real life and nothing in my real life lends itself to being cute or making sense.

So instead I have confused children who thankfully didn't take it too hard, but aren't the least bit excited, and a self/pregnant lady whose hormones aren't helping her out as she hasn't been able to talk without weeping bitterly for 16 hours now.  And Mr Renn, trying to manage us all and trying to minimize my ocean of emotions into a single palatable sentence so he doesn't have to think about it too long, and wishing to God that his wife could just function again because he's so tired of living that second shift that every working mother knows but never gets to chuck.   We are not the stuff of viral instagram feeds.

And here I am (it's 3 am now), sitting forlorn at the bottom of the barrel, hoping that when the sun comes up tomorrow I am able to function better than today (despite not sleeping) and that I can find some bootstraps.

I am absolutely certain that I will get over this, but I'm also certain that it will take me some time.  This is why we did this today.  I knew that I would need time to adjust, and the kids would need time to adjust and that we needed to get that adjusting out of the way before there was an actual baby in our faces.  This because I locked myself in the bathroom and cried for hours when my 3rd brother in a row was born (when I was 8) and I didn't want my kids having that experience on what I hope is a very happy day for our family.

Anyway, where is the value in writing this all down and posting it in a public-ish place?  Well #1: I need to be work things out in my own head and #2: It would have been valuable for me to find a post like this today.  I found a few that helped a bit, but felt like most of what I found excluded the possibility of a mother who already had children of each sex/gender experiencing this intense whiplashing ride. And most people who mentioned religion/God at all seemed oblivious to the possibility of feeling a little abandoned by/peeved at Him.

Thankfully my best preparation for today was reading (and almost finishing) ReReading Job years ago, wherein I discovered that A) extolling the patience of Job totally misses the point and that B) God would rather have my honest messy struggle than my pious martyrdom.  So I'm comfortable talking to God about how I honestly feel today.  I have trust that those feelings aren't permanent.  I feel comfortable being honest that I felt them.  My identity isn't every emotion I experience.  I can recognize them, try to honor and learn from them, and then let them go.

I am not a horrible person or a bad mother because I am dealing with grief today.  I have lots to be thankful for and I know it and I know that will be the long shot take away from this stage in my life.  But at this apogee, we have grief to deal with and expectations to adjust and that takes time and work.  We will do the work and the time will pass and I will outlast pregnancy and life will take on color and buoyancy again.  I will adore my untamed children and I will find renewed energy for teaching them how to stay fully alive in a world that expects manners and conformity.  I will feed and teach and cloth them and read to them and pray for them.

And God will laugh, as He does.


Heidi said...

Emily, I haven't checked your blog for a long time, and I'm so glad you're still writing! I think this is a very real thing. We found out just recently that our baby #4 is a boy, and I don't know how long I cried over it with Julie. My heart feels like it has a hole in it that can never be properly be filled, and it is so frustrating to just have to tell her (and myself) over and over that life is just not fair sometimes. People say that it's all what's meant to happen, and while that may be true in many cases, that does not take away the hopes that are dashed. I do know that your little boy is so lucky to be coming to you.

Aby Runyan said...

I have 4 younger brothers and no sisters. I'm not sure how to say this without bringing more tears, but it still makes me sad. That's the honest truth. I think "What if I had a sister?" all the time. When my two youngest brothers were born, I cried. When the very youngest was born, I sobbed especially hard. I knew that was my last chance.
So, I get it.
I get feeling totally devastated because of something you want oh so badly and it just isn't going to happen. And it's a lifetime in front of you, and no way to make it different.
Many people have tried to tell me since that last boy was born, "But 1 day you'll have LOTS of sisters". I really didn't buy it. And now that 3 of my 4 brothers are married I know the truth, it's not the same. Sure, there are some who are super close to their sisters-in-law. But many of us just know them as people our brothers married. I like my brothers wives. But no, they aren't my sisters.
But, and I mean this - I wouldn't trade any of my brothers to have gotten a sister. That I know for sure. I love them all, as a group and as individuals. Even the one that for years and years I HATED.
And now, thinking about it as rationally as I possibly can, I wouldn't have wanted a sister after that 4th brother was born because we would have been SO far apart. Probably at least 13 years, and that would have maybe been worse than not having one at all. When I left for college, and left my youngest brother who was in many ways MY baby, it was incredibly hard on him. I was sad, he was devastated. Then I came home from college and he'd grown a foot and I was devastated. My baby wasn't a baby anymore.
So, will your daughter be sad she doesn't have a sister? Most likely, yes. Will it scar her for life?
For real, NO.
She will love each and every one of her brothers. As a group and as individuals. They will love her back and treat her like another mother. They will listen to her more than to each other. They will watch out for her. And for that, she will be forever grateful.
-Aby R.

Cindy G. said...

Emily,I followed your blog and Instagram for years, but could not view the blog on my older Kindle in recent years. I am just now reading this post two plus years later on a new device. I just wanted to say, you are an amazing writer. This post is so honest and heartfelt. It is so well written, and I believe publishable. It is something I am sure a parenting magazine would pick up. You are so talented. I know you are busy with six kids, but please lock yourself in the bathroom more as your writing voice speaks to so many people. I did see your new Instagram and am hoping this means you are emerging again as you are so missed. P.s. I loved your comparison to the book of Job in this piece. Spot on my friend!

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