According to Alma Gottlieb—professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois and co-author of A World of Babies: Imagined Childcare Guides for Seven Societies—not every culture even thinks all that much about the sex of unborn children. In her research of the Beng people of western Africa, whose religion is based on the concept of reincarnated ancestors, she has found that they have almost no thoughts on the subject. Beng parents don't believe their child is fully born until after the umbilical cord falls off. Before that, a child still lives in the afterlife and is believed to shuttle back and forth between the world and the afterlife. They are not fully part of our world until after they can first identify that they have had a dream. This can take up to six years. "What happens in utero isn't all that interesting," Gottlieb says. "The big question they want to know about that baby in there is, 'Who was it previously?'"

Western culture's desire to know the sex of unborn children goes right back to its very roots, Gottlieb says. The ancient Greeks were interested, she says, and there is even evidence in 5,000-year-old hieroglyphics that Egyptians tried to predict the sex of unborn children.

Gottlieb adds that many of the folk methods used to predict sex of unborn children seem to have roots in gender stereotypes. "There are lots of practices that have to do with height and strength," she says. "In most cases, higher height and greater strength of kicks are going to be seen as a sign of a male fetus. And weaker kicks and lower positioning can be seen, really, as a metaphor for women's lower position in society."

Another famous method commonly used in the West before the invention of sonograms was to tie a wedding ring on a string and hang it above the pregnant belly to see how it spins. "I think you can make a case that it's a sign of the ways in which we valorize marriage as the institution that ought to legitimize children and stigmatizes what we call unwed mothers," Gottlieb says. "For many of these practices, if you look with a symbolist's eye, you'll find intriguing values."

The questions and anticipation all gave way on a late summer morning when my wife went into labor. After the final push, the midwife set the baby on my wife's chest and the room filled with first cries—some from the new baby and some from the new parents. It took a solid minute before one of us finally asked: "So, is it a boy or a girl?" "I don't know," the midwife said. My wife pried the squealing, ruddy baby off her chest to look.

"It's a boy!"

So maybe the lady at FedEx, the palm reader, the Old World court clerk, my mom and my father-in-law were right. I'll have to ask them about their methods.

Did you find out the sex your unborn baby? Do you think my wife and I were silly for not finding out? Leave your opinion in the comments section below.


Next Story