Fritz and his son
At the 20th week—halfway through her pregnancy—my wife and I made our first big decision as parents-to-be: not to find out the gender of our baby. I was probably the one who pushed hardest to stay in the dark—what can I say, I like surprises—but it turns out ignorance isn't always easy.

The first hurdle was ensuring we wouldn't find out by mistake. We made sure to tell the ultrasound technician, in no uncertain terms, that we did not want to know. It would be so easy for a slip of the tongue—"She looks healthy," or, "He has got great circulation"—to ruin our plan.

Next up: frustration from friends and, especially, family. I suspect they wanted to know the sex for one very simple reason: shopping. Most baby clothes manufacturers seem to operate under a philosophy of color choice. You can get newborn clothes in any color you want, as long as it's blue or pink.

Whereas finding out a baby's gender in western countries is usually a matter of convenience, commerce and curiosity, it can have darker implications in other places. With a booming population and developing economy, China in 1979 introduced population-growth laws that limited married couples to a single child. For years, anecdotal evidence suggested that because parents preferred boys over girls—in traditional Chinese culture, boys were expected to care for their elderly parents while girls did not—there was an epidemic of aborted female fetuses. Demographers now see the results. Some estimates put the number of "surplus males" in China at 35 million. This can't be blamed solely on the one-child policy, however. Many countries have no laws limiting children and still have huge disparities in the numbers of male and female children in part from would-be parents finding out the gender and aborting girls.

In that week 20 ultrasound, the baby was blessed with a clean bill of health on all tests except one—the tech couldn't get a good image of his or her facial cavity. For this reason, we were told we could schedule another session if we wanted one. At first, my wife and I balked. It's got to have a face, right? But as the weeks rolled on and the anticipation grew, at 32 weeks, my wife wanted another look—just to see the baby again. She even said that she was tempted to find out the sex this time around. I knew I'd have to stay on guard to keep us from finding out.

One reason she wavered was because the sex had become an unavoidable topic of conversation—not between us (neither of us still had any guess), but rather between her and the entire world. The clerk at the FedEx store told my wife she'd be having a boy because she's holding the baby "like a basketball, up against your body." An older Polish woman at work predicted she was having a boy too.

Then, a man in the elevator at her office building read her palm and not only told her she'd be having a boy, but also that she'd be having three kids. "Not all at the same time, right?" I asked, half-joking and half-terrified. Finally, my mom and father-in-law hopped on the boy bandwagon—completely abandoning calling the baby "it" and going with "he." But my wife and I maintained neutrality.

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.


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