‘If my next child’s a boy, I’ll stop. If not, then I’ll keep trying until I get one.’ These words weren’t spoken by an Asian or Indian woman, desperate to give her husband an heir, but by a white woman, upper-middle-class and married to an investment banker. She spoke from the cosy confines of her flat in Hampstead two months after giving birth to her first child, a girl. Of course, she loves her daughter and she is a wonderful mother. Still, there it is: the disappointment that she didn’t bear a boy.
This was not the first time I had met someone disappointed not to have a boy. A cousin of mine wept after his wife gave birth to their first, a girl; a former colleague wore blue the entire time she was pregnant, only to have a daughter; and my own father recently divulged that he was temporarily upset after I was born — me, his lovely daughter.
You can imagine my surprise at hearing this for the first time in my early thirties. After the shock passed I was struck by the timing of his confession. The revelation, and others like it, came after the birth of my son. Walking around with a little male hanging off me has encouraged other parents to reveal an uncomfortable truth: the preference for boy babies is still very much alive. For all the talk of equal rights and equal opportunities, the West seems to be holding fast to traditional thinking about sons. It’s the last bastion of sexism.
Since I gave birth I’ve met couples who can’t wait for the 20-week scan to find out if they’re having a boy. So persistent was one woman that she booked extra ultrasounds because the baby kept hiding his bits (he turned out to be a ‘he’ after all). I met a man who said special ‘boy’ prayers, and even men who didn’t necessarily think they wanted boys have expressed their relief to me when they had a son first. Then there was the woman who asked me if I had known I was having a boy. She had a look in her eye that made me think that she was next going to ask what position I was in when I conceived.
It’s upsetting for girls, this bias towards boys — it makes us feel a little hurt and indignant, but, given the current state of reproductive technology, it might also have a more worrying effect. In the 21st century you don’t have to rely on old wives’ remedies to engineer the sex of your child — a doctor can fix it for you relatively easily and with a 90 per cent success rate. There’s sperm-sorting for instance, whereby male sperm (which carry the ‘Y’ sex chromosomes) and the ‘female’ sperm (which have just ‘X’ chromosomes) are separated and the desired gender sperm selected, or PGD, (pre-implantation genetic diagnosis) in which a woman is given hormones to stimulate the production of eggs, which are collected and fertilised. The embryos’ chromosomes are then analysed and the sex of your choice implanted in your womb. It’s true that these procedures are currently available only in the United States and even then only under certain conditions, but the conditions are fairly relaxed — couples who have two children of the same sex can apply — and given that there seems to be a demand for it here, and the means to meet it, it’s difficult to imagine that legal sex selection won’t soon be a possibility in Britain.
So will this mean a huge bulge of boy babies, and consequently a generation of frustrated British males? It’s difficult to say. My anecdotal evidence points to a clear bias in favour of boys, yet there have been studies showing that the traditional boy preference is waning in some European countries. Four years ago a study at the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rostock, Germany showed that the traditional preference for boys was declining, particularly in east Germany. The researcher, Dr Hilke Brockmann, concluded that since its welfare regime had valued women and men equally in the workforce, men had lost their status as the desired sex. While the former communist country had levelled the economic and employment fields, it hadn’t equalised work within the household. Here, women still had the responsibility and for that reason were viewed as the more attractive sex. So much for equal opportunity. In the United States, however — perhaps more comparable with Britain than Germany — one study has shown that 81 per cent of women and 94 per cent of men wanted their first child to be a boy.
I’m not denying that some parents actively want to have girls, not boys, but from what I can tell their wish seems more muted. ‘Even in cultures where there is no special preference for sons, there is no active preference for daughters,’ wrote the Indian scholar Neera Sohoni. And few of the parents who want girls, for instance, take extreme measures like hounding hospitals for extra scans. Those who want boys, on the other hand, can become obsessive and superstitious. One couple I know actually misled others into thinking that they wanted a girl. They walked around during the pregnancy, insisting to all that their preference was for a daughter. Only later, when they had boys, did they reveal the truth: that they really wanted a boy the whole time but said they wanted a girl so as not to jinx themselves.
So it seems that the preference for male progeny in Britain is still around, but parents keep it a secret. They’ll admit it to friends in whispers, but deny it in public. And no wonder. If it’s unacceptable to discriminate against women in our society, how can you publicly admit to preferring boy babies to girls?
But perhaps prospective parents suspect that boys are just easier to deal with than girls. It’s true that boys run around, bump into furniture and spritz everyone with fizzy drinks, but dealing with rumbustious antics is a little easier than navigating the emotional head games that some girls can play. Of course boys have emotional demands, too, but the prospect of dealing with them is altogether more palatable if Dad also gets to coach and cheer at soccer matches. And then there’s sex. A bunch of bad mistakes builds character for a boy. Those same mistakes can be ruinous for a girl. Is this behind men’s anxieties about daughters? One friend, the one who duped us into thinking that he wanted a girl, has a theory that men who were rogues and cads in their younger days get daughters as divine revenge. It’s also a mistake to underestimate the male Mini-Me factor. Otherwise known as the Ego Extender, the Mini-Me is there to realise dreams and relive rites of passage.
In fact, to my mind, boys are a risky business. If you are carrying a boy, there’s a greater chance that you’ll develop complications during labour, have an emergency Caesarean section, and give birth to a sicklier baby; and boys fall victim to sudden infant death syndrome more than girls. In developing autism and learning disabilities, boys are usually first in line. Men are the active carriers of such hereditary afflictions as colour blindness and life-threatening diseases like haemophilia. And then there are the big-ticket irritants, like leaving toilet seats up and hogging remote controls.
OK, it’s my turn to confess. I did feel a momentary sense of relief on the fashion front when my son arrived. There will be less pressure to keep my boy stylishly dressed, I thought. Blue jeans and trainers. No problem. But now I’m not so sure. With the rise of the metrosexual man, boys could very well be asking for Louis Vuitton bags and weekly manicures before they hit preschool.