Lynda Cohen Loigman lives with her husband and two children in Chappaqua, NY. Her first novel, The Two-Family House, will be published on March 8 by St. Martin's Press. But before her second child was born, she worried about how her first would react. So she devised a plan. Here, she describes the steps she took.
Before our first children are born, we research and prepare. We read too many books about sleep cycles and feeding, we frantically compare the safety features of stroller models and cribs, and we stockpile diapers, cotton balls, and baby shampoo. And in between those activities, we worry. We worry that we won't know what to do when our babies finally arrive.
Before our second children are born, we worry too. But the second time around, some of us worry more about our first children. How will they be affected? Will they be jealous? We speak to them sweetly about the babies in our bellies; we read books about becoming a big brother or a big sister. We try to educate them about what it will be like when their siblings arrive.
I was one of those parents, and admittedly, sometimes I went a little too far. Like the time I insisted that in order to best prepare our daughter for the birth of her little brother, we should get her an anatomically correct baby doll. Yes, that's right — a doll with a penis.
Fourteen years later, it sounds ridiculous. But at the time, my daughter's two best friends had recently become big sisters. Their mothers, two of my closest friends, had given birth to girls. Alexa and Olivia were beautiful blond babies, and naturally, my daughter wanted a sister just like them. But she wasn't getting a sister like her friends' — she was getting a brother.
We didn't tell her about the pregnancy until we already knew we were having a boy. The interaction went something like this:
"Honey, we have such exciting news. There's a baby in Mommy's belly!"
"I'm going to have a baby sister?"
"You're going to have a baby brother!"
To be fair, she wasn't yet 3 years old. To be even more fair, well . . . I had a little bit of a glass house problem, and I wasn't exactly in a position to judge. Before I had gotten pregnant the first time, back when my husband and I were just beginning to talk about having children, I, too, had some fairly strong opinions about the gender of my offspring.
My husband wanted two kids, and I was fine with that. "But if the first two are boys," I insisted, "we're trying once more for a girl." My desire for a girl, however illogical, was profound. I was convinced that, if I did not have one, my experience as a mother would be incomplete. I was not open to negotiation. My husband reluctantly agreed, hoping, of course, that we would get the girl thing out of the way the first or second time around.
A lot has been written about modern-day mothers of sons who long for daughters they were never able to have. Even more, perhaps, has been written about the wives of long-ago kings and rulers for whom the ability to produce sons was necessary for survival. From the minute we conceive, the next nine months are shaped by our desires and hopes for who we want our babies to be. For some of us, gender matters more, but most of us give it at least a modicum of thought.
Now that I am well into my 40s, now that disappointments and misfortunes of all shapes and sizes have become part of the fabric of my everyday life and the lives of those I love, I realize how naive I was to be so concerned about the gender of my unborn children. But in my late 20s, I wasn't yet cognizant of all of the things that could go wrong with the process. Only one or two of my friends were parents — the perils and pitfalls of pregnancy and raising children were largely unknown to me. I could never have imagined then how grateful I would be today to have children that are, for the most part, happy and healthy, caring and kind. All I felt then was a desperate need, a yearning to take care of someone I thought I would be able to understand and connect with easily because she was the same sex as me. Was it any wonder that my young daughter felt the same way?
There was something else my daughter's friends had that she wanted: a "big sister present." For her friends, the present was a brand-new baby doll dressed in pink pajamas. It came with toy bottles, diapers, and other paraphernalia, so the big sister could take care of her own baby. She could feed it, diaper it, and put it down for a nap. The doll had become a rite of passage.
When we found out we were having a boy, I became fixated on using the doll to ready our daughter for the birth of her brother. At first, I just wanted to find a doll dressed in blue pajamas. But as we got closer, that seemed insufficient. "We need to get her a boy doll," I told my husband. "She needs to understand that this baby is going to be a boy." Was it was my own need to prepare myself for the birth of a son that made me so fanatical? Probably. I was panicked about our son's imminent bris. The idea of handing my 8-day-old over to a mohel for the ritual circumcision, of letting a stranger handle and draw blood from my precious infant while I was forced to play hostess and serve a bagel brunch, terrified me.
The more my daughter cooed over her friends' baby sisters, the more important it became to me to ensure her understanding of her brother's differences. I didn't want her to be traumatized when she watched me diaper him. I wanted her to be prepared. Which is why I decided that the doll should be anatomically correct. My husband raised his eyebrows at me but said nothing.
We gave our daughter the doll at the hospital when she came to meet her brother for the first time. In the beginning, she was fascinated by both of them. The doll enjoyed an elevated status among toys for a little while, with a special spot on her bed, but soon it was tossed on the floor with the other dolls, sometimes wearing the blue pajamas it came with, and sometimes stuffed into another doll's pink dress or bonnet. In a few short weeks, the fact that the doll was supposed to be a boy had ceased to matter.
Of course, people are not dolls, and the fact that our second child was a boy would never stop being relevant. But maybe there was something to be learned from my daughter's casual disregard of what I thought made her new doll so important.
I found out I was pregnant with our son less than a month after the attack on the World Trade Center. The backdrop for his gestation was a jumble of disbelief and fear, anthrax scares, and media coverage of mothers giving birth to babies whose fathers had been lost. Though we lived an hour north of New York City, I gave birth in a Manhattan hospital, on a sunny day in June 2002. It was my second pregnancy, but I wonder: if it had been my first, would I still have insisted on the nonnegotiable agreement with my husband about having a girl?
I honestly don't know. All I know is that a combination of age, 17 years of parenthood, and a continually increasing awareness of life's fragility have given me a new appreciation for my grandmother's sayings. I am now one of those people who, when speaking with a young pregnant woman, chants the familiar mantra: It doesn't matter what you have, as long as he or she is healthy.
Maybe new parents of today care less about the gender of their babies than I did 17 years ago. Maybe they see the bigger picture that I was too inexperienced to see. But even if that is the case for some, there will always be secret wishes, and there will always be unavoidable wants. After all, when our children are first born, we have little more than their names and their gender to define them. Before I was a mother, I was unable to grasp that my hypothetical offspring would become real people. It was even more impossible to fathom that these people would be made up of a thousand different traits and mannerisms, preferences and peeves, which, woven together, would form a tapestry so complex that the single thread of gender would cease to take such stark precedence.
We got rid of the baby doll with the penis a long time ago. If I had to do it over again, I wouldn't have worked so hard to find it. Our daughter loved it, but not because it was supposed to be a boy. What she loved about it were the same things a child loves about any baby doll — the way she could cuddle it and sing to it, to pretend to feed it and to put it to sleep. She loved her real brother, too, of course, but not because of anything we had done to prepare her for his arrival. She loved him because he was her sibling, because they were connected, because — let's face it — regardless of gender, all babies are adorable. I am convinced she could not have loved him more if he were a girl. And neither could I.