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How American parents became obsessed with gender

I’m not the type to throw a gender-reveal party. But like many parents, I still got sucked into the spectacle of the ultrasound.

Two people hold a balloon that reads, “Boy or girl?” oksana_nazarchuk/Getty Images/iStockphoto

When I was pregnant with my first child, I agonized over my decision to find out the sex. I knew that anatomy does not indicate gender identity, but I was also impatient, ready for some forecast, however unreliable, of what the future might hold for me as a mother. Having grown up as a girl in America, I knew what gendered wars I might be up against if I were to have a daughter. I wanted to prepare myself for the fight. At my second-trimester ultrasound, I decided to find out.

But then things got weird. Nancy, the bubbly sonogram technician, projected the inside of me on a screen that covered an entire wall, dimming the lights, like we were in a movie theater. She kept saying, “That’s a cute baby!” I had no idea what she was looking at as she furiously clicked and numbered and measured different parts of the fuzzy gray blob on the screen. With much excitement, she proclaimed the fetus was a girl. She then printed a three-foot ream of black-and-white pictures, each with an unidentifiable area circled, which she folded and tucked into a white envelope with gold writing that reminded me, again, It’s a Girl!

It felt like I was supposed to do something with this information. I had never entertained the idea of throwing a gender reveal party, but I still surfed ideas on Pinterest. In one image I found, a couple stood, hands interlocked. Their white clothing, faces, and arms were splattered with pink from a staged paint fight, just one shade away from looking like they committed a murder together. But as I shared the news, there was a lot of excitement that did not line up with how I felt: After receiving one too many frilly infant dresses with animal prints, I quickly prohibited family and friends from giving me gendered clothing. I wondered how I had been sucked into such a clear affirmation of the gender binary.

American parents love fetal genitalia. This has become more evident with the number of gender reveal parties increasing steadily over the past decade. Usually, it’s more extreme ones that make the news: Such parties have already caused at least four deaths this year, and one burned over 7,000 acres of my home state of California in 2020. Many more go off with less of a bang, like the couple I found on Pinterest getting silly-stringed by friends as the parents kissed, tangled in their boy kid bliss. There are more than 500,000 videos on YouTube like these. It’s safe to say these parents are a little less conflicted about their sonograms than I was.

Some parents revel in knowing their child’s gender because many still believe prenatal sex is an early indicator of a child’s character. Pregnancy is such a strange state of suspension, any scrutable glimpse of the future is attractive. As Christy Olezeski, director of the Yale Gender Program told me, finding out a child’s prenatal sex can feel like “solving a mystery, a piece of comfort and a way to have an answer about a being [parents] have yet to know and learn about.”

Ultrasounds satiate that parental curiosity, but they also stoke it. Maybe this is why even parents like myself, who don’t identify as the type to photograph themselves on a deserted road consumed by a bubblegum-pink smoke grenade, cannot help but hem and haw over the decision of whether to find out the fetus’s sex before birth. For pregnant people, the politics of navigating the ultrasound, and the insight it promises, has become its own rite of passage, and it comes with some coercion.

“There is so much pressure from society,” Olezeski said, “to know the sex of the fetus.”

I spoke with nearly 30 parents about their choice to learn their baby’s sex in pregnancy or wait. Some simply wanted to know the sex of their child before birth for practical reasons, like Jenny who identifies as an Ashkenazi Jew. She needed time to prepare for circumcision. She also felt waiting would make the final reveal a bigger deal in the minds of family members, something she wanted to avoid.

Those who had previously experienced reproductive losses or complications, meanwhile, thought finding out the sex of their baby could provide something beyond medical data, that knowing might lend some certainty to their budding story. Bronwen, a writer then living in the Bay Area, told me she created a whole “pro-con matrix,” analyzing the benefits and downsides of waiting or not. Ultimately, she found out at her ultrasound, hoping it would relieve some of the anxiety she felt after multiple miscarriages. Learning the sex represented “a kind of investment” rather than the “self-protective ‘this is a science experiment’” approach she had taken previously.

Co-founder of MotherNation Cait Zogby said she and her wife planned not to find out the sex before birth, but when Zogby learned she was pregnant with twins, she and her partner “very comically regressed to the reptilian part of the brain that needed to be reassured of survival. Knowing everything we could about who was in there gave us a sense of control,” however false, she said. She and her wife knew that sex did not correlate to gender, but Zogby was struggling with perinatal depression and felt naming — using family names that happened to be very gendered — was “an added avenue for connection.”

This idea that the revelation of a baby’s sex can feel like a surprise — welcome or not — is something I heard from many mothers, including those who waited for the big reveal until their baby was born. A Christian mother of four whose husband works in the church told me, “I think it just feels more special waiting longer,” that feeling of “holding your child with the news” is better “than simply being told.”

When I was pregnant, other women who opted to “wait” to find out the “gender” often repeated to me a similar line as a way to encourage me to do the same:It is one of the last great surprises in life!” I was troubled by this rationale, which implies there are only two choices: early gratification or delayed. And what exactly is the revelation here? This logic seems to assume that to know the biological sex is to crown the baby as a person. But what does it say about our understanding of personhood that we feel the urge to assign a baby a gender before we can imagine them as human? And why are we so desperate for connection this early in the long game of parenting?

Our cultural obsession with attempting to identify sex and gender in pregnancy all goes back to the ultrasound, itself born of the sonar technology used to surveil U-boats in World War I and developed further in the next World War. By the 1980s, the surveillance of pregnant people’s bodies had become routine medical practice, as the technology allowed doctors to check for congenital and placental issues. But it also nurtured another embryonic idea: the new vision of the fetus as child.

The ultrasound eventually commingled with capitalism and mainstream psychology to create the color-coded gendered consumerism that has likewise become routine in America. For centuries, white dresses and long hair were the norm for kids under 6 in most Western countries; white clothes were easy to bleach. In the early 20th century, American clothing companies pushed pastels — debating blue for blue-eyed babies, pink for brown-eyed ones, among other arrangements — and by the 1940s, manufacturers and retailers had arbitrarily settled on pink for girls and blue for boys. In the 1980s, clothing corporations saw the information parents gleaned from the sonogram as a chance to expand into a catalog of not just apparel but matching baby gear. Late capitalism took it from there.

The ultrasound also forever transformed the way we think about maternal bonding. In her book The Public Life of the Fetal Sonogram, Janelle Taylor says the idea that the sonogram could help pregnant women learn to love their babies was initially based on a 1982 study led by ultrasound advocate Stuart Campbell, even though the word “bonding” never appears in his study. The study instead examined how the sonogram “influences compliance with health-care recommendations” and how it might change women’s “ambivalent attitudes” about pregnancy. (Interestingly, the study excluded women who were considered high risk, which Taylor suggests shows that the medical community had other interests besides improving maternal health.)

The Campbell study came on the heels of a decade of heated abortion debate. A year later, an unsupported opinion letter written to the editor of the New England Journal of Medicine — which suggested that ultrasounds might help women bond with their babies and therefore decide not to abort — further shifted the frame of maternal health, inadvertently spoon-feeding anti-abortionists a new tactic. The wider medical community also began referencing the NEJM letter as a “study” that provided proof of the ultrasound’s magic, investigating how women bond with their babies in pregnancy rather than during childbirth or in the postpartum period.

While 1970s theories of maternal-infant bonding were embraced by the natural birthing movement, maternal-fetal bonding theories rested on the assumption that women — in the era of legalized abortion — couldn’t be trusted to love their babies without the assistance of technology and medical professionals. As Taylor writes, the more radical suggestion was “that emotional and social ties between a mother and child might form in an altogether new manner — not through physical and social interaction, but through spectatorship.”

Anti-abortion legislation, like that in effect in Tennessee and Kentucky, which mandate abortion providers both “display” and “describe” fetal imaging, still use the hyperreality of the ultrasound to strong-arm women into reconsidering their medical decisions. As the late cultural theorist Lauren Berlant argued, the ultrasound elevated the fetus to the level of “supercitizen” — a celebrity whose rights conservatives often argue override the rights of pregnant people.

Today, the 18- to 20-week anatomy scan is recommended for most pregnant people, but all the gender talk is optional. For those with cash to burn (advanced ultrasounds are generally not covered by insurance and can cost up to several hundred dollars), 3D and 4D ultrasound packages promise keepsake images of your fetus in what is obviously pretty dismal lighting. These advanced ultrasounds are considered unsafe by the Food and Drug Administration but are still paired with in-office or out-of-office purchases like DVDs set to music, plush toys that play the fetal heartbeat, custom photo albums, and “sneak peek” blood tests that determine sex as early as nine weeks.

Conversely, there has been some resistance to ultrasounds within the natural birthing movement, primarily framed as a response to unnecessary medical intervention in pregnancy and childbirth. Others just cannot be bothered with the gender spectacle: A woman who asked to be called Anne, a researcher on military and security issues, said she waited to know the sex, hoping to avoid being inundated with pink or blue stuff. She had complications in pregnancy and “had to work hard to remain ignorant.” When her daughter was born, the pink stuff came rolling in anyway.

For Dani McClain — who in her book We Live for the We writes about her experience navigating racial disparities in health care — decisions like whether to trust the white doctor who told her she needed a Caesarean were complex. But the choice to find out her baby’s sex before birth was straightforward, she told me: “I asked the doctors and nurses to not tell me what they were seeing on the ultrasound. I didn’t want to know and didn’t want to deal with other people’s projections about what a baby’s sex means.”

Lillian Rivera, director of family programming at Gender Spectrum, told me many of us engage with cultural norms, like finding out the prenatal sex of our baby, unconsciously. It is often easier to just fall in line — buying into the idea of what is “male” or “female” is comfortable for many, even if we understand the world is not black and white and gender is not assigned at birth or during a sonogram. Even when we know we’re playing out roles that don’t fit us, and that may never fit our children, the ultrasound is now so intricately woven into other cultural practices — like baby showers, decorating the nursery, and gender reveals — we feel compelled by these rites of passage.

In his memoir of nonbinary parenthood, The Natural Mother of the Child, Krys Malcolm Belc writes about his “shame of wanting to know the baby’s sex.” Belc documents his experience finding out his child’s sex in a 4D/HD ultrasound facility that carried “pink and blue frames and souvenirs” — a place that did not reflect his and his partner’s beliefs. As he writes, “The machine told us we could know something this way.” In the end, however, Belc found, “The ultrasound pictures didn’t matter, those words — I’M A BOY — didn’t matter. My mother had a single ultrasound when pregnant with me, and she did not find out whether I was a boy or a girl. What difference would it have made if she did? The image would have been as wrong as the doctor who delivered me.”

We are far from living in a “gender neutral” world, and maybe that is why the “to wait or not to wait” decision to find out the baby’s sex is fraught for so many parents: We sense the ongoing struggle on the horizon. Ultimately, though, as parents, it matters less what we do in the ultrasound appointment or with the “surprise” at birth than what we do with the information we are offered there. Technology cannot teach us to love any more than the first meeting with our baby can. Only moving through the world with our child can do that.

When I was pregnant with my second child, I asked for the morphological details, yet again. I had acquiesced to a lot of mainstream aspects of parenting by then, including those gendered gifts, each of which filled my daughter’s world with suppositions about who she could or could not be. Friends and family had also stopped worrying about my approval: They simply mailed pink clothes, pink dolls, pink clothes for the doll, pink strollers for the well-dressed dolls. I was not untroubled by that, but I had thrown up my hands in some ways, especially as my daughter started to express an interest in feminized things, including dolls. She relished the pretend-play work of care, tending to a filthy, never-clothed baby doll. She covered the baby’s little mythical cuts (which were apparently all over her body) with Band-Aids, wearing a Doc McStuffins coat as doctor. But she soothed her baby’s silent cries dressed plainly, lugging bags filled with indiscriminate collections of stuff, as Mom.

As she began the hard work of identifying with the world of gender, my daughter also discounted some gendered norms all on her own. For years, she was totally uninterested in pink. And when, at the grocery store, strangers said, “Hi, princess,” she gripped me. “Mommy,” she would say. “I’m not a princess. Why do they always call me that?”

“I don’t know,” I would say. But I did.

My daughter came with me to my second ultrasound appointment, her body tumbling on my face as the technician studied what she saw. The aesthetics of this ultrasound were more subdued; the room was cold, small, and dimly lit so we could see the television-size screen next to the table. My daughter had brought a dirty, yellow stuffed duck, which she now waved around for her sibling to see. “Look my ducky,” she said, imagining her sibling as baby, as friend. Neither of us knew that child yet, but my daughter was sure that we would.

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