Ask Clem: 'I just found out I'm having a baby boy and I'm sad'

Clementine Ford is a writer, feminist and reality television obsessive. She is the author of the best-selling books "Fight Like A Girl" and "Boys Will Be Boys". She lives in Naarm (Melbourne) with her son and his ever-increasing collection of plastic dinosaurs.

A photo of Clementine Ford wearing a cream jumper.
Clementine Ford dishes out her best advice for one concerned mum. Photo: Supplied.

Dear Clementine,

I am currently having a dilemma that I am not particularly proud of and I hope you will look kindly on me. It should go without saying but I am very happy to be starting a family and will love this child with all my heart.

I am pregnant with my first (and probably only) child and I have just found out it is a boy. My knee-jerk reaction was sadness and I consequently researched gender disappointment - I was disappointed by what I found because most of the information seemed to stem from superficial problems like 'oh no, now I can't buy pink things' which doesn't really seem to get to the heart of what I am experiencing.

I didn't realise that I was gearing up to have a baby girl - teach them the ways of the world, teach them how to be strong and kind and not blindly doing emotional labour for others. I was going to dress her in whatever she wanted, champion her, encourage her to be anything she wanted - especially if it was in a male-dominated field. I was ready to teach her to be loud and stand up for herself because she will be overlooked and underestimated because of her gender/sex.

But now I am having a boy I am having some really ugly feelings - does the world really need another white middle-class man? Am I prepared to give my life and sacrifice my career (to a degree) so that my (male) partner and son can continue to benefit from the system? I feel like those accomplishments and attributes I was going to instill in my daughter aren't particularly impactful for a boy, I guess because our leadership/success criteria is still based on a masculine way of doing things. It's nothing special.

I have also realised that while the possibilities of what a girl can do in this world has expanded, nothing has really changed for boys. It feels as though to instill more traditionally 'feminine' ideals is to take a step back/be disadvantaged.

I feel like I have been studying for the wrong exam. I want to help remove as much toxic masculinity from the world as possible, and I have come to terms that while I have some amazing friends raising some great girls, there needs to be great men to grow up with them. I also figure if you, a take-no-bullshit feminist, has had a boy - perhaps you might understand where I am coming from.

All this is to say that I am looking for some advice or a reading list. Most of the books I've come across so far have been all 'keep hugging your boy' - which I was intending to do anyway. I don't buy into this 'boys and girls have different natures' bullsh*t because it looks to me like the kid will continue any kind of behaviour that is reinforced.

I'm feeling quite lost and would really value any advice you have on the subject.


Confused Mum-To-Be

A photo of a woman in her ninth month of pregnancy pats her belly gently in the living room.
A mum-to-be has confessed her disappointment at the gender of her unborn baby. Photo: Getty Images.

Dear Confused,

Firstly, congratulations on your forthcoming bundle of joy! Pregnancy is a wild time and I hope you’re enjoying it as best you can. Some people find it a magical experience, but I personally struggled a lot so I hope very much that you’re feeling good and calm as it progresses.

Secondly, it’s very brave of you to write your fears down. Although I’ve always found that voicing our anxieties helps to lessen them, the actual act of voicing them can be confronting. This is especially true when it comes to pregnancy and motherhood, because the people who experience both of those things are often subjected to intense public scrutiny and judgment. Mothers are expected to be beatific and serene about every aspect of parenting, which only makes it harder to seek support for some of the very real concerns we feel pressured into pretending don’t exist at all. Anything less than the unequivocal embrace of motherhood and all its challenges is seen as a fundamental betrayal of our children and thus evidence we aren’t fit to be allowed within a 500 foot radius of them. What nonsense.

The thing is, I relate very strongly to your fears. We chose to find out the sex of our baby at my 20 week scan, and I was surprised - shocked! - to discover the child I was carrying would have XY chromosomes. (At this point, it’s important to acknowledge the difference between sex and gender - although my child would be assigned male at birth and we would go on to use he/him pronouns, we also know his gender identity will not necessarily accord with his sex. That said, for all intents and purposes at this stage we are working with the understanding that our child is a boy.)

But like you, I had been so sure that I was going to be the mother of a girl! I couldn’t imagine producing anything else, so strong is my commitment to women and empowerment. It’s hardly scientific, but I just expected my body to filter out anything connected to masculinity. After all, aren’t I always being told that I’m a feminist because no man wants to touch me? You’d think that would remain true for my genetic material too but alas, here we are.

A photo of a blue baby boy balloon.
Clementine is mum to a boy as well. Photo: Getty Images.

I’m kidding, of course. Because the truth is that having my son has brought me the best of life’s joy. I wasn’t sure at first how to raise a boy, but that lack of knowledge became a lot easier to deal with when I realised that the most immediate hurdle I needed to overcome was learning how to raise a baby. Regardless of what chromosomal make-up your offspring has or how you learn to change their nappy, a baby is first and foremost a squalling blob of pure need and instinct. And as mothers, we respond in kind. Need. Instinct.

I had long come to terms with the fact of my baby’s sex before I first held him in my arms, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been a source of ongoing thought and contemplation. There are certain lessons we teach our children that should be universal - kindness, empathy, collaboration and respect being chief among them. But there are gender-specific lessons that arise because of the culture we live in, and I have found them to be as easy to identify as the ones I believed I would focus on were I raising a girl.

I want my son to be resilient, which is very different to being stoic. Men are instructed to be stoic in the face of emotional distress which is one of the fundamental reasons they don’t seek help for their mental distress. Resilience is different. It values emotional strength and courage, and encourages men to accept realities they may not like or feel comfortable with. Like women challenging their opinions! Or saying no to a date!

I want my son to be gentle, and to associate that gentleness with masculinity. Men can be soft and kind and sweet, and these should be every bit as valued for being masculine traits as the more boorish celebration of toughness, ‘red-bloodedness’ and ‘laddishness’.

I want my son to understand the beauty in sharing. I want him to recognise that good leadership often requires putting yourself last. I want him to know that he has no more or less value than anyone else in the world, but that he can live in a way that brings value to people.

I am no longer flummoxed by the prospect of raising a boy. I consider it an enormous privilege to have the opportunity to raise a good man. Because goodness, we need more of those.

My son is gentle and rambunctious and kind and cool and funny and serious and sweet and salty and spontaneous and thoughtful and a constant source of delight and occasional frustration. And I promise you that you will not only find the same beautiful complexities in your own child but there will also come a day very early on in your mothering life - perhaps even the very first moment you lay eyes on him - where you think to yourself clearly and without a shred of doubt, ‘This child is the only child that could possibly have been meant for me.’

You have a wonderful adventure ahead of you. Enjoy!

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