She went on, in an email: “This is not to say that these effects don’t exist … Maybe people actually are unhappy in the three outcomes I measured (depressive symptoms, satisfaction in life overall, and satisfaction with family life), but they get over it quickly and so the survey doesn’t pick it up.” (Her analysis didn’t include fathers, and most studies on gender disappointment focus on mothers.)
Whatever the long-term outcome, parents have, for quite some time, not had much say over the sex of their child. As Nugent grimly put it in her dissertation, “Historically, infanticide and neglect have been the only available methods of sex selection, typically practiced against females.” And in the past few decades, in countries such as India and China, a preference for boys has led many parents to abort pregnancies after learning they’d have a daughter.
But today, there are nontraditional (and nonviolent) ways of having children that grant parents more agency. One is in vitro fertilization, an expensive process typically used by couples who are having trouble conceiving. As part of the IVF process, embryos are tested (usually for genetic diseases) before they are implanted into the womb, and that test can determine the sex of the child-to-be. Parents can opt to implant only embryos of the desired sex, and it’s not uncommon for couples without any fertility problems to seek out such “family balancing” services to achieve their desired mix of boys and girls.
Another route is adoption, and a paper published last month in the Journal of Marriage and Family found evidence that some parents use it “to fulfill their preference for a specific sex composition among their children.”
“Children who had same-sex preceding siblings were more likely to [have been] adopted, as opposed to biologically related to their parents, than children who had mixed-sex preceding siblings,” the researchers wrote. “Furthermore, adopted children were more likely to be of the missing sex.” That is, if an adopted child is a girl, she’s more likely to have been preceded only by brothers than only by sisters.
Most parents, though, aren’t picking the sex of their child, even though they may wish for one sex or the other. These preferences probably deserve a more critical eye, since they are—and there’s really no way around this—a widely accepted form of gender discrimination. That’s not to say parents think boys or girls are inherently worse or better, but rather that they are different, which accurately captures the fact that boys and girls get treated differently. And so the visions many parents have for the sex of their children, in a sense, are a collective reflection of all the expectations, fair or not, that parents know the world to have for boys and for girls.