Claremont, CA. My husband and I are expecting a baby next month, and we do not know the baby’s sex.

This seems to bother many people – not the “expecting a baby” part of things, but the “we do not know the baby’s sex” part.

Dozens of people have asked me how I expect to shop for baby clothes without knowing whether we’re having a boy or a girl. At one fancy cocktail party, one fancy lady was shocked – shocked! – that people still have “surprise babies.”

“But how will you know what color to paint the nursery?” she asked.

In the culture at large, there is something of an obsession with learning the sex of babies in the womb, a fascination that can get pretty creepy and overdone. Some parents are having what they call “sex parties,” where they reveal the sex of their baby in some cutesy way. Websites offer reams of advice on how to make “creative gender announcements” (like getting the tell-tale sonogram put onto t-shirts and sent to friends as a gift, or having “It’s going to be a [Whatever]!” proclaimed on the JumboTron at a major sports event).

The great Baby-Industrial Complex exploits this fascination by marketing what are ostensibly sex-specific versions of just about every baby product imaginable. You can buy “car seat covers for girls” or a “baby bath in boy colors” (where in this case, “boy colors” are taupe and green). And, of course, newborn fashion comes mostly in two types. You’ve got your pink, with ruffles and rhinestones and the words “diva” or “princess.” And you’ve got your blue, with trucks or sports equipment.

Now, I think we can all understand why new parents might want to know the sex of their baby when the information is out there to be known. It is hard to be offered knowledge and to turn that offer down. Just ask Adam and Eve.

But at the same time, what has become the over-fascination with this information invites some head-scratching, especially since you would think this information is less important than ever. We live in a society where a person’s sex does not determine his or her educational or professional future. Very few careers still exclude one sex or the other; two years ago, the U.S. Navy put women in nuclear submarines, ending one of the last sex-based exclusions in the American professional world. Birth-control technologies and legal abortion enable, as Samantha says on the first episode of “Sex and the City,” a woman to be able to “have sex like a man.” More and more fathers are granted primary custody of children in divorce cases, suggesting that most Americans do not think one’s sex determines one’s ability to raise children. While of course this is not a sex- or gender-blind society (as it is impossible to believe any society could be), it is a society in which, at least at the most formal levels of public discourse and institutions, we tend to agree that we don’t believe a person’s sex should determine much about the course of his or her future.

In my case, quite a few of the people who have questioned our decision not to find out the baby’s sex are the kinds of well-off, self-styled progressives who in other kinds of conversations can be counted on to talk about the fluidity of gender identity. They are people who don’t believe all girls have to like princesses or all boys have to like football.

How do we explain a culture that tells children that sex doesn’t matter much, that “girls can do anything boys can do,” and at the same moment is treating the sex of infants in the womb as this critical, determining fact?

One part of the story here, I think, is a lesson in how easy it is for us to become governed by the technologies of our age. The cultural obsession with knowing a baby’s sex before birth allows us to see the way in which our sense of priorities can come to be dominated – dictated, even – by the technological innovations of the moment.

In general, there is very little that one can know about a baby before birth, as Jonathan Menjivar reflected earlier this year on “This American Life. “ You might be able to make a good guess about your baby’s skin tone, or whether or not your baby will be able to engage in tongue-rolling (although neither guess can be made with iron-clad certainty). That’s about it.

In comes today’s expensive prenatal technology, which offers us (where “us” tends to mean parents who have health insurance) two bits of information that are relatively if not perfectly certain: 1) whether or not your baby has certain genetic markers and health problems, and 2) whether or not your baby has a penis.

In both cases, what has happened is that the perceived importance of that specific information has skyrocketed. (I won’t talk about the genetic-marker question here, except to mention that more than 90 percent of women who learn their child will have Down Syndrome get an abortion.)

My suspicion is that American parents are now going overboard with all this attention to prenatal sex – with companies named things like “Fetal Greetings” selling baby-sex announcements and the emergence of something called “gender cakes” – because it is just about the only thing they can know about their babies before those babies are born. Because it is a fact that parents know, it is a fact they come to emphasize and value – and then, to overemphasize and overvalue.

I am not the first to argue that in a technological culture, we start to overvalue what our technology allows us to know – which of course means that we risk undervaluing or ignoring those things that cannot be known, through technology or otherwise. As Martin Heidegger argued in his Question Concerning Technology, one of the dangers of modern technology is that we can start to mistake its limited modes of revealing truth as either the most important or the only modes of revealing truth. Modern technology, in drawing our eyes in one direction, can make us forget that there are many directions in which we can look.

In this technological moment, that means an overemphasis on those things that can be measured by our particular tools of measurement or answered with an iPhone application. And we tend to neglect or devalue those things that our technology can’t tell us (or can’t tell us in its current state of development).

We see examples of this in many realms of our common life. Educational policymakers are ratcheting up standardized testing, despite the protests of long-time, successful educators that the most important elements of learning cannot be translated into “measurable outcomes,” and despite decades of research suggesting a one-size-fits-all approach to education is foolish and counterproductive. And we have come to rely on the quantitative Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a measure of economic health, even though it is easy to see – to paraphrase the title of a recent book by Joseph Stiglitz, Amartya Sen, and Jean-Paul Fitoussi – that it mis-measures our lives in many ways. My students tend to be skeptical of any author without a Wikipedia listing; how can Bernard Iddings Bell matter, they wonder, if Wikipedia does not think he matters?

In all these cases and more, we allow our tools and technologies to change our thinking in profound ways, because we allow our tools and technologies to shape our thinking about what is important and meaningful. We do this in part because it enhances our own sense of mastery over the world: we humans have created these technologies after millennia of civilization, we think, so they must tell us what it is that we really want to know.

Indeed, modern technologies do expand our capacity to know and reflect upon many things. But they can also restrict and narrow our thinking.

In the case of prenatal sexing of babies – in overemphasizing the importance of that information – what can get lost is the fact that a person’s sex does not reveal much about who a person is or might be (in the basic terms of character or discipline or virtue), as Socrates argued so long ago. Even more fundamentally, what can get lost is the wonderful unknowability of babies, itself a reflection of the mystery and unpredictability of us all.

Our technologies draw our attention to those bits of data that we humans have mastered, at least relatively speaking. (Just as prenatal sex predictions are not perfectly accurate, no technologically gained information is without its imperfections.) And those bits of data are often informative and interesting; I would never argue that learning your baby’s sex in the womb is misguided or wrong.

But in this and other cases we should be careful not to overvalue those little things that we know, to the point that we neglect the enduring truth about our lives, that we are all partners in this grand mystery, the depths of which we cannot fathom and the extent of which we will never see. When we remember that, I think, we remember why we call it the miracle of life.

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  1. Our wife and I are having our first child in about six weeks and do not know the sex of the baby. People haven’t given us a really hard time about it, but they think we’re kind of foolish. They want to know if there is a good reason not to know, so we tell them that we want to be frugal and receive all gender-neutral items for the baby so that, when number two comes along, we won’t have to buy all new things or re-paint the nursery (an aside—it’s a room that’s half nursery/half office, another thing that has people scratching their heads…”your baby doesn’t get its own room?”).
    We get far more backlash for going with cloth diapers…

  2. Mystery and Morality are two of the principle victims of this age of High-Tech Relativism. Surprise is turned into a kind of staccato idiot savantism. When one can be anything, anything shall suffice and ennui is as good as anything else.

    One thing that cannot be tamed however, is the feast of senses involved in that hospital delivery room. My time there, as fortunate spectator and relievedly not the possessor of a flexible pelvis…remain the most vivid few hours of an altogether too fleeting life. What a gift! Congrats to you and yorn.

  3. We chose not to find out what the sex our first child would be, and I don’t recall anyone being remotely shocked or confused by our choice; everyone I can remember discussing it with seemed to think it was a perfectly legitimate choice. I guess we were just lucky. For the three girls which followed our first daughter, we always chose to let the ultrasound technician tell us what she saw…but we made it a game with our other daughters, who in every case were in the room with us. We got a variety of funny choices over the years: “It’ll be a wizard!” is one I remember well.

  4. My wife and I have three daughters, and we did not find out the gender of any of them until they were born. Many of our friends were incredulous about our decision to not find out the gender. My standard reply was “That there are too few good surprises in life, so why would we want to deprive ourselves.”

  5. “While of course this is not a sex- or gender-blind society (as it is impossible to believe any society could be), it is a society in which, at least at the most formal levels of public discourse and institutions, we tend to agree that we don’t believe a person’s sex should determine much about the course of his or her future.”

    A shame really, perhaps the biggest disappointment of modern times, that what you are does not inform who you are–disembodied, abstracted, alien to ourselves and one another. Women traded the glory of motherhood, the foundation of history itself, for a mess of porn pottage.

    Two more direct points: the thrust of the article is something that I need to wrestle with more. As a technology professional I am constantly pressing to get more information into and out of my investment in the wizardry of my craft. You remind me here that I’m missing something critical in my obsession.

    The other point (that continues to baffle me) concerns standardized tests. I know why the FPR ethos is against them (though a standard test could be community based and not national). However, you do not seem to understand what they are for. Standardized tests are a means of parents and administrators to control the content of the classroom that they lost to teachers over the last 30 years. It isn’t about the performance measurements, it’s about kicking teachers in the teeth for wasting time on “Mayan Calendars” when the kids aren’t literate.

    Every parent out there thinks little Johnny is a unique snowflake, just like their teachers do. They don’t disagree with the expertise of teachers, they question their ideologically informed approach to the subject matter.

    Of course, we question it so much, my wife and I, that we homeschool. (Also because the social environment of public school has the propensity to be toxic.)

  6. Does the logic here cut both ways? If logic dictates that people who believe in or aim for a gender neutral society should be LESS interested in identifying the sex of the baby, shouldn’t people who believe in profound differences between the sexes be MORE interested in identifying the sex?

  7. I completely support your decision not to know the sex of the baby, as this is just what I would do if I were pregnant, and I agree that knowing in advance seems a sort of over-technologized surprise-killer, but I would add my two cents here.

    In this age of prevalent abortion, anything that helps moms and dads realize that what they are in fact dealing with is indeed a little person, a male or a female human baby, seems to me like a good thing. I don’t need that realization to reinforce my knowledge that it is indeed a human, but the more people see that this is fact a tiny little girl or boy that will grow to be a woman or man in due time, the better.

    Just like ultrasounds could be seen as invasive altogether, but in fact they more than anything show new parents the reality of the child they have conceived instead of just a blob of tissue. There was an article by Frances Kissling or someone a couple years back saying that new ultrasound technology in this case made the pro-abortion stance much harder to defend. ( )

    Otherwise, congratulations, and I think you are absolutely right all the way around.

  8. My wife and I didn’t want to know the sex of our children in advance, and there’s at least one simple reason for that: we wanted to welcome the child into the world as a pure gift unburdened by expectations or disappointments. If one acknowledges life as a mystery, it seems to me there are many reasons why we might want to pay homage to that mystery.

    When Y was pregnant with our first child she went to a well-known Catholic hospital in DC for a routine checkup. She was informed that her AFP levels were higher than normal, so the doctor recommended an amniocentesis – you know, just in case we wanted to “do something about it.” The doctor was completely mystified by our refusal to engage the procedure. “You might feel differently if you find out the child has Down’s Syndrome,” to which we replied “We don’t want to be tempted to feel differently. We will accept whatever we get as a true gift.” Her mystification deepened at this.

    Congratulations to the both of you. Nothing compares.

  9. Great piece and I’m not saying that just because you linked to The Baby Industrial Complex. When my wife was pregnant and people would ask why we didn’t find out if it was a boy or a girl I always said the same thing, “For the same reason I wait until Christmas day to open the presents.”

    You’re right in that as a culture we rely too much on information and too little on experience. We want to know things before we experience them — like if I know my child is going to be X or Y then I’ll know what to do. It’s a security blanket. All this wonderful technology can give us very useful information but it can’t tell us what will happen or how we will react when we experience something. That uncertainty seems to scare us even though it is far more the norm than anything else.

  10. My wife and I did the worst thing possible on kid #1. We found out but refused to tell anyone. not since New Coke has there been such vicious public backlash. On kid #2 we just won’t find out.

    I think the urgency Susan feels among her acquaintances to find out the sex is a result of commercialism. As Susan suggests, you MUST find out the sex of your kid. How else will you know what stuff to buy? In our age our children (what few we have) are increasingly modes of self-expression and status seeking (“which exclusive pre-school did your kid get into”), especially amongst the professional class. It’s never too early to figure our how you can brand your kid and turn him/her into a walking billboard.

  11. With our first, we initially intended to tell the ultrasound tech that we didn’t want to know. Only when my husband peeked at the monitor and said, “Um . . . I think we’re having a boy” did I change my mind and let the tech confirm or correct his conclusion. He was right. With the two girls that came afterward – and with the little guy due this October – I went ahead and asked, not so much so I’d know what kinds of clothes to buy (though I do generally like to stick with boy colors for boys and girl colors for girls) but so I could call the baby by name as soon as we’d picked one for him or her. I like being able to call our baby by name even before he’s born – not because I’d be tempted to consider him less than human otherwise, but simply because I like to address the unborn member of the family by name rather than, constantly, as “he or she” or “him or her” or “little Dominic or Claire.” It’s a personal thing. I don’t have the least problem, though, with folks who decide they want to be surprised on the day of the baby’s birth. One of my brothers and his wife refused to find out. Everyone gets to enjoy the surprise on the big day. They now have four beautiful boys and are open to having more children without sweating whether God sends them more boys or a girl or two. Neither of us have for a moment entertained the thought that our unborn babies were less than human, whether we named them in utero or not.

    I went to my ultrasound appointments knowing that our baby might not reveal his or her gender, but each of the three times I wanted to know, every one of them made it abundantly clear. Than it was easier to choose a name, and, yes, easier to buy baby clothes ahead of time. So much for the nursery, though. Our next baby will sleep either in the living room or in his big brother’s room, wherever we can fit the crib (if he even uses it; his sisters didn’t). We get way more flack for homeschooling and for other things we do or don’t do with our kids – as well as things we do or don’t allow others to do with our kids.

  12. “I think the urgency Susan feels among her acquaintances to find out the sex is a result of commercialism.”

    Maybe, but I am more inclined to attribute it to basic curiosity. Let’s say that you’re 18 and someone comes to you with a machine that will somehow show you the face of the person you will marry, or the house you will live in, or the date you will die. I am guessing most people would use the machine.

    Also, let’s say something happens (Peak Oil?) and society collapses. Nobody buys fancy clothes or cribs or strollers for their babies anymore. If there were still a test that would tell you the sex of the baby, I suspect most people would still have the test done.

    Human curiosity in this regard is well documented. There are scads of old wives’ tales aimed at predicting the sex of the baby based on date of conception, place of conception, diet, the stars, black cats, etc.

    Generally, if tempted with knowledge, people take the bait. Eve didn’t eat the apple because she was in line for a gift certificate from the Gap. She wanted to KNOW.

  13. Excellent article I couldn’t agree more!

    We are expecting our first and have 2 months to go, we do not know the gender and it drives people crazy. I admit it is fun to bother people who place so much importance on “buying” the right color. It has it’s whole life to be a boy or a girl and only a short time to be just a baby.

    I think it’s one of the last and best surprises left in life!

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