When I gave birth, we were unable to determine our new baby’s sex.
We were living in a foreign country. My partner was working toward his PhD and I was assistant managing a restaurant instead of pursuing the teaching career for which I had undergone an MA.
When our baby was born with ambiguous genitalia, I was obviously distraught, but I was not confused. It felt strangely preordained, like I was uniquely qualified to have this baby, because at the age of 16 I came across a book in my local bookshop called Sexing the Body by Anne Fausto-Sterling and felt compelled to buy it. The book was about intersex conditions. Our child’s anatomy was the result of a De Novo mutation, a one in a million thing, caused by nothing but chance. How’s that for coincidence? We had to get in an ambulance to transfer my baby from the birth center to the Children’s Hospital. I rode with them and saw their pudgy, pink, 8lb, 9oz body sleeping peacefully in an incubator they had no need for. Next to them was another baby, tiny and frail, breathing tubes and monitors hooked up to it’s body, fighting for life. Perspective is everything. I was scared, but I also knew that my baby was safe.
In the moment my child was born, I became the mother our baby needed me to be, and I treated the role as if it were my profession. In the beginning, I was surprised by doctors and other medical professionals remarking on how incredibly well I was handling it all. I didn’t see it as a choice. It was now my job to handle it well; that’s what I signed up for when I decided to bring this helpless little human into the world. I was surprised, too, by the fierce–and frankly frightening– force of the love I felt for my child, and my desire to protect and comfort them through the daily barrage of testing they endured.
When they were 16 days old they had to undergo laparoscopic surgery and biopsy the internal gonads to identify testicular or ovarian tissue. Fasting a 2 week old baby for 5 hours who was on the boob pretty much constantly wasn’t easy. I found myself running through the hospital, desperately searching out a breast pump I didn’t think to bring (classic rookie error). I pumped an insane amount- 3 FULL BOTTLES IN ONE GO- and that night in the hospital was, thanks to the nursing staff, my first and only night of unbroken sleep. I was shocked to wake up in the morning and immediately frantic that I must not have heard my baby’s cries, but the staff had given me the respite I never would have consciously allowed myself, swooping in at first peep to attend to them with my treasure trove of breastmilk.
I use the words “they” and “them” to describe my newborn because for the first month of my son’s life I didn’t see him as a boy or a girl.
It was incredibly freeing and truly beautiful to feel the immensity of my love for this thriving, sweet, lovely-and-scrumptious-in-every-way baby, without any sense of who they were beyond who they simply were; a human baby. MY baby! When it came time to agree on a gender determination I had become so used to seeing my baby as simply themselves that I was angry at the world for forcing them into a box. It felt arbitrary at that point. Like we were only doing it for the sake of registering the birth, and getting a social security card, and all the other bureaucracy that goes along with being a person in the world. But the evidence was compelling that he would feel more “he” than “she” and so our baby became a he.
The irony is not lost on me that despite these feelings I ended up accepting the recommendations of our medical team and the important men in my life who made a compelling argument for performing gender assignment surgery. There are days when I hate myself for the choice I have made, and other days when I am grateful for it. I was never uncomfortable with my child existing outside society’s narrow definitions of boy and girl. My concerns have always been for his own sense of self-confidence, happiness and comfort with his body. I had read articles about the mental and physical damage such surgery can inflict, but the medical studies that I poured over night after sleepless night told a different story.
Would he hate us for making a choice about his body that he felt was his to make?
Would he hate us for not doing it when he was too young for it to impact his life? Our therapist described the experience of another patient, who was furious at her parents for waiting. At the age of 13 she was desperate to undergo surgery, but would need to miss school and somehow explain to her peers why she was going to be out for so long.
Let’s be clear though, in every scenario, he would definitely hate us. That led to discussions of whether any teenager with ambiguous genitalia would be confident enough to forego surgery. If they were desperate for it at 13, would they still feel that way if forced to wait until 18? How would they feel about themselves, and us, until then? Would they survive? Would they want to die? At what age is it appropriate for a child to make that kind of decision? I truly felt that age-old phrase, “Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.” I saw evidence in the form of medical surveys that even despite complications, many people were happy to have had surgery as children, and I also saw some very vocal resistance to surgery on human rights grounds. In my heart, I still have not reconciled with any of this.
Ultimately, I didn’t want my son’s life to be an experiment.
I’d like to believe that my love and our parenting would be enough to give him the resilience and self-worth he needed to exist, unapologetically. But I also knew, from a rocky adolescence riddled with low self-esteem and depression (despite my parents’ steadfast love and empathy), that my love alone wouldn’t be enough. He would have to live in a world that doesn’t acknowledge people like him exist. I didn’t want him to feel ashamed of himself. I didn’t want him to hate himself. I didn’t want him to want to die. As my husband put it: “We just want him to love his penis!”
Surgery was not straightforward, and for the better part of his toddlerhood we were in and out of the hospital. All of this kept us in Scotland, where we had a team of doctors we trusted and we weren’t being plunged into medical debt. I was heartened by my son’s tantrums when it was time to leave the hospital. He developed bonds with favorite nurses and played endlessly in the toy room. He was never scared to go and he took it all in such stride. Ultimately I felt that we were able to give him a joyous toddlerhood. We felt the full weight of anxiety and stress before our trips to the hospital, but he looked forward to them! I was truly in awe of the doctors and nurses who excelled in the power of distraction, and when distraction didn’t work, making canulas and catheters magical. I wanted to spare him as much pain as I could. It was a gift I could give him: to shoulder the weight of the anxiety and stress.
After all, our biggest desire as mothers is to protect our children. I live with the fear that in trying to protect him I unwittingly allowed harm to come to him, and was complacent in allowing a surgery he might not have wanted. Doubts and fears have crept in, that maybe I allowed them to win. Over time, I have learned to live with the ethical nightmare of what we chose for our child. I hope by being open and honest he will come to understand that we were making choices no parent ever expects to make, and we were wholly unqualified and unprepared to make them.
All of our hospital trips ended right before the birth of his little brother. Normalcy was so easy! I loved sweating the small stuff- it felt indulgent to care about silly things like runny noses.
This is what it’s like, I thought. Moms will truly worry about pretty much ANYTHING. I liked to be in their ranks, if only artificially. I was so sick of hospitals that I gave birth to my second baby at home. I knew I could face the fear and the pain. I also still lived in Scotland, where we had never left my son with anybody else, ever – like not even with a babysitter for an hour. I didn’t want him to feel like his new sibling was taking his parents away from him. I pictured us all snuggling up together in bed after the birth and sharing in the wonder and joy of our completed family. I would bring that baby into the world triumphantly on my own terms.
But what’s that saying about making plans and laughing? I actually almost died that night from a retained placenta. My son ended up having his first sleepover at a friend’s house (he loved it, had no hard feelings towards his baby brother, it was a total success, and we have ETERNAL GRATITUDE for those friends, obviously!) Was I surprised when, after an empowering, straightforward home delivery, my placenta wouldn’t come and I suffered a massive hemorrhage? Not a bit. Instead of asking why it happened, I asked, why wouldn’t it? Instead of bemoaning how it ruined my perfect birth experience I felt gratitude for the safe and beautiful birth I did have before the horror show afterwards (it was pretty gory). I felt like shit on the ICU, drank a ton of water so my milk would come in already, and soldiered on. I was amazed by how differently I felt towards my second baby. I was flooded with love, of course, but that terrifying ferocity wasn’t there. He just didn’t, and still hasn’t (yet) needed it. But I know it’s there.
People sometimes say to me that it must be a relief after all we have been through to see now that our son clearly and strongly identifies as a boy. And it’s true that he is, unabashedly boyish, in every stereotypical sense of the word. Perhaps it should, but it has never given me all that much relief. The competitive, macho play of boyhood scares me. And while I am glad that he is clearly a happy and thriving little boy, a part of me will always see him as that tiny precious baby, existing in their own right, beyond binaries.
Motherhood emboldened and empowered me. It has shown me that I’m a survivor, and a fighter. It has also given me a healthy respect for the random, one-in-a-million, twists and turns life brings.
My biggest challenge now is in the letting go. I have given all of myself to being the mother he needed, and then becoming a mother all over again with my second. They have had all of me. All of my time, all of my attention, all of my love. But now what they really need from me is their autonomy. They need to see their mother trusting them and giving them space; to fail, to struggle, to grow. And they need to see me living my own life, pursuing my own goals and interests.
I am driven now to create and publish stories in which a child and a family like mine exist. Intersex people are invisible. They are assigned a sex and forgotten. We erase them by leaving them out of the myriad of stories we tell. They need to see themselves represented in the media they engage with. Whether or not they have had surgery, they need to feel that they have a right to exist. I want my son to see other people like him and I don’t ever want him to feel alone, because he’s not. People born with some degree of DSD (Disorder of Sex Development) are as common as people born with red hair. If you don’t know that, how will your children? How will mine?
It is scary to put our story out there, but I realize now that it is my responsibility if I want things to change for children like mine. I let my desire to protect my child outweigh his right to physical autonomy, and if I try to further protect him by keeping our story a secret, it will inadvertently perpetuate the stigma and shame that keeps this cycle of forcing the binary in place. It fills me with hope to see trans and non-binary identifying people becoming more visible, but despite that, I still don’t think many people realize that there are babies born every day with non-binary bodies. I want to help create a future where parents like me are empowered to decide against surgery: a future in which they can feel secure that the society their children will be raised in has the capacity to recognize and respect them for who they are.
Ivy Morris is from Ithaca, NY and lives in Edinburgh, Scotland with her husband and two children. She is a full time mom and aspiring children's book author with an MA from NYU. Ivy invites connection through email.