“Do you know whether you’re having a boy or a girl?” I’ve been answering that question a lot lately. This time I was at a wedding, chatting with an elderly relation of the bride.

“No,” I said, as I always do. “My husband and I want to be surprised.” The woman nodded approvingly. “I think that’s how God intended it to be,” she said. “I guess we feel that way too,” I answered cheerily. She repeated, more intensely this time, “I really do think that’s what God wants.”

I didn’t want to let the lady down, but—committed as I am to the discernment of God’s will—I can’t honestly say that I view our decision not to know the sex of the baby I’m carrying as a moral one. Agreeing that God doesn’t want us to know this particular fact seems to require believing that God is opposed to the imaging techniques that make it possible to find out. We’ve taken full advantage of that technology in the past few months: first, to find out exactly how old the baby was; later, to check on the development of its major organs and to look for possible defects (and breathe a sigh of relief when none were detected). I can’t come up with a reason that all of that would be morally OK, but a peek at the sexual organs in the process would violate God’s plan. Still, when the technician who performed my twenty-week sonogram asked, “Do you want to know?” we told her no, we didn’t, and she cued us to avert our eyes from the screen at the appropriate time.

Even if that wedding guest’s view of the matter was more dogmatic than mine, it was nice to be talking to someone who affirmed our choice. When I reply to “Is it a boy or a girl?” with “We don’t know,” the reaction I get often makes me feel like I’ve just said “Oh, we don’t believe in ‘gender,’” or “We have no electricity in our home.” Clearly, a lot of modern parents never consider not learning their baby’s sex when given the opportunity. I have no quarrel with that; I don’t think it’s wrong to peek. But my husband and I agreed we’d rather sustain the mystery a little longer.

On television I saw an expectant couple who had announced their baby’s sex and name long before the birth. This approach has its merits from a prolife point of view: referring to the unborn child by name bears strong witness to the fact that it is a child. But it seems not quite right to me, somehow, for a child’s identity to precede its birth so definitively. In the case of the family on TV, when the big day finally arrived, loving relatives and friends gathered in the hospital waiting room holding balloons and signs that said “Welcome, Jake!” This left the new daddy without much news to share when he finally emerged from delivery. “Well,” he announced awkwardly, “he’s here.” The old-fashioned way may not be morally superior, but it certainly is more dramatic.

“Oh, I definitely wanted to find out,” another mother told me. “I wanted to prepare.” But how much preparing can you really do? My husband and I have names at the ready for all two potential outcomes. Beyond that, as long as we’re still “expecting,” we’re trying not to get too specific with our expectations. The one thing we know for sure is that parenting is a big step into the unknown, a surrender of control (or of the illusion of control). Embracing one more unknown along the way seems like good practice. So while I tell people, “We want to be surprised,” the truth is, we know we don’t have a choice. We might as well get used to it.

Published in the 2011-07-15 issue: 

Mollie Wilson O’​Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

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