Long before new parents ever decide which school their kid will attend or who gets first diaper duty, they’re usually busy wondering whether they’re having a boy or a girl. Do they stash the ultrasound in a kitchen drawer for nine months or read it before they’ve left the hospital parking lot? According to a new study, the route they choose could reveal a lot about their personalities.

Researchers from The Ohio State University who looked at mothers’ curiosity about their unborn children have shown that women who place great importance on knowing their baby’s sex are more likely to adopt traditional gender roles than women who are comfortable staying in the dark. One of the telltale signs, the researchers point out, is that the anticipation of a boy or girl will spur the purchase of gender-specific clothes and toys.

“We don’t know this for sure yet, but expectant mothers’ choice on whether to find out their baby’s sex may show gender role attitudes that will shape how they raise their children,” said Letitia Kotila, lead author of the study and a graduate student in human sciences, in a university release.

Kotila and her colleagues recruited 182 expectant mothers who were taking part in a study on expectations about parenthood. Roughly two-thirds of the mothers had already found out the sex of their baby. When the team checked up on the women’s demographic factors, including their education levels and income, they found mothers who already knew the baby’s sex were more likely to be less educated with lower income.

More startling was the effect of combining egalitarian views with conscientiousness. In other words, women who believed they should share household duties equally with their partners and also acted on their beliefs were 87 percent more likely not to know the sex of their baby before birth. Again, the team chalked this fact up to a break from traditional pigeonholing.

“A conscientious, egalitarian expectant mother may want to wait to find out the sex of the baby because she doesn’t want to create an environment that reinforces old gender stereotypes,” said co-author and associate professor in human sciences, Dr. Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan.

These results persisted when women scored high in “openness to experience,” and conversely, with knowing mothers and high parenting perfectionism. These women were more likely to lay out ahead of time a child’s entire life, setting unrealistically high standards to protect against unforeseen challenges. More than other mothers, they believed that learning their child’s sex would help them relieve any anxiety associated with their pregnancy.

But more than that, Schoppe-Sullivan said, the findings suggested something fundamental about the way mothers plan to raise their children. A simple difference between boy and girl could mean thousands of dollars spent in one direction and not another — an entire life pre-planned, before the child has taken his or her first breath.

Prior research has found that these early decisions may weigh heavily on kids’ life choices. A study conducted earlier this year found girls who played with Barbie dolls saw themselves as less fit for many career options compared to boys, than girls who played with Mrs. Potato Head, even though both groups saw the same pictures for various professions. “I think it's possible that girls also learn positive messages from fashion dolls,” Sherman told Medical Daily at the time, “but we didn't find that in this study.”

Schoppe-Sullivan expressed a similar sentiment about her own study. “This may affect what paths a girl thinks is appropriate, all the way to what kind of careers she considers.” This idea, that boys and girls may have their lives chosen for them ahead of time, is one OSU researchers hope to investigate further in future studies. In the meantime, Schoppe-Sullivan poses a question to soon-to-be parents.

“If you know ahead of time that you’re having a girl,” she said, “are you layering on all the pink and purple in a way that is going to push an extremely feminine ideal on your child?”

 

Source: Kotila L, Schoppe-Sullivan S, Kamp Dush C. Boy or girl? Maternal psychological correlates of knowing fetal sex. Personality and Individual Differences. 2014.