Written by Brisbane-based baby photographer Minna Burgess.
For a large percentage of expectant parents there is one pressing question on their lips when they excitedly go for their baby’s 20-week ultrasound. “Is it a boy or a girl?” Most would argue that there are only two possible answers to this simple question, yet for Jane and her husband Stuart the answer they would eventually receive was more complicated than they could have ever imagined. I spoke to Jane about the incredible roller coaster ride of emotions that her family embarked on mid last year when told the doctors had no way of finding out the true gender of their 4th baby.
Eight scans, during the first half of Jane’s pregnancy, all came back with normal results. “Up until this point we had been told that the baby appeared to be a ‘normal’ looking girl,” says Jane, “but on June 19th, 2014 we found out that our baby was missing a chromosome.
“A month later we were told our baby had ambiguous genitals and the doctors could no longer tell if the baby was a boy or a girl. I remember the date because it was my birthday,” says Jane. “I was so mad and felt so let down by the hospital. I wanted to know if they suspected it earlier. All the doctor did was give me false hope, it made me so angry.”
Overcome with emotion and thrown into the unknown Jane remembers feeling like she was going to go crazy at times.
“No one could tell us anything except just wait until the baby is born. We didn’t mind either way but we did not want to have to choose a gender. That was the one thing I did not think I could do. The most difficult part was not being able to get any answers, we had all these bad possibilities hanging around and I was just so disconnected to my baby because I didn’t even know if he or she would make it to birth.”
Throughout the pregnancy Jane’s husband Stuart was her biggest support.
“Stuart was so incredibly strong and let me fall apart anytime I needed to. He kept telling me we would get through whatever happened (and he was right). This entire experience has made us closer. I don’t think I could have gotten through all of this on my own. Even when I was probably being irrational and lashing out at things that were not relevant, just because I was lost and scared, he was still there and is still there now helping me make the best decisions we can for our baby.”
“I was told by so many doctors that babies like this don’t usually make it to birth. I kept telling myself that this baby fought so hard to hang on so I needed to fight. I needed to be strong and just keep on going and we would get through it,” Jane recalls.
OII Australia, Organisation Intersex International Australia, explains on their website that “sex characteristics are more varied than most people are aware, intersex people account for somewhere between 1 in 2000 and 1.7% of births. Confusion around the birth of an intersex baby most often stem from ambiguous genitals. A baby may have ovotestis, a combination of ovarian and testicular tissue.”
When baby M was born it was confirmed that there was no way for the doctors and specialists to determine the sex. Jane and Stuart had to decide whether to bring up their baby as a boy or a girl. Choosing the gender of your newborn baby is not something you would ever expect to be asked to do. For Jane it was one of the most difficult decisions she had ever been faced with.
“We didn’t know what to do. We had no idea how to decide. Our baby has all of the reproductive organs of a boy and girl (penis, scrotum, teste, vagina, uterus, fallopian tube, ovary). One surgeon told us that, in his experience, babies that have male looking genitals, like M, have been exposed to testosterone while inside their mothers.”
“With our baby looking male he would probably have testosterone imprinted in his brain and would most likely feel like a boy. That is what we based our decision on. This is only one doctor’s best guess though and there are no guarantees he will feel like a boy,“ she says.
Missing a chromosome, does not automatically mean you are intersex. It affects everyone differently. In M’s case it affected the way his sex organs developed.
“Just like his chromosomes are almost split 50/50 he seems to be split 50/50 with having the female anatomy on one side of his body. He also has hypospadias which means he wees from the same place a girl would, even though he has a penis,” says Jane.
“I hope M can understand our thought process and why we chose to bring him up as a boy. I feel like we have made the right decision.”
During those early days Jane wished someone would tell her that it was all a dream. “People would say “it will be ok”, but at that point it didn’t feel like it would be.”
Support from her Nan helped Jane through her darkest times.
“My Nan had a disabled child and was the only person who had any experience with anything similar to what I was going through. She had experienced things so much worse than me. She understood my fear and worry, and every emotion I felt. She had been there and was so great.”
OII Australia recommends counselling, psychosocial and peer support to help process the emotions and confusion that naturally come up as a result of being told you have an intersex baby. Most importantly they point out that: “Diversity is natural. All sorts of people live happily with different bodies.”
“Intersex people lead happy and fulfilling lives and are active in all walks of life in Australia,” they write on their website.
For more information go to www.oii.org.au
(Images taken by M’s Mum & Dad – Look at that gorgeous smile!)
If you are going through a similar situation, Jane advises you stay away from all the online horror stories.
“I know that it seems like it is not ok. I understand how terrifying the unknown is, but it really will be ok. You will get through it and no matter what you will have a gorgeous baby at the end of it.”
“Today M is the happiest little baby ever. His smile brightens our day. Our other kids love him so much. They love watching him learn new things and get so excited when he starts doing something new. I have always been an openminded person but having M has definitely opened me up to being even more accepting of anyone who isn’t considered ‘normal’. It has also made me aware of how little knowledge and support there are for people like him,” Jane explains.
Looking at the sparkle in M’s eyes and those delicious baby cheeks it is very clear that perfection comes in all kinds of packages. I am so honored to share his story with you. I hope he is met with an open heart and mind wherever he goes. In Jane’s words:
“We hope to give M enough support and guidance that he will always feel comfortable and never ashamed of himself. My biggest wish for M is happiness and acceptance. I just want him to be happy.”
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Minna Burges is a maternity, newborn, baby & family photographer based in Springfield Lakes, 30 minutes South West of Brisbane. To view her work click on “galleries” in the menu bar or visit her Facebook page – Contact Minna on 0432 953 003 or via email: firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested in booking a session or if you have your own remarkable story to share.