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The Baby Who Was Different – A Fairy Tale

The author of this tale is Garry Warne FRACP, Director of the Department of Endocrinology and Diabetes, Royal Children’s Hospital, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. The article appeared in ‘Maternal and Child Health’, May 1992, p159-160.

This story was written as a serious attempt to provide parents with a means of introducing and explaining a difficult subject, in this case a child born with abnormal genitalia, to a sibling or affected child aged between four and seven years. Parents often have difficulty in explaining birth abnormalities and the author feels that a fairy tale might be a good medium.

Once upon a time, in a land not far away, a very unusual baby was born. The mother and father, who were young and not very rich, had eagerly looked forward to the birth of their first child. “If we have a little girl, let’s call her Erendil, and if the baby is a boy, his name will be Axelrod”, they said. They had painted their small house a beautiful fresh shade of purple (the most popular colour in that land), to make it a nice home for the baby, but had carefully left some bits unpainted so that they could be coloured in either pink or blue, depending on what sex the baby would be. Wasn't that a good idea?

The day arrived when the mother’s tummy was so large that she thought she couldn't get any bigger, and she prayed and prayed that the baby would come that day. Her prayers were answered, and after a few hours, the baby was born. Everyone was so happy and the mother and father felt very pleased with themselves. The baby was plump and healthy, with shining eyes, lovely silky hair, and ten little fingers and ten toes.

But the doctor who was helping the mother at the birth looked worried about something. The mother and father were puzzled, and said to the doctor, “what’s the matter?” At first the doctor didn’t seem to know what to say, but then she said, “Well, I can't tell whether the baby is a boy or a girl”. She showed the baby to the mother and father, and they could see for themselves that there was a problem. They felt very sad about that, because they'd never heard of such a thing before, and didn’t know what to do.

The doctors had to look carefully at the very unusual baby (who hadn’t been given a name yet) and lots of special tests were done. A doctor who knew all about unusual babies came and explained to the mother and father that it wasn’t so rare, that there were five or six a year in any big city. He said that when the tests had been done, the baby would definitely turn out to be either a boy or a girl, and not something in between.

After a few days had passed, the special doctor came back and told the mother and the father that the baby was a little girl. He said that she would need a small operation to complete the parts that nature had not quite finished. After that had been done no one would be able to tell that there had been anything different at all.

The mother felt quite a bit happier after this, but still she wondered what had gone amiss. She and the baby went home. The mother was sitting in her back garden, watching the baby asleep in her bassinette, when suddenly there was a blinding flash of light and a beautiful fairy appeared before her. The fairy said “I can see you don't understand about this baby. I suppose I’ll have to explain. I’m always having to explain to humans about unusual babies! You seem to expect them to be all the same. How boring that would be! Your baby tells us something very special. Didn't you know that baby boys look exactly the same as baby girls at the beginning? You didn’t? Well, they certainly do. When a baby boy is just starting to grow inside the mother’s tummy, that bit called a penis is quite small, and both boys and girls have a kind of a slit down the middle between their legs. We fairies have to do a bit of magic on boys to make the penis grow larger and to make the skin grow to cover over that slit. It's not easy, I can tell you! Even fairies make mistakes sometimes, especially the young ones who are just learning. It's no wonder some babies are born not quite finished. Honestly, the way we have to make two different kinds of bottom end when we're only given one kind to start with, is quite a headache. And we have to get the numbers right. It would be no good if we made twice as many boys as girls, would it?

The fairy then did a little twirl and fluttered around the vegetable patch, pausing to have a quick peep under every cabbage leaf. “You know”, she said, “lots of babies are born with parts of their bodies that are a bit different from other people’s. Some of the differences are on the outside where you can see them such as birth marks, others are on the inside, where they can’t be seen. There are all sorts of things packed inside a baby’s little body, and sometimes” (the fairy said with a sigh) “whoever packs them forgets one of the parts, or puts in a part that doesn’t work properly”.

“I suppose you know what you're talking about,” said the mother, “but will my baby be happy?” “Look,” said the fairy a little impatiently, “being different is the usual. Every person is just himself or herself, and people aren't meant to be like peas in a pod. We put a little bit of magic into every baby, and it’s up to him or her to discover what it is. Stop worrying about the little mistakes we make, and look for the special gift we have given. It’s something inside each one of you which can grow into something beautiful. A person who has discovered the good inside themselves is beautiful, regardless of what they look like on the outside. We fairies have a saying, “if we like ourselves, other fairies will like us”. The same goes for people”. With that, there was a shower of stardust, and the fairy disappeared.

The mother and father felt happy in their hearts with their little girl Erendil, and they held a wonderful party for all of their friends, where every guest was given a can of pink paint and a brush, and they were allowed to paint the parts of the purple house that had been left uncoloured, pink. The pink and purple house looked absolutely marvellous. When Erendil was two or three months old, the doctors added the finishing touches so she was the same as other girls, and she and her parents lived happily ever after.