Stop patronizing pregnant women

My beautiful mother, upon having recently brought me into the world.

One of the more unpleasant surprises in my first trimester was my discovery of the widespread condescension heaped upon the pregnant.

I did not expect this. I have lived in and managed my body for three decades now. I have been married for eight years. I have been working for ten. I have a mortgage. I have managed to keep myself alive thus far. But should I be trusted to gestate? All on my own? That doesn’t sound safe.

I don’t know if there is an American pregnancy lobby, but I have felt affronted by it just the same. As soon as I made the terrible mistake to start reading articles about pregnancy, I discovered this looming paternalistic conspiracy to treat women like ignorant cows. Women are thick-minded mammals who won’t question “science” or the accuracy of “studies,” even when they plainly contradict themselves. They don’t know enough to keep themselves from killing their babies willy-nilly! They don’t get that babies are the most important thing! Without us, the sanctified lobbyists of American pregnancy, they wouldn’t have a clue about how to take care of their bodies or their babies!

If you’ve ever looked at a patronizing pregnancy app, you get hit with this tone immediately. The consistent approach of these popular apps made me batty. Early on, I was curious about how the baby was developing and what was happening inside me at each week. I downloaded two apps, BabyCenter and The Bump, but I eventually stopped looking at them altogether because of all of the condescension mixed with fear-mongering. The apps present you with (1) a feed of terrifying articles (one was literally titled, “Top 50 Pregnancy Fears.” Others: “Are you miscarrying right now?” “What happens to baby if you have just one drink”) and (2) a flood of condescending advice that is written as if for an ignorant child. And then there’s typically a message board from the pit of hell, with hordes of terrified women asking and giving each other medical advice. In sum: Pregnancy apps are bad. Don’t use them.

But you know what’s also bad (or less than great)? OB offices. My office, which is presumably composed of nice doctors, told me to have a six-week visit with their “pregnancy education nurse,” whom I’ll call Janice. This is basically a visit so that a nurse can lecture a pregnant woman, who is, by all accounts, a knocked-up dodo who has no clue what she’s just gotten herself into. Janice, at least, talked to me this way. Janice was a well-meaning senior citizen. She wore a giant platinum crucifix and struggled with her Dell laptop during the duration of our visit. She calculated my due date with a hand-held plastic wheel (which I thought was a cute, old-fashioned touch).

Janice was friendly, but she was also the peculiar mixture of being both condescending and deeply uninformed at the same time. She ran me through a litany of commandments without explaining the rationale behind a single one.

“And you’re not drinking, right?” she asked, pen hovering over a check box. I wasn’t, but what if I was? What if I had been, just a few weeks ago, before I knew I was pregnant? What a terrible way to lead into that question. And then she didn’t give me any reasons why I shouldn’t drink. All of her questions were framed this way. Another exchange went like this:

“You don’t eat sushi, right?”

“Well, I do enjoy sushi, yes. Why shouldn’t I have sushi?” I asked.

“Because of the mercury.”

“But mercury still exists even in cooked fish.”

“Well. Yeah. I guess that’s true. But you still shouldn’t have it.”

I didn’t ask another “why” because I knew she didn’t have an answer. (I knew the answer, and I knew that sushi really isn’t that dangerous; if you are sketched out by the quality of a sushi place, don’t eat there, regardless of your gestational capacity.)

Later, I was given unsolicited advice from a male osteopathy student about what position I should give birth in if I don’t want to “tear horribly.” The best position, according to him? And I quote: “The traditional way, flat on your back.” Aside from the absurd use of the word “traditional,” this was his counsel, despite the veritable reams of evidence that birthing on your back is the worst position in which to bring a baby into the world. (Importantly, it has only been considered “traditional” since we started having male OBs deliver babies instead of midwives, because it was more convenient for them to catch babies if the woman was working against gravity, on her back.)

This is the American baby bias—baby trumps mother, every damn time—that makes me feel insane. The sacred fetus is to be protected at all costs from that woman it’s growing inside. Women’s knowledge about their own bodies and their own wisdom about birth is repeatedly discounted in favor of the establishment, which often seems to feature a loud chorus of male voices.

As Rachel Cusk writes in A Life’s Work (which is extremely grim for different reasons, and which I do not recommend):

“The baby plays a curious role in the culture of pregnancy. It is at once victim and autocrat. It is a being destined to live only in the moment of perfection that is its birth, after which it degenerates and decays, becomes human and sinful, cries and is returned to the realm of the real. But in pregnancy, the baby is a wonder, a miracle, an expiation.”

The mother is a dangerous interloper. She can’t be trusted! She’s a clueless breeder! She may be creating the all-important life, sure, but does she really know what she’s doing? She needs to be told. She needs to be bossed around and micromanaged. She needs a long list of everything she’s not allowed to do anymore, and then she should be shamed repeatedly, for the rest of the child’s life, if she forgets or ignores a single thing.

As Danya Glabau writes in “Sins of the Mother,” published in Real Life:

“The imperative to do more and be better is not only a question of the well-being of the person carrying the child. At stake (so we are told!) are concerns that are bigger than us and yet seem to depend on us: the future of the national economy and the health of the species. When pregnant people fall short, they fail not only themselves but the imagined heirs, nations, and biological kin by whom they could have done better.”

I’m already sick of it, and I’m only halfway through this pregnancy. Because here’s the thing: Yes, children are precious. Yes, some mothers-to-be could be knocked-up dodos. But we must stop treating women like they are no more intelligent than the infants they’re carrying and then scaring them into submission.

I’m furious about it, and I’m enjoying using my fury in productive ways for the remainder of this pregnancy. Here’s to smart, capable women, who have been bringing human beings into the world for millennia—and down with all of the misogynistic fear-mongers who lurk behind every baby app and cash register and desk.

Further reading that does not patronize the pregnant

(What do all of these pieces have in common? Women authors. I’ll listen to thoughtful, educated men on most occasions, but I’m not taking any birthing advice from them.)