For years, as we’ve talked about egalitarian partnerships and marriages, I’ve wondered if there was a deep, dark secret that no one wanted to mention.
I mean, let’s be real: in mixed-gender partnerships, there is only one of you that even has a possibility of knocked up. It’s not like you can talk it over and decide that your husband is really going to be way better at pregnancy, so that’s going to be his job. (And even though I can’t personally speak to same gender partnerships, it’s still usually just one of you having a baby at a time.)
All this time, my secret worry was this: after all of the years of chore balancing, feminism, and building a partnership where we took on tasks and roles based on what we were good at, not based on cultural assumptions… if you get pregnant, isn’t that all over, short term? The dirty secret is that biology isn’t egalitarian, right?
Well, I mean, right that David can’t get knocked up. I did, in fact, read the biology textbooks correctly on that point. But I was dead wrong that pregnancy couldn’t be egalitarian. It turns out that the existence of egalitarian pregnancy was the real deep, dark, never-discussed secret.
I’m going to be blunt: my pregnancy has been hard. It’s not something I have enough distance from to write about in detail, but suffice to say, very difficult. To add to that, I was dealing with the somewhat more public than usual (hey internet!) cultural narrative that pregnant women have a perfect life, which starkly contrasted with my reality this summer. To be pregnant in this particular cultural moment (if society deems that you check the right age, social, and economic boxes) is for people to assume that you have it all, and that you’re glowing with joy at every moment. It’s pregnancy, redefined as a status symbol. This, of course, is total bullshit. It also pits women against women, while stripping pregnant people of the agency to feel whatever they feel. In short, it’s damaging as hell. It can take a hard pregnancy and make it hard in a sort of awful psychedelic 3D.
But through it all, I wasn’t alone. Well, at first, I was. The first trimester can be a profoundly lonely time. Often very few people know what’s going on, and all your partner can see is that you seem to have a sort of ongoing flu. The reality is locked inside your body, which can be confusing and isolating. But then. A difficult second trimester rolled around, it turned out there was one other person living inside the bubble of my experience: David. He did the chores when I couldn’t, listened when I needed to talk, and kept going for me. If pregnancy is a small otherworldly orb of experience, I discovered that there is space for your partner inside that orb.
Recently, a member of the APW community emailed me commenting on my pregnancy announcement post. She said, “It’s so nice to know that I’m not a freak of nature or a failure as a woman just because I sometimes wish that my husband could do this pregnancy thing instead of me, or at the very least take turns with me.” And then it hit me: the secret truth is that our partners can, sort of take turns with us. Mine did, in very real ways this summer. In the worst of it, partners can climb inside the experience with you, lift you up when you can’t lift up yourself, and walk the road right next to you. No one had ever told me that. I hadn’t ever imagined that. But it’s true.
This summer, though a deeply difficult and often uphill struggle, hit me over the head with a surprising truth: pregnancy can be a profoundly feminist experience after all. (Pro tip: If you want this, start by marrying a feminist. Or converting one.)
The Less Feminist World
But here is the catch (and isn’t there always a f*cking catch?): the world isn’t a very feminist place. And when you’re pregnant the world is really not a feminist place.
I wish I could make a list of all of the gender-based assumptions and comments that I’ve been hit with since becoming visibly pregnant, but really, who has the time? I’d like to tell you that as an ardently feminist woman who fills her professional life with writing about ways to upend the cultural narrative, the assumptions and comments didn’t build up like slow lead poisoning, causing me to crack under the pressure. But why bother lying to you?
What I can tell you is that the comments never seem to stop coming, and they are almost never directed at male partners. Questions like: Are you going to stop working? Are you going to take the kid to work with you? You don’t want someone else to raise your kid for you, do you? Since you’re pregnant, you’re feeling sort of dumb and incapacitated, so I should probably think for you, right? I can totally give you daycare suggestions—are you looking for one day a week daycare or two? What are you eating—is that good for the baby? Lady PUT DOWN THAT STARBUCKS CUP, you horrible person. Don’t hurt yourself, you might hurt the precious baby (forget about you). These days, you’re only interested in baby stuff, right? You are getting the most expensive possible crib, right? You’re not getting a crib at all, are you? WAIT LADY, I HAVE A QUESTION!
While your mileage (should you find yourself pregnant) on what questions want to make you gouge out your own eyes with a fork may vary (and perhaps you find all the questions suggested above to be charming), my mileage was pretty shitty. I wanted to know why David wasn’t being asked the same questions. It seemed bad enough that I had to be the one in maternity clothes, why couldn’t they at least bother the hell out of him with mildly offensive questions, and leave me alone?
Why did no one assume he’d be doing legal work with a baby minding itself in a playpen in the corner of the office? (You might answer: because that’s absurd! But it’s of course equally absurd to imagine the kid untended in a playpen in my office.) Why did no one assume that his life was suddenly consumed by shopping for baby stuff? (Fact: he actually cared more about shopping for baby stuff than me, because he actually likes shopping). Why was no one asking him to give everything up, while assuming that I had obviously given everything up already?
Of course the gendered flip side of this is equally shitty. Pregnancy (perhaps particularly egalitarian pregnancy, I don’t know?) is an emotional ride for both partners. You’re both standing on the edge of a cliff, with zero idea of what the next part is going to feel like, and no way to confirm that you’ll fly instead of fall. You’re both staring down one of the hugest changes in your life. But no one considers how this affects men. I mean, maternity leave is a terrible enough proposition in this country, but forget paternity leave—that’s not even part of our cultural conversation. Sure, the pregnant lady might have less energy to devote to things right before the birth, but the other partner has zero constraints on time and energy, right? Not to mention that the rituals of support for pregnant women in our culture rarely extend to men. They get a back slap and a cigar, and everyone moves on.
Women: We never stop talking to them about pregnancy. Men: Carry on as usual, and buck up about it.
Where Do We Go From Here?
I wish I could wrap this up for you with a kicky conclusion, or a nice solution. But I don’t have much.
What I do know is that I want to tell everyone I know about how egalitarian partnerships support pregnancies. I want to take out a (APW?) billboard that says “EGALITARIAN PREGNANCIES EXSIST!” Possibly the back of the billboard will say “YOU DON’T HAVE YOU TO GIVE UP WHO YOU ARE TO BE PREGNANT!” But I don’t want to drive up the birth rate or anything.
But as for changing the cultural narrative, I’ve got nothing. Yesterday’s post on name change suggested that we take up the mantra, “You don’t get a say,” when people try to intrude into our choices. And as much as I enjoy the image of yelling that at the next person who criticizes my… anything… that’s not quite what I want. I don’t want to shut people down; I want to change the conversation. I don’t want to tell people to shut up. I want to stop being treated as nothing but a vessel, like my person has ceased to exist, ceded entirely to the yet-to-be-born. I want to remind people that I’m still right here (and I’m allowed to buy cute maternity clothes damn it, without somehow damaging my future kid with my lack of womanly sacrifice. Don’t get me started on the zillion and one shaming conversations I’ve been subject of on that topic). I want the idea that we’re planning on using childcare to not be taboo or shameful. (I’m an ex-nanny for goodness sake. I don’t feel guilty about childcare, and I don’t want to have to pretend that I do.) I don’t want the assumption to be that everything is changing for me, but nothing is changing for my partner. I want David to be offered some damn support.
In the end, I always wanted to be a person that had a kid. I still want to be a person that has a kid (at least when I’m not freaking out). After all, I love kids more than anything. But I never had any desire to stop being Meg and start being Mother instead. And now, super pregnant, none of that has changed.
What should change, if you ask me, is the conversation.