The Politics of Being Pregnant

28 weeks and countingI’ve weathered a growing (no pun intended) stream of unsolicited advice, comments, and thoughts on the shape of my pregnant body in the past few weeks, as I’ve begun to show in earnest. While I welcome any bit of conversation about pregnancy from people I know (whether it be family members, friends, colleagues, or students), I am increasingly shocked at how often strangers feel the need (and the right) to comment on my shape, offer predictions, and ask probing questions about name, gender, and philosophy that my partner and I are still figuring out. Of course everyone’s different, and perhaps I unknowingly welcome it, but the comments about what I look like have started to get under my skin.

As someone who was tall for my age as a child and teenager, I have plenty of practice with unsolicited comments about my shape, height, and amount of space I take up in the room. That being said, pregnancy is a very stressful, sometimes unpredictable, often exciting time that is quite personal. And I’m growing weary of juggling the daily challenge of just being pregnant (and everything that goes along with that) and the mounting commentary about my belly, largely from people I don’t know. At the gym this morning, this dialogue with a woman I’ve never spoken to before illustrates just what I mean:

“When are you due?”
(I remove my headphones.)
“End of March. We’re very excited.”
(I smile and put my headphones back on.)
“It must be a girl.”
(I remove my headphones again.)
“No, it’s a boy.”
“Are you sure? You don’t look like you’re carrying a boy. Your body is just so, well, round.”
(I replace my headphones and don’t know (or care) if she’s still talking, and busy myself with another round of reps.)

Other things I’ve heard in passing:

“You’re carrying so high.”
“You’re carrying so low.”
“You don’t look pregnant.”
“You’re huge.”
“Are you sure it isn’t twins?”

And so on…

So what is appropriate to say when someone is pregnant? I’m not sure there’s a rule book. But what I do know is that going through the process for the first time has opened my eyes about it in ways I hadn’t expected. Thanks to the lengthy history of deeply rooted sexism in our society, women are already judged for their appearance in numerous ways. And despite the fact that we are — literally — built to bear children, pregnancy and the resulting physical effects on women’s bodies appear to produce an irresistible topic for conversation that, based on my experience, is sometimes more about the person asking questions than it is about the person answering them.

Again — friends, colleagues, etc. — don’t feel like you can’t ask me questions or engage me in conversation or comment on what I look like. I have no problem with this. It’s the individuals I don’t know who feel the need to insert their opinions front and center that I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around.

And all of this takes me to how women navigate our so-called maternity leave system in this country. Well, it turns out that most places of work don’t have maternity leave — SUNY included. It wasn’t something I even thought to question when I accepted the position at a public university. I naively assumed it was part of our contract. After all, we have a union! But after taking up work around Family Leave policy with colleagues on campus, I was surprised to find out that not only do we have to borrow time from our accumulated sick leave, there isn’t a hard and fast policy that helps women know what they’re facing when they choose to get pregnant. (Not to mention that pregnancy isn’t an illness; therefore, using sick days doesn’t make logical sense.)

Since I haven’t gone through the process quite yet (I’m only 30 weeks and expect to work up until my water breaks to preserve the sick days I do have), I can’t speak to what will happen. However, I can say that I have felt incredibly supported by my Chair, Dean, colleagues, and representatives from Compliance and Academic Affairs. While their hands are tied by the official language in the contract and Trustee Handbook, they’re all working with me to figure out a plan that will, as one administrator put it, keep me “whole and healthy.”

In preparation for a Teach-In on Family Leave on our campus last November, I did research on what maternity leave looks like locally and globally. I was shocked to find out that the U.S. is one of only 8 countries in the world that doesn’t offer paid maternity leave:
maternity leave NY Times

I also discovered that there’s been a bill stalled in Congress for over a year that calls for 12 weeks of paid maternity leave. Despite the fact that many countries offer more than 12 weeks, it would certainly be a start.

I could go on, but have said enough for one post. I encourage people to raise awareness about the abysmal state of maternity leave in our country; to talk to colleagues and family members about what has historically been an individually-fought-for, mostly-hidden negotiation in many workplaces; to consider the effect of words when offering them to pregnant women, especially those you don’t know; and to honor pregnancy as something that is exciting and incredible — as opposed to a burdensome hindrance.

I absolutely can’t wait to meet this little boy I’m carrying around with me for roughly 10 more weeks. And while I know it will completely change my life — and my body — in ways that I can’t yet understand, the experience has already shifted my paradigm when it comes to further understanding how destructive and unfair issues of sexism and gender discrimination still are in our society, and how they determine the policies by which we are bound in our workplaces. Till next time…

 

2 thoughts on “The Politics of Being Pregnant

  1. Kasey

    When it comes to commenting to strangers:
    Really, don’t even ask if they are pregnant, they’ll tell you if they want too.
    Never Never, Never Ever touch the belly. Just don’t.
    The only acceptable comment is “You look great. You must be excited.” Or something along those lines.
    Also, maternity leave policies suck in US.

  2. Pregnancy Report

    I think it’s so true, because being pregnant is kind of someone else’s privacy and it will be rude to ask a woman that kind of question, especially when you are a stranger and not her relatives.

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