I’m 16 weeks pregnant with my first baby. When I was younger, I never thought I would get pregnant — by choice. I didn’t see motherhood as compatible with what I saw as my life trajectory, which included a highly successful and likely demanding career. I didn’t want to attempt to “have it all” because I felt like society had already set mothers up to fail. With inadequate paid family leave policies, the lack of affordable childcare, and the cultural expectation that women devote all of their time and energy exclusively to their children, I imagined motherhood as an oppressive experience.
Over time, I changed my views on having a child and my desire to become a mother outweighed my concerns about its associated oppression. I am not sure what exactly changed my mind, though I expect it was a combination of falling in love with my partner and wanting to start a family specifically with him, as well as the favorable career context in which I find myself today. I am fortunate to have successfully transitioned to an entrepreneurial job that affords me a flexible schedule with unlimited leave time. I know that having a baby will undoubtedly affect my career, but I feel more equipped and prepared to handle it than I did when I was younger. And my excitement to become a mother and have a family supersede my worries about my ability to balance.
But now that I’ve been pregnant for about four months and shared the news with most of my family and close friends, I’ve experienced the oppression of motherhood in a way I never imagined.
The source of the oppression comes from other women — in the form of unsolicited judgment, criticism, and shaming of decisions related to my pregnancy and plans for my baby. I’m not even a mother yet (in fact, I have five months to go!), but I’ve never felt as disparaged in my life as I do now, as a pregnant mom-to-be.
Judgment comes from both sides of the “mommy wars” — from women who believe everything a mother does should be in service to her child to the more liberal women who, have criticisms of their own, albeit different ones. After I mused to a friend that I’m looking forward to enjoying a few sips of the very occasional glass of wine later in my pregnancy, she told me I was “so selfish” to be unable to give up alcohol for nine months. Two other friends told me in so many words they didn’t think my decision to find out the sex of our baby ahead of time was very feminist.
In one way, it’s easy to dismiss both opinions, because I feel confident about my own choices — I can’t imagine a scenario in which a sip of wine (or anything) could really harm a fetus, and I genuinely feel it’s misguided to believe withholding knowledge of the baby’s sex would really advance feminism in any way. But still, receiving such comments from good friends who for some reason felt permission to judge my pregnant body and the decisions I’m making about it was painful.
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Another friend who is pregnant told me she’s considering getting a night nurse. The idea intrigued me, and I discussed the concept with a few other people in my life, each of whom offered their strong opinions both for and against. A family member told me that if she had a baby, she would want to do as much as she can for her baby by herself, without outside help. A colleague of mine told me I’d be foolish not to get a night nurse, and looked at me in horror when I said I would probably take the summer off from work. The same two women offered opposing but equally strong (and uninvited) opinions on how long I should breastfeed.
While it seems like reactions and opinions can run the gamut on topics related to pregnancy and child-raising, the women in my life doling out such opinions have something in common. They all have their own idea of what the “right” kind of mother is, and they have no problem holding other women in their lives to that standard.
To be clear, I have no issue with, and in fact welcome, lively, even passionate, discussions about decisions related to motherhood. I think it’s critical for women to share their experiences and feelings with each other during a time that often feels uncertain and mysterious. But the problem comes when those opinions and beliefs are delivered with the sharp edge of judgment.
The message underlying these “opinions” is quite clear: There is one acceptable way to be pregnant and mother your child, and you’re doing it wrong.
Some of the women who have made these criticisms have surprised me because many of them I would consider generally nonjudgmental, feminist, and highly supportive friends who “get” how criticizing other women regresses our progress. Some of these women are among the closest and most important people in my life, and it not only pains but flabbergasts me that these same women are the source of my oppression. But I think that points to a more extensive dynamic at play, which is that once a woman becomes pregnant, people feel like her body is somehow up for public scrutiny and that her decisions related to it can be policed at any point in time.
One upside to my experience so far is that it has made me far more sensitive to other mothers and mothers-to-be I encounter in my life. More than ever, I am committed to listening to other women and offering a non-judgmental ear so that others feel supported in what is arguably one of the most exciting but also terrifying times in their lives. I also think that no one has the answers to the “best” way to be pregnant or raise a child, but that listening and learning from each other will help us make our own choices about what’s best for our own families.
I’ve shared my experiences during pregnancy with some other women I know who already have children, and many of them warned me that the judgment and criticism only get worse once the baby is born. I’m not surprised at all by that claim, and the truth of it makes me profoundly sad. I hope that more women realize that a pregnant body does not signal unbridled permission to judge, scrutinize, and shame and that the best way to support women is to listen and treat their decisions related to motherhood as equally valid.