My Pregnancy Experience: Lessons in Feminism Part One

Unexpected news in a pregnancy unearths some well-buried prejudices

Feature by Jessica Walsh | 18 Sep 2014
  • My Pregnancy Experience

We were utterly convinced the foetus inside my uterus was male. We had a 'feeling', compounded by dreams and old wives' tales, and decided that we need not bother to agree on any female names. This was going to be the first boy and the family name would continue. The cycle of female offspring would be broken. 

We asked the sonographer to check several times at the 20-week ultra sound scan when she announced she could see a vulva, and after ten minutes of zooming in on her genitals, we were finally convinced. 'Yup, it's a girl'

After trying for a successful pregnancy for many years, it was a thrilling experience to get this far and be told that everything was well. Empowered by the fact my once-baron soil was now fertile, I was fulfilling what, biologically speaking, I had been born to do. Realistically, it really didn't matter what gender the child would be, 'so long as they are healthy' my husband kept reassuring me, while remaining honest that it was a shame he wasn't getting the little boy we thought we were expecting. I chastised myself for the sinking feeling I felt in my stomach, knowing I was having a girl. I hated having any negative feelings about this little miracle. 'Why am I not overjoyed?' I asked myself – and more importantly, 'Why am I so concerned with its gender?'

Lesson 1: no matter how liberal I believe I am, I have deep-rooted gender stereotypes.

It was fear that summoned these feelings to the surface. A deep-seated hypersensitivity to the many things my daughter will have to be afraid of when she enters this mortal world. A world that, based on my own experiences and understanding of life as a female, presents a whole host of challenges and risks that boys don't have to encounter in the same way.

Suddenly we were in a minefield. How could we safeguard her? How could we nurture her to be an empowered person and not a manipulation of this media-led society? Is it okay to encourage her to experiment with different gender-defined toys and games? How will our own ideas about gender affect her self-perception? Most importantly, would it be appropriate for her to inherit the atticful of Star Wars toys? 

Lesson 2: parents have predefined, stereotypical, gender-specific roles. Within these roles, the male adopts a less active parenting role.

We greeted our bundle of joy into the world a month earlier than planned due to complications with amniotic fluid. My husband, adorned in fetching green scrubs, was with me throughout the entire Caesarian. "That's more than most men of my generation would ever have done," my mother reminds me, pointing out that the role of men in the pregnancy, birthing and parenting process has changed considerably in just one generation. 

He would not have had it any other way. From conception to birth and beyond, he was to play an equal and integral role in parenting. Perhaps born of a desire to 'provide' what his own father failed to, more likely it came from his belief that it is his duty and honour to be involved in the upbringing of a new human life. Why then, throughout the maternity experience, had he been allowed to feel like he had to conform to a predefined gender-specific parenting role?

He tells me how, in his opinion, while the focus of care lays correctly with the mother and child, an inherent sexism exists towards men and is allowed to perpetuate because of the culture within maternity services. "It was small quips, comments and gestures by females, both professionals, friends and family," he tells me. "Being told that I would have to 'pull my weight' in the house 'for a change' or that I would have to resist carnal urges and 'keep my hands off' my wife's engorged breasts. Yes, they were in jest, and they did not mean any harm, but they were wrong to say these things, and in doing so they only served to drive the wedge in the already large gap between gender-specific parenting roles." 

"When I reflect on our maternity experience, I get a sense of a sisterhood of women,” he says. “A sense of a club that I cannot ever fully join because I cannot carry and birth a child. Consequently, I am treated differently when it comes to the maternity experience. With only two weeks of paternity leave available to me, it was necessary for me to take holiday leave in order to support my family and enjoy my newborn. If both parents are equally important, why should this be the case?" 

While the birth of our daughter is the single happiest moment of my life, what I was expecting would be the most feminist experience of my life turned out to be one of the most prejudiced and stereotypical. Are we not born equal?