Reading Midge:
Assumptions and Racial Bias in Pregnancy Literature

June 4th, 2018

[This was my first Bachelors’ Thesis, written in 2006 for my BS in Women’s Studies at Portland State University. The research itself is of course dated, but my arguments are still valid. In the past 12 years, I hope that the state of pregnancy literature has improved, but were I to re-research the topic, I expect I would be disappointed and angry again. In addition, my own words are also dated, and though I’ve updated links and made a few edits, the text is largely original. I acknowledge the cisnormativity of this piece, and though that stems from the cisnormativity and trans-erasure of the source material, which stood out to me as problematic at the time, I should have named it as such in my first writing.]

Barbie’s married adult friend, Midge, is having a baby. She’s part of a very happy family with her husband, Alan and their first child, Ryan… If your Midge doll’s baby has a pink diaper, it’s a girl! If the baby comes with a blue diaper, it’s a boy! Midge doll comes with everything girls need to play out the birth and care of a new baby… Lots of other accessories that every new mom needs are included. Midge measures approximately 11.5 inches tall. Alan and Ryan figures sold separately.1

Several years ago, Mattel introduced Happy Family Midge, a pregnant doll with white, freckled skin and strawberry‑blonde hair that reaches to her waist. Midge has the figure with which we are all familiar, from her over-sized breasts (actually, potentially more realistic on a pregnant person) to her non-swollen, permanently-heeled feet. The only deviation from the standard, Barbie-shaped mold is Midge’s cute, removable magnetic belly (which just screams for an analysis on planned Cesareans). Midge is specifically a “married adult,” although, unlike her best friend Barbie, she has no noticeable career. We can assume that Alan’s job pays well, so he can buy Midge “lots of…accessories,” and that she is covered by his health insurance plan. Midge is “very happy” to be pregnant, and both she and baby are in perfect health, because they had Obstetrician Barbie for the delivery. She is pop culture’s perfect pregnant person.

Examining pregnancy statistics2, one sees that 13.4% of pregnant parents are uninsured (Thorpe 7), 33.5% are “unmarried” (“Table 1-20”), of which an unknown number are LGBTQ, 49% of pregnancies are unintended (Finer, “Disparities” 92) and 5% of babies born have a genetic disorder (Nelkin, referenced in Dean3). The pregnant person represented by these demographics is not the same person represented in pregnancy manuals. Texts paint a picture of happy, glowing, white, middle‑class, insured, heterosexually married, cisgender women in their mid-to-late twenties who plan their pregnancies. In addition, both mother and baby are conveniently free of any condition less innocuous than morning sickness or colic. This ubiquitous unmarked person looks nothing like the statistic demographic of pregnancy—but is the spitting image of Midge.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics (US Department for Health and Human Services), only 35.9% of births are to married white women.4 When one takes into account those people who are uninsured, living with HIV, and whose pregnancies will not result in a live birth, Midge actually represents less than one‑fifth of the population of pregnant people. So why are all the pregnancy books written for her? Building off the many works discussing Barbie as model for the unattainable “right” female form, I would like to suggest that Midge acts as model for the unattainable “right” pregnancy.

In most pregnancy books, the assumptions begin on page one. “Congratulations! We’re thrilled that you’re thrilled to be pregnant!” You’ve seen the ads for home pregnancy tests, right? Every pregnancy is a planned pregnancy, and all parents are happy when they find out. This assumption is laced with moral judgments, and Midge is here to uphold the model of propriety: she doesn’t accidentally get knocked up, and neither should you. The majority of pregnancy books view pregnancy through a rose-colored lens, glossing over a pregnant person’s potential feelings of grief, fear or desire to terminate the pregnancy. When nearly half of all pregnancies were unintended, and one in five end in abortion (Finer, “Disparities” 93), continued use of this perspective requires an author to be ignoring the facts.

Assumptions like this one have long irked me when reading pregnancy manuals. However, I had never really examined the matter until I came across The Mocha Manual to a Fabulous Pregnancy (Seals-Allers). Written for a black audience, this book changed my outlook on pregnancy literature. Seals-Allers does acknowledge unplanned pregnancies. What’s more, she discusses feelings other than ecstasy that may follow the pee test. To be one of the few writing about this topic, Seals-Allers had to know something that other authors didn’t. Was she simply more aware of issues that should be present in all pregnancy books? No: she knew that other pregnancy books were written specifically to white folks. Statistics show that unintended pregnancies are also unevenly distributed among people of color: 40% of pregnancies to white parents were unintended at time of conception, compared with 54% for Latino/as and 69% for blacks (Finer, “Disparities” 93).

This brings me to a related topic that also gets very little discussion—dealing with the death of a baby, either by miscarriage or abortion. Some books are better than others, and slightly more than half discuss becoming pregnant again following a miscarriage. More authors talk about grieving over a past miscarriage than a past abortion, although the actual percentage of pregnancies ending in abortion is higher than that ending in miscarriage: 20% vs 17% (Finer, “Disparities” 92).

Who is having abortions? The issue is complicated, and varies by income, education, age, marital status and race (Finer, “Disparities” 93). Though it is out of the scope of this paper to discuss the interactions between these forces, one must keep them in mind. Race seems to be the most important factor, however, with 40% of black pregnancies ending in abortion: more than twice the rate of white pregnancies (Finer, “Disparities” 93). Not surprisingly, rates of maternal and neonatal deaths are also higher among people of color and undocumented people. Everyone ought to be comforted when losing a baby, regardless of whether they made the choice, but when less than half of all black pregnancies end in a live birth and no one mentions it, something is obviously wrong.

I did a brief investigation, looking at discussion of HIV in various pregnancy manuals, which showed an assumption of HIV negativity and correlated lack of useful information regarding interactions between pregnancy and HIV/AIDS. The specific results were most disturbing: of the seventeen books I reviewed, thirteen are what I will call “wholly insufficient” in speaking to readers living with HIV. Three contain no reference to HIV or AIDS at all; eight others only mention HIV very briefly, usually in the context of common tests. Two (interestingly, the two books written for lesbian readers) include some combination of what HIV is, facts and myths of transmission, and rudimentary safer sex info—basic sex ed information, which could be very useful for educating readers who are HIV‑negative and had previously been relatively uniformed about the subject. However, these books fail to offer any useful information to those readers who are pregnant and living with HIV.

Three of the seventeen books seem to be written as though the authors made an effort to speak to the issue of HIV/AIDS. I will call these texts “incompletely sufficient.” The authors of these books do mention how HIV/AIDS and pregnancy interact with one another, some including how someone might reduce risk of parent-infant transmission. The amount of space devoted to HIV/AIDS ranges from one paragraph to a page and a half. However, these books share the fact that over half of this is “HIV 101” information, such as who is at risk, how the virus can be transmitted and testing.

It is important to note that in all of the above books, the section on HIV is written primarily in the third‑person, although the rest of the book talks about “you.” Using a theoretical “she” creates a distance from the virus that allows the author to maintain the illusion that none of the readers are living with HIV.

Only one book covers HIV and pregnancy in a manner I would deem “appropriately sufficient.”5 I was troubled but unsurprised that this book is The Mocha Manual to a Fabulous Pregnancy. Seals-Allers devotes over two full pages to the virus, almost all of which is directly applicable to pregnant people living with HIV. Most importantly, Seals‑Allers is the only author who speaks directly to the HIV‑positive reader, as opposed to turning HIV into something that happens to “some people.” Seals‑Allers also discusses the racialization of HIV, stating, “sixty‑two percent of all children born to HIV/AIDS‑infected mothers were African American” (156), although black babies represent only 15% of total births. The only other book to mention that HIV disproportionately affects people of color, Waiting For Bebé (Alcañiz), is written to a Latina audience.

This is quite worrisome—what does it mean when only the books to pregnant persons of color discuss the disproportionate numbers of people of color among those living with HIV? What does it mean that of seventeen pregnancy books, only the one written to black readers discusses HIV in a realistic manner, or that twelve of fourteen books written for a “non‑race‑specific” audience were wholly insufficient?

7000 babies are born to “women with HIV” each year, 80.7% of whom are people of color (HIV/AIDS Surveillance Report, 2004).6 Considering that HIV disproportionately affects people of color, when “non‑race-specific” books do not cover the issue sufficiently, speaking from a position of assumed negative status, one can infer that this omission is racialized and racist as well. The problem is not that Seals‑Allers, writing to pregnant black people, discusses HIV. The problem is that other authors do not, while presenting their books to a “general” pregnancy audience: “non-race-specific” books are specifically NOT written to people of color. There is, in fact, an assumed whiteness.

It could be argued that such information falls out of the scope of pregnancy texts; that a pregnant person’s prenatal care provider will handle everything beyond the test. I understand that one book cannot cover every aspect of every complication, and certainly advocate for readers to be under the care of a professional. However, not all pregnant people have access to health care, or have restricted quality of health care, due to lack of insurance.

In 1999, pregnant people without health insurance represented 13.4% of the US population (Thorpe 7), but were disproportionately people of color: 9% of whites, 16% of blacks and 30% of Latino/as (Thorpe 13). Undocumented pregnant people were uninsured at rates more than four times those of US‑born citizens (Thorpe 15). The numbers of pregnant people who rely on Medicare as their only source of health insurance are similarly skewed: Latino/as are more than twice as likely as whites to be on Medicare, and blacks more than three times as likely (Thorpe 13).

Of the seventeen books I examined, only one discusses being pregnant without health insurance: the book written for a Latina audience. It is obvious that insurance is a racialized issue as well; lack of discussion around this issue furthers my theory that current pregnancy books are written with an unmarked white person in mind.

When creating Happy Family Midge, Mattel went out of their way to provide her with a (non‑removable) wedding ring, which serves to as evidence for the legitimacy of her unborn child. Despite this evidence, however, the public was outraged, and Wal-Mart pulled Midge from their shelves. The primary complaint against Midge? In part because her husband and 3‑year‑old son are sold separately, but also just introducing childbirth as a play topic, parents felt she promotes and glamorized unwed teenage pregnancy for young girls.7 Mattel discontinued Happy Family Midge; today, one can buy her on eBay.

Based on the fiasco with Midge, we can be certain that Barbie will never have a friend who is actually a single parent. Like Mattel, pregnancy books tend to create a world in which all parents are heterosexual, married parents. Although the percentage of pregnant persons who are in heterosexual marriages is declining, writers of pregnancy literature feel compelled to uphold the Midge model. A sickening number of texts talk about “your husband,” though some recognize that many unmarried couples have stable relationships and children, and use the more-inclusive term “partner.” However, these texts still assume there is a partner, and that the reader and partner are in a heterosexual relationship: they refer to this person shamelessly and exclusively as “he” and include sections written for “dads.” Most books include a paragraph or sidebar on parenting alone, but this seems a token gesture when the main texts still insist that there is a partner involved. These half‑hearted attempts at inclusion serve to alienate readers who do not fit the assumptions.

The rates of births to “unmarried women” are almost twice as high for Latinas as for white women, and more than three times as high for black women, which indicates that marital status at birth is also a racialized issue. Interestingly, however, both Alcañiz and Sears-Allers make the same assumptions as books written for “everywoman.” In addition to being a racialized issue, assumptions of marital status contain a built-in heteronormativity, as evidenced by the fact that the only books that do not assume a male partner are the two books written for lesbians. Although non-heterosexuality in itself is not a racial issue, it is important to note the intersections of assumptions and oppressions present.

I am aware that there are other issues and populations that are not addressed in present pregnancy literature. Several topics are certainly built on assumptions, but I have not had the time to find out whether the assumptions are racialized. These topics include assumptions of health, assumptions of age, and assumptions that parents will choose not to abort a fetus with a genetic disorder. Other issues I am aware of, but have not researched yet at all, and do not know which (if any) books approach the subjects appropriately, such as addiction, homelessness, abuse, prostitution and imprisonment.

It has long been apparent that the Barbie line represents only a marginal number of people. Several writers, including S. J. Gilman and S. Strohmeyer have recognized this void, providing a thorough analysis of what Barbie represents in our culture and the impact she has had on developing psyches. As part of these works, the authors each describe several fantasy Barbies, like “Hot Flash Barbie” (Strohmeyer), “Birkenstock Barbie,” and my personal favorite, “Our Barbies, Ourselves” (Gilman 20).

Other artists have gone even further, by physically creating “Anti-Barbies” that represent a broader range of diversity. S. Pim had an exhibit in San Francisco International Airport with such pieces as “Hooker Barbie,” and “Drag Ken” (Esteves). Based on the same idea, B. Tull has a shop, also in San Francisco, that sells “Carrie Barbie” and “Big Dyke Barbie”; S. Wandell invented “Voodoo Barbie” (Haddock). Mattel does not approve, sometimes even starting law suits over the matter, but customers love these dolls, in part because they are subversive, but also because they can locate themselves in the characters.

I would like to do the same for Midge and the pregnancy books that represent her. It is obvious to me the need for readers to see themselves in a text; I am writing a pregnancy text that addresses omissions made in current manuals written for pregnant people. The focus of this research was initially to speak to those who do fit the assumption of gender identity, but it is apparent to me that I need to alleviate the additional shortcomings of the current pregnancy literature by addressing all assumptions.

I am at once encouraged and disappointed by pregnancy texts designed to alleviate assumptions. For example, The Ultimate Guide to Pregnancy for Lesbians (Pepper) challenges heteronormativity and assumptions of relationship status, but fails to notice issues of insurance or HIV status, falling into the same assumptions that other books do. Similarly, Alcañiz speaks to underrepresented Latina women, addressing issues of race, class and language, but assumes all her readers to be heterosexual and married. Even Seals-Allers assumes her readers have health insurance. The shortcomings of these books are more frustrating than those of books written for “everywoman,” because the authors are aware of systems of oppression. These authors are working to challenge certain assumptions and invisibilities, but somehow fail to see others.

Adopting this approach, though it may not seem to change much, is fairly radical. I am writing my book from a position as inclusive as possible, attempting to make no assumptions about my reader, other than pregnancy or an interest in pregnancy. I hope that with awareness and thorough editing by individuals active in combating these systems of oppression, I can create a book that does not make my readers feel othered. I am not proposing to write a book specifically for people of color, but a book that can be used by anyone.

Most present pregnancy manuals claim to be written for all pregnant people, whether this claim be stated or implied. However, the amount and quality of information that applies to a given reader depends on one’s social location. I say that this is inequitable and offensive to all readers. I say authors making claims of universal applicability ought to deliver. The racial assumptions outlined here are unacceptable, and need to be addressed, so everyone can have access to quality information about their pregnancies.

 

Works Cited

Alcañiz, L. Waiting for Bebé: A Pregnancy Guide for Latinas. NY: Ballantine, 2003.

Broder, M. S. The Panic-Free Pregnancy. NY: Perigee, 2004.

Brott, A., and J. Ash. The Expectant Father: Facts, Tips, and Advice for Dads-to-Be. Second edition.  NY: Abbeville, 2001.

Closing the Health Gap. “HIV/AIDS, 2005.” Updated Dec 2005. Accessed June 2006. <http://www.healthgap.omhrc.gov/hiv_aids.htm>. [2018: No longer able to locate this piece. The current website for the Office of Minority Health is <minorityhealth.hhs.gov>.]

Curtis, G. and J. Schuler. Your Pregnancy After 35. Revised Edition. Cambridge, MA: Perseus, 2001.

—. Your Pregnancy Week by Week. Fifth Edition. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo, 2004.

Dean, M. “Human Genetic Screening.” 1999. Accessed June 2018. <https://www.ndsu.edu/pubweb/~mcclean/plsc431/students99/dean.htm>.

Eisenberg, A. et al. What to Expect When You’re Expecting, Third Edition. NY: Workman, 2002.

Esteves, M. “Barbie goes butch.” Golden Gater. Feb 13, 1997. Accessed June 2006. <http://www.journalism.sfsu.edu/www/pubs/gater/spring97/feb13/BARBIE.html>. [2018: No longer able to locate this piece.]

Falk, S. and D. Judson. The Jewish Pregnancy Book: A Resource for the Soul, Body & Mind during Pregnancy, Birth & the First Three Months. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 2004.

Finer, L. B. and S. K. Henshaw. “Disparities in Rates of Unintended Pregnancy In the United States, 1994 and 2001.” Guttmacher Institute. Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, 38.2 (2006): 90–96. Accessed June 2018. <http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/journals/3809006.pdf>.

—. “Estimates of U.S. Abortion Incidence in 2001 and 2002.” The Alan Guttmacher Institute, May 2005. Accessed June 2018. <http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/2005/05/18/ab_incidence.pdf>.

Ford-Martin, P. The Everything Pregnancy Book. Second edition. Avon, MA: Adams Media Corporation, 2003.

Gilman, S. J. “Klaus Barbie, and Other Dolls I’d Like to See.” Body Outlaws. Originally published as Adios, Barbie. Ed. O Edut. Emeryville, CA: Seal Press, 1998. 14-21.

Haddock, V. “Trailer Trash, Drag Queen Barbies thrill those who love to loathe her.” San Francisco Examiner. Dec 17, 1996. Accessed June 2018. <https://www.sfgate.com/news/article/Trailer-Trash-Drag-Queen-Barbies-thrill-those-3109064.php>.

Iovine, V. The Girlfriends’ Guide to Pregnancy: or Everything Your Doctor Won’t Tell You.  NY: Pocket, 1995.

Luke, B. and T. Eberlein. When You’re Expecting Twins, Triplets, or Quads: Proven Guidelines for a Healthy Multiple Pregnancy. Revised edition. Previously published as When You’re Expecting Twins, Triplets, or Quads: A Complete Resource. NY: HarperCollins, 2004.

Nelkin, D. “The Social Power of Genetic Information.” The Code of Codes: Scientific and Social Issues in the Human Genome Project. Ed. D J Kevles and L Hood. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993. 177-190.

Pepper, R. The Ultimate Guide to Pregnancy for Lesbians: How to Stay Sane and Care for Yourself from Preconception Through Birth. Second edition. San Francisco: Cleis, 2005.

Rogers, J. The Disabled Woman’s Guide to Pregnancy and Birth. Previously published as Mother-To-Be: A Guide to Pregnancy and Birth for Women with Disabilities, with M. Matsumura. NY: Demos Medical, 2006.

Romm, A. J. The Natural Pregnancy Book: Herbs, Nutrition and Other Holistic Choices. Berkeley: Celestial Arts, 2003.

Seals-Allers, K.  The Mocha Manual to a Fabulous Pregnancy. NY: Amistad, 2006.

Sears, W., and M. Sears. The Pregnancy Book. Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1997.

Simkin, P., et al. Pregnancy, Childbirth, and the Newborn: the Complete Guide. Minnetonka, MN: Meadowbrook, 1991.

Strohmeyer, S., and G. Hansen. Barbie Unbound: A Parody of the Barbie Obsession. Norwich, VT: New Victoria, 1997.

Thorpe, K. E., et al. “The Distribution of Health Insurance Coverage Among Pregnant Women, 1999.” March of Dimes, April 2001. Accessed June 2018. <http://208.74.202.51/chapterassets/files/2001FinalThorpeReport.pdf>.

Toevs, K. and S. Brill. The Essential Guide to Lesbian Conception, Pregnancy, and Birth. LA: Alyson Books, 2002.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Abortion Surveillance, US 2002.” Nov 2005. Accessed June 2018. <http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/ss5407a1.htm>.

—. “HIV/AIDS Surveillance Report, 2004.” Vol 16. Atlanta: US Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; 2005. Also available at: Reviewed Feb 2006. Accessed June 2018. <https://www.cdc.gov/hiv/pdf/library/reports/surveillance/cdc-hiv-surveillance-report-2004-vol-16.pdf>.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics. “Fertility, Family Planning, and Reproductive Health of U.S. Women: Data From the 2002 National Survey of Family Growth.” Vital and Health Statistics, 23.25 (2005). Accessed June 2018. <http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/series/sr_23/sr23_025.pdf>.

—. “Table 1-20. Number and Percent of Births to Unmarried Women, by Race and Hispanic Origin: United States, 1940-2001.” Accessed June 2018. <http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/statab/natfinal2001.annvol1_17.pdf>.

Flashback Book Review:
The Mocha Manual to a Fabulous Pregnancy

January 24th, 2018

The second in my Flashback Book Review series: Kimberly Seals-Allers’s The Mocha Manual to a Fabulous Pregnancy. NY: Amistad, 2006.

This book is awesome. Seals-Allers has filled the much-needed void of pregnancy books for Black women. On the medical side, Black women are at greater risk for certain medical conditions. Personally and socially, there are issues and concerns that are disproportionately, or specifically, relevant to the Black community, and it’s important to address them. Furthermore, readers can see themselves in the text, and be reassured that the author is speaking to them and recognizes who they are. (From my own position, these concerns are so familiar…)

The format of this book is multi-faceted. The bulk of the text is personal experience and commentary, but Seals-Allers incorporates short quotations and 2-3 page narratives by famous and everyday Black women about their pregnancy and birth experiences. In addition, when the subject matter turns technical, she calls in the big guns: guest doctors. These OB/GYNs and dermatologists weigh in on various issues, which lends credibility to the book. I especially appreciate this piece when compared to other books written by authors who are not medical professionals.

I had high hopes for this book, but was also a bit worried about the cutesy, chick-lit terminology and another reviewer’s comparison to The Girlfriend’s Guide to Pregnancy. My fears were unfounded, however. Yes, it’s still cutesy (Seals-Allers does use the word “fabulous” in the title) but the information is solid and it reads well. I would absolutely recommend this book to a client, although not as a primary resource, because other books include much more detail about the scientific medical specifics.

It is important to note that this book alone, in all my review of the literature, addressed pregnant readers who are HIV positive. Important because this is a huge omission from every other book out there, because it highlights the disparity in HIV rates in the Black community, and also because that omission is indicative of the fact that other “general audience” books are actually written for the white reader.

As for relevance to my research, I noticed many similarities between this book and my own work: both are devoted to making visible an erroneous assumption in other pregnancy books. Seals-Allers writes because Black women do not necessarily have the same pregnancy experience as the “default” white woman; I write because trans people do not necessarily have the same pregnancy experience as cisgender women. I certainly appreciate Seals-Allers’s perspective, and can learn from her approach to introducing these topics. Her voice is a crucial piece of the pregnancy resource literature.

Flashback Book Review:
The Girlfriends’ Guide to Pregnancy: or Everything Your Doctor Won’t Tell You

January 6th, 2018

So I recently found an old flash drive, which has all of my writings from my FIRST bachelor’s research thesis in 2006, Reading Midge: Assumptions and Racial Bias in Pregnancy Literature, My Review of the Literature was, unsurprisingly, largely comprised of pregnancy resource guides. I decided to post some of them, lightly edited. As a disclaimer, I wrote these over a decade ago, right before starting midwifery school, so some of my views have likely evolved since. Introducing: Flashback Book Reviews. Get it? Flashback? Because they are from my past, but also they were on my Flash drive? Ha. Um.

Flashback Book Review: Vicki Iovine’s The Girlfriends’ Guide to Pregnancy: or Everything Your Doctor Won’t Tell You. NY: Pocket, 1995.

The Girlfriends’ Guide is the pregnancy book I love to hate. However, other people just plain love it, and it unfortunately remains a best seller. This book is organized by topic, such as “Looking the Best You Can,” and the problematically ablist “Pregnancy Insanity.” The author does not primarily speak to the medical aspects of pregnancy, aside from the chapter “Prenatal Tests,” and even here, she mostly describes what happens and whether it hurts. Unfortunately, she often says why a test might be offered, but mentions none of the possible side effects.

The author’s credentials and accomplishments include a law degree, member of the board of directors for the Special Olympics, and Playboy Magazine’s Miss September 1979. She has no medical background, and her knowledge of pregnancy comes from having borne four children. Iovine’s pregnancy and birth experience is as valid as anyone else’s, and certainly license enough to write a book. “Knowledge” of pregnancy does not belong only to those with official training, and I certainly advocate for the de‑medicalizing of pregnancy. However, I have a few major issues with this book, most of which stem from the fact that Iovine writes as if she were an authority, and her book is presented not a memoir, but a book of guidance.

The most benign aspect of this trend is the way Iovine extends her own experience to all readers. Because she has a husband, she assumes you have one, too. Because she was thrilled at her pregnancy breast growth, she assumes you (and your standard-issue “husband”) will be thrilled as well. In some cases, she says that pregnancy experiences are varied, but too often she states one experience as “the way it is.” Iovine is approaching dangerous territory, excluding readers who do not fit her ideal of pregnancy and invalidating experiences that go contrary to her own.

My second, more serious, issue with this book is that Iovine strongly suggests certain actions of her reader, some of which she has no personal knowledge. For example, although she has never had a midwife or home birth, Iovine offers her “lessons” on the matter:

Save the home births, midwives and underwater deliveries for second, third and fourth babies. There is no way you can make an informed decision about how you want to manage your delivery until you have some realistic idea of what in the world to expect… Never elect to have a child where you have no access to medication or, God forbid, real doctors.

(Iovine, 70)

These “lessons,” along with Iovine’s comment that no one refuses medication when offered (p70) serve only to discourage birthing folks from making decisions about their own births. Current birth theory encourages clients to look at all choices and make an informed birth plan, with the understanding that unforeseen events can occur.

Iovine does acknowledge the implications of this comment, but writes them off: “we apologize if you think we are taking too much for granted, but that’s what Girlfriends do… Our job is to give you the inside scoop, based on what we tell each other, and our unanimous vote is that you go for the traditional hospital birth with a godlike medical doctor” (71). Iovine wants to have it both ways: acting as an authority who makes decisions for her reader, while refusing responsibility for educating herself. Iovine accomplishes this by creating the role of “Girlfriend,” and defining the Girlfriend’s responsibilities.

There is also a real problem with Iovine’s use of the terms “real” and “godlike” to describe doctors. Not only are they invalidating of prenatal care providers who are not doctors, but they seriously contribute to the elevation of health and pregnancy to hegemonic level.

This book does have its uses, however. Iovine has a fabulous discussion on pregnancy clothes. Her “Sex and Pregnancy” chapter likewise discusses useful things that other books do not. Here, Iovine is at her best (though still cis- and hetero-normative). She also gets points for reminding new parents (in all caps) that baby car seats face backward. If I were given the power, I would edit this book heavily, removing all mention of anything medical, leaving readers with Iovine’s hilarious rant on whether the crib sheets need to match the curtains.

For the purpose of my work, Iovine is frustrating, but provides me with plenty of examples of gender essentialism in the form of male bashing. She also has other information, such as a list of symptoms of pregnancy, which I may draw upon, with other books, to create a more comprehensive list in my own text. I would have serious reservations about recommending this book to a client.

Toward an Ungendered Childbearing:
Deconstructing Assumptions of Femaleness in Pregnancy and Birth

November 14th, 2017

[For now this is a rough draft, as I get input and update this essay, originally written in 2006, with last major edits in 2008. Please let me know your thoughts as I catch up the last decade!]

Our society strongly links childbearing with womanhood. There is historical ground for this assumption—most of the people who give birth in our society are cisgender1 women. However, it is never prudent to generalize “most” to “all.” Some trans men and nonbinary people choose to bear children, and this assumption of birth as a “woman thing” is damaging to non-female-identified people who choose to become pregnant, as well as to their communities. Throughout time and across cultures, we see myths and images of non-female pregnancy and birth. This history, combined with a feminist deconstruction of gender, can serve as a foundation for opening the experience of childbearing to trans men without the current implication of femaleness.

The Birth of Athena, an ancient Greek vase painting, ca 560 BC.

The Birth of Athena, an ancient Greek vase painting, ca 560 BC.

Human obsession with male pregnancy and birth is not new; who knows how long people have related stories of cisgender men who bear children? Our earliest recorded example, in Greek mythology, is that of Zeus birthing two of his own children. The king of the gods swallowed his pregnant first wife, Metis; their child Athena later sprang from his head fully armed (1, ll. 924-929t). Similarly, Dionysus was gestated in and birthed from an incision in Zeus’s thigh (2, ll. 119-130).

The theme of male pregnancy in mythology shows up across cultures: Osset mythology tells of Batraz—his mother was a frog-woman, who became pregnant and spit the fetus into her husband’s shoulder. The baby Batraz grew into an abscess and was born when it burst. A Hindu tale relates how a lotus flower emerged from the navel of Vishnu and bloomed to reveal the infant Brahma. The Norse trickster-god Loki is said to have become pregnant while embodying a mare to distract an opponent’s horse; he later gave birth to the 8-legged horse Sleipnir, favored steed of Odin. Of all these, however, my favorite of the male birth stories I have found is a very sweet Inuit creation myth.

In the time that followed there appeared two small mounds of earth from which were born two men, two adults, the first Inuit. They soon wished to reproduce, and one of them took the other to be his wife. The wife-man became pregnant and when his time came, his companion, anxious to bring the fetus out, composed a magic song:
Here is a man
Here is a penis
May he form a passage there
A great passage
Passage, passage, passage.
The song split the penis of his partner, who was transformed into a woman. All of the Inuit descend from them.

(3, p. 252)

These tales have a few common themes in addition to non-female birth. Usually, the father is a god and the child born is special somehow—either also a god or someone else destined for greatness.

1994 film Junior

The 1994 film Junior features the pregnancy of Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Since the days of Hesiod and Euripides, extra-uterine pregnancy has remained on people’s minds, and the theme extends through the Middle Ages, when there were many rumors of pregnant men2, and into contemporary culture. Many writers have employed the plotline, often creating utopian or anti-utopian worlds, such as in Durrell Owens’ 2004 novel, The Song of a Manchild. Tabloids rely heavily on exceptional reproduction, including male pregnancy. Films have addressed the topic as well, starting with the 1976 French film A Slightly Pregnant Man and 1978 Rabbit Test to Schwarzenegger’s 1994 Junior.

Fictitious characters are not the only uterus-free people getting pregnant. Some men have themselves replicated pregnancies and labor within their own bodies. At least, they imitate the symptoms, like morning sickness, cravings, weight gain and contractions. This is called “couvade” or “sympathetic pregnancy.” The symptoms coincide with those of the pregnant person, usually a partner, though siblings and close friends have also reported symptoms.

Empathy Belly

Behold: the Empathy Belly

For those who don’t happen to have couvade symptoms, there’s always the Empathy Belly (4), a device designed to show the wearer what it feels like to be pregnant. Empathy Bellies have been used as part of sex-ed training for teens, but are primarily used by those with pregnant partners. The use of an Empathy Belly is said to “greatly increase [the wearer’s] sense of involvement, gut-level awareness and empathy…appreciation, communication and supportive behavior towards their pregnant partner” (4).

Couvade and the Empathy Belly are commonly perceived as non‑threatening and even a bit comical. In theory, men who share or even just understand how difficult pregnancy can be are more compassionate toward their pregnant partners. Couvade and Empathy Bellies can be seen as relatively inoffensive, even jokey, because no man is literally pregnant.

In the near future, however, uterus-less people may achieve literal pregnancy (and the corresponding scores of offended people). A small handful of scientists around the world are working to achieve this feat, although none have succeeded yet. The theory is built upon past cases of ectopic pregnancies3 being carried to term and born healthy. In people without a uterus, doctors would implant an embryo into the abdominal cavity by in vitro fertilization, in hopes it will attach to the peritoneum. After nine months, the baby would be born via Caesarean. The primary concern would be the very high and deadly risk of hemorrhage when detaching the placenta from the abdomen. Other researchers are working on the possibility of uterus transplants, though it seems they would be temporary, removed when the patient is done with childbearing, to avoid life-long use of anti-rejection medications.

There is much debate around the ethics of male pregnancy. Much of the argument against it pertains to the hormone therapy. Because a fetus is technically a parasite or foreign object, the immune system will destroy it unless adequate levels of progesterone are present4. For someone without ovaries, this would involve taking a large amount of progesterone and estrogen. Some people see this as unnatural, violating the biological order of things because it blurs the line between genders.

This objection is problematic for several reasons: firstly, it does not take into consideration the many trans women who are already taking “female” hormones (or would like to), and desire to bear their own children. One doctor, Chen Huanran, of Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences in Beijing, does take this into account. As a prominent surgeon doing gender confirmation surgeries, Chen’s research in intra‑abdominal pregnancy is motivated by transfeminine patients who “expressed a wish to have their own children” (5).

The second problem with this objection is the assumption of a biological “line between genders” in the first place. This is closely related to the societal construct of the gender binary: when people are forced into one box or another, the line that separates them becomes very important. Societal panic surrounds this issue because the “line between genders” enforces the belief that women are “supposed” to be mothers. The Freudian concept that “biology is destiny” described an essentialist womanhood that innately depends on bearing children: “motherhood as natural fulfillment of female biological destiny” (6). One inevitable side‑effect of this theory is the corollary that pregnancy equals womanhood. When womanhood becomes motherhood, it is practically impossible for pregnancy to be seen as anything other than necessarily female.

From Zeus and Schwarzenegger to couvade and cutting-edge reproductive science, some scholars argue that these portrayals of pregnant men evidence an innate masculine desire to bear children. Karen Horney refers to this concept as “womb envy,”5 as her theories both correspond to and challenge Freudian “penis envy.” “Womb envy” is embraced primarily by essentialist feminism, which posits that women and men are inherently, biologically different. Essentialist feminism argued that women are “more maternal and nurturing, hence better parents and more likely to be peacemakers; more moral, hence better social gatekeepers and more ethical politicians or leaders; better communicators; less violent; less competitive; and just generally Venusian” (7, p. 64). Under this essentialist framework, “womb envy” seeks to explain male aggression and misogyny, but totally neglects anyone who does not conform to gender binaries, gender roles, or gender norms.

Most current theorists, however, reject Horney’s hypothesis and essentialism generally, leaning toward social constructionism, a theory that says most social phenomena, including gendered traits, are a product of our culture. Each framework has a markedly different interpretation of identity: “Whereas essentialists regard identity as natural, fixed and innate, constructionists assume identity is fluid, the effect of social conditioning and available cultural models for understanding oneself” (8, p. 8). As gender is socially constructed, so too is the assumption that pregnancy inherently falls within femaleness. Like most socially constructed beliefs, however, people remain highly attached to them, often unable even to imagine the possibility of other truths.

At the original time of writing, there was a media uproar surrounding Thomas Beatie, an Oregon man who announced his first viable pregnancy in 20086. He had been dismissed as a hoax and as a freak, but the truth is, he’s a garden variety trans guy. This means he was born with the parts society tends to associate with women, and can thus carry a healthy baby in his uterus. While tabloid headlines can be obnoxious and hurtful, the backlash that I find most concerning is that I hear from others in the trans community.

Various online forums for trans folks contain lengthy, heated threads7 about Beatie and transmasculine pregnancy in general8. Some posters are supportive, but others express strong disapproval. Similar to reactions among some members of general society, I read of trans people questioning the masculinity and transgender status of trans men who choose to bear children. Apparently, pregnancy is seen as such a strong marker of femaleness that even in the trans community, it overrides the rest of Beatie’s life and male identity. After struggling to be recognized as men, trans men often feel they are forced to choose between parenting and their perceived manhood. This is disconcerting, and further evidences the need to break down the assumed connection between pregnancy and womanhood. In the nearly ten years since I originally wrote this piece, Beatie’s fame has waned. Many other trans folks have welcomed babies into their families—some hiding the entire pregnancy from everyone; others smothered by media and harassed by total strangers. While Beatie was the first to include the media in his story, he was not the first, and has certainly not been the last. For the most part, however, the social push-back has remained. As a care provider, as a trans person, and as a compassionate human being, I’m very alarmed at the refusal to acknowledge those pregnant folks who are not women. This refusal comes at the expense of trust and the client-practitioner relationship, in turn compromising prenatal care and their clients’ mental and overall well-being.

Trans men have inherited the legacy of Zeus and his “male womb” (2, ll. 658). However, they do not have to birth children from their navels or heads, but can carry children safely and naturally in their uteruses. Pregnant men may not be seahorses or gods, but they are still men, and need not give up their masculinity in order to grow their families as they see fit. We need to create a new social space for male pregnancy and birth. When childbearing can be no longer coded “female,” any parent will be free to bear and raise a child, seen and supported.

[Thank you for reading! I intend to add more about seahorses, the Sims, nonbinary folks, medical advances, and more recent and specific trans-antagonism, as well as a new conclusion and possible intro paragraph. Lemme know if you find any problematic outdated language, or just where you’d love to see this piece go.]

References
1. Hesiod. The Theogony. Trans. H G Evelyn-White. Out-of-print; available at: www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hesiod/theogony.htm Accessed Nov 2017.

2. Euripides (2003). The Bacchae. Trans. I Johnston. Nanaimo, BC: Prideaux Street Publications.

3. Rasmussen, K. (1929). Intellectual culture of the Iglulik Eskimos, Report of the fifth Thule expedition, Vol. 7. Copenhagen.

4. Birthways Childbirth Resource Center (2000). Expectant fathers and the empathy belly pregnancy simulator. Available at: www.empathybelly.org/about-the-belly Accessed Nov 2017.

5. China.org.cn. Male pregnancy now an option, Beijing surgeon says. Available at: www.china.org.cn/english/2002/May/33452.htm Accessed Nov 2017.

6. Gurel, P. (2005). In passing room 10: Motherhood and the beats. Quiet mountain: New feminist essays—A monthly journal of women’s writing, 2 (IX). Available at: www.quietmountainessays.org/Gurel.html Accessed Nov 2017.

7. Fudge, R. (2006). Everything you always wanted to know about feminism but were afraid to ask. Bitch, 31, 58-67.

8. Jagose, A. (1996). Queer Theory: An Introduction. New York: University Press.

Footnotes

Buying Internet Sperm

August 23rd, 2017

I’ve bought a lot of things on the internet. A sub-section of those are things intended, in one way or another, for crotches (mine or clients’)…and we just added sperm to that list. This is the first time I’ve bought sperm on the internet, and it’s a lot to think about. My thoughts jump all over the place, and I ask myself endless questions. “Are you really really sure?” “Is that really all there is to it?” “How was this possibly legal? (“What if it wasn’t?!”) “What if we made the wrong choice?” “How does anyone ever choose from all these options?” “Is this overly impersonal?” “Am I strange for thinking this is the normalest thing ever?” “Did you really just hit confirm?!” “Do you think this is as bizarre as I do?” “How did we get here?”

Choosing donor gametes to build a baby is a big decision with a zillion potential factors, and everyone’s path differs. Sibyl was DIYed with help from a known sperm donor, a longtime friend, and the clearly obvious best choice at the time. He and I had discussed the possibility for years, and I never really had to think about my other options. We would have loved to have him participate again, so the kids would share that, and be genetic half siblings. But Sibyl’s donor declined when we asked whether he would donate again, which I had more sads about than I would have expected. Now we had to choose between finding another known donor, or going with an anonymous donor. If we were planning to do home inseminations again, we probably would have found another local known donor, as it’s so much easier with fresh sperm, but we are going through a clinic this time. Which means a potential known donor would have had to freeze sperm, and that requires a bunch of tests and a six month waiting period. Very expensive, but it would have been worth it for the sake of having the same donor, or someone we wanted to have a relationship with Kid2. As it stood, we didn’t have any such attachment to a particular known donor, so it was much cheaper and more straightforward to buy a single vial of ART sperm off the internet, since the reproductive endocrinologist can use one vial to make multiple embryos.

We looked at sperm banks. We knew that we couldn’t get an out queer donor, due to the same fucked up regulations as those restricting blood donors (one of the potential pros of choosing another known donor). But we DID find a handful of donors, at various banks across the country, who mentioned being vegan in their profiles. (We did not read every profile, but found enough through google’s crawl bots. Also, FYI, searching “vegan sperm donor” gives just as…interesting…results as you might expect.)

We’ve been asked about why vegan sperm matters, and for us, it’s not about sperm health, but rather an indicator that the person whose genes will help create Kid2 is compassionate and shares some of our ethics. It’s the closest we have to a religion in our family. Plus, we chose a “willing to be known donor,” which means that upon reaching 18, any children can initiate contact. So maybe someday, he will think it’s cool that his vegan sperm ended up becoming a vegan kid.

So anyway. I made us a chart of all the potential vegan sperm donors, as I am inclined to make charts for everything, and we had a lovely sweet dinner date talk about our priorities and dreams. We like the idea of our family sharing some physical characteristics, and Rowan wanted to find someone who maybe looks like me, so we narrowed it down to the ones with blue or hazel eyes, since that’s what we have in our family so far. We ruled out the tallest ones, and anyone who seemed tedious, pretentious, and mansplainy. We got it down to two and read more about each of them. The donor we settled on is actually the first one we’d ever looked at, when we thought maybe this is the only donor we’ll find who mentions being vegan. He has blue eyes like me and imperfect vision, like both of us as well as Sibyl’s donor. He and I share some aspects of upbringing. He has puberty-induced backne, like Rowan. He works in an unusual field that my cousin happens to work in as well. He was a cute kid, and he’s from the Pacific Northwest, which seems fitting.

So now we have some sperm. And the whole thing feel so much less theoretical.