FAITH + IDEAS =: last updated 07/19/2016
Sept. 17, 2013 Volume 6, Issue 12
Faith +Ideas= an e-conversation with the Faculty of Gordon College
By Agnes Howard
On the first page of the best selling book, Lean In, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg recalls an “a-ha” moment crystallizing the importance of women’s leadership. It came over a request for pregnant-women parking. Sandberg was expecting a baby then and in charge of online sales and operations groups at Google, but she could only find a space far from the office. Nauseated, seventy pounds heavier with feet swollen to “odd-shaped lumps,” she had to hurry her “absurdly slow pregnancy crawl” to make a meeting.
The very next day she asked Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin for designated spaces, who agreed at once. She offered the anecdote as an example of the value of women at the top.
But what else was behind Sandberg’s request? The policy might seem gracious, but I think it could also appear unfair or insensitive. Why, after all, should pregnant women have special parking places? Because they’re oversized, immobilized, incontinent? Sandberg’s self-deprecation aside, few expectant women want to own this description. Because they are disabled? No, that doesn’t fit either, since pregnancy is not a disability. Because they want special favors? Maybe. And they should get them.
This is important. Carrying a baby is a human good and we should use cultural gestures to honor it. Yet our stock of such gestures is scanty, and designated parking is not such a great prize, but it is something.
Assisted-reproduction breakthroughs are noteworthy but pregnancy gets poor press. This is true even though Hollywood starlets flaunt a “bump” on a persistently perfect figure, and Duchess Kate delivered an heir to the throne. Those are hardly typical pregnancies. Public talk about pregnancy more often ranges from the clinical to the clownish, where note is paid to maternal indispositions like heartburn, constipation, or blotchy skin. Poor woman: of course she needs a parking place close to the door and a bathroom stall set aside too.
While many women who have carried a baby can recall unpleasant aspects, they probably would not remember it in terms of debility and toilets. Why? Because pregnancy is an astonishing act. It features two—or more—bodies in one, the physical experience of enabling another’s life, the immediate connection between one’s actions and another’s flourishing. It is biologically interesting, like the reproductive process of other mammals, but with this difference: that we know (approximately) what is going on and can talk about it.
But what do we say about it? Having a baby often appears as a private affair, a career complication, a fashion disaster, or as simply waiting. What a waste.
It hasn’t always been this way. Cambridge historian Ulinka Rublack says that childbearing was once regarded as “an unparalleled gift to humankind, outside any logic of rational exchange,” and this “entitled pregnant women to insist that generosity temper retributive justice.” These women spoke with privileged voice against political violence, and cities paid respect to the crucial human work they undertook.
That was then. Today we need broad, common ways to mark the work and accomplishment of carrying a child, not just birthing one. We need to recognize that it is work, toting that fetus everywhere, sitting, standing, walking, and running everything from households to companies with the fetus right there too; allowing it to reshape one’s body; sharing with it just about everything. It is a work of charity.
But how to commend the doing of it, in general, or of a particular person—say, the pregnant executive hobbling to a meeting?
Perhaps we should consider how public regard is paid to other actions or behaviors, by state or market. The state can set apart, for instance, something worthy with a holiday, a stamp, a moment of silence, a deduction, or a payout. Pronatalist policies in some countries offer bonuses for having babies. Such payments aim to raise birth rates, but with the implication that the child is being borne for the state. Though childbearing is lived out in public and is shaped by public opinions of it, the good of bearing children is not primarily for the public.
Regard might also be meted out by the market. The material culture surrounding a thing helps communicate its worth or insignificance. Consider how much maternity clothes already do to render pregnancy beautiful or ridiculous.
More desirable still are cultural means of conferring recognition. This is where the parking spaces come in. Paying respect to pregnancy can be done through small gestures, like allocating spaces in lots, seats on public transportation, or passages in airport security, and going out of one’s way to cede them, required or not.
Expectant women may not need the commendation. But the rest of us might, if only to be reminded of what this process is like and why it matters that your life, the life of each of us, depends on having had someone tote us around in utero for nine months.
Agnes Howard is an assistant professor of history and English at Gordon College in Wenham, MA. She and her husband and three children live in Georgetown, MA.