Getty Images // Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutcher
On Tuesday’s Jimmy Kimmel Live, actress Mila Kunis delivered a mock PSA announcement to future fathers of the world calling on them to quit using the phrase, “we’re pregnant.”
“You’re not pregnant,“ she said. “Do you have to squeeze a watermelon-sized person out of your lady hole? No. Are you crying alone in your car listening to a stupid Bette Milder song? No.”
Why women still struggle to manage careers and families has been a hot topic for a few years now. It’s an important conversation, one that has helped us define the problem and even stumble upon a few solutions, but sometimes it feels like there has been whole lot a talk with little emphasis on action.
Meanwhile, groups like a Better Balance, an organization dedicated to advancing the rights of working families, have been getting their hands dirty changing the laws and workplace structures that are standing in working parents’ ways.
The Sisterhood recently spoke with Dina Bakst, co-President of a Better Balance, about their recent legal victory protecting pregnant workers in New York City, their plans to expand these protections to women across the country and what all pregnant working women should know about their rights.
The first thing I thought when I learned that gender reveal parties exist was, “Oh, Jews do NOT do that.” My reaction was based on the fact that every pregnant Jewish woman I have ever known has delayed announcing her pregnancy until she’s past her first trimester (at the very least). In the Jewish community, there is already so much secrecy around pregnancy. Anyone could be knocked up, and you wouldn’t know it until enough time has passed for things to be considered “safe.” In the Jewish community, there is no baby shower. You don’t buy things for the baby before it’s born, and you definitely don’t gather together with friends to disclose the sex. (The second thing I thought, by the way, was that gender reveal parties should be called sex reveal parties, and that whoever came up with the idea needs a crash course in the difference between the two.)
When I posted on Facebook inquiring as to whether or not people had heard of this phenomenon, I got a huge response. Yes, people had heard of it. Jews knew all about gender reveal parties.
“My non-Jewish friends post more belly pictures, more ultrasounds,” wrote Jessica. “Most often with my Jewish friends, you don’t get belly pics until maybe 6 months pregnant, and then much, much fewer… I am beginning to think that one of the biggest differences between Jews and non-Jews anymore has to do with attitudes toward pregnancy.”
I’m not really sure how else to put this, but Janine Kovac, you are my worst nightmare. Your claim — that women who know they want kids but don’t have them yet because they feel unready are cowardly and selfish — is the most pernicious of attacks. But I suspect you’re already aware of this.
As someone who has known my entire life that I seriously, absolutely do not want to be anyone’s mother, and as someone who has to defend that decision more than I want to admit, I would like to thank you for being another person (a woman, no less) who purports to know me better than I know myself.
I wish there was a way to make you understand how completely exhausted I am by this conversation, and yet every time it comes up, I’m ready to go back in for the fight, even at the risk of sounding like a broken record. I’m not going to have a child because it will make people like you feel better about who I am, both as a woman and a human being. Believe it or not, I believe that I have, and will continue to have, value as an individual, regardless of my (presumed) ability to give birth. I have worked hard for the life I live as a journalist, a friend, a colleague, an activist and a Jew, and for the space, energy and time I have to cultivate all of those roles. To you, these beliefs are “short-sighted” simply because my future does not include a willingness to give birth to or raise another human being. Excuse me, but I think that the fact that I’m not interested in doing something I know I’ll regret later shows a more complicated long-term vision.
These days, news of a woman’s pregnancy elicits all sorts of shameless demands from people with voyeuristic drives to see her naked stomach. I should know; I’m pregnant.
This is the first time that people I hardly know have asked me to reveal my bare mid-section on social networking sites for all of my so-called friends to see. What was previously an indecent form of exhibitionism has become a standard behavior, the expected conduct of pregnant women. It’s your obligation to show us your stomach, the voyeurs suggest, and it’s our right to see! Instead, I flash a well-practiced look that says, Surely you jest.
I’ve watched others do the opposite. Many conservative women who won’t even wear swimsuits in public jump at the chance to bare their skin on the Internet. I find it particularly puzzling when women only a few weeks along snap photos of their flat naked stomachs in the bathroom mirror, yoga pants pulled so low one can make out the top of whatever Victoria’s Secret underwear they’re wearing, and ask the world to comment on their so-called “baby bump.” And many women post photos weekly or daily, transforming social networking pages into a breeding ground for their new all-consuming identity as a mother.
And you know what? That’s perfectly fine. There’s nothing wrong with proudly self-identifying as a mother. But why must this identification begin with baring our stomachs? Have we no shame? It seems we have forgotten that we are more than just physical bodies, more than receptacles for new life.
During the High Holidays, I wrote about the escalating number of politicians saying insulting things to women and then offering false apologies.
But in the two months or so since then, the phenomenon hasn’t faded — in fact, it’s worsened. First, State Rep. Roger Rivard said some girls “rape so easy.” Then, Illinois Rep. Joe Walsh denied the reality of life-saving abortions.
This week was the mother of them all. Meet Illinois Senate Candidate Richard Mourdock:
Mourdock, who’s been locked in a tight race with Democratic challenger Rep. Joe Donnelly, was asked during the final minutes of a debate whether abortion should be allowed in cases of rape or incest.
“I struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize that life is that gift from God. And, I think, even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happened,” Mourdock said.
His comments shocked the punditry, and the Obama campaign was quick to point out Romney’s endorsement of the candidate and tie them to each other. Numerous progressive sites sent out petitions and messages urging the GOP to drop its endorsement of Mourdock. Everyone was in a tizzy, which made sense except for the fact that they really shouldn’t have been, because this heinous thinking isn’t new. The “children conceived in rape are a gift from God” idea is a point of view that has been expressed by Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, and other outspoken voices of today’s social conservative movement.
I love babies. I love their little hands, their puffy velvety cheeks, their quizzical expressions. I love to buy them tiny clothes. I have been known, upon seeing a baby, to squeal aloud. And babies love me. They stare at me over their mothers’ shoulders, their round eyes fixed on mine. They gaze at me across restaurants, seemingly enthralled. If ambulatory, they sometimes follow me unbidden in stores and hallways. When I was young, the adults responsible for these babies found this adorable. After I hit 30 they began to glare at me with a look that said, “Get your own.”
Well, I would love to, but unfortunately it’s not that easy.
This is something you’re not really supposed to talk about, but: I will be 36 years old soon, I don’t have children, and I want them. Admitting it feels pathetic, like revealing a personal failing, and it sounds uncomfortably close to self-pity. There is no positive spin, no comforting optimism, in saying you want what you don’t have.
I don’t remember exactly when I graduated from my adolescent philosophy of “Raising kids seems stressful and pregnancy sounds daunting” to my grown-up attitude of “BABIES!!” But I know that by my early 20s, I was familiar with the baby-coveting sensation that sweeps over you as strong as hunger when you haven’t eaten all day. I had somewhat deeper reasons, too, one of them being the obligation — and desire — to increase the world’s Jewish population. Simultaneously fighting anti-Semitism and buying itty-bitty socks!
I’m not used to having such a mainstream take on things. When I read the words of women like Chanel Dubofsky and Erika Davis, words that question the roles women have had to play for millennia, I feel like I belong on that side. (Not that there should be sides.) Defying expectations is certainly not easy, but it’s my comfort zone. Being thoroughly conventional is not.
Like most young, engaged Modern Orthodox women, Tova decided to go on the birth control pill when she and her husband got engaged. Tova, who asked to go by a pseudonym, visited the gynecologist, spoke to her kallah teacher, and learned about the pill from her friends. As the most viable form of birth control for halacha-observant Jews, the pill was what she expected to take until she was ready to become pregnant. She never imagined that instead of enhancing her newly married life, the pill would come close to ruining it.
While Tova experienced some nausea and short-term irritability — both common side effects for first-time pill users — she also endured prolonged moodiness and a complete lack of sex drive (that is, after she married her husband).
“It was horrible,” she states flatly now. “My period was short, but the pill made me want nothing to do with sex. And not just sex — all touching and intimacy was gone.”
After seven months of stressful, painful sex, Tova tried something highly unusual for Orthodox couples: She stopped taking the pill and started using condoms.
When Tova opened up to her friends about her situation, she realized that she wasn’t alone. Turns out none of her married girlfriends who were on the pill enjoyed sex. In fact, they dreaded intimacy with their husbands, mostly because of the physical discomfort it caused. But Tova and her husband made the rare decision to use condoms rather than trying other birth control pills, and they didn’t even consult a rabbi before making the switch.
Every few weeks, I have some kind of encounter that makes me reevaluate my intention to never have children. The most recent example occurred this past Saturday, as I sat in a coffee shop working through some serious writer’s block. A toddler barreled past my table and began to scratch the chalkboard with his tiny fingernails. Shrieking on the inside, I looked at his mother as she lifted him up, scolded him and deposited him in a chair, which he weaseled his way out of half a second later.
These check-ins with myself go something like: Are you sure you don’t want kids? As sure as you possibly can be? Oh, yes. I’m sure. I’ll be 34 years old in a few months, and even though I’ve known my entire life that I wouldn’t have children, it’s weird to think about going from talking about never having children to actually never having children.
Of course it gets better than your kid murdering the insides of everyone in a restaurant by running his nails down a chalkboard. Right? And there has to be a part of you that wants to have kids more than you’re afraid of it, or potentially resentful of it. A part of you that’s willing to take that leap to find out. I don’t think I have either of those parts, at least not in relation to having children, and I don’t have the desire to find out if I have them, whether they’re deeply buried or just beneath the surface.
Have you ever noticed that some of the juiciest conversations seem to pop up instantly? This mother and her twenty-something daughter frequently find themselves working in front of the computer when an instant message appears on their screen. Here’s one recent back-and-forth that grew out of an IM conversation between mother and daughter.
Alexis: So it’s official, I’m off birth control! Crazy, huh?
Sharon: Wow, you really did it. So exciting. How are you feeling?
Alexis: I’m freaked. I’m happy, of course, to get off the hormones after all this time, but not sure I’m really ready for this whole baby-making business. James just emailed me our health insurance benefits with all of the maternity coverage highlighted. Aah!
Sharon: Well, I had no idea how long it was going to take for me to get pregnant, so your dad and I just jumped in. We didn’t realize it was going to happen so fast. Remember, I told you, after only 6 weeks you were on the way—so watch out!
Alexis: I really hope it comes that easy for us. I thought all my oogling over pregnant women and babies meant I was ready. But when I think about it seriously, I’m not so sure.
New numbers show that the teen birthrate is way down. In 2010 it was the lowest since the U.S. government began tracking it in 1946, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The teen birthrate dropped by 9 percent from a year earlier to about 34 births per thousand girls ages 15 through 19. That represents a whopping 44 percent drop since 1991.
This news ought to be heralded by people all along the political spectrum. After all, when is it ever a good idea for a teenager to become a mother? God knows it’s challenging enough to be a good parent when you’re an adult and have a supportive partner.
If you live in New York City and ride the subway, then you frequently see teenagers with babies. In some neighborhoods not far from my own, becoming a mother before you’ve graduated from high school is practically a rite of passage. An afterschool babysitter I once employed was a college freshman and accomplished athlete. But nearly all of her high school friends were already mothers and, even if they’d graduated from high school had no plans to go to college, she said. The teen birthrate in the Hispanic community nationally has remained distressingly high, though far lower than it was in 1991. In 2010 it was the highest, at about 56 births per thousand Hispanic teen girls, of any racial group in the country.
Diving into the CDC report I saw that the teen birthrate is 64 percent lower than it was at its all-time high in the baby-boom year of 1957. That, of course, was 16 years before abortion was made legal nationwide by Roe v. Wade in 1973.
I am six weeks pregnant. This is my fifth pregnancy after four losses. I don’t know what my status will be tomorrow but I am telling you about it today. It’s a relief for me to share this as publicly as possible.
Not telling leaves the burden of my experience on me while allowing the pain of loss to remain politely hidden. I can no longer deny my struggles for the sake of social ease.
With today’s technology, we can discover pregnancy earlier than ever. Miscarriage rates remain hard to define because early losses are sometimes mistaken for heavy or delayed periods. Still, an estimated 15% to 20% of all pregnancies end in miscarriage, with most of those occurring during the first trimester. In women over 35 the miscarriage rate is even higher.
Pretending that this doesn’t occur by staying hushed during the first trimester, the most vulnerable time of a pregnancy, only increases suffering. Sisterhood editor Gabrielle Birkner wrote recently about how the growing number of blogs chronicling illness demonstrate that we are sharing more of what used to remain private. So why is it still so hard to talk about pregnancy loss?
In her post “Why Infertility Breeds Silence,” my fellow Sisterhood blogger Elissa Strauss writes about the silence surrounding conception and infertility in her group of friends in the child-bearing stage of life. She observes that it:
feels as though we lack a vocabulary for how to discuss these things and as a result conversations are often awkward. I wish I would hear more first-person accounts about trying to conceive from friends. I want to hear about the pain and frustration and the fun and joy. I understand that for some trying to get pregnant is something they feel should be kept private, and I respect that, but sometimes privacy hurts more than it helps.
Having conceived and given birth to three kids, and suffering some all-too-common early miscarriages along the way, I would question Elissa’s assertion about privacy sometimes hurting more than it helps when it comes to the business of procreation. Granted, I live in Israel, where women have the opposite problem: Every woman’s uterus seems to be the whole country’s business and people don’t seem to stop talking about having babies.
The magazine produced a funny and touching video with stars like Sherri Shepherd and Padma Lakshmi speaking candidly about their struggles to conceive, and some 50 Redbook readers posted videos of their own. In the story accompanying the video, Norine Dworkin-McDaniel writes about how one in eight women have trouble becoming pregnant, yet few of them feel that they can discuss the issue. Dworkin-McDaniel says the problem with culture of secrecy surrounding matters of infertility is that it “has left so many women to cope alone, in pain, and often uninformed.”
I am 32 and married and so are most of my friends; we have officially entered the age of the procreation. Many in our social circle either have a baby, are pregnant or have hinted at wanting one. None of them, however, speak or have spoken openly about the process of getting pregnant. Yes, some of them might mention in passing that they are “trying,” or respond with a low-level groan when the subject comes up, but that is about as specific as they get.
I’m in Israel for a month reporting on a number of different stories, including a magazine piece about the growing number of Israeli gay couples who are having children with the help of gestational surrogates and egg donors in foreign countries.
Although there is no law explicitly banning the use of surrogacy in Israel by gay couples, the country’s 1996 surrogacy law states that only married heterosexual couples may seek to have children by surrogacy in Israel. (Lesbians are not affected by the law since they can conceive children through artificial insemination.) It turns out that not only are gays excluded, but also many other couples by virtue of strict interpretations of the law by the Attorney General and Israel’s surrogacy approval committee overseeing applications and protocols. Among the very strict limitations has been the practice of almost always giving preferential treatment to applications from childless couples.
But now Israel’s High Court of Justice has ruled that a couple’s already having several children is not sufficient reason to reject their application for surrogacy. The decision was handed down in relation to a case brought by a woman who had to undergo a hysterectomy at the age of 30, following the birth of her third child. The woman, now 38, and her husband, who are religious Jews, wanted to have a fourth child by a surrogate, but their application was turned down on the basis of their already having three child
In music news, a posthumous Amy Winehouse album will be released reports the Daily Mail. Brooklyn rapper and Hasidic convert Shyne tells the Jewish Chronicle that he will no longer feature profanity or scantily clad women in his videos out of respect for Jewish modesty laws.
614 devotes its latest issue to Jewish women who have served in the military. The eZine features profiles on the first female rabbi to enlist as well as another who broke gender barriers, and likely also the sound barrier, as a combat pilot.
Victoria Pynchon explains “Why the National Debt Negotiations Matter to Women” at Forbes.com. In short, a whole lot of elderly women rely on Social Security.
“Parenthood is the ultimate on-the-job learning experience,” my father commented a few months ago. “You simply can’t learn to be a parent without doing it.”
I believe that. Having recently experienced baby boot camp, I have learned a ton. Now, as the mother of an infant, it seems an appropriate time to reflect on some of the unanticipated lessons I learned during the course of my pregnancy. Each lesson may have been an inconvenience at the time, but taken together, they should make me worthy of a Parenting Master’s degree.
Everything Is Relative, Even Pain
I have been a regular coffee drinker since taking high school physics. As any coffee drinker who fasts on Yom Kippur knows, it hurts to go without. Over the years, I have periodically worked to reduce my caffeine intake, and the effects are typically painful.
Last fall was the big one, though. Newly pregnant, my favorite morning ritual was suddenly making me nauseated, which forced me to revise my plan to slowly taper down my coffee intake. I went cold turkey instead. Yes, in a normal world, two weeks of non-stop withdrawal migraines would have been unspeakably awful. However, my all-day morning sickness was so intense at the time, it managed to dwarf all the headaches. So those withdrawal headaches felt more like background noise. This experience taught me that all things — including pain — are truly relative. Also, even an addict can be reformed for the sake of her baby.
How does a mother-to-be choose a pediatrician for her baby-to-be?
My mother recently reminded me of her awful experience with my first pediatrician, when she became a first-time mother. Underslept and anxious, my mother had some difficulty with breastfeeding, as happens to so many new mothers. I gained no weight during that first month, which concerned my mother. The pediatrician’s helpful response was to tell my mother that she was causing me brain damage. Luckily, my mother replaced this doctor with Dr. Lazarus, another pediatrician who had both sterling medical credentials and human skills. Under the care of this second doctor, the breastfeeding began to work, and I became an increasing presence on the office scale.
Three decades later, as motherhood approached, I wanted to find my own Dr. Lazarus. Late in my pregnancy — I gave birth in May — I asked local parent-friends for referrals, ran doctors’ online profiles by my doctor-sister, and arranged to interview a handful of the finalists. Interviewing pediatricians is one of those rituals you don’t know exists until you’re pregnant.
Once upon a time, baby clothes printed with pithy phrases extolling cuteness referred to the cuteness of the baby. But on a new crop of cheeky onesies that I discovered while out shopping for my nephew, it is all about the mommy.
With phrases like “If you think I’m cute, you should see my mommy,” on Amazon and “My Mom’s a Fox,” at Target, these onesies direct your eyes to the attractive little number pushing the cart, not the one in it. There is even “She’s not a cougar, she’s my nana,” at the Los Angeles boutique Kitson.
I can’t help but find it all a bit gross. (Not that grandma can’t be sexy, but does she really need her new grandson to advertise it on his tiny chest? A time and a place, ladies, a time and a place.) At Walmart you can customize a onesie or fleece romper with a “cute” relative’s name. Their example is “If you think I am cute, you should see my Aunt Barbara.” Looks like the cult of female hotness has struck again, this time with a strange Freudian twist.
Jake Marmer, who writes about poetry for the Forward, is an excited father-to-be. He shares what it’s like to be an expectant dad in this piece of performance poetry, titled “Kicks”:
Marmer is working toward his Ph.D. in comparative literature at CUNY Graduate Center and developing the Jazz Talmud Project, which combines poetry and music in neo-Talmudic performances. His next performance is tonight at the Cell Theater. Information is at www.jakemarmer.wordpress.com.