Pregnancy and Social Interactions
By Sally Raskoff
Have you ever noticed how pregnant women are treated in public? I have become ever more aware of this lately since I know at least six people who are due in the next month. Each one of them has mentioned how remarkable it is to move through public spaces because people treat them so differently than they had before (and so differently than they will later).
Pregnant women tend to be treated as special people; doors are opened, people smile, people talk to them nicely, and may even give them their place in line. (A few people can react negatively, but their behavior is typically to avoid the pregnant person.)
This happens most often in the middle phase when it’s obvious they are pregnant but not so big that moving around is tremendously uncomfortable.
How can we explain these behaviors using our sociological tools? We can borrow ideas from sociological theory to help us understand why people who are pregnant might be treated differently than others.
Starting with a conflict – and feminist – perspective, the pregnant woman is not just an individual member of society; it is as if she – and her body – belongs to society. Her body is a commodity of sorts as it is reproducing the raw materials of society. Thus those who encounter her may feel some ownership over her developing contribution to their community and our society.
Oddly enough, although society has a claim upon the vessel of reproduction, we often classify pregnancy as a disability (if it is covered at all under workplace policies) yet it is not a disability per se. Many women do not have coverage – or good coverage – for pregnancy, thus they take a hit in the workplace through wage loss or even job loss. We devalue and punish the person who is reproducing even though that process is key to society’s existence.
Durkheim wrote extensively about the religious aspects of social life, and may say that a mother-to-be represents a sacred, not profane, aspect of life. To bring a human into the world may be a common thing but it is also quite amazing, really much like a miracle.
It reminds us that we are animals who reproduce like all other animals, but it is also reinforces whatever our faith might be. Religious aspects adhere to the situation yet so do spiritual beliefs. The pregnant woman represents this sacred aspect of life.
To grow and bring a human into this plane of existence is no easy feat. It does, in the larger scheme of life, ensure one aspect of our continuance as a species. (Not that our extinction due to a lack of reproduction capacity is anywhere in sight.)
From a symbolic interactionist perspective, reactions may vary depending on the life experience of the person looking upon the pregnant woman. The meaning that each individual imparts to their interactions with a pregnant person is informed by and through their experiences.
If they come from a place of personal experience with pregnancy, of having been pregnant, all of those memories come into play. They may move from a detached gaze to an interactive connection. They may tell their pregnancy or labor story to the pregnant woman – who may not want to hear it. It can be an intensely personal connection. The partner of the pregnant person, if also present, may receive some support or humor from those who have experienced being a partner in that situation.
Those who prefer not to and/or will not reproduce, the reaction could be based more on their experiences with the pregnancies and children around them. This is a less personal connection, possibly invoking stories from relatives or friends – or no connection at all.
For people who have tried unsuccessfully to become pregnant the pain of that experience– and the yearning for a child– can come through in their gaze or their interactions. This can be a very personal connection that is rife with very intense emotions. Those that have had previous negative experience(s) with pregnancy, they may not interact with the pregnant woman at all.
The pregnant woman can expect that people will react to her in very intense patterns whether inclusive and personal or exclusionary and detached.
Once she has left behind the status of pregnant to being a person who was pregnant, things may be very different. If she then moves through society with a baby in tow, reactions can be less positive, especially if that baby is crying. People and their babies are tolerated if they are like the proverbial child, “seen yet not heard.”
Nursing mothers are not often welcome in public spaces, although that’s a very effective way to help a baby stop crying. The cover of Time magazine in May 2012 depicting a nursing mother of an older child (3 years old) was received with a lot of attention – mostly negative.The magazine covers of pregnant actresses typically get a lot of attention – mostly positive. (Demi Moore, Vanity Fair, 1991; Cindy Crawford, W, 1999; Christina Aguilera, Marie Claire, 2008; Jessica Simpson, Elle, 2012; Mariah Carey, Life & Style, 2011; and Nia Long, Ebony, 2011.)
The pregnant covers depict the women in poses not too different from the usual cover shots – sexualized and/or confident, depending on your point of view. The Time cover depicted the mother and child somewhat incongruously for a nursing pair, with the physical attachment but an apparent emotional detachment as both are looking at the camera/reader – and the child, wearing camouflage print pants, looks older than three years old. Society’s norms and pressures for conformity kick in to both sides of this with strong reactions if a pregnant woman looks like she may be drinking or smoking – and if a woman appears to be parenting outside our social norms - in ways our society does not condone (e.g., nursing a child “too long”).
How would the different sociological perspectives explain why we treat women with children so differently than the way we treat pregnant women?