When is advice actually judgement? Pregnancy, that’s when. Caroline Ferry writes about being pregnant in the age of unsolicited advice and criticism…
What’s it like being pregnant in the age of judgement? I don’t know. I mean, I know because I’m pregnant. But I have nothing else to compare it to, it being my first foray into parenting.[restrict]
The comments began at seven weeks, before I’d told my friends or family. During an unplanned trip to hospital, the doctor – a middle aged man in case that matters – asked me when I’d started taking prenatal vitamins. A few days after taking the pregnancy test, I told him. I was met with the first shame bomb of the year. “Why didn’t you begin before you got pregnant, if you were trying? Is there a reason you waited until you were five weeks pregnant?” Good start. A reassuring, soul-affirming confidence boost from the only medical professional I’d seen so far. It was April, we were about a month into lockdown, and life was, to put it mildly, batshit crazy.
The soundtrack to my summer and beyond has been since then a relentless onslaught of advice, judgements and judgements packaged up as advice. Some people share their own experiences, as a way of offering unsolicited advice. “I personally didn’t cycle once I found out I was pregnant. Like, why would you take that risk?”
Others position it as a question. “Do you feel comfortable going out to restaurants and taking the train? Oh that’s good, I hope people are giving you lots of space!” Or my personal favourite, “That’s nice you’re getting away. One last trip before the baby comes.” One trip. You’ve been granted one selfish, high-risk holiday this year so fill your boots. Savour every last second. And for the love of god steer clear of those deathtrap bicycles.
That sounded ungrateful. And I am, in the main, really not. Most advice, I eagerly seek out. But the rest I do feel bothered by, and so do my friends that have made the choice to have a baby. So why does advice when pregnant feel nothing like advice and everything like judgement? I had two theories. One being related to hormones. A go-to scapegoat for me when dealing with unexplained feelings. The other is that there’s a whole slice of society out there whose MO is to talk about, police, scrutinise and insert themselves into any and all matters of the female body. The “you’re next” types. You know exactly who I’m talking about and I can feel the collective tensing of shoulder muscles as I type it.
One thing I think we’ve all learned from Covid-19 is that people are opinionated on, and outraged by, others’ behaviour when they’re afraid. It kind of makes sense. But this isn’t bending or breaking the rules of lockdown. What is it then that makes people feel outraged – and vocal – when it comes to pregnant womens’ choices?
Psychologist, therapist and relationship expert Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari explains… “Not every action is in line with our intentions. So even if those intentions are good, it can have a negative effect on the pregnant woman. Some people want advice specifically from people that inspire them and give them a sense of safety, security and confidence. And they don’t want to hear it from others.” I guess a lot of people – wrongly of course – assume that they’re those inspiring, mentoring types to people. Actually I’m a bit envious of them. Oh, to have such self-belief!
What’s been confusing, and depressing, is that this unsolicited advice and judgement I’m fielding isn’t really coming from men. In fact, it’s been a welcome break from the mansplaining narrative that has been a constant in my life. Most of this advice – which we shall assume comes from a place of love – is from other mothers. Emerging from the early fog of motherhood and feeling entirely amateur, is this payback time? An opportunity to glaze over the year where they were muddling through and emerge out the other side, some sort of epidemiology and midwifery expert? No, I don’t think we’re that sinister.
But I do struggle with the speed they forget the overwhelm we can feel while pregnant. “We say that we’ll never turn into our parents, that those words will never come out of my mouth,” says Dr Kalanit. “And soon enough, we hear our own parents voices in us. It’s the same with advice to new mothers. Also if someone is more anxious – because of Covid for example – they might give more advice because it gives them a feeling of control. Like stockpiling toilet paper. Ironically, the process of giving birth and pregnancy is actually all about surrender and trust. And letting go of control.”
So the rest of it then, the judgement that isn’t coming from a place of pandemic-induced fear. The advice – and limitations – our friends and sisters had to deal with pre-2020 too. How do we explain that? What does it say about society’s attitude to women? That it would prefer us to go nine months bubble-wrapped in total security than to live our lives, with all the perceived risk that entails? Do we think women don’t mind losing a year of their lives in order to gain a child?
It seems to me that we have very little understanding that as pregnant women, the things that make us still feel like ourselves – even though we don’t recognise our alien bodies and feel absolutely insane right now – might be two cans of Coke, or cycling to the park, or taking a last minute, impulsive city break even during a goddamn pandemic.
When we’re spinning out of control and into someone else’s life – clinging onto those joys is about as normal as life gets. It might sound flippant – maybe even a little sad – but it’s all those tiny things that make up who we are. “Take time to reflect on your own choices, and what path you really want to take. And then let go of the rest. In one ear and out the other, thank the person for caring enough to talk to you about it then move on. Like cooking with a Teflon pan, nothing sticks to it. You’ve got to be more like Teflon when you’re pregnant,” advises Dr Kalanit.
But whatever you do, don’t actually cook with Teflon. Because that shit’s poisonous. And you’re a mother now. Remember?!