Back in January, when my wife came bursting through the front door of our apartment with tears streaming down her face and announced that she was pregnant, my very first feeling was intense joy. We’d been planning for the baby and trying to conceive for about six months, and while that’s certainly not a long time by any standard, it felt like ages. Doubt creeps in. Can we conceive? Is there something wrong? How will we handle the news if we can’t? We thankfully never got to the stage where we had to truly consider the answers, but it was a great relief to finally hear that a baby would be coming into our life before the end of the year.
Any woman will tell you that being pregnant comes with its blessings and drawbacks, and I don’t mean that in terms of the physical changes. Rather, there’s a shift in perception that happens. A pregnant woman’s body is suddenly not her own in two ways. The first is the most obvious one, which is that there’s literally a human life sharing her body. It’s a beautiful and surreal thing to think about as a husband, as someone who can’t feel what your partner’s body feels, but who can see limbs pushing against a growing belly.
But the second way a pregnant woman’s body is not her own is in the people around her. With a growing belly, I noticed my wife suddenly wasn’t an individual person, but rather a Pregnant Woman, a title that suggests you’re an object, part of some sort of public display that strangers feel comfortable engaging with and commenting on.
I’m not saying anything new here; women have long written about and understood the way a pregnant body turns them into something public. Personal space suddenly vanishes, and they’re forced to endure intimate questions, stories of horrific labors, and unwanted belly rubs from strangers. My wife and I were both prepared for this, and she’s handled any unwanted attention with the same no-nonsense assertiveness that I’ve adored ever since I met her.
What I wasn’t prepared for, as a husband, were all the comments from strangers directed toward me. I wasn’t ready for people I didn’t know to talk about my wife as if she isn’t a human being, like she isn’t someone I adore in ways that are often difficult to explain. I’ve found, on numerous occasions, that many men have no idea how to engage with other men when it comes to pregnancy. Jokes, and insults veiled as jokes, seem to be the go-to method for talking about the topic.
This emotional disconnection and unease with vulnerability isn’t isolated to the topic of pregnancy, but I certainly feel the context amplifies the issues. The rigid confines of masculinity leave no room for genuine emotion, and what’s left is an exhausting labyrinth of irony and sarcasm.
Now, most of these moments don’t rise to the occasion of being incredibly offensive. Rather, they’re sad reminders of what emotions men feel comfortable expressing to other men, and once you start to notice them, you start to see them everywhere. About halfway through my wife’s pregnancy, we ran into a man, mid-30s or so, riding the elevator in our building. We knew he had a toddler of his own, and shared the usual stilted elevator pleasantries.
“How far along is she?” he asked, looking at me and not my wife; the first sign that this was a strange conversation. “Nearing the end of the second trimester,” I replied. “Oh man, enjoy it now. She’s going to get crazy in the third trimester,” he said before putting a hand on my shoulder. “I’m so sorry,” he said with faux sympathy before chuckling to himself.
The rigid confines of masculinity leave no room for genuine emotion, and what’s left is an exhausting labyrinth of irony and sarcasm.
I’ve had this interaction, or some version of it, on and off for the last half of my wife’s pregnancy. Every time it happens, every time another man smirks and asks how I’m handling my wife’s “insane hormones” or “bitchiness,” I struggle to react. I’m supposed to laugh, give a knowing wink, and commiserate with my testosteroned brethren about how crazy these women are, am I right? But I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to reduce my wife, who’s kind and compassionate and has the best laugh in the world, to a caricature or a list of characteristics that are insulting at best and sexist at worst. I don’t want to stand in an elevator with my wife while another man calls her crazy—even if it’s not meant as a direct insult—like she isn’t standing right there, carrying our baby in her belly and preparing for one of the most difficult and rewarding things she’ll ever do.
I don’t want to do that because it’s ridiculous. Does my pregnant wife have mood swings? You bet. Does she occasionally have a short fuse, or get tired and grumpy at the end of a long day? Yes. You know what though? So do I, and so does everyone.
Not only are the comments weirdly personal, they falsely suggest that women are the only ones with outsized emotions; it’s the “everyday sexism” Laura Bates chronicled for years. When a man has a rough day at work and complains about it when he gets home, there’s no risk of being called “bitchy.” When a man flies off the handle for no reason at all, there’s no risk of him being labeled “crazy.” And yet, one man after another feels comfortable saying these things about my wife to me, as if we’re part of some brotherhood of put-upon men.
The truth is, pregnancy and labor are tremendously taxing processes, and the women who choose to have children handle them with a strength that we simply can’t fathom.
So men, let’s stop cracking jokes about their hormones, and let’s stop pretending like we’re victims whose struggle isn’t being seen. Most importantly, let’s choose to be a little more vulnerable with each other, or at least show a little common decency. Telling a couple expecting a baby “congratulations, that’s incredibly exciting” shouldn’t be so hard.