New Worlds: What to Expect When You’re Expecting

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

Pregnancy is far more than just a biological process. And as any woman who’s ever been visibly pregnant can probably attest, every second person out there feels like they have the right to offer advice on what such a woman should and should not do.

We’re understandably twitchy on this subject, because pregnancy is a fraught thing. On average, something like ten to twenty percent of confirmed pregnancies end in spontaneous miscarriage; when you expand that to all fertilizations, the number might rise as high as thirty to fifty percent. There’s a good reason why many couples don’t announce that they’re expecting until the first trimester has ended: miscarriages are common, and the vast majority of them happen in that early, uncertain span.

But getting past the first trimester doesn’t mean you’re out of the woods yet. As our medical knowledge has improved, we’ve come to understand much more about the proper care and feeding of an expectant mother. For example, after a brief period in the twentieth century where doctors recommended alcohol as a way of stopping pre-term labor, we went back to the ancient prohibitions against drinking while pregnant, because the alternative is fetal alcohol syndrome. But despite those prohibitions, one has to imagine that syndrome was rampant in the past, because weak alcohol was often the safest thing to drink in general — not to mention that there’s a stretch of time where a woman might not even know she’s pregnant yet.

Avoiding alcohol is the only tip of the iceberg, though. There’s long list of things pregnant women shouldn’t eat — including pretty much anything that’s raw, undercooked, or unpasteurized; now think about the past again — and an equally long list of things they should eat for optimal maternal and fetal health. Some of them are well-grounded in modern science (like the ban on booze), while others are old superstition (spicy food will blind your child! Did anybody tell the equatorial regions?) or part and parcel of our recent tendency toward nutritional fads. And speaking of fads, does anybody remember the purported “Mozart effect”? The claim was that listening to his music — or just classical music in general — makes you smarter, which led to suggestions that an expectant mother should put headphones on her abdomen to ensure her kid will be a genius.

Both before and after childbirth, we want the certainty of believing that if we do X, Y, and Z, we can be confident of having a perfect, healthy baby. And the flip side of that is, any woman who fails to live up to those unattainable standards is a Bad Mother who doesn’t care about the future of her child.

This extends to many kinds of behavior. Should a pregnant woman exercise? Our answer to that has swung all over the place across the years, and even when the answer is “yes,” you still have to ask how much and what kind? It’s a privileged question to begin with; most women, past and present, haven’t had the luxury of sitting back and taking it easy for months on end. The world is full of tales about mothers who kept working until their water broke, then were back on their feet a day or two later. Maternity leave is supposed to ease that burden, but how much you get (if any) still depends heavily on where you live and what kind of job you have. Women with white-collar careers fare much better.

How about sex? Lots of people get nervous around the possibility, fearing that it might somehow hurt the fetus. But for at least one group — I want to say the Maya, but I’m not positive about that attribution — semen is viewed not just as the seed that gets the process going, but a necessary form of sustenance throughout, and therefore the mother and father should continue having sex regularly. Contrast that with a chilly political marriage, where once the wife is knocked up the husband gladly leaves her alone, and goes back to the arms of his mistress.

Maternal and fetal dangers aren’t limited to the realm of medicine and the body. There’s a whole panoply of charms, rituals, and superstitions meant to protect both parties against malign spiritual influences. Birth defects are often blamed on the evil eye or demonic influence, so naturally one has to take precautions against such threats. And of course a miscarriage, especially later in the pregnancy, might not be the result of mundane medical issues; magical precautions are also supposed to help you carry your baby to term.

When it comes to pregnancy superstitions, there’s a whole sub-genre focused on the question of the child’s sex. This actually starts before the pregnancy itself: eating certain foods, or having intercourse at a particular time of day or in a particular position, or conducting appropriate rituals, are tactics meant to ensure that the mother gives birth to a child of the desired sex. (Which commonly means male, though not always.) We know now that it’s determined by the chromosomal inheritance from the father, but if a woman repeatedly gave birth to daughters, she was often seen as the one at fault.

Once a woman is bearing, then it’s time to play a guessing game. Is there any significance to whether she’s carrying “high” or “low”? Does severe morning sickness mean there’s a daughter on the way, or a huge appetite mean she’ll have a son? Can you divine the sex of the fetus from the heart rate, or the shape of the mother’s face, or whether or not she develops acne? These days we can get more definitive answers (if we want them) from an ultrasound or amniocentesis. In a fantasy setting, though, divinatory methods might be just as reliable. In particular, people often place great significance on a pregnant woman’s dreams — not just for gender, but for omens of many kinds.

All of these things, whether based in science or not, are again a way of trying to find some certainty in a very uncertain time. So until and unless technology takes all the risk and randomness away — until you can design your child’s genes down to the last chromosome, gestate them in a tank, and fix or forestall any potential problems — many of these traditions and debates are going to stick around.

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


New Worlds: What to Expect When You’re Expecting — 18 Comments

  1. I think one of the most interesting superstitions about pregnancy can be found in the Jewish sources, where in multiple places, different sages explain that if the woman orgasms first, the child will be a male, based on creative readings of different verses in the Bible. It’s very interesting in two ways – firstly, that it encourages men to take care of their wife’s pleasure (which is actually a religious obligation in Jewish law) before their own, and it also places the responsibility for the child’s sex on the man rather than the woman.

    • In that case I wonder why I have only daughters. (Not that I object! They’re wonderful young women and they were wonderful girls.)

    • It would be interesting in a political marriage for people who believed in that superstition. There are various steps a king could make to try to get his wife to have the first organism (before going back to his mistress).

      Or his mistress doesn’t have to be female. Robert Silverberg wrote a novel where 4 people had to do various things to become immortal. The gay man didn’t have any problem getting an assigned woman to organism before his.

  2. >We know now that it’s determined by the chromosomal inheritance from the father, but if a woman repeatedly gave birth to daughters, she was often seen as the one at fault.

    IIRC, there is some evidence that uterine chemistry can make ir more or less likely for particular types of sperm to get through; there’s some female influence on the process as well. Of course, as with all stochastic processes, this means “more likely” or “less likely”, not “guaranteed”, and it took fairly detailed statistical tests to smoke this one out.

    • Interesting! I know I’d read something about the likelihood of man being gay rising with the number of older brothers he has — with theories about how this is influenced by the way a woman’s body responds to the “foreign” presence of different chromosomal makeup — but not that part. But that sounds congruent with a more general thing I also heard, which is that our view of the egg passively sitting there waiting for the sperm to come do its thing is changing quite a lot.

      • “Passive egg” hasn’t been the dominant view for around four decades and maybe more; electrochemical barriers and signaling were discussed in my undergraduate vertebrate development class way back then, and it was in the textbook (which, admittedly, was written by that professor).

  3. With both my pregnancies (both when I was living in New York City) I was startled by a few things.
    1) Once you are visibly pregnant you become an archetype; The Mother. This means, among other things, that complete strangers will want to touch your belly. Often without asking first.
    2) The same people who want to palpate your belly will often tell you things they suddenly know about it: “It’s a boy.” “Well, no, I had an amnio. It’s a girl.” “No, I’m never wrong. It’s a boy.” Okay, then.
    3) On the New York City subway (according to my scientific sampling of my personal experiences over two pregnancies) different ethnic, age, and economic groups treat a pregnant woman differently. In my experience, Latinx women, followed almost immediately by Black men, white and Latinx women, and black women, would offer me seats, hold doors, or occasionally demand someone get up to give me a seat. To no one’s surprise, most middle-aged prosperous-presenting white men would see a pregnant woman dead at their feet before offering her their seat.
    4) Broadly speaking, New Yorkers can be divided into two groups when dealing with a very pregnant woman: the people who are afraid that she’s going to give birth RIGHT THIS MINUTE in their subway car, their cab, or perhaps on the floor of a shared elevator; and the people who really hope she will do so.

    Pregnancy brings out the weird in the people around it.

    • Dear god the touching thing. I’ve never been pregnant, but even so, I’m offended by the way people seem to think a woman’s body becomes public property the moment she’s visibly pregnant. (I’ve experienced a less invasive version of it myself, where people treat the length of my hair as justification for them to be able to touch it — one total stranger came up without warning and tugged on it, saying “Is this real?”)

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  5. Many pregnancy beliefs no doubt trace back to a woman who had a problem, desperately looked for a reason, and blamed something. Then she, and other women, conscientiously avoided what they blamed because they would rather be bound hand and foot by superstitions than admit something could go wrong and there was NOTHING they could do about it. (Horrible feeling that.)

    • Made more complicated by the fact that, actually, some of those things probably were legit. I mean, somewhere along the line people figured out that women who drink alcohol during pregnancy wind up with less healthy babies, and that avoiding it does help at least some. But sorting superstition from actual cause-and-effect . . . that’s harder.

  6. Yes, the high probability of spontaneous abortions doesn’t seem to enter the “thinking” of the “right to life” people who value even a 6-week-old fetus over living children in need, and now passing more laws to “protect” them.

    • Agreed. Can you imagine the trauma if we were forced to treat every miscarriage the same way laws have us treat the death of infants?

      • There was a proposed law in (I think) Georgia that would have required the police to investigate miscarriages to see if the mother was at fault. I haven’t heard anything about it recently; one hopes it ran aground on the realization that any such law would horrifically traumatize many, many families that just lost wanted pregnancies to the vagaries of biology.

    • There was going to be an essay about abortion this month, but everything else wound up complex enough that it’s gotten pushed off to a later date. But yes, the people who say life begins as soon as an egg is fertilized rarely if ever seem to take the logical next step to conclude that as many as half of all children die in utero. Nor do they mourn the 4,000 “children” who died in a single day in Cleveland when the freezer at a fertility bank malfunctioned.

    • Heee!

      I’ve never seen a maternity t-shirt that says DON’T TOUCH, and now I’m wondering why. Surely there is a market for such things.