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The Emotional Labor Of Pregnancy Is Real, & We Need To Talk About It

Ah, pregnancy. There’s nothing quite as relaxing as gestating a fetus, your hair blowing in the wind while you stare off into the horizon, hand lovingly propped on your perfect baby bump. Oh wait, I’m describing a stock photo, whoops! Actual pregnancy is a whole lot less beautiful, and a heck of a lot of work. The physical aspects are pretty obvious and easy to talk about (there is organ displacement and, you know, the growing and nurturing of a brand new human). But I’m here to chat about something else! Pregnancy is an emotional rollercoaster that can leave you totally drained. And we really need to talk about that emotional labor.

In general, women are expected to perform the emotional labor in life, and this is certainly true around parenting. With the exception of sitcom dads like Danny Tanner, and families more keyed into gender norms (mine, for example, happens to have two moms; non-binary parents and transgender parents might also feel this doesn't apply to their relationships), it's mostly moms who are expected to have those heart-to-heart chats with kids, to know their likes and dislikes inside and out, and to be available for endless kissing of boo-boos. This, my friends, is the emotional burden I'm talking about. An Everyday Feminism article defines emotional labor as follows:

Emotional labor is the exertion of energy for the purpose of addressing people’s feelings, making people comfortable, or living up to social expectations. It’s called “emotional labor” because it ends up using — and often draining — our emotional resources.

For the purpose of this article, I'm focusing on the draining of emotional resources during pregnancy... because, oh boy, gestating manages to do a whole lot of that.

Courtesy of Katherine Clover

When it comes to pregnancy, this kind of work might be more behind the scenes than ever. But the people who carry the pregnancies (that includes women, as well as trans men and non-binary folks) are still doing it. And if we’re doing all this work, we deserve to be recognized for it.

During my own pregnancy, I was shocked by how many feelings people had about the fact that I was knocked up, and by their expectation for me to handle those feelings. People who were close to me had a lot of questions about my pregnancy, as well as expectations, worries, hopes, and fears… and they tended to share them all with me without reservation. Often, I was expected to soothe and reassure them.

Having to repeatedly explain that, yes, I had actually thought plenty about the safety concerns involving having a home birth, and definitely had a good and adequate backup plan, was exhausting. On top of that, I had to assure people that we had made our decisions regarding conception very carefully (something straight people don’t often have to think about) and that my wife and I were prepared to explain our known sperm donor to our child. Oh, and then there was the fact that I “went public” with my pregnancy pretty much right away… which meant that I had to talk to everyone and their brother about the risk of miscarriage. “Have you thought about how you’ll feel if you lose the baby?” was a question I probably answered ten times.

I wondered about him constantly — it felt like I needed to know everything about him, but also I couldn’t really know anything at all.

To a certain degree, this stuff is understandable — of course my mother had feelings about her new grandbaby, and I wanted to talk to her about those feelings! But I also had to — as do most pregnant people — handle the various concerns coming from acquaintances, my boss, and complete strangers. All of that work definitely adds up, and it takes a toll.

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We talk a lot about the emotional roller-coaster following delivery of your child, and of bonding with your baby in this time. For many people, bonding with a growing fetus is a hugely important part of the pregnancy, and can be taxing and draining. For me, it started really early: with every kick, I would be flooded with intense feelings about the tiny human growing in my uterus, everything from love to anxiousness to downright fear. I wondered about him constantly — it felt like I needed to know everything about him, but also I couldn’t really know anything at all. I desperately needed to feel close to the new human I was growing, but this need zapped me of my emotional energy and made it hard to feel close to other people, including my spouse.

I remember starting out folding baby clothes late in the third trimester and winding up sobbing.

This doesn’t even get into the realm of prepping your home (and yourself!) for a baby — can you ever prepare? What we sometimes call "nesting" encompasses physical, mental, and emotional labor, and for once is an aspect a partner can really help out with. Not everyone has a partner, and not everyone has a partner willing to invest time choosing between foxes and ducks for the nursery theme, but those of us who do find that sharing the load can make a big difference. Everything from choosing items for a baby registry, to preparing the nursery, to reading up on breastfeeding (those diagrams don’t make it any easier) is emotionally taxing. I remember starting out folding baby clothes late in the third trimester and winding up sobbing. Getting ready to welcome a whole new person into your family is a big deal! Make no mistake, it's a huge emotional adjustment, and requires the processing of a hell of a lot of feelings.

The emotional work that a pregnant parent is doing is often invisible and almost never recognized. And I do want to point out that this is on top of the very real physical labor. Pregnant people are often juggling morning sickness, weird aches and pains, fatigue, and all kinds of other pregnancy symptoms that can range from uncomfortable to debilitating… and they’re usually doing all of that while still going to work, caring for other children, and doing household chores.

Your OBGYN might not ask you how you're managing to cope with the sheer burden of your own imagination during pregnancy, and your partner might not think twice about asking you to offer reassurance about the health of your unborn child, but I'm here to say I see you, and I see your emotional load.

It’s a hell of a lot of work, and it’s time we started talking about it.

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