The Societal Womb

By Jeanne Flavin & Lynn M. Paltrow 

Where do we come from? There are many ways to answer this, but most of us come from a womb inside of a person we think of as “Mom.” As we’ve just celebrated Mother’s Day and March for Moms, we wonder: to what extent do we really celebrate the pregnant women our mothers once were? How much does our existence and our well-being trace back solely to this one person, this one nine-month period? We give moms a lot of credit. We also assign a lot of blame. So we pause here to explore here some of the things we could fix by recognizing the problems pregnant women face and by taking some collective responsibility for improving the health and well-being of women and babies in the United States.

HAMZA BUTT / Creative Commons

Despite having the costliest maternity care in the world, pregnancy and birth remain health- and life-risking events in the U.S. Each year, an estimated 800-1,200 women die from complications related to pregnancy or childbirth in the United States. Another 55,000-60,000 women suffer near-fatal close calls. Deaths and near-misses are both on the rise. Globally, maternal deaths have dropped by nearly 50 percent since 1990; the United States is the rare wealthy country in which these deaths have increased. Since 1950, black mothers have had maternal death rates at least three times higher than those of white women. Many of these deaths are preventable, too. For example, after a woman gives birth (when most pregnancy-related deaths actually occur), the focus is often on the baby’s health. Giving more postpartum attention to the mother would reduce her risk of dying due to hemorrhage, infection, eclampsia or suicide.

Moreover, contrary to what advice books lead people to expect when they’re expecting, people don’t have complete control over their pregnancies. Pregnancy losses are common. Each year, 26,000 women in the United States will experience a stillbirth and approximately one-third of all pregnant women will have a miscarriage, usually due to a deadly chromosomal abnormality unrelated to the parents. As many as half of these miscarriages will occur before a woman even realizes she is pregnant. Those women who experience pregnancy losses often find that they do not get the support they need or—worse still—may be accused of a crime for that pregnancy outcome. Indeed, it is all too common for everyone, including the pregnant woman herself, to assume she did something wrong if she experiences a loss or gives birth to a baby with any kind of health problem.

But babies do not only grow in the wombs of the people who carry them. They also develop in the “societal womb”—from the places where “their mothers eat, breathe and live.” As sociologist Barbara Katz Rothman explains, “the biggest determinants of the health of that baby are done deals, most of them written in by the time the mother herself was born. Race, class, neighborhood–where that mother herself grew up, where she is living in this pregnancy–those are the biggest determinants of infant outcome.”

One might expect that we would provide social supports and safe physical environments. In reality, the societal womb is often an unfriendly and threatening place. Women continue to be pilloried and punished for being pregnant and using certain drugs despite scientific evidence that claims of harm from the criminalized ones are exaggerated and unfounded, and even though virtually no drugs prescribed to and taken by pregnant women have been tested for safety on them, and social and environmental hazards pose far more of a risk to a woman’s health and pregnancy than her use of controlled substances.

Though we espouse concern for expectant and new mothers, our actions shout volumes to the contrary. The societal womb is a place where the deaths of pregnant women from accidents, homicide and suicide continue to go unrecorded and undercounted. It is located in a country where once again we face the prospect that insurers will be allowed to treat postpartum depression and cesarean surgeries—which account for 1 in 3 births—as grounds for denying insurance coverage or charging higher premiums. Pregnant women face the prospect of arrest and the possibility that their health care providers will report them to the police. Tens of thousands of mothers of young children are incarcerated. The societal womb is also a place particularly hostile to Black women and their babies and where the chronic “weathering” stress of poverty and racism has longstanding and multigenerational consequences.

We expect pregnant women to guarantee their babies will be born alive and healthy when such a guarantee is impossible to achieve under any circumstance—and when we offer no guarantee of life and health to women themselves. In the absence of government supports and buffers that make good maternal and infant outcomes more likely, this is just plain wrong.

Pregnant women and new mothers deserve better than our greeting cards. They deserve safe and secure physical and social environments and lives free of racism and violence. Today and this past Mother’s Day—and perhaps every day—let’s show some love by helping to free the mothers who are locked up because they are too poor to post bail, fighting to preserve universal health care and access to patient-centered health care, and defending our planet against fracking, pollution and other assaults on the environment.

** The original post, a similar article can be found at Ms. magazing blog here:

Jeanne Flavin is a professor of sociology at Fordham University, author of Our Bodies, Our Crimes and National Advocates for Pregnant Women board member. Lynn M. Paltrow is a lawyer and the founding executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women.


There Is No Maternal Instinct

By Amy Blackstone

Cross-posted with permission from Huffington Post (May 10, 2017).

Mother and baby girl lying on the bed together looking at each other.
Mother and baby girl lying on the bed together looking at each other.

While we give the mothers in our lives their well-deserved thanks and recognition, this Mother’s Day, let’s remember something very important about motherhood: It’s not a given. Not every woman wants to be a mom.

Despite our culture’s deeply held belief that women are uniquely wired to want children, the notion of maternal instinct is a myth. Evidence for the idea that women are innately drawn to having children is scant, if it exists at all.

Not one of the over 700 entries in Sage Publishing’s Encyclopedia of Motherhood is dedicated to the concept of maternal instinct. Professor Maria Vicedo-Castello reviewed the history of scientific views about maternal instinct and concluded that “there is no scientific evidence to claim that there is a maternal instinct that automatically gives women the desire to have children, makes women more emotional than men, confers upon them a higher capacity for nurturance, and makes them better equipped to rear children than men.” Continue reading “There Is No Maternal Instinct”

Perfectly Normal Mothers?

By Angela Frederick

Gender scholars have been critical of the expectations placed upon women to accomplish a perfect version of motherhood. Yet, as I argue in my recent Gender & Society article, what we have often understood to be a “perfection project” is in fact a “normalcy project.” Exemplified by our celebration of infants born with all ten fingers and all ten toes, we desire, not perfect babies, but normal babies. Under the guidance of medical and scientific experts, mothers are expected to devote ample amounts of their energy and resources to the project of preventing disability and other unwelcome differences in their children.

Women themselves are also expected to possess “normal” bodies as they carry out the demands of modern motherhood. Yet, how do mothers who do not have typical bodies – those with disabilities – experience these ideals? I explore this question through interviews and focus groups with mothers who have physical and sensory disabilities. I find these Deaf women and disabled women experience a profound paradox of visibility as they mother. Continue reading “Perfectly Normal Mothers?”

Moral Women, Immoral Technologies: Negotiating Gender, Religion, and Assisted Reproductive Technologies

By Danielle Czarnecki

Pope Francis made headlines in February when he told an audience in St. Peter’s Square that, “The choice to not have children is selfish.” In a more recent homily, he acknowledged that some do not choose to be childless. But how does one distinguish a person who chooses not to have children from someone suffering from infertility? Unless one discloses their infertility—an already stigmatized condition—to others, those suffering from infertility would likely face judgment from those who equate childlessness with selfishness. Continue reading “Moral Women, Immoral Technologies: Negotiating Gender, Religion, and Assisted Reproductive Technologies”

My Body Will Never Be the Way It Used to Be

By Bonnie Fox and Elena Neiterman

Ironically, at a time when getting married and having children are becoming optional for women, motherhood has acquired a mystique. Even women with advanced educational credentials and successful careers devote phenomenal amounts of time and energy to their babies and young children in the hope of ensuring their current and future security. Popular magazines regularly feature Hollywood celebrities’ stories about how motherhood transformed their lives. Yet motherhood seems not to have changed how these women look. The photos accompanying stories about celebrity moms promise that mothers devoted to their babies can also be trim and fit.

Woman and Baby_Fox and Neiterman

Our study examines Canadian women’s feelings about their changed bodies in the months following childbirth. In 2008-2009, Elena interviewed 27 Canadian women who had given birth within the last 18 months, to find out about their physical experiences of pregnancy. Although she was not asking, these women often talked about how upset they were with their changed bodies: They were upset about the weight they had gained with pregnancy, and very conscious of the messages about “getting your body back” that are so common in the popular magazines read by new mothers. To explore women’s feelings about their postpartum bodies, in 2012-2013 she interviewed another 21 women who had given birth within 20 months. These two samples of women were diverse with respect to age, number of children, income, education and occupation. Eleven women were immigrants and eight were racial minorities. Most women were employed, some were in school, and only five were full-time homemakers. Almost half, however, were on paid maternity leave, and others were back at work after having taken the year of maternity/parental leave that most Canadian women with full-time jobs can take. Continue reading “My Body Will Never Be the Way It Used to Be”

Behind the Breast Pumping Supermom

By Kristen Barber

Originally posted by Feminist Reflections on September 17, 2015 here.  Cross posted with permission.

I traveled to Winthrop University five months after my baby was born to talk to faculty and students about women’s unique needs during disaster. I was flying with my electric breast pump, which would both save me from the horrifying pain of engorgement and allow me to avoid dumping what women’s health practitioners call “liquid gold.” I am not a “breast is best” advocate; I’m a “whatever-the-mother-wants-to-do” advocate. Women, after all, already experience a lot of pressure around what it means to be a good mother, and research shows that the discrepancies between their expectations (like breastfeeding) and their experiences (finding breastfeeding difficult, impossible, painful, frustrating, and just plain not wanting to do it) causes stress, unhappiness, feelings of failure, and affects their overall experiences of motherhood.

Look how easy it is/
Look how easy it is/

Older women have oohed and ahhed over my pump, wishing they had something so efficient when their children were babies. Indeed, I came home from the hospital with a manual pump that was completely useless (the only pump my insurance covered), and I wondered how the generation before me didn’t chuck them in the fire just to watch them burn (yes, they are that bad). To these women, I was a “good” mother—a mother so dedicated to breastfeeding my child that I was able to bridge my work and my motherly duties. If I was going to insist on working outside of the home, they suggested, at least I was still putting my baby first. There is no short supply of family and friends who applaud mothers of infants for toting their pumps to work, and who tsk-tsk women for forgoing breastfeeding (or, ironically, for breastfeeding “too long”).

Continue reading “Behind the Breast Pumping Supermom”

Does Thinking About Future Parenthood Influence the Career Choices of Even Childless Women and Men?

Balancing work with new parenthood is hard, anyone will tell you that. Many couples that were previously dual-earner couples handle the increase in time and energy that a new baby requires by shifting their labor strategies, with most men ramping up and most women ramping down their career involvement. Sociological research that aims to understand why this trend persists, despite women’s significant advances in education and the labor market, have looked at couples with new babies and asked why they made the decisions they made. couple Continue reading “Does Thinking About Future Parenthood Influence the Career Choices of Even Childless Women and Men?”