I feel like there are two lines of argument used by anti-choice activists, one that pregnancy is the most important thing a woman can do with her life, the other, that it isn’t really that big a deal to just go ahead and go through with it and so you must be really selfish not to just have a baby. They always sound like they’re admonishing very young girls for worrying about their appearance. Very few of the people who will tell us those things do anything at all to help women deal with the economic fallout of pregnancy: they neither advocate for fair family leave policies nor stronger anti-discrimination laws protecting pregnant workers. They may not even consider pregnancy discrimination relevant to the question of whether women should get to decide to keep a pregnancy, perhaps because they might have to admit that it can have negative material consequences.
I read all that and can only think, “Damn, I’m lucky.”
I’m 38 years old and six months pregnant. I have health insurance and a job where I can telecommute. I’ll be able to take 12 weeks of maternity leave if I need it. It took a long while to get to this point though, and there were a lot of times earlier in my life when this pregnancy could have caused me to lose a job or otherwise shattered what little economic security I had.
Because while pregnancy affects every individual differently, and some people are famously so unaffected that they don’t even know they’re pregnant until quite late, for many expecting mothers it means months worth of constant illness. Most people don’t have the kind of job security that allows you to manage that much sick leave, there’s no national policy in place to support women who become very ill during pregnancy, and we haven’t even gotten around to talking about leave to care for a newborn.
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Let’s start with the exhaustion. Early in my first trimester, I became so tired, so often, that I almost fell asleep once on the way home from work while standing up in a crowded, rush hour DC Metro train. I was incredibly grateful that I no longer drive. I could stay awake reliably for about long enough to have a full work day, and that was about it.
My then employer let me work from home during the remainder of the first trimester, because it didn’t interfere at the time with my ability to do my job. It was very kind and much-needed. I’ve had a number of jobs, especially low-wage jobs when I was younger and many jobs to which I had to drive, and where to continue a pregnancy with the same symptoms would likely have meant losing the job. There have been bad financial times when it might have meant trying to push myself until I’d gotten seriously hurt.
Being tired isn’t one of the worst symptoms a person can have in pregnancy. It sounds innocuous. I wasn’t put on bed rest, I wasn’t constantly vomiting (just constantly nauseous), didn’t have any severe cardiovascular or diabetic symptoms. I just couldn’t keep my eyes open sometimes, no matter what I did.
Then the doctors’ appointments start. I may have gone to the doctor more in the last six months than in the last six years. The appointments are only going to get more frequent as I approach my due date, and then when the baby comes, not only will I need follow-up care, but the cycle of recommended “well baby” visits will begin. All these appointments have to be scheduled during regular business hours; this poses an obvious problem for people with a 9-5 workday, but can also be hard for shift workers who may not get their schedules until the beginning of the work week.
On top of that, there are the mid-pregnancy ultrasounds to check that everything’s in order. When we went for the 20-week scan, it took the technician around an hour and she couldn’t get all the pictures she needed because of how the fetus was positioned. We couldn’t get another appointment for four weeks, right at the cutoff limit for my SCOTUS-approved decision making rights. This time, the technician zoomed through getting the rest of the pictures in 20 minutes, except for one. She spent another 20 minutes trying to see the left ventricle of the heart because of an inconveniently placed shinbone.
So much for that afternoon. And so much for my rights in many places and many people’s minds, even if the pictures had revealed, for example, that I was providing life support for a body that was never going to be able to survive on its own, a level of life support I could not be justly required to provide against my will to anyone already born, even if they were my child.
But everything seemed fine, thank goodness. Also, thank goodness for flex time, which most people don’t have at work. Considering how long it takes to get to my insured provider’s office and back, I’m sure I’d have already come close to exhausting a year’s worth of sick leave.
There are women who show up at the hospital to give birth in the United States having had little to no prenatal care, and I can understand why. If the lack of health coverage for low-wage working families weren’t bad enough, the difficulty of keeping up with the recommended number of appointments is downright intimidating. If you rely on public transit, as I do, the time involved adds up very quickly.
And don’t forget the dehydration. That was exciting. Twice I landed at the medical center so dehydrated that they said I needed an IV transfusion of saline immediately. Both times, my veins had so little pressure in them that they needed three tries to get the IV to stay. The first time, when I nearly passed out after a blood draw, it worked, and also ended up taking four hours. The second time, when I came in for a migraine that I couldn’t keep any safe treatment down for, they gave up after the third blown vein. The doctor warily told me to go home and drink as much water as I could possibly stand to that day.
I’ve just never drunk very much water. Now my body’s having to rapidly build out new networks of blood vessels, provide fresh fluid for a rapidly cycling fetal metabolism, and keep my kidneys clear of all the extra waste. I need extra water like I never have in my life. I don’t want to black out. I don’t want another 24-hour migraine I can’t treat and that would keep me from working.
Dehydration doesn’t sound much more worrisome on paper than being tired does, but during pregnancy, it can be dangerous and it has to be taken seriously.
Yet women can be fired for taking additional water and bathroom breaks during pregnancy. There’d be another deal breaker for my continuing employment, right there, even if I had no other symptoms.
I could pat myself on the back for having waited long enough to have a child until I had a chance to find a supportive and loving partner, and that I built my career to a point where I’ve been able to find decent and secure employment. Though to think that would be delusional self-flattery.
The truth is, that when I was very young and working in minimum wage jobs, temp jobs, jobs where my skills could have been replaced in a week flat if the employer were very picky, I was unwell. I didn’t know it, but I was. I had an ovarian cyst, weighing over two pounds, that had been growing for years. When I found myself having a miscarriage in my early 20s as my first marriage fell apart, the doctors found it. That’s why I ‘waited.’
And I can’t know with certainty what I would have done if I’d gotten pregnant 15 to 20 years ago, when I would have been considered an utterly disposable member of the labor market, as so many other pregnant workers are considered now.
Because women are fired all the time for being pregnant. They’re forced to use up leave they don’t need when they’re feeling fine, they’re denied reasonable accommodations when they’re not, and they’re often refused recovery time after giving birth. All at jobs with wages that rarely cover decent child care.
To minimize the potential impact of these issues on the earning potential of women and their families is nothing short of cruel. Parenting might be lauded as hard and crucial work for women, work that starts before a child is even born, but we’re also often expected to carry the full burden of time and expense with very little assistance or even accommodation.
Meanwhile, the government that stands ready to subject me to criminal penalties if I should fail badly as a parent is skirting perilously close to denying me the right to refuse these challenges and obligations, often on the insulting pretext that they can’t trust me with these decisions because I don’t fully understand them. No, I understand them very well and trust that other women do, too.
It isn’t hard to notice who does nearly all the work of caring for children even when you’re still only a child yourself.
What I don’t trust is the adults out there who act like they don’t understand how much of a physical and economic impact pregnancy, childbirth, and parenthood have on women. I don’t trust that they just never noticed, and sincerely mean to deprive us of the ability to choose whether or not to take those on out of concern for our well-being, when they can’t even have a mature conversation about the risks and penalties of becoming a mother. I don’t trust that they care about me when they talk to me like a child, or as if the only person they’re interested in is one that’s never even drawn a breath on its own.
The closer I get to my due date, the more offended I am when opponents of women’s rights and of unfettered access to reproductive health care take a lackadaisical attitude towards what pregnancy entails. To me, those people are the worst sort of freeloaders on the ability to bear children and the willingness of so many women to do the hard and expensive work of raising them, even when our society penalizes us for it at every turn.