Gender might be top of the list for discussion whenever someone notices you’re pregnant, but gender equality is still far from people’s minds. I have probably been asked “Are you having a boy or a girl?” at least once a day since I’ve been visibly pregnant which to me is the most ridiculous, uninteresting question you could probably ask about pregnancy and babies. However, for some reason, our society still believes its so important that it must, without fail, be the first question you ask any pregnant person.
I’ve been shocked by how much pregnancy has highlighted people’s deep concern with gender, but it has also highlighted a whole variety of deep rooted inequalities in terms of gender, race, or disability, that are perpetuated throughout our society, generation after generation. Here are just a few things I’ve noticed:
Babies are stereotyped before they are even born.
Even though I tell people I don’t know what sex my child is, they will still take this as a cue to discuss the differences between boys and girls. Here are just some highlights of comments I’ve had to endure, from a range of seemingly intelligent people:
“Oh you don’t want a boy, boys are exhausting, they will have you running around all over the place.”
“If you have a girl she’ll be really cute.”
“Little boys are so funny.”
“Boys names are hard because it has to sound good in the board room.”
But the stereotyping goes beyond gender. When I told friends and colleagues that my sister-in-law was having twins, and in particular twin boys if you must know, there were comments like “Well, they’re going to be troublesome.” If these are the type of comments babies get about them before they are even born I can only imagine what they might hear and soak up about themselves when they are actually here, and how that might impact their behavior.
Black or Asian newborns apparently don’t exist.
When I started my NCT classes I suddenly became acutely aware that our NCT nurse talked a lot about skin tone of newborn babies. I realized that everything she said related to light skinned babies, and that the pictures she handed around of newborns were always of little white babies. I gave her the benefit of the doubt and assumed that because it was all white couples in the room (another example of inequality) perhaps she had purposefully selected these pictures. But then I realized that whenever I’ve looked at my Baby Centre app, or googled something about newborns or labour, the pictures are of white children and mothers 99 percent of the time.
People of different skin tones do of course reproduce, so why is it that we still think it’s normal to only see pictures of white babies?
People might give up their seat for pregnant women, but a disabled or elderly person? You’ve got to be kidding.
Generally I’m offered a seat on the tube or train these days now that my stomach is the size of a bowling ball. Although weirdly it tends to be women or young men in their early 20s who give up their seat for me — middle-aged men in suits are often too busy hiding behind their copy of the Telegraph to notice those around them.
However, there have been multiple occasions where I have ended up offering my seat to someone who needs it before anyone else on the packed train has noticed them. A blind man got on the train the other day, people looked at him but turned away. I had to get up out of my seat and cross half the carriage to offer him my seat, which of course guilt tripped a handful of embarrassed men to offer me a seat in return.
The same happened with an elderly Muslim woman who was quite clearly having to cling on to her husband to stay up right. I offered my seat, and whilst she was telling me she felt uncomfortable having to take a seat from a pregnant woman, the bloke opposite me half heartedly offered his seat. The offer, however, wasn’t directed at her but instead directed at me if I was so adamant at giving up mine to someone he quite clearly thought didn’t deserve it.
My partner was also on the tube with me once where a man with a walking stick had travelled through half the carriages without anyone offering him a seat and my partner got up out of his and strode three sets of seats down the carriage to offer this man his.
Apparently all babies are born to heterosexual couples — who are probably married.
I’ve been pleased to see that in general most reputable sources of information about babies and childcare have updated their copy to refer to ‘partner’ rather than ‘husband.’ But it does make me wonder, how do single mothers feel when they read references to partners all over articles and content about pregnancy and childcare? And what about those families where it might be a homosexual couple with surrogate mother?
I also feel that whilst the media and content providers are being more careful about how they refer to parents, the general public has not absorbed this. When I’ve met new people through events or work, when my partner has not been with me, so many of them have asked about ‘my husband’. Firstly, why assume that I’m married? And secondly, why assume that I’m having a child in a heterosexual relationship?
The world still assumes my partner is going back to work two weeks after the baby is born.
In spite of the introduction of shared parental leave nearly two years ago, I’ve been surprised to find how quickly people jump to the assumption that I’ll be out of work for at least 6-12 months, and that my partner will be the one jumping back into work to financially support our family. They don’t even ask questions about our situation before making this assumption.
Where possible my partner and I try to explicitly talk about our situation to people, because if people don’t hear of examples where the parents are sharing childcare or where a father is doing the majority of the childcare whilst the mother works, then society will never change. And when we do talk about it, while most people tend to be supportive and understanding there have been a few judgemental and concerned members of the public who can’t quite get their heads around such a seemingly bizarre concept. My favourite retort to the idea that my partner will be sharing the childcare was “But won’t he be bored?”. Shocking, but by no means as bad as the comment this woman had from a friend about her partner feeling “emasculated.”
Society still believe mothers are “innately” more caring.
Part of what fuels the assumption that I will be the one staying at home to look after our baby is that society still believes women are “innately” more caring or loving. And this isn’t just my grandparents who believe this, it’s also other people in their 20s like me and my partner, it’s other fathers and mothers, and in many cases it’s trained medical professionals who also make reference to a mother’s innate ability to look after their children, and a father’s apparent lack of ability.
Thankfully my partner and I are equally loving people who are equally capable of changing nappies and feeding our child. People have been raising children for millions of years, and just because my partner might have slightly different hormones to me that doesn’t mean he’ll be any less of a parent to our child.
It’s sad and scary that my child will be born into a world where they will face ridiculous stereotyping and inequality on a daily basis. But I am also glad that it will have two parents who will be able to teach it that no matter what age, race or gender someone is they deserve equal respect and equal opportunities to be whatever person they want to be