Pregnancy? If you ask me, we’re doing it wrong

Pregnancy is beautiful – or so they say.

Well, I beg to differ. Interesting or even fascinating? Yes, definitely. But also inconvenient, weird and just plain impractical.

I have to disclose that, even as a young girl, I’ve always found that pregnant women look very strange, and often rather uncomfortable (I even felt a bit sorry for them). This hasn’t changed over the years, and neither did my feelings about pregnancy in general – not when I was pregnant with my first child almost ten years ago, or now with my current pregnancy…

Think about it: there is a small human being inside another human being!!! Moving around, kicking from the inside, squeezing their feet under your ribcage (causing that weird tingly sensation, which was new for me), pushing on the same spot over and over until you feel bruised inside and all the midwife can do is tell you it’s normal and to put a cold pack on it (also new for me), hiccupping, growing bigger and bigger… in fact, so big that at the end it’s quite a struggle to push him/her out through a passage that is barely adequate for this! In fact it’s such a tight fit that all kinds of additional adaptations had to happen, such as the skull bones of the baby not being fused until after the birth – to make the head more squishable – and the joints of the mother loosening up so the pelvis can open wider.

Speaking of which: the entire female body undergoes such profound changes that medical doctors treated (and often still treat) pregnancy as a medical condition, rather than a natural process. Which is of course silly, because – as strange as it is – it’s not a disease. (By the way, this is a comparatively recent phenomenon, see e.g. this brief overview).

But let’s just list a few of these changes here for fun – physiological:

  • blood plasma volume increases by 50% while the number of red blood cells only increases by 20-30%, completely changing the haematology
  • heart rate and cardiac output increase
  • the blood sugar level increases
  • breathing increases
  • the immune system is slightly suppressed
  • …and don’t even mention the hormones..

..and anatomical changes (besides the joints mentioned above):

  • the uterus increases its weight about 20 and its initial capacity about 1,000 times (not to mention all that muscle it packs on and starts exercising not too far into the pregnancy, getting ready for that olympic-class event of giving birth)
  • the placenta and umbilical cord grow
  • the breasts significantly increase in size (…and then even more, after the baby is born, for nursing)
  • and that absolutely massive belly people insist on affectionately calling “the bump” in a ridiculous understatement, which is due to the uterus growing into the abdomen, causing the abdominal wall to expand to accommodate it.

Anyway. The reason I am writing this post? I have a proposal to make.

Can we please lay eggs instead?

An egg, yesterday. (Isn’t it cute?)

Think about it. First of all, such an egg is smooth and round and would – frankly – come out a bit easier, with far less potential for drama including breech birth and other complications. But, more importantly: once the egg is out, it doesn’t have to be just the mother who looks after it. Look at Emperor penguins, for example! The fathers sit patiently on the eggs, keeping them warm, while the ladies take off to the seashore to replenish their used-up energy stores after producing that egg. Then they come back and take over again so the lads can have a break. How beautiful would that be? Truly equal sharing of responsibilities, right from the start!

And of course, humans being the ingenious species we are, looking after the egg doesn’t have to mean staying at home/stationary and sitting on it. I can imagine entire ranges of padded designer egg-carrier bags that can be set at just the right temperature and that even the most fashion conscious mum or dad wouldn’t be embarrassed to take to work with them, or any social event for that matter. It might even be admired and be quite the conversation starter. And it doesn’t have to stop there! With eggs in a carrier bag the entire family can share in the experience: grandmother and grandfather, older siblings… even friends could have a go!

P.S. Where did this post come from? Due to my employer’s special status, although based in the UK, my maternity leave had to start this week, four weeks before the due date, with no choice involved. Oh, the time to overthink this…… I guess I really should do some more relaxing now…

About steffi suhr

Once upon a time, I was an enthusiastic and hopeful biological oceanographer who did a bunch of work in the Antarctic. I was alternately wearing labcoats or extreme weather clothing and hard hats, but have long since swapped survival suits for dress suits and do science management, currently as the BioMedBridges project manager at the European Bioinformatics Institute. I still like to use my brain. I'm a German serial expat, currently - again - living in the UK.
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30 Responses to Pregnancy? If you ask me, we’re doing it wrong

  1. Laurence Cox says:

    There’s always the route that the marsupials took of giving birth to underdeveloped young and then carrying them in an external pouch. Who knows, if Australia and India hadn’t split off from Africa and the latter two hadn’t cannoned into Asia and Europe, we might have had marsupials as ancestors. :-)

  2. Svetlana says:

    Hmmm… No.
    Dinosaurs laid the eggs and that is why they died out… ;))

    Better to learn to fly or to live longer :))

    • steffi suhr says:

      Hmmm.. thinning of egg shells or multi-layered shells are just two of the “possible theories” listed e.g. here.

      In any case, the purpose-made egg baskets would obviously prevent breaking in case of the former.

  3. Lisa says:

    This is a fun post and agree that eggs are the best solution. I beg to disagree with you on one issue, though. In pre-modern medicine, pregnancy was considered a time of illness for women because of stopped menstruation. Menstruation was understood to be the body’s way of ridding itself of a plethora of blood. This is why, they believed, that pregnant women developed piles, coughs, nosebleeds, rashes–excess blood finding another route out. That’s not to say people didn’t see childbirth as natural, just that they recognised its heavy physical demands. So, arguably, it’s a modern construction to glorify the experience of pregnancy… In any case, you have all my sympathy!

    • steffi suhr says:

      Hi Lisa, thanks for your comment! I wasn’t aware of that particular pre-modern medical idea about pregnancy, although what you say makes complete sense – they also used to shut pregnant women in for weeks (or even months) before giving birth, didn’t they? “Confinement” – just the word makes me claustrophobic.

      • cromercrox says:

        Aristotle thought that babies congealed from the menstrual blood that would otherwise have been shed, ‘fecundated’ by the sperm. Lisa doesn’t say how males would have been rid of all that extra blood – perhaps that’s what bloodletting was for.

        • Lisa says:

          Men weren’t supposed to have a plethora, as they were able to sweat it off (so the argument went). This was a problem for sedentary men or others prone to excess blood. The consequences were very similar: piles, nosebleeds, special urination… But ideally men weren’t supposed to leak and treatments aimed at getting their bodies closer to the ideal. Bloodletting was indeed one of the remedies, though there were others. I wrote a very short blog post on it here: http://www.wondersandmarvels.com/2011/12/manly-menstruation.html.

          • steffi suhr says:

            Thank you for the link, Lisa! That story makes me giggle – partly because they were (of course) so serious about what they thought and did in those days. In the absence of all the facts we know now there is a certain logic behind these assumptions…

  4. cromercrox says:

    What an interesting and thought-provoking post! With my evolutionary biologist hat on, it made me think about why mammals abandoned egg-laying (though platypuses still do it); all the problems and compromises that internal incubation pose; and whether the benefits outweigh the problems. I do wonder, though, whether we’d have turned out as human at all, without the mammalian way of reproduction – which goes with parental care, and so on.

    With my SF hat on, I wondered whether we mightn’t in any case be moving towards an egg-laying society, with the development of exogenesis – pregnancy outside the womb. At one end, we have IVF. At the other, we have more and more sophisticated ways to keep ever-more-premature babies alive. Eventually these will join in the middle and babies might be conceived and gestated entirely externally. This will save a great deal of discomfort – exhaustion, piles, gestational diabetes, incredible pain, the risks of the birth process to mother and baby – but I wonder, at what cost? Who knows?

    As for me, a hapless male and therefore also subject to hormonal urges, I find pregnant women incredibly beautiful. Their skin and hair always seems more lustrous, somehow. And the sight of a nursing mother makes my heart sing (knickers to all those prudes who tut about breastfeeding in public!!)

  5. Lisa says:

    Many women wouldn’t have seen it as shutting in. In the medieval and early modern period, it was called ‘lying-in’, which is a much better term than the later ‘confinement’! During the six weeks of lying-in, which occurred after childbirth, women were relieved of their usual housewifely duties, from sex to work. Extra household help might be hired to help out with the baby and housework. Visitors were allowed. So it wasn’t too dire! The ideal was so important that 18th cenutry lying-in hospitals, charities for poor married women, would allow–as far as possible–the women and their babies to stay for six weeks. Before birth, though, it was business as usual, apart from a few regulations to prevent miscarriage… e.g. dancing, late nights, doing elaborate hairstyles, running, going about in bumpy carriages, and excessive intercourse were to be avoided. Your four weeks of enforced leave before birth wouldn’t have made much sense to early modern people either :-)

    • steffi suhr says:

      I could do with no housework, but no running or sex… never mind :-)

      Having had my first in the US and now the second here in the UK, the differences between the approaches even within modern medicine (in different countries) are absolutely fascinating to me. For the hospital stay after the birth, I was considered a freak in the US and had to sign a waiver when I wanted to leave after 24 hours rather than the usual 48 hours… while here in the UK, there is a special notice on the website of the maternity ward I will go to explaining how, sorry, there are no beds for mothers after birth unless they have to stay because there are problems with the baby – mother and baby are apparently sent back home almost straight away..!

      • Lisa says:

        Those are really interesting differences that show how ideas about mat leave and patient care end up shaping the experience of post-delivery. Or, perhaps it’s the other way around. It’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation… (Forgive me!)

  6. cromercrox says:

    Again, with my SF hat on, the late Arthur C. Clarke has an alien say (in The Fountains of Paradise) that religion is a consequence of the mammalian reproductive system. That’s something to think about.

  7. steffi suhr says:

    First of all Henry, concerning that last paragraph: you’re lovely. (And yay to breastfeeding!)

    Writing this I also thought of my niece: a couple of months ago during a visit, she whispered in my ear that she would really like to have children, but that she is scared of her belly “tearing to bits”. First I had no clue where she got that idea from, but then remembered her overhearing someone making a comment on how, in the last two weeks of pregnancy, their belly got really big very quickly, leading to “all kinds of tearing”. I took my niece aside then and explained to her that it’s all “really not that bad” and that there’s a lot that can be done with creams and oils to help with this or prevent it.

    Concerning the first bit on evolution: to me our current mode of reproduction seems the classic compromise. It allows for several different things, probably including parental care as you mentioned and everything to do with the development of this awesome human brain (resulting in the anatomical fall-out with the big head and the narrow pelvis..), while at the same time not killing too many mothers and babies in the process over time.

    Where we’re going.. I really don’t know. Somewhat to the opposite extreme of what you describe, I know someone who carried a baby – from a donated egg *and* sperm – for a full-term pregnancy in her late fourties. This is definitely not something I would have even remotely considered, although I see of course that it is entirely possible (the body would take that much longer to heal though). I don’t feel that nostalgic about pregnancy, but obviously a lot of people do. Why my husband and I didn’t adopt children instead then? Well, to me there is a big component of fun in mixing one’s genes with those of one’s partner and seeing what comes out…!

  8. Lisa says:

    Your poor niece!

    After thinking about the the sci-fi and science discussions above, it makes me wonder… to what extent the modern drive to glorifying pregnancy as a physical experience is partly tied to the modern possibility of an un-embodied reproduction? And what then does that say about our relationships to our bodies?

  9. steffi suhr says:

    I think the glorification (nice choice of words, by the way) may simply be a backlash against the medicalisation of pregnancy and birth for most of the last century. It’s also closely tied in with taking charge of our own bodies again (as we should), although the expressions of that sometimes go over the top. (At this point I should mention that I had a natural birth with no pain medication last time and am planning to do so again this time… although I already know that I’ll hate myself for it half way through – the lack of issues afterwards will be worth it again though).

    Now, treating pregnancy as a fashion/life-style accessory like many celebs seem to do these days.. that’s a different thing altogether.

    • Lisa says:

      Yes, I think you’re right. But it is quite interesting, thinking more broadly, that embodiment/physical experience is finally becoming of interest to scholars–perhaps a recognition of the physical self, but also occuring at the same time as technology is changing our relationship with our bodies more than ever.

  10. Stephenemoss says:

    What with all this talk of aliens, and worrying about ones belly ‘tearing to bits’, I can’t help but wonder what John Hurt might have to say.

  11. I think you dismissed the marsupial pouch idea a little too quickly, Steffi. It really does seem like a great system, and when not using the pouch for babies you could keep your phone in it. And maybe some snacks. And maybe men could have one too, like with nipples, and then they’ll finally be able to have a bag with them at all times without social stigma! (Several of my male friends have admitted that they’d love to have a handbag). And imagine the exciting new trends of pouch tattoos, pouch piercings, celebrity pouch sightings, pouch tucks for the cosmetic surgery afficionados…

    On the other hand, though… where exactly do baby marsupials, um, pee and poo? Is it… in the pouch??? Because that would be gross.

  12. steffi suhr says:

    But that’s the drawback with pouches! You’d have to look after the baby much more than an egg: feed it, clean it (imagining having to hold it over the side of the bag for pooing)…

    And now I’m imagining itchy crumbs in my pouch, and a mobile phone in buzzing mode going off in there.

    • Aren’t marsupial nipples actually inside the pouch, though? So feeding wouldn’t really be a problem – the baby would just latch on and stay there.

      Added bonus: no need for bras, ability to go topless without social stigma (presumably).

      On your last sentence: I’m sure some people would really be into that.

      • steffi suhr says:

        Nope, still not sold on it. You know how you can get fuzz in your belly button (provided you have an innie)? Imagine keeping that pouch clean..!