Sunday, 21 January 2018

How women experience parenthood differently from men: Part 1 – the baby making bits.

I scroll through Twitter while snuggling my daughter to sleep every night…perhaps that is rude but I could (maybe I will) write a whole blog post on why I think it’s A-ok. The other night, I came across a Tweet about an awesome scholarship available for early-career women scientists to cover childcare, housecleaning, or other necessities that could free up their time to ensure greater scientific success. Of course, because we are women and can’t have nice things, apparently, a dude had to complain about this being unfair and sexist. Men are parents, too! Why only help the women?

Ah, well. This is of course the argument that white people make when there are scholarships aimed towards people of color – the entire point is that white people and/or male people generally have advantages that mean people of color and/or women cannot easily compete. The playing field is not even. Do you go to soccer games and expect one team to play with their shoelaces tied together?

I know many men think that they pull their weight when it comes to parenting. Overall men do more parenting these days than they typically did historically. But there are fundamental differences associated with having children that affect women differently from men. Perhaps you’ve heard about some of these differences, maybe during Sex Ed in middle school, but since it seems like at least some people in the population have forgotten this information, let me explain. With Parks and Rec gifs because it's easier than finding photos right now.

Ye Olde Uterus
This is a bag-shaped organ underneath the stomach of women inside their bodies. It’s where babies grow like creepy alien parasites. Men don’t have this organ.

Ye Olde Ovaries
Two little grape-shaped things connected to the uterus via tubes. These things make eggs, which move down into the uterus; if circumstances are right, they might get fertilized by sperm that swims up into the uterus and make a baby. Men also do not have ovaries.

The uterus and ovaries work together to lead to the following women-only, not-always-awesome experiences:

The ovaries of human women tend to take turns releasing an egg for potential fertilization every month. Thus, the uterus gets ready to potentially host a baby each month by building up a thick layer of blood all around the inside that would act as a cushion to protect a hypothetical growing baby so that women who dare do things like surf or fall down or accidentally bump their midsections into countertops might still be able to bear a live child. However, if the released egg doesn’t get fertilized, then the uterus decides it had better just shed that lovely blood cushion so it can make a fresh one the next month for another hypothetical baby (seems kinda wasteful of good blood, no?).
In the human species, women grow children inside of themselves. The babies typically grow in the uterus, although less frequently, an embryo starts growing in the fallopian tubes that connect the ovaries to the uterus (an ectopic pregnancy), which will require an abortion (either occurring spontaneously or medically induced) or kill the mother. If the embryo implants in the uterus as biologically planned, the woman then gets to experience up to 10 months of growing a baby inside of her own body until the baby is born (hopefully live but sometimes very sadly stillborn), is miscarried, or is aborted (or, in very rare circumstances, dies and remains in the body and becomes calcified).

Pregnancy, you may know, it not a walk in the park. During the first trimester, or even beyond, the woman may feel like will, or actually does, go around puking constantly. This can be rather debilitating; if you get seasick, imagine experiencing that lovely feeling for months with no possibility of getting off the boat. The woman may also feel tired while pregnant, and may require frequent and/or unexpected naps, possibly in weird places like the middle of a hiking path (why yes, I do know this from personal experience). She also may need to pee constantly, experience aches and pains, have trouble breathing, and a whole host of other horrible side effects. For goodness sake, there are entire books on weird crap your body does during pregnancy. The baby is literally a parasite and a woman’s body will generally rob itself to provide what the baby needs – calories, vitamins and minerals, oxygen – before allowing the mother to have the leftovers.

If crazy physical symptoms weren’t enough, pregnancy also screws with a woman’s brain as her body is flooded with different hormones along the way. Plus, her uterus and the baby inside expand to ridiculous proportions, stretching the crap out of her stomach muscles and skin, and smashing all of her other internal organs up into (or, in the case of my gallbladder, onto) her rib cage. Then of course there are all the invasive tests and treatments women get to experience while pregnant – ultrasound wands up the hoo-ha, glugging bottles of partially-dissolved sugar, blood tests and shots and hands in private places. All while forgoing alcohol, caffeine, hot-tubs and other pleasantries.

Beyond these, some women experience serious pregnancy-related illnesses that can lead to permanent disability or death for mother or baby like preeclampsia and its relatives, and cholestasis. It’s just basically physically insane, and men experience none of it first-hand.
At the other end of the spectrum, some couples who wish to become pregnant, can’t. Ok, true; in some cases, the man is the problem, and he might have to undergo unpleasant tests or treatments to get his sperm into the right place at the right time to make a baby. But then the lady still has to endure the above pregnancy stuff. Otherwise, AND most of the time even when the dude is the problem, the woman typically gets to jab herself with needles for weeks on end, purposefully whacking out her hormones to produce extra eggs and then gets to undergo minor surgery to remove the eggs with a needle up the vagina for fertilization in the lab, and transfer back into the uterus (I’m guessing with a turkey baster, but maybe something more professional). But I’ll give the men who have to undergo actual surgery or [redacted] ultrasound some props.

Not all pregnancies go well. Many end up failing before the baby is completely cooked for one reason or another – often because of genetic abnormalities because biology is messy. Miscarriages are more common earlier in the pregnancy, but can occur much later too; the longer into a pregnancy, generally the more physically and emotionally painful this can be. Not all miscarriages resolve naturally. Sometimes the baby dies but remains in the uterus, which can require medication or minor surgery to resolve. A womans’ hormones and body take time to recover after a miscarriage. It’s a time of sadness and physical pain, usually borne quietly and alone; pregnancy loss is an uncomfortable subject for most everyone even though more women have gone through it than you might think. Sure, men may be saddened by losing a baby, but they don’t physically endure any consequences associated with the loss.

Oh, the most infamous of experiences unique to women. The range of childbirth experiences is incredibly diverse, but most include intense pain, exhaustion, and temporary or long-term damage to a woman’s body. Childbirth is still dangerous in many parts of the world, even those with advanced healthcare systems. Myself and many friends had close calls – either the mother or baby would definitely have died without significant interventions. Two friends lost seemingly healthy full term babies during or immediately after birth; the unfairness of life is sometimes staggering. Close calls include births that required C-sections such as a frank breech (butt first) baby who would have never fit out the birth canal, and several babies with cords wrapped too tightly around their necks to be born vaginally. My own dumb cervix refused to budge at all after 24 hours of labor despite all the midwifery tricks in the book, until I got an epidural (ah, what a miracle of an invention), and then I had a massive hemorrhage when my son finally arrived.
Recovery from childbirth is also physically rough – many women have stiches, either in their delicate lady parts from tears or episiotomy, and/or in their abdomens from a cesarean. Many can’t even walk for a few days after childbirth. Even without experiencing a traumatic labor, once the baby is no longer occupying the uterus, a woman’s deflated, stretched-out stomach muscles are about as useful for helping her sit, stand, walk, and perform as normal as a swimsuit is useful as during a space walk (Ok, maybe analogies are not my forte). Oh, we also bleed ridiculous, frightening amounts during this time (because of course, our uterus blood cushion has served its purpose and needs to go away).

Often, a woman’s abdominal muscles are not only super stretched and pathetic after childbirth, but can physically separate from one another, leading to difficulty regaining core strength, associated lower back pain, and sometimes hernias. Fun fact: it’s only normal to have an “outy” belly button when you are an infant or little kid or actually pregnant…if it continues to stick out you likely have an umbilical hernia which requires surgery.

So tell me, men – how many physically and emotionally debilitating experiences have you had to work through to prove that men are just as capable as women?

Stay tuned for Part 2 – Feeding the baby!

*Updated 1/22 with a few tidbits thanks to my lovely lady friends


  1. Nice one, Jess! It's true, you have to be tough to go through life as a woman, including having children! I look forward to your next piece!