Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Pregnancy and Parenthood: A Worldbuilding Hangout Report

Pregnancy and Parenthood are topics that are much easier to write about if you've had direct experience with them. However, if you haven't had the experience, you may still need to write about it! Don't fall into the trap of ignorance - if you're writing pregnancy or parenthood, do your research. I was joined in the discussion by Barbara Webb, Erin Peterson, Glenda Pfeiffer, Jaleh Dragich, K Richardson, and Spencer Ellsworth.

When we see pregnancy in the media, it always seems to involve morning sickness - and that always seems to involve throwing up in the morning. In fact, there is a range of symptoms. Some people have no nausea; others have constant nausea for 9 months. My own experience was that I never actually threw up, but I had nausea on and off for 15 weeks, especially when I let my stomach get empty. There are other changes that can occur in pregnancy as well, including enhanced sense of smell. Cravings are real, but they aren't always for the same things. I craved meat during my first pregnancy and fruit during my second. Jaleh said she craved dairy during one and pickles during the other. I had recently read an article that was trying to link cravings back to an instinct to ingest particular nutrients and avoid poisonous substances of various sorts. One thing appears to be constant (and so should be constant for humans even on another planet or in a fantasy world) is increased eating and increased urination. On the other hand, there are outlier cases where women can't tell they are pregnant until they go into labor.

K told us some interesting things about her own experience. Because she and her wife are both women, they had planned to carry one child each, and had a very basic assumption of equality between partners. However, that plan didn't end up working, because pregnancy and parenthood - especially breastfeeding - have an enormous impact on the childbearing partner. (As I personally tend to put it, the buck stops on Mommy's chest). K's wife had to leave her job and resume it later. Meanwhile, K had to assume the role of primary breadwinner, which put a significant amount of stress on her.

Jaleh was also forced to leave her job because of the hours required for childrearing.

My own worldbuilding thoughts for those who might be interested in setting up a more equal childbearing/breadwinning system is that making personal attitudes and assumptions pro-equality is not sufficient; you must also build equality into the institutions of a society, such as medicine, child support and employment.

Some people feel extremely fulfilled by parenting, but this is not an entirely safe assumption in worldbuilding terms. Many people prefer to have balance between parenting activities and personal intellectual or economic activities. Jaleh really enjoys working at a bookstore. We all agreed that social networking on the computer can be hugely important for stay-at-home moms, who might otherwise feel extremely isolated.

K brought up the idea of how close an eye one is expected to keep on one's children. Things change constantly, and we recalled that in the 1970's parents were more likely to pursue their own social lives and let their kids wander at certain hours of the day, something which would not be socially acceptable in our times. Jaleh recalled walking to school alone in second grade, but told us that in her area, kids had to be in 4th grade before the school bus would drop them off at an empty house. That kind of institutional requirement means that one parent has to be at home to receive the kids, so the need for one stay-at-home parent is higher. These days we hear a lot about "helicopter parenting" where the parents are constantly hovering nearby and intervening, trying to lead children's lives for them.

Parenting changes parents. How does it change them? We touched on it with the economic factors above, and I personally recall having severe sleep deprivation for a year with each of my children. It changes more than that, but the idea that "she just needs to have a baby and that will settle her" is a myth, as is the idea that "children keep couples together." Children can make couples feel legally obligated to remain together, but they do put significant stress on the relationship. As for the idea of being "settled" by having a child, that impression might conceivably come from the extreme exhaustion associated with having an infant, or from the change of priorities (need to think of children puts restrictions on the kinds of activities the primary caregiver can engage in outside the house).

Jaleh remarked on the "mommy club mentality." This is the sense that you "belong" if you have experienced pregnancy and had children. Pregnancy, as she put it, is a "trial membership." Once you've joined the club, you can open conversations with random strangers at the park! Kids give you an opening to speak, a shared experience and membership in a community. They can often serve as social smoothers.

K noted that once you have children it becomes the dominant shaper of your life. This may or may not be the case in cultures where parents do more group child-rearing, but in our culture it is certainly true. Were you accustomed to sleeping through the night? Were you accustomed to napping? Don't count on either of those things any more. It totally changes your social activities and the kinds of characteristics you share with other families. Your own age becomes less important for making alliances, and the age of your children more important. Kids bring the greater culture to bear on you, and for families with gay members, that means feeling more constrained.

Erin told us about an experience her own dad had shared, about the change of life that comes with children. The morning of the birth he went to buy a vacuum. Suddenly because there was going to be a baby in the house, it was important that the floor be clean.

Jaleh told us about a friend who stopped smoking to spare his pregnant wife, and then his baby.

Parenthood can also make you far more casual about discussing bodily functions. I often joke that in my family I am the "primary poop processor." When my kids were tiny, that applied both to them and the cats, and believe me, there was a lot of it. 5-diaper changes (that means when you start changing the diaper and the child soils each one continually so that you've used five before the change is finished) definitely put you in touch with your earthy side. My motto was always, "that's what diapers are for." On that note, Erin told us that since she was around lots of little kids, she kept talking casually about poop until junior high, when people told her she should really stop.

Spencer joined us late in the converstion to propose a specific worldbuilding example. He was working with a woman character, the wife of an assassinated Emperor, who went on the run from a harem with her tiny baby (and had to avoid telepaths on the way!). This got us thinking in a new direction.

Jaleh mentioned that you would have to think of diapering, whether you'd need washable cloth diapers, pins, etc. and how you would do laundry if you were running from pursuers. I mentioned non-diapering alternatives, and Spencer told us that for some time he'd practiced "elimination communication" with his kids, where even very small babies can be trained to pee in response to a particular sound. If the child is mobile and in the outdoors, many more possibilities open up. I once heard of a situation where a mother took her child to a house with servants and tile floors, and just let her child go on the floor and had the servants clean it up! That is certainly a different kind of approach, but I did wonder what that mother would do when her child was sleeping in bed.

Magic diapers were mentioned as a possible solution to Spencer's worldbuilding roblem, but Erin noted that even magic diapers would have a cost. My own opinion was that taking a more realistic approach could enhance the story more than going with the magic diaper option.

K mentioned that the woman on the run would need to eat a lot of food, and Jaleh added that this would have to be the right kind of food. These things are big considerations for women who are nursing. Nursing is an incredible drain on your systems (including your immune system). We also discussed how difficult it is to begin nursing, and particularly in a case where the child and mother are not accustomed yet to nursing together, it could make for a long period (up to 3 weeks) of considerable pain and difficulty for both parties.

The only constant in child-rearing is change.

I encourage participants to correct any errors I may have made in this report!


  1. Wait, do you have a hangout report for the "gender roles" hangout I was in, or...?

    1. Chihuahua, I do, but I'm running behind. It will be coming up, I promise!

  2. Fascinating post. I find this subject interesting in general because it's so emotive and people have so many different and often conflicting opinions - many of which change when they actually get pregnant/raise a child!

    1. Thanks, Hayley. I'm glad you enjoyed it! Yes, the experiences of individuals can vary widely.

  3. That was a fantastic discussion! (And it was my mom who had the dairy and pickle cravings. I only have one kid. ;D ) The mommy club thing I read about in The Girlfriend's Guide to Pregnancy, but it really did seem to exist though no one ever overtly acted on the phenomenon. Considering how many of my cousins had kids before I did, I did feel more "in" after I got pregnant, and even more so after my son was born.

    1. Thanks for correcting me, Jaleh. :) The notes had gotten rather old and my memory was fuzzy at points. I appreciate the comment!

  4. Great report. :) I'm 16 weeks pregnant with my third, and each pregnancy has been SO different. No nausea with #1 (just aversions to some smells), night time nausea with #2 (I started playing Halo 3 with my hubby to help take my mind off it lol), and this time, nausea until the week before last, but I never threw up. My cravings change from week to week, too. Early on it was all dairy, then carbs (particularly potatoes and bread) once the nausea hit, and now it's fruit.

    One thing I'd add is that contractions don't always start right after your water breaks (if it breaks first), and when contractions start, they're not always immediately intense. While both of those have been true for me both times (intense, precipitous labors), I have read many books and seen many shows/movies where this is seen as the norm. I guess it adds to the drama, but still. It's not the only way it happens, so if you're planning to write about a birth, don't be afraid to write it another way.

    One other thing that I found was with my first, I got so entrenched that I started to lose my identity aside from my role as a mother. Of course it was the most important one, but it was really hard on me. In those early days when you're sleep deprived and time revolves around moving from one feeding to the next diaper change, it is so easy to do.

    1. Brooke, thank you for sharing your different experiences! The breaking of the water is definitely something that differs between pregnancies. Mine never broke at all, and the doctor ended up breaking it for me! I think I had a similar experience to yours with my first child, though I fought against it early. Great comment.