Last week, acclaimed author and feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie let it be known that she’s had a baby in an interview with The Financial Times. The “announcement” came in the form of an explanation — she wasn’t drinking a glass of wine because she’s now breastfeeding a baby that no one knew she had, she was “happy to announce.” The reasons this was newsworthy were two-fold: One, because we live in an internet era where female celebrities, including celebrity authors, are expected to reveal such news (via social media) the second after they pee on a stick, and two, because Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie didn’t want to, as she says, “perform pregnancy.” The exact quote was, “I have some friends who probably don’t know I was pregnant or that I had a baby. I just feel like we live in an age when women are supposed to perform pregnancy. We don’t expect fathers to perform fatherhood.” And with that, she dropped the subject. (…and the mic. A hokey copywriter for a popular baby carrier brand might call it a “mommy mic drop.”)
Speaking as a person who’s long been fascinated with the act of “performance” on social media as it is manifested through parenthood, I found this statement to be pretty next-level. Not only do I agree there’s a double standard among men and women when it comes to “showing off” during both pregnancy and parenthood in terms of societal expectations, but I also feel this is something universally true that Adichie concisely outlined in a single sentence. Sure, those people who “perform” online, particularly during pregnancy, are free to do so and should make that choice for themselves. But that’s not necessarily what Adichie is referring to. She’s saying that the sometimes ravenous expectation for performance, especially among women, might not benefit…well, anyone, for myriad reasons.
Men will never be expected to perform as much as women in this way; after all, men don’t carry the baby, deliver the baby, or breastfeed the baby. Men’s roles have been downplayed as less important, so therefore people are less intrusive and judgmental toward men. It’s women who field questions from people in the supermarket, and women who are required to be at every doctor appointment, and women who will get judged by peers and strangers alike after having the baby, no matter how they choose to parent. Perhaps this anticipated judgment can intensify a woman’s urge to “perform” on social media, where she feels she has some control over her image/message and can “show off” for friends and family. Maybe she can’t stop the rude stranger in the checkout aisle from telling her she looks like she’s “ready to give birth any day now” when she’s only six months along, but she can certainly take a weekly flattering picture, edit it, and show off her baby bump to friends on Facebook with the inevitable promise of dozens of Likes. Not only does society create these absurd expectations, but it seems to set some of us up to feel a need to perform, whether we want to or not.
Not only that, but social media has completely normalized the act of “performative pregnancy” in recent years. For some people, a pregnancy wouldn’t be as fun or as personally meaningful without being able to upload daily belly pictures, complain about swollen feet, or declare feeling #blessed on a regular basis. I was actually surprised to learn after posting about Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s stance that many STFU, Parents Facebook fans also refrained from “performing” online during their pregnancies. Some said they waited to announce a new baby because performing pregnancy can be hurtful to those who are struggling with infertility. Others said they weren’t interested in posting what they perceive to be “scripted” performances, where the posts come across as sanctimonious, unoriginal, and/or just plain boring. There’s a full-circle element to being proud of NOT discussing a life event on social media at this point, now that we’ve all lived our lives online for so many years. Even I’ve noticed this cycle of performance changing as people behave differently with baby #2 than they did with baby #1, much like parents do in real life. The act of performance is no longer considered new to us, so when someone overshares or over-posts, people may Like the updates more out of obligation than sheer excitement. We’ve all been there and Liked that. We all know what happens next. The baby is born, and thus a cavalcade of new information — information that applies to most new parents and babies, about sleep schedules and poopy diapers — awaits us.
And yet, the act of performing pregnancy (and performing motherhood in general) continues. No more grating is this act than when a woman brags about “making a baby” day-to-day, because women’s uteruses are “baby ovens,” and a bun in the oven is (usually) cooking for 40 long weeks. That’s 40 weeks of a woman waking up and thinking to herself, “Holy shit. While I was sleeping, a baby was growing. And while I work today, the baby will grow. Later tonight when I’m on Facebook, I’ll be Facebooking WITH A BABY GROWING INSIDE OF ME. Talk about multitasking!! Am I incredible or what?” From a personal perspective, I get this. I think we all do, because it IS kind of crazy to go from being a singular entity to suddenly creating a new human life. But this amazing fact must be balanced with the knowledge that an average of 353,000 babies are born in the world each day. Since we know this to be true, it might behoove people to reconsider those self-important updates about how awesome they are, because it’s a performance that’s been done a million times over.
More likely than not, the people who post these updates are more interested in getting attention than they are in choosing restraint. Rather than reach for a journal or text a few friends, women want to shout from the mountaintops (where they may very well be, if there’s a WiFi connection) about how incredible pregnancy really is. No matter if they already have four children, or if their best friend just told them they suffered a miscarriage, or if anyone even cares, because this performance is a nine-month ordeal that must get expressed in the form of smug Facebook updates. But a woman like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie doesn’t need to publicly reflect on this or marvel at her ability to “multitask.” She can be happy about growing a baby without saying a word, so when she finally tells the world her “secret,” she shapes the narrative with her identity intact.
That doesn’t mean I think women shouldn’t post about their pregnancies on social media or be amazed by their changing bodies, but this idea of “performing pregnancy” might allow women to be more thoughtful in their sharing and less focused on what everyone else is expecting as the days and months go by.
Let’s check out some examples.
1. Story Hour: Productivity Edition
Wow, thanks for the rundown, D! You did all that in a single afternoon AND still had time to work on making the baby? Color me impressed. I thought pregnant women just quietly rocked themselves in a dark room for nine months, but it turns out they can make Rice Krispy treats, use Swiffer mops, clean toilets, and fold laundry! I hope you didn’t do anything else too crazy like get the mail or take the dog for a walk, because that’d be pushing it. My advice: Put the laundry down, have a Rice Krispy treat, and sit your pregnant ass down before you take things a step too far.
2. Pregnant Women’s Days > Everyone Else’s Days
Quick question: Who likes being condescended to by their friends as they’re scrolling through their Facebook feed? No one? I thought so. Maybe to the women who post updates like this, there’s something charming and “badass” about pointing out that they were “making a human” while everyone who isn’t pregnant was just farting into space and eating charcuterie, but to me these updates are no different than fitness junkies bragging about running 10 miles before the sun comes up. The only exception I *might* make would be if this was someone’s way of announcing they’re pregnant. Then it’d be kind of low-key and chill. Anything other context has me reaching for a stress ball.
Yes, “growing humans” is a wonderful part of womanhood to be celebrated and valued — you won’t hear an argument from me regarding that. But when someone posts this, it sends a subtle (or not-so-subtle) message to those who can’t or choose not to have babies that their womanhood is perhaps less valued, less celebrated, less empowering. A super power is when you can walk through walls or make yourself invisible or morph into a puddle like “Alex Mack.” Having the ability to grow and birth a baby is basic biology. It’s science. It’s “wonderful” but it shouldn’t be the defining thing that makes a woman celebrated or valued.
4. Conceptual Art
Van, would you accept my invitation to prom? Because I want to take you out on the town for some dancing and spiked punch after reading that comment. Rachel is having a “woo woo” moment here, out loud, on Facebook, and she might want to tone it down before she’s squandered her child’s entire college fund on a crystal garden. Indeed, it’s amazing that creation happens in the body without putting forth much effort. But if you’re already talking about “the depths of anatomic capacity” before the baby is even born, things are only going to get more philosophical after the revelation of childbirth. Spoiler alert: A baby makes its way through the birth canal and it’s the most magical thing anyone could ever conceive of. More magical than any art installation, if Rachel can even believe that. If I had to place a bet, I’d put it on Rachel using Facebook Live to invite everyone to experience this momentous occasion together in real time, just like that woman who gave birth in a gallery in Bushwick, Brooklyn. She, too, said “she sees human life as ‘the most profound work of art,'” so obviously this groundbreaking notion already has some serious fans and practitioners. Maybe Rachel will make a series of placenta prints to commemorate this inner connection.
5. Deep Thoughts From A Narcissist
The person who sent this in wrote, “I personally never understood heartburn until life was growing inside me but okay. Sorry, over half of the world’s population, you’re just never gonna get it!” That’s right, all you no-baby-having losers! Forget about understanding life now — you’ll never have the pleasure of grasping a fraction of what that’s all about. You won’t know what love is, but you’ll think you do. You won’t know what LIFE is, but you’ll equate it to, oh I don’t know, summiting a mountain, saying goodbye to a loved one on his or her deathbed, maybe hugging a dog? Some shit like that.
Do me a favor: Visit a sloth sanctuary and tell me what life is about, and then give birth to a HUMAN BABY and tell me if there’s a difference. Give Oprah a foot massage with essential oils and tell me what’s that’s like, and then BREASTFEED YOUR BABY with milk that your body CREATED and tell me if there’s a difference. You could even meet the Dalai Lama and meditate together while holding hands at sunrise for all this woman cares and you’ll NEVER FRIGGIN’ GET IT. You could harmonize with the Beach Boys after doing whippets and you still won’t know. So stop trying. Either get knocked up and have the epiphany of a lifetime, or invest in a lifetime supply of Cheetos and call it a day. It’s really as simple as that.