Popular media is currently obsessed with pregnancy, childbirth, infancy and the early wonder years. The Time magazine cover featuring a slim, blonde and beautiful California stay-at-home mom nursing her strapping three-year-old son is a shock and awe marketing tactic designed to provoke and startle and stop us in our tracks. It worked. Maternity American style warrants serious attention. But of more fundamental concern than whether and for how long to breastfeed is our medieval public policies regarding maternity leave, something that vast numbers of working women of childbearing age will come up against at some point in their lives.
This is not a topic that lends itself to provocative and graphic treatments and these days seldom gets airing from media or opinion makers from either side of the political fence. Instead we allow ourselves to be sidetracked by voyeuristic reality tours into hospital delivery rooms, political debates about birth control, duping ourselves into believing that publicly uttering the word “vagina” or “breast milk” in mixed company is actually liberating.
The trend has been building for years. The Breastfeeding Mom on the Magazine Cover is the next logical step following the Nude Pregnant Celebrity on the Magazine Cover. There have been more than a dozen of them since Demi Moore bared her bump on a 1991 cover of Vanity Fair. Cindy Crawford. Christina Aguilera, Mariah Carey. The list keeps growing with a very pregnant Jessica Simpson recently showing up on Elle. By now, the image bores rather than awes. In the case of Nia Long, who last year at 41 appeared mostly nude and also very pregnant on the cover of Ebony, it accomplished something you wouldn’t have thought the photogenic beauty capable of. Nia looked in pain, as if she were actually about to go into labor.
Nowhere has the exploitation become more shameless than on reality TV. Runway Mom. Pregnant and 16. Pregnant in Heels. I Didn’t Know I was Pregnant. Just last week we were warned that two recent TLC specials, Birth Mom and Obese and Expecting, may be trial runs for two new series. The worse may be yet to come. Jersey Shore’s Snookie is threatening us with a reality show chronicling her pregnancy. Perhaps next in line are reality offerings exploring the menstrual cycle. What about Cramps, a series in which the camera follows four blonde and beautiful California girls at “that time of the month”?
Don’t for a minute let this cultural edginess fool you into thinking that the United States is also on the cutting edge when it comes to public policies impacting childbirth. Far from it. Joan Williams, director of the Center for Work Life at the University of California’s Hasting College of Law, blasts the U.S. for having “the most family-hostile public policy in the developed world.” Paid family leave, a policy granting mothers and often both parents ample time off with pay to tend to a newborn or newly adopted child, is the norm in just about every industrialized country in the world except the United States. A study conducted by Harvard and Canada’s McGill University, found that among the 181 countries surveyed, the U.S. was one of only three nations not providing working mothers leave with compensation. The other two nations: Papua New Guinea and Swaziland.
This leaves most American working women who are pregnant or planning on it forced to hoard sick leave, vacation time and personal time to spend ample time with their new arrival. More often than not, many women stay on the job until they are about to deliver and rush back to work as soon afterwards as possible. Such stress is harmful for parents, for the baby and for overall society. Most advanced countries recognize this. We may talk a good game when it comes to matters involving maternity, but for many expecting parents, the reality is often complicated by backward public policy. Don’t let Snookie convince you otherwise.
Diane Weathers, a former editor in chief of Essence Magazine, is a veteran journalist and freelance writer. She is currently completing her first novel.