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Pregnancy used to be measured by natural time, beyond the control of people or technology. One of the few times in modern life that couldn’t be tampered with, pregnancy demanded that a rushed populace listen to nature. But now women can schedule the birth of a child rather than wait for nature to determine when labor begins, so it shouldn’t be surprising that celebrities have popularized the notion of elective Cesarean section. To wit, the pop star Victoria Beckham, also known as Posh Spice, who inspired the phrase “too posh to push” after she chose to give birth via C-section. This perceived desire to shorten the duration of pregnancy has become so great that the March of Dimes launched a public awareness campaign that encourages women to carry their pregnancies to term. Past generations would marvel that our culture needs a campaign to influence women on how long to stay pregnant.
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When the outside world defines the pace of pregnancy, the mother-fetal relationship changes. Women used to dream about their future babies; now they can pay for a personalized 4-D ultrasound experience to see the emerging features of a child. Parents can evaluate the relative health of their baby, learn its approximate weight and, earlier than ever before, know its sex. Thanks to the widespread use of ultrasound, most obtain a representation of their baby before holding the physical being. And it’s not just ultrasound that has opened up the womb to public view. The internet, cellphones and digital cameras encourage people to document pregnancy closer than ever before. Social media permit an expectant couple to share their pregnancy and joy with distant families and even strangers. Traditionally a time of internal connection between mother and child, pregnancy has now become an externalized process that involves others. The public has become a voyeur during what was once a private time for a woman and her fetus.
Pregnancy used to be a period of preparation and reflection. Before the 20th century, the physical risks of childbirth compelled women to consider the very nature of their own survival. As risks diminished, women still wondered how impending motherhood would impact their social and biological reality. But now that pregnancy is seen as its own phase of life, with so many things to do and products to buy, less time is available to ponder the impact of motherhood. Inevitably, parenting feels like a shock when compared to the attention that was showered on pregnancy.
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With the increasing societal celebration and public focus on pregnancy, there is pressure on women to be happy from the moment of conception. But as pregnancy is relished, less attention is paid to resources devoted to the mother post-birth. The journey to motherhood still requires reflection—and even moments of solemnity—if only because it involves the loss of a more carefree stage of life. As technocratic culture constantly seeks new efficiencies, pregnancy should remain a refreshing change of pace, one that cannot be altered.
Excerpted from A Womb with a View: America’s Growing Public Interest in Pregnancy by Laura Tropp (Praeger, 2013)