For the past five years or so, I have been an interested observer of a vast unnamed secret club: a large number of women in their 30s who are pregnant, or trying to get pregnant, but don’t want anyone to know.
These women take a sudden interest in drinking “gin and tonics” at the bar, when everyone knows Manhattans are their drink. They have innovative new diets to announce in response to dinner party invitations (“I’m going vegan for January”). They refuse to go on ski trips or bike rides, claiming an undefined illness. The cleverest among them even hide pomegranate juice in the refrigerator — in the right glass, it’s a dead ringer for a cabernet — and sneak to the kitchen for “wine” refills.
A few days ago, I found out I am pregnant. The apps tell me I am six weeks along (from my last period, the date doctors use to calculate how far along a pregnancy is). Yet, despite all the uncertainty, fear, and perhaps even backlash that may come my way for announcing this not just so early but also so publicly, I’m declining membership in the hidden pregnancy club once and for all.
Most pregnancies today stay hidden at least through the first trimester, and sometimes beyond. The reasons vary widely. Some women keep their pregnancies a secret because they fear miscarriages or other complications, including nonviable pregnancies. These possibilities are real — roughly 10 percent to 20 percent of pregnancies end in miscarriage — and many women prefer to stay silent, rather than run the risk of sharing early, only to have to share painful news later.
Others fear career retaliation. New York Times reporting shows that discrimination against pregnant women is rampant. Women sneak to “dentist” appointments and “off-site meetings,” fearful that if they disclose the real reason they need to leave work, they will be pulled from projects or lose career advancement opportunities. After all, they will be “leaving work soon” on maternity leave anyway. (By contrast, of course, having children helps your career if you are a man.)
Still others fear pregnancy itself: the changes to your body, the pain of childbirth and many of the side effects in between. Staying silent can be a coping mechanism to keep those fears at bay. Or women fear becoming defined by pregnancy. I certainly count myself in this category; I am a deeply ambitious professional woman, and I want people to know more about me than that my husband and I decided to have a child. Women may even fear motherhood; after all, you are welcoming a stranger into your family whom you haven’t even met yet. Will you even like your child?
These fears are genuine. And for some (especially those expecting difficult pregnancies or struggling to conceive) they can be debilitating. No one wants to talk about difficult aspects of their lives time and time again.
These fears are only compounded by judgment that is likely to come a woman’s way once the world knows she’s expecting. Pregnancy (and for that matter, motherhood) has become a guilt-driven enterprise; women are made to second-guess any decision they make that does not put their baby 100 percent first. Eat a piece of raw tuna while visibly pregnant? The concerned looks will start coming. Strangers may even take matters into their own hands; waitstaff have refused to serve pregnant women even small amounts of wine. Pregnant women may end up feeling like the world cares more about their unborn children than about them.
With all these pressures, it has been lost that the trend toward secrecy in pregnancy has its own risks. Not least, women (and their partners) miss real, in-person opportunities to support one another through difficult times. Online anonymous message boards (and their fake or unscientific news) substitute for real conversations with friends and family members who had similar experiences.
Moreover, we will get employers to take into account the real costs of pregnancy (not to mention the balancing act required between parenthood and work success) only if women start being public about the doctors’ appointments, nausea, fatigue management and other difficult aspects of managing a healthy pregnancy while working. This is not an insignificant issue: 70 percent of mothers participate in the work force, and many women feel the worst during their first trimester, precisely when they are also hiding their pregnancy.
Perhaps most importantly, we need to start pushing back against the stigma of miscarriages and nonviable pregnancies. These are very personal and very traumatic experiences, yet they are also extremely common. If I land in that category (which, as a woman over 35, I am more likely to), I will be grateful for the support of others who came before me.
Like many other decisions women make about their bodies, when and whether to go public with a pregnancy should be a choice, not simply determined by social convention. So I am declaring myself pregnant, in hopes of making other women who feel as I do comfortable going public early as well. (I’m feeling pretty good, by the way, thanks for asking!) In doing so, I am fortunate that I run my own initiative so don’t face the same career risks as many of my compatriots. But what I do face is a significant change — in my body, in my career, in my life. A group of women with whom I can share my fears, get advice, manage expectations? Now that’s a club I’m excited to join.