Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Can men ever really understand pregnancy or birth?

I remember learning during a freshman course on ethnobotany how, in some Polynesian cultures, men would get neck-to-knee body tattoos. It was the closest they would be able to come to understand the pain of childbirth. At that time, labor & birth seemed like horrific, disgusting, and disempowering experiences, and I resented that women had to endure them. Full-body tattoo with no pain medication? I thought. Serves them right!

My perspective on childbirth has altered significantly over the years, but I am still fascinated by male efforts to understand or truly empathize with pregnancy and birth. Recently, author Ben Percy wrote about a 9-week simulated "pregnancy" in GQ. (Read it. It's definitely worth your time.) During the hottest part of the summer, he wore a pregnancy belly suit for 9 weeks to try to understand a little of what his wife had to go through. This was followed by a Today Show interview with host Steve Harvey. Apparently Harvey was at a loss for words. From the LA Times:

In publishing, landing a spot on the "Today" show has traditionally been thought of as a publicity holy grail. Is that why Benjamin Percy wore a pregnancy suit to get there? And did he have any idea just how strange the experience would be?

Not wearing the pregnancy suit for nine weeks -- trying to talk to Steve Harvey. Harvey gets so discombobulated that, apropos of nothing, he asks Percy if he's ever bitten a man.

Percy does have one of the most arresting voices in contemporary American letters. He's also known for writing fiction with a specifically manly bent, like "The Wilding," which is about three generations of men in one family who go on a hunting trip. So imagining him walking around as a pregnant woman does present a little cognitive dissonance.

He committed to a simulated mini-pregnancy, wearing a high-tech pregnancy suit made in Japan that got bigger each trimester. "It looks a little like a flak jacket," Percy writes, describing his mommy-gear in militaristic terms. A chronicle of his experience -- which included shopping, attending public events, and getting a sweaty rash -- appears in this month's GQ.

(Ben Percy is one of my husband's writer friends, and yes, his voice really is that deep. If you ever have the chance to attend a reading of his, please go. He's super entertaining.)

Here's the Today Show interview.

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So, what do you think? Is it commendable that men are trying to understand what a woman experiences when she's pregnant? Or, since they can never really understand what it's like, is it just another way to garner praise and attention?

I should add that Eric has often remarked that he is in awe of the birth process and feels a sense of loss that he'll never be able to experience it. That's the kind of man I like :)


  1. What about simulated labor pains?

    1. I was going to link to this!! I LOVE THIS VIDEO SO MUCH! I showed it to Brian and he was like, Wow, yeah, that's exactly how it worked with you. I think it would be great to teach in childbirth classes.

    2. I was really surprised by how much the men in the video reacted to the "labor" like I did to real labor.

  2. Hehe, just this very morning the radio hosts on a local station brought in a machine to simulate labor/contractions so that the male radio hosts could "experience" labor. It was incredibly amusing to listen to. But I think, no matter how much you try to imitate the physical aspects of pregnancy and labor, their is so much more to it- the emotional, etc. that can't be experienced in the same way.

    But it is pretty interesting and funny when people try...

  3. I don't think that they can, and i think that is okay. Men were not made to give birth, so why should they be able to understand what it feels like for a woman? Honestly it seems like a waste of everyone's time to me :/ I personally think it's amazing and I feel privileged to be the one who gets to carry a baby and give birth to it. I like feeling special.

  4. To me, Ben Percy just wore a fat suit for a couple of weeks. It has little to do with pregnancy. I'd like to see the fat suit plus braxton hicks contractions, decreased lung capacity, anemia, the inability to think, nausea, food aversion (of your favorite foods!), loose ligaments, breast soreness, and the impulse to pee every few minutes. Punch him in the ribs when he tries to sleep.

    Meanwhile, have every person he's ever known give him advice on how to wear his fat-suit and how to behave while in it, and when it's off. Anyone who doesn't have advice, and has never worn a fat-suit can just give their opinion on his general appearance. Make sure at least one of them is opposed to fat-suits, and got a vasectomy because the world is overpopulated and having babies is for the weak-minded.

    Of course, there are more ideas, but these are the few that I experienced during my easy-going, textbook pregnancy.

    And of course, at the end, rip him a new one and hand him a baby that, if it's "good," will sleep for two hours at a time. Proceed to sandpaper his nipples.

    In all sincerity, I loved being pregnant. It was a wonderful time, but I just think it's silly when men try to understand it with these experiments that completely fail to even resemble the actual experience.

  5. And by silly, I mean just that. It's not wrong or terrible or anything. I just would think it more fitting if people were more impressed by, you know, a woman who actually had a 9-month pregnancy and then delivered a BABY, and then proceeded to raise said baby. But I do think Ben Percy has good intentions, and this is all in good spirits.

  6. No, but who cares really? I don't know what it feels like to survive cancer, to finish a marathon, to save a life... I've had a baby. It was pretty darn cool, but it's not something I need to lord over everyone who hasn't, and I'm hardly special in completing this task.


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