The Math of Motherhood
on pregnancy as unpaid labor, who should pay a hospital bill, and other costs of becoming a mother
If you are a paying subscriber, you may be familiar with this story (I posted about it in my Cultural Cliff Notes exactly a year ago). I found it on Twitter but it was a thread that went viral on Reddit. A man posted asking for advice because his “wife” (they are not legally married) has requested that he compensate her for the wages she will sacrifice during maternity leave if they have a child. Essentially, she asks for $50k.
You can read his entire post here. I suggest you do.
Cliff notes if you don’t want to read it:
They aren’t legally married but are “spiritually married” (WTF?), have been together for six years and recently living together so they would be considered common law. They are both high earners (over $175k after tax EACH) and keep their finances separate. They split all household expenses 50/50.
Though not mentioned, they clearly do not live in America because her workplace grants maternity leave of up to a year, and will provide her 50% of her salary for the first six months of her leave.
She is not even pregnant yet (or is she?) but she wants to discuss this up front before they get pregnant. This woman is my hero. She has done all the thinking about the costs to her earnings and career and presents him with a sixteen page binder about all the different topics they need to discuss.
Now, this man, who has posted this dilemma on Reddit, is “turned off” by this because she “is essentially asking me to pay her to have our child.”
This is, of course, a fascinating thought experiment for a feminist writer, but as I read that sentence, I thought: This is where it starts. The expectation of unpaid labor starts here, with incubating a fetus.
To bring a child into the world comes with costs. First of all, we know this is work that can be compensated as there is an entire surrogacy industry that puts a price tag for incubation at anywhere from $40-$70k. Women are expected to do this without pay because of love and duty to their husbands and future children. Back when women did not work, and gender roles were clearly defined, the work of women was birthing and taking care of babies, and the work of men was to hunt/provide food (or $ to purchase the food).
Our roles are not so clearly delineated anymore. But we have continued to just expect that women will bear the brunt of creating and incubating children with no compensation.
Having your body invaded by another being for 9 months (9 months!) is no small feat. From nausea (I refuse to call it morning sickness because that is probably a term coined by men to belittle the experience), to weight gain, to heartburn, to hormones, pregnancy is not for the faint of heart. Sometimes I wonder what man would say: Okay, I’ll gain 40 pounds that I may never lose in order to have a child. They’d be like: fuck that! Not worth it. See ya, I’m going to the gym!
Our bodies are forever transformed by the experience of growing a baby. There is no bouncing back, despite what the motherhood industrial complex will have you think. From diastasis recti to feet that can grow up to a whole size larger, to stretch marks and saggy breasts if you breastfeed, we sacrifice a lot to have children. Is it worth it? Many of us would say yes, of course! But we should not conceal the costs.
Our bodies are our homes. They are dwellings for our souls. We essentially lease space in our wombs for someone else during pregnancy. Now, it is a small part of our body, but it doesn’t feel so small at nine months when we can barely walk, cannot put on our shoes on our own, and struggle to get any kind of sleep (even though this is when we are supposed to be storing up!) because we cannot get comfortable or laying prone causes heartburn that keeps us up all night. Again, this is all something we are expected to just deal with, as if it doesn’t cost us anything. It does.
Then you have the trauma of childbirth. And it is a trauma even though it is miraculous at the same time. Now, the language around childbirth is all… we’ve been having babies since the beginning of time. If your ancestors could give birth in a field, you can handle giving birth in this comfortable bed, with an epidural, in this clean and shiny hospital.
But while it may be “natural,” childbirth isn’t easy. Death is natural, too, but we aren’t all clamoring for the experience, are we? Again, if we told men, listen, in order to have children, you will have to push a 9 pound person out of your penis, they would look at you in horror. Their precious penis, having to go through something like that? No way. Sometimes I wonder if one of the reasons women are raised with no connection to their vulvas and instead shame, why we experience no openness about how vulvas look (or even what to properly call them) is so that we will not be so attached to the destruction they must weather in order to create new life.
I remember when I first told my oldest daughter how babies were born. She was around 3 years old, and I was going through a phase when I wanted to be open and didn’t want to lie (I was still keeping the whole idea of Santa Claus pretty vague so I wouldn’t have to lie to her face). She knew that babies grew inside the woman’s body, but she wanted to know how they got out into the world. I said: “Well, they come out of your vagina.”
She looked at me in shock. “That can’t be good for your vagina!” she said, appalled. I said: “It’s not!” with a laugh.
The New York Times recently reported that giving birth is 20 times more lethal than skydiving. The maternal mortality rate here in the US is abysmal. Even if your birth goes well, you have been in excruciating pain for hours, the kind of pain that made me vomit with its intensity, and then you have to push for hours to get an object expelled from your body. If you have a C-section that means you are literally having a surgery that you are awake for (again, who exactly would sign up for that?!?).
But we just act like, wow isn’t it a privilege to get to bring life into the world? Isn’t pregnancy and childbirth and motherhood all sunshine and rainbows and joy? No, the reality is pregnancy and childbirth and motherhood is puking and swollen ankles and heartburn and hemorrhoids and more puking and pushing and bleeding and screaming and fluids gushing from your body and your body being unrecognizable for the rest of your life.
So let’s name these costs, shall we? Instead of pretending, pretending, pretending?
While 9 months building a baby requires a lot from the incubator, recovering from childbirth takes a lot from the person who has just gone through it. Recovery is not measured in days, but weeks and months (which you would not know considering we have no paid leave in this country and some mothers must return to work 2-weeks postpartum). This despite the fact that if they experienced bad tearing during birth, they are likely still having difficulty walking. If they had a C-section, they cannot lift anything. All mothers are still wearing a pad because you bleed for up to month postpartum.
So while this woman is asking her husband to compensate her for lost wages, who is compensating us for the work? The labor of creating a human? Who is compensating us for the trauma of childbirth that can be so difficult that we may need therapy after just to process what we have gone through (I’m thinking of Fleishman Is in Trouble, here). Where is women’s workman’s comp for the injuries incurred while bringing a baby into this world? (This could be incontinence, postpartum psychosis, postpartum depression, pelvic organ prolapse, uterine rupture, broken bones, and more).
The man says “the idea to have a payment plan to have a child is just gross.” Is it? Or is it actually acknowledging the sacrifices women go through to care for a child? And before birth, what about the loss of wages that are incurred when you have to leave for countless doctors appointments and blood draws and sick days during pregnancy? She hasn’t yet accounted for the fact of the “motherhood penalty” which leads to a loss of $16k in earnings per year as well as a loss of social security income once she retires.
Recently, another Reddit popped up on social media which made me realize it was time to do a post about this first situation. In this one, a woman has given birth and her husband wants her to pay for the $8k hospital bill (what remained after what insurance covered) because she got an epidural after 24 hours thus her inability to “hold out for another few hours” meant she “jacked up the bill with all your meds…if you wanted luxury, you should expect to pay for it.” She posted it in the Reddit thread, Am I the Asshole? I think everyone agreed that her husband is the asshole and she is not wrong to consider divorce after how he has treated her.
You can’t make this shit up.
There are so many other costs to motherhood which I haven’t even mentioned which I will go into in future posts (this probably needs to be a series). I’m thinking of the childcare costs, the costs to your marriage, the cost of summer camps, the cost to your sanity when carrying the mental load. Women are expected to just take it. And we are finally saying, maybe we don’t have to.
In other news, my older daughter sent me this link and knew it would be right up my alley. She said: this is probably fake but funny. And I texted back saying: Oh, honey. It’s not fake.
THIS has been on my mind too. Thank you for covering this — definitely should be a series!
I'm done having babies, now 48. Had my first at 25 and my last at 41. The early parenting years go by so fast, so I feel like I'm just starting to process some of it now. I've recently talked with my mom about what her pregnancies were like in the 70s. She worked 3rd shift as a key punch operator during most of her pregnancies. It took a physical toll then, and she's still paying for it now.
I've been on the other side and had "four privileged, able bodied, planned experiences" with good support (just like the Insta post you shared). I didn't need to prove that I had a "pregnancy-related condition" to be able to afford to take time off work (or risk losing time off after the baby is born). Isn't pregnancy proof enough? The disparities are there right from the start. It's totally unfair. What's more, we know that stressful, unsupported pregnancies have consequences for moms, babies, and sometimes generations.
Somehow I’ve never thought about this... the possibility that a 50/50 financial split family should take a woman’s loss of wages into account. It makes some sense, even if there’s initial discomfort at how “novel” it is. I know that particular Reddit post wasn’t the main point of the article, but I am curious what happened to that couple.
But this also makes me think about other caregiving. Elder care or caring for a partner who falls chronically ill. Those people wouldn’t be able to adequately pay their caregiver for loss of income (most likely). There is a tension here between where are we valuing labor and equity and where are we simply being a supportive human community. I guess one response to that is, why do we have to choose one?