Pregnancy and parenting will never “just work out” for everybody.
Nine years ago, I told my mother that the man I was seeing didn’t want children. I wasn’t yet sure what I wanted, and at the time his certainty was both comforting and concerning: I appreciated that he knew his own mind but wanted to keep my options open. “Oh, well,” my mom said. “Sometimes certain people meet, and someone gets pregnant, and—BOOM!—everybody’s happy.” She was sort of joking, and sort of not. I knew she hoped that he, and I, would change our minds about becoming parents. Nine years later, for a variety of reasons, we haven’t.
Despite her Catholic education, my mother is fervently pro-choice. Having suffered a difficult miscarriage and carried three pregnancies to term, she is not cavalier about the toll pregnancy and labor take on the body and soul. She recognizes what most people—including anti-abortion activists, who get abortions when they need them—intuitively know: that forcing someone to remain pregnant and give birth is an act of brutality.
Yet, like many Americans, my mother also wants to believe that even unexpected pregnancies can sometimes turn out for the best, especially when those involved are ready, willing, and able to become parents.
It’s not wrong to wish this were always the case. It would certainly be better if it were impossible to make a baby unless you were ready and willing to parent, and always possible when you were; if every pregnancy and delivery were complication-free; and if every baby were painlessly ushered into a stable and functional family unit at birth. But that’s not the world we live in, and pregnancy is not the peaceful, glowing, rose-tinted fantasy so many want to believe it is.
Even under the best of circumstances, pregnancy can be grueling. Some people, including celebrities like the comedian Amy Schumer and Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton, experience hyperemesis gravidarum, or extreme, persistent nausea and vomiting. In 2019, Schumer, then in her second trimester, estimated that she’d vomited around 980 times since becoming pregnant. The Duchess, meanwhile, described her own experience with the condition as “utterly rotten.” And while hyperemesis gravidarum is relatively rare, around 70% of pregnant people still experience nausea and vomiting.
Pregnancy can also lead to a host of other debilitating symptoms, including depression, insomnia, and/or difficulty concentrating. “My body was heavy, tired from the insomnia that kept me awake from three until seven in the morning, exhausted from the constant vomiting, and bloated from all the eating, which fended off the unrelenting nausea,” writer Miriam Foley wrote in an essay for Parents.com. “I felt sick all day and woke up to be sick or eat during the night. I vomited in public on street corners, at roundabouts, beside parked cars, in the bin, in basins, in the toilet, in the sink…emotionally I was even worse; delicate, jumpy, tearful.”
This was Foley’s second pregnancy, one she and her husband had “very much wanted.” Imagine dealing with those symptoms when you don’t want or aren’t ready to be pregnant, give birth, or raise a child.
In the U.S., we force those who undergo childbirth to choose between solvency and recovery. Because the overwhelming majority of people who become pregnant and give birth are women, and we take women’s pain and suffering for granted, we have largely failed to ease it via public policy. Many see pain and danger as inescapable conditions of women’s lives, particularly Black and brown women, as demonstrated by our maternal mortality rates. In 2015, I wrote a column about the shocking number of U.S. women who return to work just two weeks after giving birth, a decades-long problem we lack the political will to solve. I’ll never forget the stories I heard. Two weeks after giving birth, one mom told me, she still looked six months pregnant and felt like her vagina was “inside out.” A then 34-year-old mother of two said her first baby tore her perineum, anus, and sphincter muscles “badly”; it was 10 days before she could even walk. Her legs and feet were so swollen she thought her skin was going to split open, and she developed mastitis in her left breast, which felt like the “jaws of life” were ripping her chest apart. Pregnancy and childbirth may always involve some degree of discomfort. But they could certainly be easier to endure and recover from than they are in the U.S.
The everyday agonies people who choose to be pregnant are expected to tolerate become a form of torture when those who had no choice are forced to endure them, too. A surprising number of well-meaning but clueless Americans join the right-wing religious fanatics in proffering adoption as a seamless alternative to abortion, despite the fact that the former is far riskier, costlier, and more physically and psychologically painful than the latter. As was true before Roe, and will keep happening in the wake of its repeal, many birth parents in states where abortion is illegal are forced to carry pregnancies to term and undergo childbirth against their will—a trauma with potentially life-long consequences for birth parents, babies, and adoptive families.
Even those who want and consciously decide to become parents know how hard it is to raise kids in an atomized, every-family-for-itself country with no universal health or child care, no paid family leave, and no guaranteed income. They suffer near-constant levels of stress, anxiety, and fear, both about big-picture existential threats and everyday survival. There are only four countries in the world where couples with young children who earn the average wage spend more than 30 percent of their salary on child care, and the United States is one of them—along with New Zealand, the U.K., and Australia. (By contrast, the average couple in Austria, Greece, Hungary, and Korea spends less than four percent.)
The same Republican officials who worked so tirelessly to overturn Roe have also fought tooth and nail against providing basic public goods and services to ease the considerable burdens the U.S. imposes on women and families. The states most hostile to abortion rights have no paid family leave and some of the worst maternal mortality rates in the nation. All except Louisiana are run by anti-abortion Republicans; meanwhile, Louisiana’s legislature is Republican-dominated, and its governor, a nominal Democrat, is staunchly anti-abortion, in defiance of his party’s platform. Earlier this year, the state’s lawmakers tried to classify abortion as homicide under state law and allow prosecutors to criminally charge patients. If anti-abortion legislators wanted to make it safer, easier, and more inviting to raise a family, they would have done so. Instead, they’re busy trying to figure out how to jail pregnant people.
When even the willing feel ensnared by the increasingly unmanageable demands of pregnancy and parenting, no one is free. Not every accident is a happy one, nor can it always be made so through sheer force of will. If individuals and families were not buried, alone, under the crushing burdens of pregnancy, childbirth, and childrearing, more Americans might choose to start families. And others still wouldn’t. As New York Magazine reporter Sarah Jones recently wrote, “I am childless because that’s what I’ve chosen for myself…Congress could pass Medicare for All tomorrow, and paid family leave, and all the other policies I support, and if I became pregnant right now I would still have an abortion.”
And that is her right, whether or not a stranger or a state legislator or a Democratic governor approves it.