Focus on the Needs of Pregnant and Nursing Women

Taken from the January/February 2017 issue of the Women's Health Activist Newsletter.

I, for one, am exhausted, feminist friends. This is due, in part, to the baby that I’m happily growing in my uterus, the recent election, and the impending change in administration. Beyond that, though, I am exhausted because I have never fought so hard for the personal choices that are important to me, and I am so scared at how hard these battles have been.

My decision to become pregnant has shone a harsh spotlight into our society’s systems, expectations, and flaws. As a young feminist, I have grappled with the complicated dimensions of life choices before…marriage, career, and education. But, my pregnancy has also highlighted the existence of new challenges that are deeply personal; it has required me to face off against capital “S” Systems, like hospital policies, family leave restrictions, and dismal parental leave policies.

These battles have highlighted every crevice of my gender, my choices, my health care options, the impact on my career, and where society believes my priorities should lie. If you had told me this would be difficult before I was pregnant, I would have agreed, of course pregnancy is a big deal. Wake up, Lauren. You have no idea.

And now for some background: I am a U.S-born, married, cis-gendered, heterosexual, White woman. Virtually every support structure in our culture is set up for my benefit. I can communicate clearly with my health care providers, I have insurance, I am married to a present partner, I have a graduate degree in maternal and child health. I should be more than fine, which leads me to the big question: Why is this still so hard? And, if it’s so hard for me, my heart breaks for women with fewer privileges.

I don’t want to sound too dreary; parts of being pregnant are heartbreakingly wonderful. I love to pause and think about how I carry a little buddy with me, just kicking around. I think of us as a team and, when I feel tired of advocating, I imagine myself as a brave warrior momma, and it suddenly feels a lot easier to stand up for both of us. I get a kick out of attending abortion fundraising events wearing a “My body, my choice, my vote” Hillary button with a prominent baby belly, just because it’s an interesting twist in the narrative. I adore my prenatal yoga classes, which are filled with wonderful feminine energy, leaving me energized and empowered. I like becoming a mother. I like feeling capable; if only there weren’t so many days when laws, systems, daycare waitlists, and HR policies left me feeling less than.

I constantly worry that my boss and coworkers won’t think I’m dedicated because, two months after starting this job, I had to tell my boss I was three months pregnant. I worry about unnecessary interventions during my labor, which happen when lawyers and hospitals dictate how a labor should progress, often disregarding both the evidence and the mother’s instincts. I worry that my decision to deliver at a midwife-led birth center will backfire if a complication arises and things go awry. I worry that people will say my choice to give birth outside a hospital is reckless, because I’ve learned that when it comes to pregnancy, people will never hesitate to share what they think your mistakes are.

So why am I writing about this all here? With Mike Pence and Donald Trump in the White House, aren’t there a million things more important than maternity leave policies, affordable child care, and health care options? Well yes, and also, no.

While reflecting on my feminist convictions, I see a stark line in the sand. Pre-baby, I focused on reproductive choice, with that choice being the option and right to avoid pregnancy. With unrelenting attacks from anti-choice politicians and rhetoric, this focus is entirely reasonable and warranted. Now that I’ve chosen pregnancy, however, I wish that I had dedicated even a sliver of that energy toward a consideration of the choices available for women when they decide they are ready to become a parent. I feel a bit alone on this journey, like my own feminist agenda can’t find a place for me after years of ignoring the issues that affect pregnant women — the same issues that are so profoundly impacting my life right now.

It’s a shame too, because I’ve never needed that group of strong women more than I do now. I worry that my workplace will view my pregnancy (and me) as an “inconvenience,” just like our nation’s President-elect does. This hunch isn’t unfounded, as research indicates that pregnancy is likely to result in lower performance appraisals and lost promotions for women.1 Meanwhile, evidence also shows that my husband will likely benefit professionally and be viewed as a more stable family man.2 That discrepancy is enough to leave me with a permanent rage-induced headache.

What’s the solution here? I think more awareness about the hurdles pregnant women face is a great start. It seems unfair to pile another issue onto any feminist’s plate, but I can only speak from my own experience. I wish I had paid more attention to the issues pregnant women and new mothers face before I was left to grapple with them. There are major gaps in family leave and appropriate care for pregnant women, with these gaps more profoundly impacting women of color and those with lower socio-economic status. By waiting until these issues impacted me, it was too late, and honestly, I am now much more tired. So, the next time your University paper runs a headline that says “Nursing mothers struggle to find lactation spaces at the U,”3 don’t skip over it. More support for pregnant and nursing mothers might mean you have more female students, more female professors, and more women in leadership positions. I think that’s an issue we can all get behind.

Lauren Asfaw lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota with her husband, Selemon, and her adorable dog, Sawyer. She completed her Masters in Public Health at Boston University in Maternal and Child Health and currently works as a Researcher in Women's Health at the University of Minnesota. She feels lucky to spend her day surrounded by smart, inspiring women. 

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1. Laura M. Little, Virginia Smith Major, Amanda S. Hinojosa, and Debra L. Nelson

Professional Image Maintenance: How Women Navigate Pregnancy in the Workplace

ACAD MANAGE J February 2015 58:1 8-37; published ahead of print April 28, 2014, doi:10.5465/amj.2013.0599

2. Miller, Claire Cain. “The Motherhood Penalty vs. the Fatherhood Bonus.” New York Times. 6 Sept 2016. Web. 18 Nov 2016

3. Eischens, Rilyn. “Nursing mothers struggle to find lactation spaces at the U.” Minnesota Daily.26 Sept 2016. Web. 18 Nov 2016