Defining the “Expect” in What To Expect When You’re Expecting

Defining the “Expect” in What To Expect When You’re Expecting

I remember the moment I found out I was pregnant.  It was a glorious day.  The sun was shining, the temperature was about 70 degrees, with a light breeze from the south, and the birds sang a glorious tune as I informed my wonderful husband that I was pregnant.  We both hugged and contemplated the gift that was growing in my belly and what fantastic parents we were going to be.  Pregnancy was just the beginning…

Psych.  Gotcha.  Yeah, no, I woke up around 2 a.m., on a frigid morning in March, because I figured I had enough morning pee to give me the line I had frantically looked for during the preceding months (I lost count of how many pregnancy tests I went through). So I expertly opened the package, followed the directions I had memorized (amazing how we become adept to peeing on a stick), and waited.  Now, when you are indeed pregnant, you do not have to wait for very long.  Within 30 seconds, the line verified the symptoms I had already experienced (and obsessively read about on the internet).  Missed period?  Check.  Boobs sore and swollen?  Check.  Morning sickness?  Well not really, maybe some (maybe I wasn’t pregnant!!). Bloating?  Check (but wait, when do I ever not feel bloated?  Maybe I’m not pregnant!!).

So you get the picture: I was pregnant and it’s 2 a.m.  Wow!  So happy, but man, so tired.  It’s 2 a.m.!  Eh, screw it.  So I do what any loving pregnant (!) wife would do; I woke up my husband by turning on the bedroom light and screaming at the top of my lungs “I’m pregnant!!!”  He jumped out of bed, ran to my side, got on his knees, put his hand on my belly, and looked up at me, basking in the maternal glow that already illuminated from my body.

Psych again.  Yeah, no, he did wake up, but instead of basking, he looked at me and said, “huh, what? Really? Great,” and put his head on the pillow and went back to sleep.  Let’s just say the reaction was not what I was expecting.

But then again, what was I expecting?  It was a question I would ask myself constantly throughout the next 8 months.

Fast forward 7 ½ years and I find myself watching the movie What to Expect When You’re Expecting thinking and wondering what to expect.  Now I am very familiar with the book What to Expect…in fact, most pregnant women are. I mean, go the pregnancy section at your local Barnes and Noble (or your local independent bookstore, if you are lucky enough), and you can find it placed in a prominent position among the other 5,000 titles.  Okay, maybe not 5,000, but still, you get the picture.  

What to Expect was first published in 1984 by Arlene Eisenberg and her daughters Heidi Murkoff and Sharon Mazel, who decided to write the book during Murkoff’s pregnancy.  Murkoff claimed that during her pregnancy, every book she read, “had filled her with dread,” and that she (and her mother and sister) was determined to write a “reassuring guide to pregnancy.”[1] Since its first publication, and according to its cover and website, which means it must be true, 14.5 million copies have been sold since and 93% of women read the book.  However, for as much as the book is seen as the first reassuring guide, it is, of course not the first, highly popular, pregnancy manual.  That honor belongs to Dr. Morris Slemons’ The Prospective Mother, first published in 1912 (a full year before Prenatal Care, by the Children’s Bureau) and last released in 1942.  Manuals devoted to pregnancy began even earlier in 1905, with Charles Paddock’s Maternitas, and were seen as a way to educate pregnant women and “to explain some of the many perplexing questions which present themselves to her at these times”[2]  Pregnancy manuals, as Slemons explained, met “intelligent women demand[s for] some knowledge of the anatomical and physiological changes incident to the development of the embryo and the birth of the child.”[3] So although Eisenberg, Murkoff, and Mazel claimed that their book was the first “reassuring” book on pregnancy, other past authors may beg to differ.

However, what 20th-century pregnancy manuals achieved, regardless if they were written by medical or lay authors, was the development and dissemination of very specific expectations that became part of the modern pregnancy, which the movie of the same title chooses to explore in various degrees.  Concurrently, as the modern pregnancy emerged, so did the modern pregnant woman; a white, middle-class female, who exudes the maternal glow that begins the moment the sperm meets the egg.  Pregnancy not only was defined biologically, but also culturally.

So as I watched What to Expect, trying to figure out what I was going to focus on (I actually had been thinking about this for days), it dawned on me that as the movie tries to dispel some myths, which I’ll get to in a moment, it also reinforces the historic meaning behind the “expect” in What to Expect.  These expectations are driven by definitions of race, gender, and class, and created by medicine and consumer culture during the twentieth century.  The modern pregnancy is overwhelming white and middle class, with specific roles for both the mother and father-to-be. Okay, Jennifer Lopez (Holly) is not technically white, but she is one of the whitest Latinas in popular culture.  Plus, she is not even pregnant in the movie, but adopting a child from Ethiopia.  Nevertheless, it allows the screen writers to add a little color to an overwhelming white expectation (plus you know there are no black children in the United States to adopt).

But through the experiences for the three white (heterosexual, I might add) pregnant women, Jules (Cameron Diaz), Wendy (Elizabeth Banks), and Skyler (Brooklyn Decker), we learn that pregnant bellies should be small, round, and unblemished, even when you are pregnant with twins (Skyler). We learn that pregnancy is considered a time of fatness because as Jules (who is a Jillian Michaels type character), she will help people get thin, while she gets fat, which later on the movie, she declares, “I sacrificed my body for this.”  We also learn that pregnancy is supposed to be a beautiful, and feminine, and an exciting (horny) moment (possibly in 6” heels) every minute throughout.

However, if you do have stretch marks, cankles, gas, incontinence, heartburn, waddling, exhaustion, and surges in hormones, well then something must be wrong with you because this is not what pregnancy is supposed to be, as Wendy begins to learn all too soon.  For her, pregnancy is nothing she had dreamed about and by the end of the movie; she has had enough of the fantasy.  During a baby expo, in which, ironically enough, she is scheduled to speak about the joys of pregnancy, she has an epiphany of sorts (well it is really hormones that drive her to this point) and she exposes the truth of pregnancy by declaring to a “shocked” audience: “I just wanted the glow. I just wanted what they promised you on the cover of those magazines. Well I’m calling it.  I’m calling bullshit.  Pregnancy sucks!  Making a human being is really hard.  I did not get the glow; I got the purple stretch marks.”  Her declaration makes it onto You Tube and she thinks her life and business are over.  (Oh by the way, she owns a baby shop called…wait for it, The Breast Choice.).  But alas, all is well, as her honesty is rewarded with new fans and new customers who rush to her shop because of You Tube, not really because of her honesty.

However, I have to give the movie credit for having someone like Wendy, because I recognized my pregnant self in her character, but at the same time, and I mean no disrespect toward Banks, but how much more powerful would the statements have been if Wendy had been played Lopez or Diaz, who have more name recognition? (Yes, I know Banks is in The Hunger Games, but again, who would be quickly recognized in an airport, Banks or Lopez?  Exactly.)  Diaz’s character, Jules, remains toned and athletic (and she is over 35!  Can you believe it???), and Lopez, well she remains in perfect form.  But even with Banks as Wendy, the character’s growing body and ambivalence during maternity is made fun of and marginalized. The You Tube video is reedited to sound like a rap.  Dennis Quiad’s character, Wendy’s father-in-law and husband to Skyler (the magical pregnancy unicorn), makes a snide remark about who is actually giving birth to twins.  She is passing gas and peeing on herself during most of the movie. And in the end, she is viewed as a bit of a raving lunatic, who, while making the most honest statement about pregnancy, is not really angry at “they” who promise the perfect pregnancy (which she is a part of), she is just angry that her fantasy has been blown to shreds.  In fact, the movie, even though it has a character like Wendy, reinforces the long-established expectations of pregnancy, because is this the reality of pregnancy?  Wendy may be speaking the truth, but she really is considered a minority.  In fact, how many of us would speak out about how uncomfortable we were (or are) during pregnancy?  How many of us would declare, “Pregnancy sucks!”? Anyone?

Even if many of us think that pregnancy sucks, we keep our mouths shut, because motherhood begins at conception.  This is the final expectation of pregnancy created during the 20th century.  Mommies do not complain.  Mommies do not whine about their grossly misshapen abdomens or that the scale does not magically stopping at the 25lb mark.  Mommies do not complain that the swelling in their bodies has made their legs and arms look like sausages and that those cravings drive them to eat strange concoctions at 3 a.m.  Mommies do not declare pregnancy sucks!  No, mommies take it for team.  Mommies do what they can to make it look like everything is wonderful and beautiful because as we learn at the end of What to Expect When You’re Expecting, Wendy may have missed the glow, but she finds it looking down at her son.  How can pregnancy suck if you have a perfect little bundle of joy at the end?

[1] Janny Scott, “The Baby Makers,” New York Times, January 5, 1995, C1.

[2] Charles E. Paddock, M.D., Maternitas: A Book Concerning the Care of the Prospective Mother and Her Child (Chicago: Cloyd J. Head, & Co., 1905), 7.

[3] J. Morris Slemons, The Prospective Mother: A Handbook for Women During Pregnancy (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1912), v.

 Featured image caption: The 2012 premiere of What to Expect When You’re Expecting in New York. Flickr

Cheryl Lemus earned her PhD from Northern Illinois University in 2011. Her dissertation, “‘The Maternity Racket’: Medicine, Consumerism, and the American Modern Pregnancy, 1876-1960,” examines the rise of the modern pregnancy in 20th-century America. She is mainly interested in gender and women’s history, the history of medicine in America, and the rise of consumer culture.