I was born seven weeks after my mother found out she was pregnant.
I was not a medical miracle — I was a bouncing 9lb 14oz when born — but my route into the world was complicated by a series of doctors (all men) who repeatedly told my mother she was not expecting a child but was simply fat. Add to that the inadequate information my mum had about pregnancy, and the fact that I was her first, and you find a woman sitting in a doctor’s office in July 1971, discovering she had 6-7 weeks before her first child would be born.
“I was very pleased,” says my mum. “But a bit panicked.”
In recent weeks, the media has delivered news — almost daily — about the myriad ways in which people with uteruses are not trusted to be authorities about their own bodies. Contemporary debates about the legality and morality of abortion, for example, have made it clear that cisgender men are particularly good at misrepresenting bodies different from their own. A Missouri legislator recently said that most of the rapes he investigated as a police officer were consensual; an Ohio legislator insisted that ectopic pregnancies could be moved from, say, the fallopian tubes to the uterus; and Ben Shapiro asserted that a six-week pregnancy was the same thing as there being a six-week-old embryo in a pregnant person’s womb.
Misunderstandings about conception, pregnancy, and birth are nothing new. I’m a historian who regularly teaches a class on birth control and reproduction in the United States, where we discuss many popular misconceptions involving pregnancy — such as the once-popular notion that pregnancy resulted from cisgender men ejaculating tiny, fully-formed humans into cisgender women, or that conception was impossible unless all parties had an orgasm. While many such misconceptions were rooted in a lack of modern scientific understanding about conception and pregnancy, there was a great deal that people did know, primarily passed along through community practice. For centuries, people giving birth collectively tended to each other during the ordeal. This began to change when men entered obstetrical practice at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries and convinced urban white women that hospitals were safer places to have a baby.1 Throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries, late pregnancy and labor became private events, increasingly shrouded in mystery.2
Until very recently, I hadn’t considered that my own story was intimately connected to these larger cultural stories. In December 1970, my mum, whose last period had been in September, went to the doctor with the suspicion that she might be pregnant. “I had a history of irregular periods and this was before the era of ‘pee on a stick’ pregnancy tests,” she told me in an email. “The GP chose to ask a couple of questions and then made his decision based on the color of my nipples – which were evidently not dark enough for me to be pregnant. ‘Go away and keep trying’ was the advice.” (“I did think the nipple thing was a bit odd,” she told me during a phone call later. “But he was an old doctor who had never trained in OB/GYN as far as I know.”)
On December 13, 1970, my aunt Sheila delivered her first child — a girl, Julie — in Scunthorpe, a town about an hour’s train ride away from Sheffield where my mum and her mother lived. They decided to visit Sheila on Boxing Day (the day after Christmas). “It had been snowing and so the trains were delayed and we had quite a wait in the cold,” my mum remembers. “A few days later I was feeling unwell and quite nauseous but put it down to having picked up a chill after the train delays. This continued for quite a few days.” My mother was likely experiencing morning sickness but had no reason to interpret it as such. She hadn’t seen much of my aunt during my aunt’s pregnancy, so hadn’t picked up information there, and none of her friends were pregnant. Plus a doctor had told her she wasn’t expecting a child.
But in February, having still not had a period, she went back to the GP. A different doctor, armed with the information that her last period was in September and judging that she didn’t look five months pregnant, diagnosed her with gynecological problems and referred her to the local women’s hospital (called Jessops).
This, my mum thinks now, is where things truly began to go off the rails. Had she been referred to obstetrics, they would have treated her as pregnant. Because her doctor referred her to gynecology, “they assumed they were looking for problems and reasons other than pregnancy for my symptoms.” She had her first GYN appointment 2-3 weeks later. “They did not do any internal exam as far as I recall but assumed my inability to conceive was due to being overweight and put me on a diet. They reviewed me periodically after that and I was losing weight each time. However, I saw a different doctor each time and they merely said to keep on with the diet with no real questions about how else I was feeling.” My mum did try to bring other things to her doctors’ attention. “I was having some problems with my stomach — which mainly felt like wind and did mention this,” she remembers. Instead of taking this information seriously and investigating its cause (a fetus beginning to move) her doctors said “there was nothing to worry about and did some blood tests to check my thyroid function.”
Being fat is still, now, assumed by many medical health professionals in both the US and UK to explain symptoms that actually point to other illnesses or conditions. One of the most significant barriers to fat people (especially women) gaining access to good healthcare is the bias that doctors and nurses routinely display toward them, making them not want to visit a medical professional at all. As “Your Fat Friend” put it in a Medium article in 2017, “I stopped seeing doctors because doctors stopped seeing me. So many wouldn’t touch me, wouldn’t examine me, wouldn’t ask questions, wouldn’t refer to specialists or write prescriptions.” As Melissa Petro has described, this fat-shaming doesn’t stop when a person becomes pregnant; indeed many medical professionals feel it is their job to aggressively monitor the weight gain of their patients. This creates its own complications, argues Nanna Árnadóttir, such as profound anxiety. “How about laying off us for the sake of our mental health? Or do concerns about fat people’s wellbeing not extend that far?” she asked in a column for The Guardian in 2018.
Imagine the situation for my mother, then, almost fifty years ago. “I remember going to an aunt’s silver wedding anniversary meal and remarking to my cousin’s girlfriend that I had lost weight and yet still had a podgy stomach and thick waist!” she recalled. My mum also remembered “that between February and July [of 1971] I was seeing lots of other larger women — some bigger than me — who had babies and I recall saying if they can get pregnant why not me? I was sad and felt somewhat of a failure — something which I don’t recall anyone giving me any advice about.”
Eventually, the doctors at the women’s hospital in town referred my mother to an Ear, Nose, and Throat specialist at a nearby general hospital. (That I was, in utero, an ENT problem is one of my favorite parts of this story.) Things finally changed. “For the first time in several months, this doctor took a full medical history and listened to my answers. He then sat back and said ‘I think you are pregnant’ to which I replied ‘Thank you. I do too.’ He did not have access to a fetal stethoscope but listened with his ordinary one and said things sounded OK, and he would refer me back to the Jessops Hospital. (I would love to have seen the letter he sent to the Obs and Gynae Consultant.)”
Mum was seen weekly by the Jessops’ staff after that, although no one ever apologized for the care she’d previously received. Now, however, they were “rather over cautious … and admitted me for bed rest at the end of August. At that time I weighed less than the first time I was seen at Jessops in February.” During a phone call in April 2019, my mum remarked, “When I delivered you I lost another two-and-a-half stone [35lbs].”
For thirty-four weeks of her pregnancy, my mother had been told her problems were most likely because she needed to lose weight. I asked her if she knew she was pregnant, even when the doctors said she wasn’t. “I naively believed the doctors and didn’t question their decisions too much,” she said, “thinking they knew what they were doing.”
If my mum had cause to believe the doctors knew what they were doing, the doctors found no cause to believe the same about my mum. They not only believed my mother to be uninformed about all matters related to pregnancy, they actively contributed to making her so in a society that denied her information, community, and conversation. As a fat woman, she was further marginalized, her body an unruly presence that needed to be reduced in size to solve her problems. My mum doubted the evidence of her own body because men repeatedly refused to contemplate anything but her weight.
So much about our present moment suggests we are still fighting the same battles that my mother fought nearly fifty years ago – for autonomy, authority, and understanding. An openness about pregnancy and childbirth calls back to practices far older than the two-hundred-or-so years in which men have increasingly practiced obstetrics. Openness is revolutionary, providing those who can conceive with the means to know their bodies more intimately and fully than my mum was allowed and to make decisions accordingly. And as we face a new age in which the aforementioned legislators from Missouri and Ohio deny the concept of reproductive bodily autonomy, my very existence also presents a challenge to the purported wisdom of a socially select cohort of men.
I’m here. That means that they can be wrong.
- See Rebecca J. Tannenbaum, The Healer’s Calling: Women and Medicine in Early New England, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002); Susan E. Klepp, Revolutionary Conceptions: Women, Fertility, and Family Limitation in America, 1760-1820, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009); Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on her Diary, 1785-1812, New York: Knopf, 1990). Return to text.
- Numerous people in Ann Fessler’s wonderful book, The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade, for example, had no idea how they had become pregnant or what was involved in giving birth. Return to text.
This is a powerful account. I teach a course on the anthropology of reproduction and childrearing and always encourage my students to ask their mothers, if they can, about their pregnancies and births. I’ll be using your essay as an example par excellence of how and why to do so. Please thank your mother for me, for her generous openness about a difficult experience.
One thing that makes me sad about what has and hasn’t changed in half a century in medical systems is that the presence of a lot more women OB/GYNs hasn’t done much to alter the power structures you describe here.