A Black woman in a denim shirt holds her visibly pregnant belly.

Making Maternal Labor Visible

Popular culture tells us many things about Americans. We watch stories of made-up families and binge shows that fictionalize real-life situations. We know that television shows do not depict the realities of our lives; onscreen, we see the best edits, the reflection of life with the challenges often glossed over or removed. Television shows have a long history of doing just this when it comes to maternal labor. On television, mothers are ubiquitous, while maternal labor has long been erased from the set. The realities of pregnancy and postpartum life, including breastfeeding and childcare, have traditionally been relegated to off-camera. As a result, television has contributed to the invisibility of maternal labor. Recently, however, the realities of maternal labor have begun to appear as side plots, finally giving Americans important depictions of what it means to be a working mother.

Inventing Anna, a limited series on Netflix produced by Shonda Rimes, tells the story of con artist Anna Sorokin. In large part, this story shows how Sorokin – also known as Anna Delvey – convinced the masses that she was an heiress with millions of dollars. The series takes a close look at how Sorokin, played by actress Julia Garner, scammed New York’s elites into thinking she was one of them.

What’s unexpected is how the series also highlights what it means to be a working mother. Rimes does this through the character Vivian Kent, portrayed by Anna Chlumsky, a journalist working to tell Sorokin’s story. Kent’s character is loosely based on journalist Jessica Pressler, who broke Sorokin’s story in a 2018 New York magazine article. Although Pressler has explained that Vivian Kent is not meant to be her, Kent’s character is there to guide viewers through the story. Kent interviews Sorokin in jail and contacts Sorokin’s friends and former acquaintances. As Kent works to uncover just who Anna Sorokin is, viewers are also brought into the process of becoming a working mother through Kent’s experiences. In the process, the show makes women’s maternal labor visible in a way it often is not.

Anna Chlumsky walks into an apartment with a visibly pregnant belly.
Anna Chlumsky as Vivian in Inventing Anna. (Courtesy David Giesbrecht/Netflix)

“Are you pregnant, or are you just so very, very fat?”

In the first episode, Sorokin bluntly asks Kent this question as they conclude their first visit at Rikers Island Prison. It’s a surprising question because up to this point, there’s been no indication that Kent is pregnant. At that moment, the line seems to reveal more about Sorokin than anything else. The question implies that personal image matters to Sorokin. After all, she cultivated a specific image that made it possible for her to infiltrate New York’s elites.

Kent is, indeed, pregnant, and the series portrays her pregnancy in tandem with her developing story. Kent’s due date becomes her deadline. She works right up to the end of her pregnancy, enduring comments from concerned co-workers and working over an array of towels in case her water breaks (which, in true television fashion, it does – on the middle of the office floor, conveniently just as she’s finished her story).

Inventing Anna centers Kent’s pregnancy in a way that is surprising in light of the storyline. Seen in one way, it makes Kent a counterpoint to Sorokin, including the way she uses her body. Sorokin’s body is meant to be displayed in fine clothing; Kent’s body houses her growing baby. Both women undergo physical transformations: Sorokin’s style changes as a reflection of her status, as she goes from expensive clothing to jail jumpsuits and last-minute H&M outfits for trial. Kent herself goes through physical changes from pregnancy to childbirth and early motherhood.

“She’s Gonna Have a Baby!”

The physicality of pregnancy is an important side story in Inventing Anna, working pregnancy into the storyline in ways that early television shows could not have imagined. In season two of I Love Lucy, Lucille Ball famously put her pregnancy into the storyline. Pregnancy had never been part of a television show before. At the time, it wasn’t even possible to talk about pregnancy on television; even the word “pregnancy” was considered too sexually suggestive and banned by The Code of Practices for Television Broadcasters. Still, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz incorporated Ball’s pregnancy into the storyline. When Ball’s doctor set January 19, 1953, as the date for her C-section, the show followed suit. On screen, Lucy Ricardo gave birth to a son the same night as Lucille Ball gave birth to a son in real life. I Love Lucy brought pregnancy into the national spotlight without using the word “pregnancy” once. [1]

A black and white publicity shot of all four main actor in I Love Lucy.
The cast of I Love Lucy, with Lucille Ball on the bottom right. (Courtesy Wikimedia)

Writing Ball’s pregnancy into her show’s script was an important moment in popular culture. It put pregnancy into public conversation. Lucille Ball was a pregnant working woman, and then a working mother. Ball parlayed her pregnancy into commercial success, but I Love Lucy was never about a woman who worked, though many episodes featured Lucy’s frustrated ambitions in the working world. It was, first and foremost, a comedy that put characters into funny situations and thrived off mishaps. In the end, the labor that it took for Lucille Ball to be a working mother was rendered invisible. I Love Lucy brought depictions of pregnancy and childbirth into the primetime spotlight, but the full-time working mother remained on the sidelines.

While I Love Lucy celebrated the ideal of postwar motherhood, as outlined by historian Elaine Tyler May, pregnancy takes on a different role in Inventing Anna.[2] Kent’s pregnancy offers a representation of pregnancy in the workplace. Kent’s pregnancy is not important to understanding Sorokin’s con, but seventy-five years after “Lucy Goes to the Hospital,” representations of pregnancy and motherhood still matter. Pregnancy and childbirth now appear often on television, but it’s still not common to see the main character experience pregnancy while working. Watching Kent as a working pregnant woman emphasizes the experiences of many women, highlighting how the physical experiences of pregnancy shape women’s daily lives.

“New Parent Problems”

Kent’s daughter isn’t born until episode 7 (of 9), and as is common in other television shows, the child remains mostly out of sight. But Kent’s experiences as a new mom still matter. Kent travels to Europe to continue learning more about Sorokin. As she rides a train, talking to her translator about Sorokin, the scene looks at first like nothing more than two women engaged in conversation. A machine beeps, and Kent reaches over to press a button on a machine that’s been hidden by a bag. Apologizing, she reaches under her shirt and removes a bottle of pumped breastmilk: “Oh, sorry. New parent problems.” Her companion looks away as Kent appears to resituate herself to continue pumping. She continues their original conversation while the scene cuts away.

Breastfeeding first appeared on television almost twenty-five years after Lucy Ricardo had her son. In 1977, Sesame Street featured Native American activist Buffy Saint-Marie nursing her son and answering Big Bird’s questions about breastfeeding. In the 1990s and early 2000s, breastfeeding appeared in comedic situations, such as on Friends and The Office. It has only been more recently that television shows have shown that pumping is a common solution for working women, as the character of Vivian Kent demonstrates. In 2017, Grey’s Anatomy included a brief pumping scene at actress Sarah Drew’s request. In that scene, Drew’s character was traveling for work and pumping from the privacy of her hotel room. In Inventing Anna, Kent is also traveling for work, but pumping is not relegated to a private space. Instead, Kent pumps on a train while her translator averts her eyes to offer some degree of privacy. Breast pumps as comedic relief have given way to showing the realities of pumping milk.

Such visibility matters because the erasure of women’s maternal labor has consequences. The current formula shortage exposes the unseen maternal labor of working women. To many people, the easy answer to the shortage is “just breastfeed,” but experts are making it clear that this is not always the solution. As of 2019, approximately 85 percent of women who breastfeed also use a pump at least some of the time. About six percent of those women only used a breast pump.[3] These numbers provide evidence for the fact that breastfeeding is not easy. As mothers across the nation struggle with the challenges of nursing, pumping, and formula shortages, these problems emphasize the impacts of invisibility.

Plenty of movies and films show pregnant women, but they do not center women’s labor – paid and maternal – as Inventing Anna does. Kent’s story makes working women’s maternal labor visible. At least one reviewer has argued that the show uses pregnancy as a cliched trope, but it is more than that. What separates Inventing Anna from the cliches is that the end of pregnancy is not the culminating moment of becoming a mother. Kent’s maternal labor extends beyond childbirth. In Inventing Anna, Sorokin’s story doesn’t end when Kent publishes her article. Similarly, Kent’s maternal labor doesn’t end the moment she gives birth. Instead, Inventing Anna argues that women’s maternal labor extends long after childbirth. The insistence on making that labor visible matters, perhaps now more than ever.

  1. Jude Davies and Carol R. Smith, “Race, Gender, and the American Mother: Political Speech and the Maternity Episodes of I Love Lucy and Murphy Brown,” American Studies 39, no. 2 (1998): 33–63. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40642967.
  2. Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era (Basic Books, 1999). 119-142.
  3. Annie Lowrey, “Pumping Milk and Nursing Are Not the Same,” The Atlantic, July 24, 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/07/exclusive-pumping-research/594580/.

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One Comment

larafreidenfelds

I totally agree! And next we need a realistic portrayal of how steep the learning curve is for most of us during early parenthood. With my second, I might have been able to pull off discreet public pumping while conducting an interview. With my first, I had to nurse on an airplane while taking my baby with me to a wedding when he was about 6 weeks old, and he was super-fussy. Once he pulled off after the milk let down and we sprayed the person sitting next to us. Not my most graceful moment. It was hard to have to learn everything all at once, and even harder in front of people who didn’t necessarily think mothers with babies belonged in public.

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