We all know how the basics of pregnancy and childbirth go in pop culture, including SFF. It’s usually an unplanned pregnancy. The pregnant character discovers the pregnancy after throwing up breakfast several days in a row, which may coincide with finding clothes tighter at the waist. As the pregnancy progresses, the character experiences turn-on-a-dime mood swings and cravings for unusual foods or food combinations.
Labor is preceded by the pregnant character going on a cleaning or decorating binge. It starts abruptly and unmistakably, usually with water breaking, and takes only a matter of hours. The character will be lying down in bed during labor and delivery, will scream a lot, and will gain unusual strength—which will be used to break the hand of any companion. If the forthcoming child’s father is present, the pregnant character will curse and berate him; regardless, any father will have freaked out at the very prospect of labor and is likely to be entirely useless.
And here’s the thing. It’s not that any of these things are wrong, that is, that they never happen. But they’re boring. Pregnancy and childbirth vary remarkably across people, and even across different pregnancies of the same person, and falling back on the same clichés over and over again is not only lazy, but likely to bore or irritate a substantial portion of readers (including me). Fortunately, it’s not very hard for SFF writers to do better.
The easiest thing any writer can do is, quite simply, to remember that there is a huge variety of experience out there. Lots of people—but not all of them—have pregnancy nausea in the first trimester. (I did, both pregnancies.) Some people—but not all of them—throw up, at any or all times of day. (I never did.) The same goes for mood swings, food cravings, food aversions, the nesting phase (cleaning/decorating before labor), and basically any other symptom. The very easiest thing for writers to do, then, is to take a cliché and vary the intensity.
Of course it’s better to do minimal research. For instance: yes, in the first trimester a pregnant person might find clothes fitting tighter around the waist (which is more likely to be bloating than uterine growth), but it’s my understanding and experience that, more often, clothes will start fitting tighter around the chest—I suspect people without close experience of pregnancy may not realize that increases in breast size start that early (and often hurt, too). Writers can pick up symptoms and side effects from reference books or websites and feel relatively confident that enough people have experienced them that the book or website thought them worth mentioning (or they can lampshade it if they’re really concerned: “Oh, yeah,” said pregnant character, “I’d never heard of that either, but my relative says this always happens in my biological family / my friend experienced something similar / whatever.”
Labor and delivery is an area where many writers could particularly profit by minimal research. If the character will be giving birth somewhere at or below the current tech level in the U.S., I recommend Pregnancy, Childbirth, and the Newborn by Peggy Simkin et al., which covers a range of interventions and procedures, from “resting in this position can encourage the fetus to shift to a more favorable position for delivery,” all the way through to “here is when an emergency C-section might be needed and what will happen.” But skimming any recent resource should explain, at minimum, that contractions do not equal labor and the reasons why it’s hardly universal for someone to spend all of labor lying down in bed.
Of course, SFF writers aren’t limited to current U.S. tech levels. Iain M. Banks’ Excession is set in the Culture, a society so advanced at bioengineering that people can self-induce sex changes. I re-read it when I was six months pregnant, and I was nearly as boggled that the Culture had pregnancies as I was by the choice of one of the characters to pause her pregnancy at nine months for forty years (forty years!). In contrast, Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan universe is much less technologically advanced than the Culture, but it nevertheless has uterine replicators. In other words, before writing pregnancy and childbirth, SFF writers should ask themselves whether pregnancy (particularly unplanned pregnancies) and childbirth exist in their universe.
(As I write this, I am thirty-six weeks into my second pregnancy. I have had very easy pregnancies so far, fetal movement is kinda neat, there is a certain intimacy to the process, and I would use a uterine replicator in a heartbeat.)
If there are pregnancies in a SFF universe, there’s no reason that the side-effects, let alone delivery, have to be the same. A friend suggests interventions to forestall gestational diabetes or to avoid the “there’s not enough room in this abdomen for all of us” discomfort, plus adapting beaming tech for delivery. Right this minute, my life would be considerably improved by cheap in-home clothing fabricators, something to reduce swelling in my hands, a lower-gravity field around my bed, and a way to take medications without affecting FutureSibling. This is, of course, just the tip of the iceberg.
SFF writers should also consider the society’s general attitude toward reproduction, pregnancy, and childbirth. American society tends to consider visible pregnancy as a reason to lower social barriers, both conversationally and physically. (Never, ever, ever touch someone’s pregnant belly without permission. While you’re at it, don’t give unsolicited advice or tell horror stories, either.) Are pregnancies public property (figuratively or literally) in your SFF society, something intensely private, somewhere in-between? Are they generally approved of, disapproved of, considered a harmless quirk? Is childbirth scary and mysterious, unexceptional, the big event or a precursor to a more socially significant milestone? How tightly linked is reproduction to sex, both in the sense of how the gametes get together and in the sense of the identities of the parent(s)?
Finally, it’s outside the scope of this post, but I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that any particular pregnancy or childbirth has structural and thematic implications for the work it’s in, which often fall into their own predictable categories—such as SFF’s tendency to see pregnant bodies as horrific and tools/things to be invaded, the way infants tend to vanish after birth, and fairly narrow depictions of motherhood. But at minimum, SFF writers, please: vary your depictions of pregnancy and childbirth. This reader, at least, will thank you.
Kate Nepveu was born in South Korea and grew up in New England. She now lives in upstate New York where she is practicing law, raising a family, getting ready for FutureSibling’s arrival, and (in her copious free time) writing at Dreamwidth and her booklog.