Pregnant adventures in benign sexism

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I am one of those women who has always felt very much "like a girl." As is, I think, not the case for everyone, it's always been clear in my head that however you conceptualize gender (a binary or a continuum or an artificial construct completely), I fall, by nature or nurture or for some other reason, pretty well on the female end of it. This has been at odds, sometimes, with how I've been treated--I assume due to my size, but maybe for other reasons as well, I've not always been treated as "girly" in some of the same ways I've heard other women describe. I've not too often felt that I was being protected, or coddled, or that I was on the receiving end of acts of chivalry.

Pregnancy has changed that. Unlike some other women, pregnancy hasn't really made me feel "more female," but it's certainly changed others' treatment of me in ways that I identify as female-specific. People (men, in particular) rush to open doors. Nobody wants me to carry anything. I am asked how I am feeling at least ten times a day. As I get progressively bigger, people are more and more helpful, or at least are trying to be. And I'm not going to lie--it's nice. When I feel badly or am having trouble getting around, it's REALLY nice. But these kinds of gender-related niceties don't come without a cost, another side to the coin, and I've noticed a good bit of that side since I've been pregnant as well.

One example that has come up over the past few days is in Mark's and my interactions with two older men, both of whom are pediatricians we're interviewing. The first interview was terrible for all kinds of reasons, but the sexist undercurrent of it was definitely one of them. First, the doctor assumed that Mark and I were brother and sister. I didn't figure out until later that his confusion came from my selecting "unmarried" on his intake form. When we told him we were the baby's parents, we just weren't married, he was puzzled and seemed perturbed, then said something about how that must be normal in "hippy, granola land" (I had previously mentioned being from Oregon). Whatever. That kind of thing happens less and less, but it does still happen. Later, he asked if "Mom" (that would be me) would be returning to work after the baby was born. No questions about "Dad's" plans. And so on and so forth.

The second interview was much better, and we may actually use that particular pediatrician. However, as I reflect on it after the fact, there were even more sexist assumptions involved. The question about "Mom" returning to work was repeated. The doctor mentioned having evening hours available for appointments "so that Dad can come, too." An anecdote about not knowing whether to call the nurse advice line or go to the ER was illustrated with a frazzled, uptight stay-at-home-mom and a father who "just wanted some dinner when he got home from work!" Most tellingly, though, even though Mark and I were both right there, the doctor addressed only me when discussing all of the baby health decisions one makes in a child's first few months of life, then addressed only Mark when discussing insurance and payment.

I can practically hear somebody out there thinking that these things aren't a big deal, and have to be written off as part of the cost of dealing with past generations. And there is some truth to that--I don't believe that any of these assumptions would preclude this doctor from providing good medical care to my baby (which is why he's still in the running). I also think, to some degree, they are par for the course when one is having a prolonged personal discussion with someone two generations older. However, these things ARE a big deal. The assumptions on which these comments were precluded are invasive, and they are harmful. Though the sexism to which I refer in the title of this post may appear, and be intended to be, benign, it's really not. The same set of assumptions that led our pediatrician candidates to ask if I'd be going back to work, but not ask the same question of Mark, are the ones that help make it harder for a woman to get hired or be taken seriously in her job. The picture the doctor painted, of a frazzled, possibly hysterical stay-at-home-mom keeps scads of women second-guessing their own judgement, intelligence, and choices. Assuming that I'd make our kid's medical decisions and Mark would pay his/her bills does both of us a disservice (aside from being simply untrue).

I'm at a bit of a loss as to how to address this type of ingrained sexism. Yes, I could have argued with each assumption as the doctor made it, but how likely would it have been to have made any difference in the mind of a man who has been practicing medicine for 50 years? I could refuse to take my child to a sexist doctor, but I'm not at all sure that would leave me with a provider at all. The best thing I can think to do is continue, as a parent, to live my life the way I have tried to so far, rejecting archaic gender assumptions in my actions. Yes, I will be returning to work. Yes, I can pay that bill. No, I don't need to ask my husband (and no, we aren't married anyway). My hope is that these actions, taken by me and millions of other women, will slowly change assumptions. I have to admit, though, that the hope feels a little pie-in-the-sky. I am realizing, as I get progressively more pregnant and as I reflect on parenthood, that it may be even harder to wiggle out from under gender-based expectations as a mother than it is as a non-mom. Another new challenge.

10 Comments

Thank you for sharing your thoughts on these experiences - these are the sorts of ingrained gender and relational biases that I'm really only starting to notice. When I went to (attempt to) get my IUD a few months ago, the nurse practitioner said that while they usually recommend the IUD for women who have had a vaginal birth (which makes sense for exactly the anatomical reasons that I wasn't able to get one), I was also a good candidate because I was married.

Hello. Marriage is not a medical condition.

Great post! I absoLUTEly think this is an important topic, and I definitely continue to experience sexism in a heightened way now that I am a parent. It's also interesting (related, but not the same) the way people will talk to you (me) as if we all "know" the baby will be straight. "He could be gay!" I want to shout about 3 times a day. ;) People also freak out about the facts that my husband and I have different last names, when it comes to the baby. I wanted my baby to have my last name, but compromised (long story). But others simply assume the baby has the dad's last name because that's the way it's "done." So many interesting issues!!

The man's "paternity leave" or work plans is as important to suss out as the woman's (if it's a hetero couple becoming parents). But a lot of people don't see that. My husband works at home and watches our baby. That was the best choice for us. It's not for everyone, but I'm amazed at how many people don't even consider it!

Yes, be yourself and live by example! But if you can rebut someone in a way that isn't too complicated, do it!

I'm rambling! I wish we could sit down and chat in person. ;)

WOW. All I can say is wow and Yuck. I have had 3 different pediatric groups since my 5 yr old was born (due to moving and changing insurance) and even though 1 of the groups was sub-par in my opinion, NONE of them ever asked anything remotely like you were asked. (We are in NJ, that may make a difference I suppose.) Ew ew ew! I would be so insulted and disgusted. Perhaps a practice that has a much younger employee base is called for? Both of our large-group practices have an age range from just-out-of residency to long-past-retirement age and all have been open minded and knowledgeable. All questions about returning to work were asked of both parents, and no one made assumptions about who would be caring for the baby, or who would be paying. Sheesh - like you need this kind of stress - I hope you have better luck!!!

People frequently OUT LOUD assume that because I was raised by a man, my mom was like, a complete crack addict or dead. Or that my dad was gay. I think that last one is a funny thing because it's a totally liberal sexist assumption.

What a fantastic post! Max's first two pediatricians were women and definitely not sexist ones. They both assumed that Philip and I made all our decisions about Max together and I don't think I was ever asked by a doctor while I was pregnant or afterwards what my work arrangements were. Why do they even need to know if you're going back to work? I mean, I suppose I wouldn't have minded answering, it's a pretty valid question from friends and acquaintances who are curious. I wonder if I would have noticed in your situation that I was being asked about work and not Philip? Perhaps the assumption is that most men simply don't get maternity leave benefits through their work (Philip's insurance didn't have that at the time we had Max). Yet reading this I am definitely chafing at all the little instances of sexism with these interviews - so maybe I would have noticed after all.

I have tended to give the older men I've dealt with a lot more leeway with regards to sexist attitudes figuring, as you suggest, that I'm not going to be able to change their attitudes but I wonder if we do ourselves a disservice in this regard? These men are influencing younger men in their lives too - I don't know what the best approach is but I feel like I need to counter this kind of thing in my own life rather than passively let it be.

Elizabeth: the ACOG has now also recommended Mirena IUDs for teens for menna... oh hell, however you spell awful, too-long periods. Even teens who have yet to be sexually active, much less have a baby.

G: we recently saw a GI nurse practitioner who was confused as to how she had seen Fiona before, but had never met me. When she figured out that it was because Drew had brought Fiona for that appointment, WITHOUT FIONA'S MOTHER THERE AT ALL, there was a very surprised, "oh!" followed by a very flat, "huh."

One silver lining of knowing ahead of time that our baby would have special medical needs from her first breath was that the providers who wanted to know about parental leave plans all asked about both of ours, and many had some helpful suggestions about maximizing leave benefits and other work-life-balance benefits. And it really was relevant to the providers to know if there would be a sahp, because good lord, the appointments! I cannot IMAGINE trying to keep a job while taking her to all those appointments in her first year. Well, I can imagine trying, I just can't imagine being successful!

Jenny: I get some of the same assumptions made about my mom, because my dad did most of the school-year parenting of me. Actually, my mom was AWESOME, and a fantastic mother, so fantastic, in fact, that she recognized that the other factors in everyone's lives (who lived where, educational opportunities, social stuff) meant I'd be better off with my dad. And on the other side of the same coin, my dad was assumed to be an angel, a saint, for raising his kid. Don't get me wrong, he was/is a fantastic dad. But raising me wasn't something we'll be writing to the Vatican about after he dies.

I'd keep pediatrician-shopping, personally. Even in my teeny little ultra-conservative Idaho town, I was able to find an awesome, non-judgey, non-sexist pediatrician. It's so important to have someone you really respect (and who respects you). It means so much to me that my pediatrician says, at the end of every visit, some variation on "Looks like you're doing a great job!" There's so much self-doubt in being a parent that that simple act of sisterly kindness nearly brings tears of gratitude to my eyes each time.

Run, don't walk, away from that jackass. Life is too short and medical stuff too important to work with someone you can't really trust because they are sexist jerks.

I'm going to have to agree with Skye - I'd keep looking. Feeling uncomfortable at the pediatrician sucks - you don't want appointments to turn into a "game" of "what sexist thing is he going to say this appointment?"

Maybe try finding a female ped who has kids and is a working mother herself? I bet she won't make as many assumptions... : )

I'd suggest interviewing a third, female or younger male, pediatrician. I have never experienced any of this from ours. Dad has come to nearly EVERY appointment, only missing one or two last minute sick visits. She talks to both of us equally, and listens to each of us. When we're all in the room, I honestly feel it's an open team discussion, which she makes a point of also including our children long before they're old enough to talk and answer her. It's a great experience every time, and my kids LOVE their doctor. They don't even fear the shots. I wish everyone had a doctor they were this comfortable with.

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