Pregnancy in Practice: Expectation and experience in the contemporary US
New York: Berghahn, 2013, 195pp.
Reviewed by Michal Raucher
Many of us who have done anthropological research on reproduction have found that women love sharing their birth stories or talking about their pregnancies. Each of us thinks our story is unique, but we also want to know how our experience maps onto the normal, ordinary pregnancy. Sallie Han’s ethnographic account of “ordinary pregnancy” in America challenges the idea that there is a “normal” pregnancy, and it is a welcome contribution to the anthropology of reproduction.
Drawing on fifteen months of ethnographic research in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Han argues that pregnancy is a period of both biological and social gestation during which “babies and mothers become constructed through everyday experiences.” (5). That is to say that despite the dominant American narrative that “good” women immediately develop kinship ties to their babies with the first sign of pregnancy, pregnancy is actually a liminal period during which women become mothers and fetuses become babies.
Han’s definition of “ordinary” refers to both the unremarkable nature of her research participants’ pregnancies and her own methodological approach. All of the women in Han’s study had medically low-risk pregnancies. Importantly, by focusing on “ordinary” pregnancy Han seeks to de-emphasize the “medicalized and technologized meanings attached to ‘normal’ pregnancy” (9), which have long been critiqued by feminist scholars. Han’s focus on how women make meaning out of pregnancy is a turn away from feminist critique and towards feminist methodological approaches of studying the everyday and the lived.
Han also demonstrates that what is “ordinary” is itself a socially constructed category, “a claim about actual life” that is not necessarily descriptive of the way things are for everyone (15). Thus, although Han’s sample of pregnant women is by no means representative of American diversity, a point I will return to later, this selection of women (predominantly white, upper-middle class, educated, almost all in heterosexual marriages) shapes what is ordinary in American because they represent the hegemonic ideal.
Two themes run throughout Han’s ethnography. She analyzes pregnancy as a literacy event, a time when pregnant women learn not only how to read pregnancy tests, pregnancy books, and ultrasounds, but also how to feel about being pregnant and how to become parents. Notably, in the second chapter Han analyzes “belly talk.” If pregnancy books are the textual socialization of pregnant women as mothers, then “belly talk is the language socialization of pregnant women as mothers” (61). Moving towards an analysis of belly talk as a kinship practice, Han argues that “Talk to the belly makes the unseen, unknown, and uncertain ‘baby’ in the belly real and present to the pregnant women, other adults, and children who engage it through talk” (69).
Han’s second analytical theme is consumption and how the things pregnant women consume (food and gifts in particular) are significant in transforming pregnant women into mothers. Couples designed extensive nurseries with themes like “Winnie the Pooh” or “Around the World” to reflect the values and priorities they wished to pass on to their children. Han argues that the nursery is about welcoming the baby into the private space of the family, and baby showers are about welcoming babies into the social worlds of the parents.
The chapters on decorating nurseries and registering for multiple baby showers highlighted my primary critique of this ethnography. Class differences are central in pregnancy experiences, a reality that Han acknowledges in her discussion of baby showers. But particularly when analyzing pregnancy as a literacy event, it seems essential to address the fact that Han’s sample approached pregnancy already significantly educated in general and especially about pregnancy. Although Han expertly analyzed their ordinary pregnancies, this is an extra-ordinary group of American women. Han points out that their use of midwives or attendance at birthing classes is much higher than the national average, but this gap is problematic in so far as these cannot be said to be the experiences of ordinary women in America.
Pregnancy in Practice is a feminist contribution to the anthropology of reproduction in that it explores the quotidian experiences of pregnant women. Although I would have liked to hear more directly from the women themselves, Han’s thorough engagement with scholarship on reproduction puts these women’s experiences in conversation with all the women who have willingly shared their own reproductive narratives. While her sample is by no means statistically representative of the experiences of American women, the women in her ethnography represent the normative prenatal experience in America. Han successfully demonstrates that the concept of an “ordinary” or “normal” pregnancy is a phantom itself. Because of this work, perhaps we can definitively say that all women have ordinary pregnancies, or perhaps none do.
Michal Raucher is an assistant professor of Judaic Studies at the University of Cincinnati. Her research lies at the intersection of Jewish ethics, anthropology of reproduction, and women in Judaism. As a Fulbright Fellow, Dr. Raucher conducted ethnographic research on reproductive ethics of ultra-Orthodox Jewish women in Israel. She has published on sexuality and gender in Judaism, religion and bioethics, and abortion legislation in Israel. Dr. Raucher has received degrees from Northwestern University, the Jewish Theological Seminary, Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania. Currently Michal is a JTS Fellow and a consultant for the UN Populations Fund.