Pregnancy and the Simple Minded Writer

On Tor.com, Kate Nepneu suggests that writers should stop phoning it in when it comes to portraying pregnancy in their female characters and present the condition in a more interesting and realistic way.

I agree. I also think it’s a great example of how trying to write too smart can trip you up. I submit that the problem is less that pregnancy is portrayed in a boring way, and more that the author is trying to surprise you with it. Because what’s more shocking and surprising than when someone turns up pregnant after having unprotected sex, eh?

There is a greater problem with surprising a reader with a pregnancy than most other events. In real life, a pregnancy can take people by surprise for any number of reasons, and all of the symptoms are ambiguous except that positive pregnancy test. Even when fully “foreshadowed,” pregnancy is so life-changing that it is often a surprise anyway.

Not so in literature. Pregnancy is so expected in fiction that any attempt to foreshadow a pregnancy telegraphs it so obviously that you might as well give up trying to hide it from the reader.

Consider the early symptoms of pregnancy: missed period, bloating, breast tenderness, nausea, exhaustion, moodiness. The first three you have to cross off your “foreshadowing” list because they’re not even close to subtle. In real life, your period could be late for any number of reasons. But in a story, a late period is always either a pregnancy or a pregnancy scare. You can’t just drop it in casually and not show your whole hand.

So that leaves the more subtle signs–nausea, exhaustion, moodiness. Two out of these three are too subtle. If your character is more exhausted than usual, or she is feeling irritable, most readers are not going to pick up that you are hinting that she might be pregnant. A few will, but most people are going to gloss over them, causing them not to feel smart when you reveal your character is pregnant.

Thus, nausea becomes the eternal fallback, hinting at pregnancy, but easily attributable to a stomach flu. The problem is that generally no one is fooled by it anymore.

We’ve been watching a lot of Grey’s Anatomy, and that program actually did a great job using nausea to hint at early pregnancy. It worked because the nausea had a functional role in the story. The character identified it as a stomach bug, then worked through it, showing how important her career was to her. Having the nausea explained from a character development point of view diverts attention from it as a possible pregnancy sign.

Most stories are not able to divert attention successfully enough to slip that by as a surprise. What I recommend instead is not trying to surprise the reader with a pregnancy. Not every interesting story element has to be a surprise. Pregnancy is complicated, exciting, devastating, frightening, exhilarating, surreal, important, and interesting all on its own, without being sprung on the reader as a surprise.

That’s where Grey’s Anatomy succeeded again, because they did not try to draw out the suspense of the character’s pregnancy. We found out when she found out, without belaboring the HINT HINT NAUSEA and then we moved on to the drama of dealing with it.

(If you’re a fan of Grey’s Anatomy, you may have also noticed that they did a good job signaling the character’s miscarriage with a shoulder twinge. That’s a throwaway clue that a lot of people would miss, but I felt smart when I picked up on it.)

If you’re not trying to surprise the reader with a pregnancy, then it’s much less important to make the pregnancy experience unique or unusual. You can milk the organic drama of the situation. Still and all, as a reader and a Mom, I wouldn’t mind if every literary pregnancy were NOT the exact same cliched bag of morning sickness, tears, and lower back pain.

Here are some ideas for normal but unrepresented pregnancy experiences:

1. Nausea all day, all the time, for all nine months. (That happens to a significant minority of pregnant women, and it’s pretty awful.)

2. No pain, feeling well and active. Why is it pregnant women in books and on TV are always miserably rubbing their backs? I had zero back pain with my pregnancy. It’s not required.

3. Gestational diabetes. Typically diagnosed around 27 weeks, it’s a common complication that’s usually manageable with diet.

4. Bleeding and spotting, or having “periods.” Ok, sure, vaginal bleeding is something that almost never appears in a book, but this does happen. I had one friend who had four normal-seeming periods the first four months of her first pregnancy. Now that sure was a surprise!

5. Denial. Some women, especially teens, can be in denial of a pregnancy right up until the baby is born. When I was in labor with my son, there were no labor rooms available, so I was parked in a surgical recovery area with two other laboring women. One of them was a young girl who arrived in labor with a full term pregnancy and did not know she was pregnant. True story! Curtains are thin, so I heard the whole thing.

6. Not showing. Related to number 5, above, some women are able, though some miracle of anatomy, to HIDE a pregnancy for 9 months. Again, I have a story to back it up. I know someone who hid her fourth pregnancy from everyone, including her own mother, right up until delivery. In fact, she was sitting in her mother’s home when her labor started. She excused herself, quietly went to the hospital, and had a baby to absolutely everyone’s surprise. (Note: she was not obese, and she had a healthy, normal-sized baby.)

7. Miscarriages. Spontaneous pregnancy terminations are almost as fraught in literature as pregnancies themselves, but as an author it’s important to understand that miscarriage is a normal and common occurrence and is not caused by falling down the stairs or eating the wrong foods. There are typically no warning signs. It just happens. One miscarriage is not a sign of infertility and is not associated with increased risk of miscarriage later. Increased anxiety is another story. It would be refreshing to me if sometimes in a story a miscarriage is just a miscarriage, and not a secret abortion attempt or something.

8. Real life labor almost always lasts longer than fiction labor. A textbook first labor would be a full 12 hours. It is very, very unusual for a woman to have contractions and suddenly be in precipitous labor and not make it to the hospital. It is very, very, VERY common for a first labor to last quite a bit longer than 12 hours. It is probably more common than not that a woman arrives in labor at the hospital, gets checked, and then sent back home to rest until she is closer. On Grey’s Anatomy, Dr. Bailey arrived at the hospital with contractions ten minutes apart, and was already dilated to 4 centimeters. That happens to some women, but all of the rest of us hate those women.