Consulting, Gender, Equity, Assessment

Please Do Not Pet the Baby Bump—or, Motherhood in the Surveillance Society

“Hi. I’m just going to duck in your office for a second and hide. I saw Barbara* come in and she’s probably going to try to pet my belly again.”

The colleague who whispered these words to me had slipped through my half-opened door with remarkable speed and stealth for someone in her third trimester of pregnancy. I gestured to a chair and offered a quiet, sympathetic laugh, and though she joined me, her laugh was a tired one, mingling wry amusement with embarrassment and consternation. The offending belly-petter was an older woman, kind and well-meaning, but abounding in far more maternal advice than actual expertise, and cheerfully unconstrained by any sense of personal boundaries.

My longsuffering colleague’s absurd dilemma was far from unusual, of course. Gestating bodies invite intrusive attention and advice, well-intentioned and otherwise, and are subject to surveillance not only in public but also online, where mothers find themselves targeted by a formidable array of lay expertise from doctors, friends, family members, and total strangers. And within this digital “pregnancy panopticon,” women are increasingly compelled to subject themselves to various forms of self-surveillance during every stage of motherhood.

One could write a book about the rewards and risks (more pernicious even than uninvited belly-petting) of all this monitoring and self-monitoring, as well as the cultural-historical context of the contest over what constitutes expertise, and we at Vital were excited to learn that two scholars whose work we have featured in the past have applied themselves to that very task.

We interviewed researchers Bethany Johnson and Margaret M. Quinlan back in 2017 concerning their work exploring the connections between race, racism, and infertility. These are but a few of the issues addressed in their new book, You’re Doing it Wrong! Mothering, Media, and Medical Expertise, just published by Rutgers University Press.

In a monograph organized around the various stages of what they call the “life-cycle of early motherhood,” from pre-conception to early toddlerhood, Johnson and Quinlan trace the history of lay and professional authority and reveal how new forms of expertise in digital spaces influence the experience of various maternal health crises, including fertility issues, pregnancy behavior and outcomes, premature birth, infant loss and postpartum health issues.

Whether or not this carefully-researched work of academic scholarship becomes the go-to baby shower gift of the year, it will, as the authors state, “inform scholars, healthcare professionals, policymakers, government officials, and the public as they grapple with health literacy and health crises related to motherhood, on and off social media, today and in the future.”

The book is available April 19th from Rutgers University Press.

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* Names have been changed to protect the guilty.

Photo by Humphrey Muleba