Gendering Belly Talk
In contrast to the complicated nature/culture of the relationship between pregnant woman and fetus/baby/child, the relationship
between male partner and the child is regarded as relatively straightforward in the contemporary United States. Certainly
the men I interviewed, all of whom were the legal spouses of the pregnant women in my study, regarded their relationship to
the expected child as one based on nature, biology, and genetic relatedness. However, they all emphasized their distance
from the expected child because the male partner is not the one who has to be pregnant. Thus, the relationship between father
and child is regarded as one that needs to be built. As I suggest in this paper, it is a relationship that can be built through
What to Expect When Youre Expecting advises men (or specifically, the husband/father): Your wife may have the edge in
getting to know the baby prenatally because its comfortably ensconced in her uterus, but that doesnt mean that you cant start
to know the new family member, too. Talk, read, sing to your baby frequently (Eisenberg et al. 1996:413). Here, getting
to know the child becomes cast in terms of competition: Women have the edge, the best start in getting to know the child,
that men do not. Because his body is not involved and implicated in the same ways as the body of the pregnant woman, the
male partners participation and his bond with the expected child are assumed to be marginal and minimal. Assumptions about
the detachment of expectant fathers highlight the ways in which the attachment of mothers is purported to rest on nature and
biology. They also highlight ideas about maleness, manhood, and masculinity that emphasize mens distance from nature and
biology (cf., Ortner 1974).
Pregnant women themselves actively encouraged their male partners engagement in belly talk. Consciously or not, expectant
mothers in my study sometimes involved expectant fathers in what appeared to me an adults version of playing house. Martina,
a full-time graduate student, reported on how she recruited her husbands help in communicating with their expected child.
At 22 weeks pregnant, she had been advised to start sleeping on her side because sleeping on her back might cut off circulation
to the baby. However, she had difficulty following this advice and it worried her.
Sometimes, I fall asleep on my side and, at some point in the middle of the night, Ill wake up. Oh my gosh, how long
have I been on my back? This happened a couple of times. Finally, I said, OK, Daniel, I need you to tell the kid something.
So, he goes down, puts his head toward my stomach, and I told him to tell the baby that who he was because its not my voice
and its a very deep voice compared to mine. You know, introduce yourself and then say, If you ever cant breathe or if Mommy
is laying on her back, then kick Mommy really hard so that she can roll over, OK? So, that was what we told the kid. [Laughter]
In this exchange, Martina asks Daniel to introduce himself, which implies his distance from the child. However, Martina
herself also seems to perceive distance from the child in that she asks her husband to talk to her stomach in close proximity,
which she cannot do or perhaps she consciously creates this distance to encourage Daniels closeness. Martina refers to herself
as self-evidently the Mommy. When I asked Martina, she told me that when Daniel introduces himself, he identifies himself
as your father or Daddy, which is in relation to child and mother. Besides role-playing the parts of mother and father, there
also is the assignment of certain kinds of responsibilities to these roles. Mother recruits father to speak to the child
about an important matter.
Men, too, seemed to regard belly talk as a way for the expectant father to participate in the pregnancy and begin to feel
an emotional bond with the expected child. During a conversation I had with Martina, then 33 weeks pregnant, and her husband,
Daniel, a professor at a small college, the couple recounted a recent discussion at the Bradley childbirth preparation class
that they were attending. Last week, we saw the videos about birth. Somehow it helped me realized that whats in there
Daniel gestured to Martinas burgeoning belly is an actual person thats going to come out and I have to that we have to relate
to it and everything. I had heard similar remarks from other men about the impact that seeing a birth (even if only on video)
had in terms of making the impending birth real for them. However, Daniel continued, Then I realized, well, I can start relating
to the baby right now talking to the baby while its still in the womb. What I found interesting here was his use of the
term relating, which I thought was especially apt in that Daniel was described the process of building a relationship between
father and child. In a most matter of fact tone, he told me that he greeted the baby, Good morning, and also asked, How are
you? Given his polite, but warm manners Daniel, who is foreign-born, seems to take such courtesies quite seriously I can
imagine that these utterances are meaningful for him. In other words, they are not merely what many of us dismiss as small
In U.S. society at large, men often become cast as incompetent givers of care who need to be taught what to do (talk,
read, sing) or else as overgrown children themselves whose best abilities eventually lay in playing with the baby. While
I was attending childbirth preparation classes, it was not uncommon to overhear both women and men converse about mens enthusiasm
for toys that had been purchased for the baby. Some women claimed shopping for toys as well as gear, such as strollers, was
a good way to involve men. Many of the women posting reviews on amazon.com for Oh, Baby, the Places Youll Go! A Book to Be
Read in Utero recommended it as a way to encourage male partners into participating in expectant fatherhood because the book
itself, an adaptation of classic Dr. Seuss stories, was fun to read. (In contrast, during my lurks on other Web sites, I
observed that women do not necessarily make fun a priority when they post reviews for products that they recommend for other
mothers.) As 1st time mom to be from New Hampshire wrote about the Dr. Seuss book: This is a great way to get daddy involved.
My husband loves to read this book to our baby. In another review on the same Web site, a New Mom from Alaska raves:
My husband and I read this book to the belly from about week 20 on. My husband recited it each night and around the house
up until the day our boy was born. He read it within a few minutes of the birth and my son recognized the voice and cadence
immediately. Ive also given this away as a baby shower gift, its a good way to introduce new parents-to-be to silly childrens
books, and gets you thinking that the belly is alive and can respond.
New Mom seems especially enthusiastic about the fact that at birth, their child immediately recognized his father. That
is, the child had demonstrated early cognitive development and father and child already had established a relationship between
The characterization of men as incompetent caregivers seems an especially unfair and inaccurate portrayal of the expectant
fathers in my study. Daniel and the other men I interviewed all took active part in being expectant. They attended childbirth
preparation and even breast-feeding classes. Most made a point of accompanying their partners to the ob or midwifes office
for prenatal appointments. Several men began making arrangements at work, such as reassigning projects and saving vacation
time, in order to be able to schedule time off around the birth. One man even taught himself woodworking skills from library
books and built a dresser for the child. Before their wives became pregnant, all of the men had shared responsibilities at
home to some degree. During pregnancy, they all seemed to have stepped up their efforts, especially during the early months
when their wives were coping with nausea and other symptoms and again in the later months with the onset of back pain and
fatigue. One man fervently insisted, The bonding [with the baby] starts with the man and the woman. In all, these men demonstrated
that they cared for their partners and that they could care for their children as well.
Thus, the emphasis placed today on expectant fathers and the father-child relationship indicates shifts in how partnership
between men and women as well as parenthood between fathers and mothers is conceived. On the one hand, the increased popular
and academic attention paid to fathers today seems to emerge with ideas regarding egalitarian marriage, especially as the
number of dual-earner couples has become the rule rather than the exception. A poignant example of this development is a
short feature that was published in The New York Times to eulogize a 9/11 victim, who was remembered not as the senior vice
president of a large investment bank, but as Expectant Father (November 8, 2001).
On the other hand, the focus on fathers also seems to develop from conservative political discourse on the so-called decline
of the family or the dysfunctional family, which include single mothers and single-sex couples. The apparent re-discovery
of fathers seems to signal the construction of a new kind of father/man whose importance takes precedence even over that of
the mother/woman. Watching your husband turn into a father when he kisses your belly good night, reads to the baby in utero,
or stays up until three in the morning putting the crib together, just in case the baby comes eight weeks early, reads the
number 6 item in a list of 25 Great Things about Being Pregnant that appeared in Parents Pregnancy, a publication distributed
free in the ob-gyn reception area at a local medical center. Here, the pregnant woman is not the recipient of her husbands
care her belly is. She becomes a spectator to her pregnancy. Her own belly talk goes unacknowledged, which recalls Ochs
conclusions regarding the indexing of gender in language:
This state of affairs is precisely what we would predict from the language socialization practices in mainstream American
households. Mother is underrated because she does not socialize children to acknowledge her participation in accomplishments.
Mother is ignored because through her own language behavior, mother has become invisible (1992:353).
In contrast, father becomes acknowledged and emphasized through his performance of belly talk.
Indeed, belly talk seems to be an effective means through which to engage male partners and render him visible and present
in pregnancy. Belly talk helps bridge the distance that expectant fathers feel from the expected child. In the New York
Times feature dedicated to the Expectant Father, the pregnant widow recalls her husbands belly talk: He tried to talk to the
fetus. He would say, Hello! Can you hear me? I love you. Here, in a manner that echoes a long-distance (or even local
cellular) telephone call, the expectant father initiates communication with the fetus as his conversation partner in the distant
place of the womb. However, in initiating the conversation, he also bridges the distance between them. When he expresses
his affection, he also activates a particular kind of relationship.
As my own belly has become more of a physical presence in our life, I have noticed that my partner also has begun to interact
physically with it. At 20 weeks pregnant, I could feel the fetal movement, but my husband could not. He would place his
hands on my belly, hoping to be able to feel a kick from the outside. While he certainly has been involved as any other man
I know subscribing to the babycenter.com weekly pregnancy calendar, alerting me to dos and donts he has read about on other
Web sites, shouldering more than his fair share of cooking and cleaning (especially when I seemed to have morning sickness
all afternoon and evening), and listening to my comments and complaints about the strange changes happening in my body he
has expressed to me how un-real the pregnancy still feels to him.
I have begun to take the notion of feeling at face value not as an issue of emotion, but actually a matter of touch and
other sensory involvement. I have come to appreciate mens belly talk as a way for them to participate physically in pregnancy.
Belly talk is perhaps a social and cultural device that allows men, on some level, to become biological about pregnancy.
As an example, I will the interaction that I observed involving a pregnant woman and her partner. As she and I conversed,
her partner, who was seated on the floor at her feet, turned and pushed up the bottom of her top to reveal the pregnant womans
belly. He gently placed his hands on either side of it, pressed his lips near her navel, then talked slowly and exaggeratedly
into her belly. What he said was I love you.
In the future, I plan to examine the belly talk of persons other than expectant mothers and fathers. This includes other
adults such as relatives, but also care providers such as obs and midwives. I am interested especially in the belly talk
of siblings-to-be. Based on the few, brief observations I have made at ultrasound appointments, during which other children
accompanied their parents to see the baby, I am interested in the contributions that children, too, make to the constitution
of subjects and relations. Further, as I have discussed in this paper, belly talk also demonstrates the ways in which considerations
of talk might be expanded to include other forms of communication, such as music and touch. My own limited familiarity with
mens belly talk leads me to believe that touch is a topic that warrants further consideration in terms of the nature/culture
Thus, this paper represents only the first step in an exploration of the ways in which we continually make and remake
our world, our communities and kin, and ourselves.