Prebirth Gender Talk: A Case Study in Prenatal Socialization
This narrative case study by the author documents the notes, language, and feelings of one mother’s prenatal gender talk to her baby, in utero. The article explores the types of gender socializations which occurred in the womb for one child following a sex-identifying ultrasound. Findings conclude that, for this case, gender socialization begins in utero, the labelling of a sex predetermines a personality for the mother, and the tone of voice becomes sharper and ‘stronger’ when the baby is identified as male.
What happens when an educational researcher, schooled in Women’s Studies, has a baby? Does the researcher’s knowledge of socialized gender roles influence the baby’s otherwise stereotypical socialization? As an education professor with an interest in Women’s Studies, I thought it would; what I discovered was that it did not. In this article, I document words said and feelings expressed to my second born child, in utero. When I was pregnant with my first child, I began to address the child differently following an ultrasound identifying its sex. This bothered me, and yet I could not consciously control, nor identify, the gender socialization that was taking place. Thus, when my second child was in utero, I began to document what was said to the child and what feelings were transmitted to the child both before and after a sexidentifying ultrasound in an effort to more fully understand the gender socialization process taking place as early as pregnancy. As a result of this data, this paper, presented as a case study in narrative, attempts to explore and document one participant’s in utero engendered language and socialization.
Educational research has found that children are socialized into stereotypical gender roles prior to kindergarten (Bailey, 1993; Fisk, 1985; O’Reilly, 1988; Ricks, 1985; Rubin, Provenzano & Luria, 1976). Bailey (1993) and Fisk (1985), for example, claim that gender stereotypes are rigidly formed by age 5; Perry & Sung (1993) found same-sex stereotype knowledge was high at age 3. From the moment of birth, one of the first questions a new parent is asked is, “Is it a boy or a girl?” In the hospital, girls are wrapped in pink blankets and boys in blue. Pink potted flowers arrive for mothers of daughters and blue vases and balloons for mothers of sons. Boys are described as “big,”"strong,” and “independent”; girls as “fine,”"gentle,” and “beautiful” (O’Reilly, 1988; Ricks, 1985; Thompson, 1975). Studies have even suggested that the process of gender socialization begins prior to birth, in utero. Rothman (1987), for instance, found that mothers who learned the sex of their child through amniocentesis described a male as “moving vigorously,” very active, and a female as “quiet.” Mothers who did not know the sex of their child prior to the birth, did not talk about the fetus – they spoke only of the physical effects of their pregnancy (Rothman, 1987, p. 129). More recently, findings supporting prebirth socialization were produced by Gibson (1998). “Preoccupied” women develop more “rigid, highly elaborated representations of their children with respect to gender”; secure women are more flexible with gender representations prior to birth (Gibson, 1998). I was aware of the power of engendered language (Ayim & Goossens, 1987; Frisch, 1977; MacKay, 1983). Was I, someone who lectured on the ill- effects of gender socialization, inadvertently engendering my own child? As it turns out, I was, and I was doing so even while being conscious of it. How early did the gender socialization for my own children begin? Their socialization began the moment their sex was known, or, during the second trimester of the pregnancy, in utero.
What follows are the unedited field notes which were recorded regularly during my pregnancy. The notes represent the daily repetition of talk to the fetus. The notes document both what was said to the baby, orally, and any feelings or expressions which were conveyed to the fetus either physically or psychologically – both before and after his sex was known. Oral comments to the baby are provided in plain text; thoughts and feelings for the baby are provided in parentheses ().
Prebirth Talk Prior to Sex-Identifying Ultrasound
Although you’re only a few weeks old, you’ve already experienced a lot of very hot weather and terrible fumes from trucks on the bridges. I thought immediately, ‘I want to move out of here so you and your brother can grow up in the fresh air of the country. ‘ No more fooling around – I contacted an architect to build a house on the farm and thought about changing jobs.
I hope you’ll hang in there. Most of the time, we’re a very happy/ content family. We laugh and try to keep our life good and happy. If you arrive, I think you’ll find yourself very loved.
When I was in the ultrasound waiting to see if you were alive, wondering if you were there, the technician let me listen to your little heartbeat and my eyes welled up with tears. You were there! You were alive and living and well! Oh my joy! A new life inside of me. It was the sweetest musical composition a woman could hear.
How are you doing in there? If you need anything – any nutrient – I want you to just send me a sign. I want you to be bright and creative and to be stimulated by life. You and your brother will be close in age, so you will also be the best of friends at times. It’s dark and warm where you are now but here it’s bright and light. You will arrive in one of our most festive seasons.
I would like to have you in Scotland, but am not sure I could manage away from your Daddy that long and it’s still fairly dangerous to travel in your 3rd trimester – you risk a premature birth. Babies need all the time they can manage.
Hi you, how are you doing? (Rubbing belly in clockwise motion.) We go to England tomorrow. I can see you in there – there is already a bump here where you are on my left side.
Hi you, I can feel you moving around in there. Are you going to be an active one? I have lots of upset stomach with you.
Everyone wants to know if you’ll be a girl or a boy. Because I have started to fill out to the sides, instead of out front, this time, they say you’ll be a girl, but who knows.
I don’t have as much time to talk to you while you’re in there as I had to talk to your brother, but I am keeping this journal for you so anytime I say something to you, I will try to write it down here.
Today you go to England with me. I’ll try to keep things as peaceful and relaxing as I can for you – lots of fresh air.
Do you hear your brother crying? I don’t know if he’s getting up yet or just dreaming.
Mordecai Richler died in your third month. After Seumas’ birth, Pierre Trudeau and the ‘Friendly Giant’ both died. It is a new era. I can recall growing up with Richler’s cynical take on the world. It’s why we’re so sarcastic about politics as Canadians, I think.
Time for sleep. You rest, and I will try to keep you away from the airplane radiation okay?
Hi little one – finally some time alone. I’ve barely had time to talk to you. Today I might hear you1 at the Doctor’s. You’ve been very quiet lately. I think you’ll like playing with your brother a lot. I know he can hardly wait to play with you. You relax and I will try to keep everything stress-free for you. It’s an amazing world. I think you’ll really like it when you come and we will love you so much – lots of hugs, lots of kisses. I can’t wait to meet you, but for now you rest, you grow.
Hi little one. How’re you doing in there? I can feel you here. (Rubbing belly clockwise.)
Okay, let’s go over here and see if we can find the horse stables. I think they were over here (rubbing belly in clockwise motion). I haven’t spent much time talking to you, have I? How are you doing in there anyway, okay? Are you enjoying listening to your brother? I think I felt you moving this morning you know. Either that, or you’re not liking all the grease I’ve been feeding you, are you? You seem to get a lot of indigestion, don’t you?
That was nice. I could feel you there. I love you so much. (‘Signal of love’ sent to baby.)3 Mmmm.
I know it’s a busy day and rough, but we’ll get some rest soon, so right now, I just want you to relax.
Well little one, how are you doing?
Hi little one. I can feel you over on my left-hand side there. You must be in the same position your big brother was in.
Hi little one, how are you doing in there? Did you know that the woman across the street, Annie, thinks that you’re going to be a girl? What do you think? Are you? Your Daddy thinks this as well.
To Seumas, the baby’s brother: Well Seumas, can you hear your brother or sister in there? What is s/he doing? You’re sitting on your brother or sister, be careful!
Well, your Grandma thinks your Mommy looks different this time too. She must be filling out more. What do you think?
Mrs. Girgis and Ms. Stanley said that our second child will be a girl little one, I guess you’ll show us all on Tuesday when you go to have your ultrasound. Your Daddy and I will find out that day if you’re healthy as well. I only wish that you’re okay.
How are you doing in there little one? I know I haven’t spent much time talking to you, but I love you very much and (rubbing belly; ‘Signal of love’ sent to baby) I want you to know that if you come, \I will take very good care of you.
You will have a lot of fun with your brother. He is very curious.
Mrs. Girgis says I look small for 5 months. I hope you’re growing okay in there and she’s not right – we would hate for there to be anything wrong with you – we love you.
Are you really going to be a Catrona? Well, Daddy thought our next would be a Catrona.4
Sixth Month – Day of Ultrasound:
Well little one, we’re going to find out who you are today and how you’re doing in there. And your Daddy and Seumas are both here with you.
Prebirth Talk Following Sex-Identifying Ultrasound:
When I said, “you’ll show them,” you really did! Your Daddy was so surprised. Another little boy! Now your brother will have someone to play with. You two will be like twins.
Hi ya Neilly beag5, how’re you doing? (Patting stomach.)
How do you like that Neilly? I love you (patting belly.)
Analysis of Prebirth Talk
At the fifth month of pregnancy, as Rothman (1987) indicates, I do not think of the baby as one sex or another. It is an androgynous being to me, the “baby” is much like a “plant.” No genitals, no gender. I imagine it growing and developing, like a “plant.” I “rub my belly clockwise,” send it mental ‘hugs of love’, and talk to it, but “it” is only “it,” or “little one” – a nameless, colourless being with no label. I use inclusive language, “have I?,”"okay?,”"are you?,”"don’t you?,” constantly inviting the baby to participate in the conversation (Ayim, 1987). I wish the being to be a part of the group. This inclusive, gentle language changes when I find out the “being” is male.
Prior to the ultrasound, I say to the baby, “we’re going to find out who you are today.” This implies that if I do not know his sex, I do not “know who s/he is.” That is, “knowing the sex” somehow indicates what type of personality the baby will possess. I was surprised to read this statement in the field notes. It is, at once, an indication of prenatal socialization. It indicates that not only do I ignore the physical signals the baby is sending to me as a fetus as an indication of character, but I do not trust my own, innate instinct when it comes to determining the child’s organically developing persona. Without thinking, I wait to hear the sex, then, and only then, begin to use established gender stereotypes to label “who s/he is.”
Personality is not a trait which I have regarded to be associated with sex; however, the above statement, “[once we find out your sex,] we’re going to find out who you are” certainly infers that it is. In passing, parents will often say, “isn’t it nice to see the child’s personality develop?,” and yet, if a child’s sex comes with a predetermined [socialized] personality, then the character which will develop will inevitability be somewhat limited. The type of speech, and tone of speech, which one models for a child may also limit the child’s personality.
For example, field notes regarding my personal impressions following the sex-identifying ultrasound during the sixth month, or second trimester, indicate that the most distinct change in my approach to the baby, at the time, was non-verbal language and cues. First, for example, when I discovered the baby was male, although we had chosen two names for the baby Catrona and Niall (after my mother and my partner’s father) I immediately felt guilty for referring to the baby as ‘ Catrona’. Prior to the ultrasound, family, neighbours, and friends had suggested that I would be having a girl, and subconsciously, I must have trusted their instinct over my own (hence, the “guilty feeling”). Also, it is possible I wanted to believe this, “I have more in common with a female than a male.”6 secondly, besides guilt, the next distinct change was in the tone of my voice. Suddenly, there was less tenderness in the way I addressed the baby. He was a boy. He was ‘stronger’ now than the child I had I known only one minute before. He did not need to be I addressed with such light and fluffy language, such as, “little one.” He did not need to be coddled. I had been too gentle and careful with him. He must be tough and strong (O’Reilly, 1988). He was ‘Niall’, not ‘ Catriona’. Thus, I lowered my voice to a deeper octave. It lost its tenderness. The tone in my words was more articulate and short, whereas, before, the pitch in my voice was high and feminine. I wanted him to be ‘strong’ and ‘athletic’, therefore, I had to speak to him with a stereotypical ‘strong’, ‘masculine’ voice to encourage this ‘innate strength’.
For the next two months, the baby acquired a nickname, “Nially bheag” (a commonly documented male phenomenon, Bailey, 1993), and the “rubbing of belly clockwise” switched to the “patting of stomach”:
The music is a little loud isn’t it? It’s Blues. We’ll only be in here for a short time so just relax.
This is the first time you and Mommy have been alone together. It’s kind of nice, isn’t it?
How are you doing in there, okay? You just let me know if you need anything.
Mommy’s not feeling well Neilly, but she should be better soon. (Patting stomach.)
Well, when do you think you’re going to come, eh? You just take your time in there. (Patting stomach.) Do you have enough room? How are you feeling? It won’t be long now before we get to meet you, and you get to meet your brother.
Here’s where you and your brother will be sleeping.
Hey you, how are you doing in there? (Patting stomach.)
Well Niall, what do you think of this place? (Patting stomach.)
Well Niall, your Mommy doesn’t feel too well this morning. Have you turned again?
Hey you, how are you doing in there anyway? (Patting stomach.)
Okay Niall, time to go. (Patting stomach.)
Why “patting,” rather than “nibbing clockwise”? Why “stomach,” rather than “belly”? A “boy” does not require massage nor euphemistic expressions for parts of the body. He is ‘strong’ and ‘intelligent’, he can handle aches, without rubbing, and the proper technical language for an item, without slang.7
This change in language following the finding of the sex, along with the statement attaching sex to personality, indicates the beginning of a socialization process. Prior to the sex identity being known, the baby was “little one,” a “being,” and a blank slate, if you will. Its possibilities for development, more mental, oral, and physical, were infinite. Following the finding of its sex, the social mores imposed upon the infant begin to limit its possibilities for character development. The infant is male, therefore, according to prescribed stereotypes, it will be “healthy, strong,” and will speak in a “firm, lower octave.” As a result, the mother begins to nurture these traits. The mother, even those she is educated in gender and socialization, still possesses deep, ingrained methods for categorizing and speaking to males or females. She instinctly lowers the pitch of her voice, begins to use a firm tone, begins to use correct vocabulary rather than slang (e.g., “stomach” rather than “belly”), and perceives there to be less need to gently touch the baby (“patting” rather than “rubbing clockwise,” the former taking less time). This, in effect, signals the baby of its limits. The mother is now modelling a voice pattern for the baby; she is indicating its language standards; and its need to develop more independently since the mother no longer spends the same amount of time touching or caressing the infant. This teaches the child, “you must speak with a low voice,”"you must use the proper words for items,” and “you should not expect others to cuddle you.” As this is only one case example, it is difficult to extend these conclusions to other newboms; however, it is an illustration of how very early in ‘life’ a child’s gender is limited and nurtured through well-established stereotypes.
The above data, or ‘prebirth’ talk, were recorded without editing, and I did not attempt to analyze it until I sat down to represent the narrative findings within this paper. I was, quite honestly, shocked by the findings. If a woman as conscious as I about engendered language, labels and socializes a baby, in utero, according to gender, what sex-stereotyped signals would an average mother send her baby? If even the most conscious and critical mothers do not escape this endemic, gender socializing process, and are bound, through generations of indoctrination, to pass it on, what hope do we have as a society to escape such heavily engulfed stereotypes? If gender socialization begins in utero, as this case study suggests, how can education diffuse the effect of gender stereotypes through prebirth talk?
1 Author will hear the “heartbeat” of the baby, or the baby, in the doctor’s office.
2 Baby moved.
3 Occasionally, the author will mentally ‘hug’ the baby; that is, she will mentally send the baby a physical feeling of warmth, or love, imagining that she is embracing the child inside.
4 Women in the author’s village perform a “needle and thread” test for the author. A threaded needle is hung over the mother’s belly. According to local myth/custom, if the needle moves in the form of a circle, the baby will be a girl; if the needle swings from side to side, a boy. In this case, the needle happened to move in a clockwise direction.
5 Gaelic for “Little Neil.”
6 As recorded in field notes.
7 A girl cannot?
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Kara Smith is a language education professor at the University of Windsor in Windsor, Ontario, Canada. Her research focuses on the ways languages are maintained and on the creative ways in which they may be learned. She may be contacted via e-mail at: email@example.com
Copyright George Mason University, Communication Department Spring 2005