Pop Culture Shapes Women's Pregnancy Expectations

A pregnant woman savors a spoonful of yogurt.
Pregnancy can bring cravings for certain foods, and for non-food items, in a condition called pica. (Image credit: Pregnant woman photo via Shutterstock)

NEW YORK — From morning sickness to odd cravings, cultural beliefs about pregnancy influence women's expectations regarding what it’s like to be pregnant, a new study finds.

But regardless of the pregnancy myths expectant mothers believe, the actual experience of pregnancy often departs from expectations, the study found.

Hallmark pregnancy experiences such as morning sickness, cravings and feeling the baby kicking are widely talked about, while others such as exhaustion, swollen ankles or hemorrhoids often go unmentioned.

"In a lot of cases, [women in the study] brought all these expectations from a lifetime of exposure to stories and other advice and family tales" to their pregnancies, said study leader Danielle Bessett of the University of Cincinnati, Ohio. But often, there was a gap between what women expected and what their experiences were, Bessett said. She presented her findings here Saturday (Aug. 10) at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association. [11 Big Fat Pregnancy Myths]

Expectations about expecting

In the study, Bessett interviewed 64 pregnant women in the greater New York City area between 2003 and 2006 about their pregnancy expectations. The women, who came from a mix of ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, participated in at least two interviews, one before giving birth and one afterward.

When asked about which sources of information they most trusted, most women cited their health-care providers. But when Bessett pressed them on why they held certain expectations, the women often said they weren't certain, but thought they had developed their expectations based on the media or family stories.

Some women worried if they didn't experience certain common symptoms of pregnancy, because they thought something might be wrong with their baby.

Others attributed their symptoms to the needs or desires of the fetus. One mother said she craved fried chicken because her baby liked it. Another woman said her severe vomiting was caused by her baby's dislike of what she ate.

The influence of these popular beliefs was surprising, Bessett said. "Women tended to have a very romanticized view of pregnancy," she told LiveScience.

In the interviews, many women talked about the symptoms of the "dark side" of pregnancy — hemorrhoids, bleeding gums, muscle spasms — which many did not know were normal. The media and relatives may avoid mentioning these symptoms because they are less polite topics, Bessett said.

The pervasiveness of pop culture views of pregnancy may also have implications for how society views pregnant women, Bessett said. Criticizing pregnant women for complaining may come from a lack of understanding of what bearing a child entails, she said.

Besides pregnancy, people may develop expectations about other illnesses and conditions based on the media as well. "Maybe we need to take media exposure more seriously," Bessett said.

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Tanya Lewis
Staff Writer
Tanya was a staff writer for Live Science from 2013 to 2015, covering a wide array of topics, ranging from neuroscience to robotics to strange/cute animals. She received a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a bachelor of science in biomedical engineering from Brown University. She has previously written for Science News, Wired, The Santa Cruz Sentinel, the radio show Big Picture Science and other places. Tanya has lived on a tropical island, witnessed volcanic eruptions and flown in zero gravity (without losing her lunch!). To find out what her latest project is, you can visit her website.