I appreciated Samantha Stephenson’s piece on the artificial love that may result from the widespread use of artificial wombs. Many of the problems she points out are real problems, and I agree that a fear of suffering inhibits our ability to love. Love often demands suffering; love, if it is love, assumes a willingness to suffer on behalf of the other.

While Stephenson articulated well the moral issues artificial wombs present, one important point was missing, which I hope to flesh out here: the fact that love requires suffering does not absolve us of our responsibility to alleviate suffering where we can morally. If children are shortchanged because the demands of motherhood are unbearable, we ought to ask: how can we make motherhood more bearable? I suggest three ways we can do that: researching and promoting ways to alleviate the difficulties of pregnancy, childbirth, and the postpartum period; normalizing interdependence; and embracing what is now considered “extreme” self-gift.

Pregnancy Research

I was pregnant in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and I was surprised to find, around July 2020, that it was easier for me to learn about the brand-new virus than about my pregnancy. No one could tell me what was safe, or if there were ways to feel like less of an emotional and physical wreck. As economist and author Emily Oster details in her book Expecting Better, experts have wildly different opinions on the amounts of caffeine that are safe during pregnancy. I discovered that nearly any medicine is considered unsafe, so if you get a headache, or any kind of ache, you’re left with Tylenol, ice, and stigma for trying to feel better. If you learn about pelvic floor therapy, it’s usually from fellow mothers and not from your obstetrician. If the hormone swings cause anxiety or depression, you’re on your own. If you’re miserable from nausea and exhaustion, no one really cares as long as the bloodwork is normal and the baby is kicking. Hyperemesis gravidarum, a condition where pregnancy vomiting is so severe that it often lands mothers in the hospital and can cause organ damage, is a significant driver of abortions and suicidal ideation among pregnant women. I later discovered that the problem is twofold: what can be researched or studied often isn’t, and what has been researched or studied often doesn’t make it into the handouts or the obstetrician’s working knowledge. 

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I’m not advocating a return to thalidomide, a drug taken by many pregnant women in the mid-twentieth century. Thalidomide alleviated pregnancy nausea and was later discovered to be the cause of severe birth defects (missing bones, for example) and in many cases, of the child’s death. We can avoid this kind of tragedy while still acknowledging the real suffering that most women experience during pregnancy. Modern research and medicine can work toward alleviating that suffering, insofar as it is morally possible. Medical providers, who are normally motivated to keep women and children safe throughout pregnancy, could also educate themselves on ways to help pregnant women feel better. Yes, there are ethical limits on research, and for good reason. But if we cared about the people involved, we would think creatively about designing ethical studies and learning what we can from incomplete information. 

Researchers (and those who, through money or policy, influence what is researched) could design and execute ethical studies to learn how to keep pregnant women not only safe but less uncomfortable. Medical providers and those working directly with pregnant women could consider it a professional responsibility to know as much as possible about this research. Ideally, a pregnant woman could present with hyperemesis, nausea, perinatal depression, joint pain, or any other common pregnancy ailment and be given real help. It could be medicine, physical therapy, diet changes, a referral to an expert, or whatever the research shows. Where the research is unclear, she could be given a clear understanding of the pros and cons, insofar as they are known, and guidance in thinking through the decision she will have to make. She could be presented with the actual research on alcohol in pregnancy so she can be equipped to decide whether to celebrate her anniversary with a glass of wine. Doctors could be less willing to shrug off their patients’ suffering. Pregnancy could be less isolating and more bearable, and fewer women would feel the need to escape it.

If children are shortchanged because the demands of motherhood are unbearable, we ought to ask: how can we make motherhood more bearable?


Normalize Interdependence

Whether we’re talking about motherhood or anything else, it’s gauche in our culture to recognize our neediness, and we struggle to ask our family, friends, and neighbors for the help we’re not supposed to need. A tumbler sticker proclaiming “You got this, Mama!” may raise our spirits, briefly, until we run up against the reality that motherhood is a task bigger than anyone can handle on her own. Does that mean we’re failing at motherhood? That we don’t truly love our children? We have no trouble recognizing that motherhood is hard in general, but that’s not the same as saying that motherhood is hard for me, in these particular ways, and that I need help.

Stephenson cites a few examples of parents trying to “avoid parental duties in pursuit of our own comfort:” hiring newborn specialists, night nannies, or any hired help; cribs that rock automatically. We “offload” parenting to these people and devices “so we don’t have to lift an eyelid, [and] we run from what may paradoxically be our best chance at learning to love selflessly.”

Perhaps. But there’s a very important distinction that Stephenson does not make: the vital difference between selfishness and a desire to meet our ordinary human needs. Barring extraordinary circumstances, it is selfish to demand a solid eight hours of sleep when you have a newborn. But normal human beings need more than 45 consecutive minutes of sleep, and parents of particularly light sleepers are not selfish for seeking help to meet that need. Ordinary mothers are better mothers when they’ve had adequate sleep; when they have the skills and knowledge necessary to care for their children; when they can care for their own postpartum bodies; when they can take a shower and eat enough food and have some quiet space to manage their cortisol levels that spike with every wail; when they can reconnect with their spouse. It is normal, not selfish, to need these things.

Meeting these needs requires help from other people. In our culture, those with means can hire help and buy the gear. Ideally, and in most cultures, family and friends provide this help. The automatically rocking crib does not replace the child’s mother so much as it replaces the affectionate ten-year-old neighbor, the grandmother, or the auntie who are absent from most babies’ lives.

It is not selfish but good to seek this help, and, ideally, we wouldn’t have to seek this help because it would just come. Ideally, we would be culturally comfortable with seasons of greater need. We would have our people who swarm us with meals and offers to hold the baby for an hour to facilitate a real shower; we would have people providing knowledge and teaching skills in a way that was helpful and not judgmental (or expensive). We wouldn’t feel like we’re burdening them because we would have our own experience of helping others in their times of needbecause pitching in during these times, whether it’s a new baby or surgery or a death in the family or any difficult time, is just what we do.

It is certainly possible to act selfishly with a newborn. It is also true that caring for a newborn requires more than what one or even two people can reasonably provide. Stephenson’s piece would have been stronger had she acknowledged this distinction, because receiving help without feeling guilty can make motherhood bearable.

Normalize Giving until It Hurts

During my first pregnancy, I was bewildered at how much it was costing me. I was committed to giving whatever my baby needed, but it was difficult to square with my experience of adulthood until that point. Especially in religious circles, I had been encouraged to be generous, but always in a limited way. It’s good to volunteer at the parish soup kitchen or the sisters’ home for the elderly. But that’s already beyond what’s expected of you. If it’s going to damage your body, threaten your ability to work at your job, or require so much money that you’ll have to rearrange your life, that’s a little extreme. You shouldn’t do those kinds of things, much less make a habit of it.

And then pregnancy required all those things of me and nobody thought it was extreme.

Even with all the medical advancements and easy access to needed help that I would advocate for, bringing a child into the world will always be hard. But what if it weren’t exceptionally hard? What if we looked to mothers as a model for what we owe to others and measured our self-gift by the standard of pregnancy and motherhood? What if it were normal to give to the poor until we had to rearrange our finances? What if it were normal to help our elderly or disabled neighbors get to (and pay for) the doctor? What if our professional work were less about self-fulfillment and more about serving others, and what if it weren’t crazy for this to cost us? Motherhood will always require a great deal of self-gift. But if self-gift were standard instead of the exception, motherhood would be less of a shock. It would be less frightening. It would be more bearable.

And maybe this is the key to everything. If “giving until it hurts,” in Mother Teresa’s words, were the culturally accepted standard, if we recognized a greater obligation to others, we might feel less averse to bringing children into the world. If the right people were sufficiently motivated out of concern for others, medical research could advance and make pregnancy easier, and existing knowledge would be easily available to all pregnant women, lowering the barrier to entry. If we recognized the reality of need in ourselves and others, if we supported each other and accepted support, we wouldn’t need to cling to our independence. Children wouldn’t seem like an extraordinary burden, but ordinary people who, like all of us, have needs and aren’t wrong to make demands of us. New parents, especially mothers, would see their experience as one of many times in life when accepting help is ordinary and making demands of others is expected and appropriate.

Stephenson is right that shirking our duties as parents cramps our ability to love. I argue that shirking our duties to parents, especially new parents, especially mothers, similarly cramps our ability to love, whether we be medical researchers, policymakers, donors, OBs, or neighbors. The way to foster a loving bond between mother and child is to nurture a wider culture of support and love. It is not fair to children to deprive them of their mother’s womb for their life before birth. But it is also not fair to mothers to deprive them of the support they need to make pregnancy and motherhood bearable. 

Image by kieferpix and licensed via Adobe Stock.