It is worth asking why barren remains such a shocking rebuke. It is worth wondering why the phrase childless woman is considered, still, to have an aura of sadness, and why the phrase childless man barely exists at all. Earlier this year, the writer Glynnis MacNicol published a memoir, No One Tells You This, about the freedoms of being over 40, single, and childless. Some of the reviews of the book struck a subtly skeptical tone: She couldn’t really be happy. Won’t she regret it later? As MacNicol told The Washington Post: “We don’t understand how to talk about women’s lives as fulfilling unless we incorporate babies or weddings. [There are] no stories about women over the age of 40, really, where they aren’t primarily accessories in their own lives or support systems.”
That is changing. But it is changing very slowly. One of the shifts is coming from efforts, in pop culture and beyond, to emphasize motherhood as something that is, for all its wonders and joys, also a matter of practicality. Kate Pearson’s story line in the just-concluded third season of This Is Us—she and her husband, Toby, struggled with fertility, finally deciding to try IVF—treated pregnancy not as a soft miracle, but as a medical reality. Michelle Obama’s recently released memoir, Becoming, highlights similar struggles that the former first lady and her husband overcame: a revelation that will very likely help to eradicate long-standing taboos around discussions of fertility. Recent works of pop culture—Jane the Virgin, Better Things, I Feel Bad, Ali Wong’s Hard Knock Wife, and many others—have also found mordant humor in the quotidian challenges of parenting, demystifying both its hardships and its rewards. (The central incident referenced in the title of the Amazon show Catastrophe is, yep, an unplanned pregnancy.) And Hollywood has been newly illuminating the pitfalls of treating women as the sum of their reproductive capacities: There’s a reason The Handmaid’s Tale, the fiction of uncanny dystopia, has struck such a powerful cultural nerve.
But there the tabloids remain, fascinated with—capitalizing on—the pregnant bodies of famous women. Us Weekly, one of the more dignified of the group, features a collection, “bump watch,” whose sole purpose is the stalking and sharing of celebrity midriffs. (“Pregnant Emily Blunt, Chrissy Teigen, and Other Pregnant Stars Bring Bumps to Oscars,” the magazine reported a couple of years ago, treating the bumps in question as, effectively, fashion accessories.) A Google search for “meghan markle baby bump”—the Duchess of Sussex announced her pregnancy less than two months ago—currently yields 51,600,000 results. One of them is a slideshow from Hello! magazine, inviting viewers to “See How Meghan Markle’s Baby Bump Has Grown.”
The Da Vinci Code, in its own work of feminist revisionism, posited that the Holy Grail is in fact the preserved body of Mary Magdalene—specifically, her uterus, the chalice of legend made manifest. The womanly body, as a vessel waiting to be filled, as something by turns accommodating and incomplete—as something that, on some level, belongs to everyone: It’s an idea that carries on, in its way, in every supermarket tabloid that invites readers to join in its easy voyeurisms, and in every published picture of Meghan Markle’s midsection, and in every moment that finds a stranger touching a pregnant woman’s belly without her permission. It’s a notion that remains alive, as well, from the other side of things, every time a magazine or a sitcom or an Oscar-fodder historical drama sees a woman who is childless and assumes that she must be, fundamentally, Sad.