A pregnant behavioral scientist

I’m pregnant. And I’m a behavioral scientist.

Throughout pregnancy, there has been a lot to study — about my own behavior, my partner’s behavior, and (most interesting) other people’s as they relate to me.

Let’s start with me.

This is me — 32 weeks — taking a classic hand on the hip picture.

At the macro level, over the course of the last 8 months, I have moved from Stage 1 to Stage 2 in how I think about the baby.

To explain these stages, I’ll first explain the ‘construal effect.’

The construal effect is how we view time and space. But, this is not how we view time and space in a factual way. This is how we view time and space in a psychological way.

If something feels far from us, we view it abstractly.
This is called high-level construal.

If something feels close, we view it more concretely.
This is called low-level construal.

Stage 1: I’m having A baby! (High-level construal)

Stage 1: High level. The baby is far in the future.
  • I just got a pregnancy test. It’s positive: I’m having a baby! At this stage, things feel far in the future - 10 months to be exact!
  • In the high-level construal stage, a person thinks abstractly about the future, they are focused on the bigger picture.

How will I feel during birth?
What or who will this child be like?
What’s my view on night nannies?

  • While morning sickness may be very much present, the actual baby actually feels psychologically distant.

Stage 2: I’m having THIS baby. (Low-level construal)

Stage 2: Low level. The baby is coming.
  • There is a baby in me and it will soon come out.
  • Around week 20 (midway!), I moved from a high-level construal stage to a low-level construal stage. Things became more concrete. The baby felt (and feels!) psychologically closer
  • In this stage, I started planning the future daycare, googling ‘how to avoid preeclampsia’, who would be our pediatrician and of course, I quadrupled my effort on finding the perfect name.

A puzzle: The Gender Gap

For women, this move from high level to low-level construal stages appears to come around 2nd or 3rd trimester, when the baby starts kicking and you start to noticeably show. The internet agrees — most prenatal articles are written targeting women around the 2nd trimester. Either consumerism is leading us, or we are leading it.

But what about men?

For men, this “stage switching’ appears to happen much later in the pregnancy — anecdotes talking to future fathers suggest it happens before birth or even during it! In 2nd trimester, most men (not all) are not yet thinking deeply about what specific baby carrier to get or reading about pros/cons of epidurals for the baby.

What’s that about?

Why did I move from Stage 1 to Stage 2 so much faster than my partner?

There is an obvious answer here — I am the one carrying the child. The child is a parasite in me (not my husband).

This is all true. But I don’t think this explains the whole picture.

First, a little background.

Phil, my partner, is one of the most thoughtful, engaged people you’ll ever meet. (I’m biased of course). So his delay from stage 1 to stage 2 was not due to lack of awareness about the child, appreciation for my physical state, or other manly distractions.

Phil.

And second, my pregnancy has been really easy. Yes, I am carrying a small human, but (other than 24/7 bathroom breaks) I am still me. My work hasn’t stopped (still pulling 10 hour days) and my social life hasn’t calmed down (except for the drinking).

The difference between how quickly I moved from stage 1 to stage 2 feels like more than just being the vessel for this lovely human parasite.

The better explanation — people

My main hypothesis is — other people. My friends and family are to blame.

For me, pregnancy has been like wearing t-shirt every day that says “I am prepping for a big life change, AMA”

Friends and family ask me how I am feeling, request Bump pictures — ask me if we need their old baby gear. All of these things are super supportive, caring and I don’t resent being the receiver of such love (especially getting free baby gear).

But people didn’t ask Phil how he was feeling or ask Phil to see his stomach. They didn’t send Phil questions about if we could use an extra stroller or a baby carrier — they sent the questions to me.

Yes, a baby was growing inside of me, but other people made it much more salient. It was impossible for me to ignore — even for a day. Phil, on the other hand, could slide through full days without someone reminding him he was about to be a father.

What’s the lesson here?

This is not a suggestion for people to talk about pregnancy MORE with men/Phil and Less with the female/me. This is not a feminist rant.

It’s simply an observation about how mindsets change.

When someone asked me a question like: what’s your birth plan? I answered it. Even when I didn’t have a birth plan, I answered it.

After answering it once, I had an etching of an answer. After a few times receiving that question, I got better at answering it. In between, I’d google the things that were fuzzy. I came to expect the question. And now, my birth plan has been formed (yes, yes, I know you cannot plan these things, blah blah blah…) But I’m quite confident that without other people involved, there would be no birth plan.

My mindset on becoming a mother, pregnancy, and the upcoming life transition happened faster because other people were involved.

My life plans, goals, aspirations were treated as center stage. People actively engaged with me about my future. Other people moved me from Stage 1 to Stage 2.

So what?? What’s the insight?

If you want to speed up a life transition or change — tell people about the life transition.

Be aggressively public about it.

By being public, your friends will engage with you on this topic.

What does this look like in practice?

  • A PUBLIC life transition.
    My friend is writing a book. She started a newsletter for people to follow her progress. She knows that every time she goes out to dinner with a friend, they will ask her how the book is doing and what’s changed. She will have to answer this question.
  • V.s. A PRIVATE life Transition
    Another friend is considering a career change. She’s stuck in a loop of deciding what she wants and when — she’s private.
    Imagine if she were to mass email her network and ask for referrals/intros. She’d make her life transition public. It’s likely the next time her friends see her, they will ask her how it’s going. She would have to answer. Saying “no progress” could work for a while, but it would get embarrassing soon. She’ll need to answer the question!

From resentment…to reality

Given pregnancy is written on my t-shirt, I can’t start any conversation without debriefing that I will soon be a mother.

And at first, I resented this.

I wanted nothing more than to maintain a level of interestingness, and we all know, talking about someone else’s child is wildly low on the scale of interestingness.

However, I have come to change my mind.

By engaging with others, this life transition feels more real. My friends and family are helping me mentally prepare for what’s about to happen. If I were to pop out a child without any build-up (find out I’m pregnant and tomorrow have child) this would be way way too quick!

By having this transition be top of mind (and top of conversation) I am actually mentally preparing in helpful ways.

Now, my only question is when Phil will enter Stage 2.

I may have to treat him the same way others treated me. I’m going to start asking about his birth plan.

Want more behavioral insights? I promise not to share baby pics. Subscribe to my newsletter — https://irrationallabs.com/newsletter/

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Kristen Berman

Thinking about Irrationality. Behavioral Scientist. Co-founder of Irrational Labs and Common Cents Lab.