The Pregnancy Metaphor

Pregnancy is a rich, if slightly uncomfortable source of metaphors, especially for men.  For example:

  1. The idea of the startup incubator
  2. The idea that product launches are like birth events

The most interesting aspect of pregnancy metaphors is the difference between male and female attitudes towards them.

The late David Foster Wallace seemed acutely aware of the discomfort men experience around the subject. In a Charlie Rose interview he said (of his huge 1000-page plus books):

“Feminists are always saying this. Feminists are saying white males say, “Okay, I’m going to sit down and write this enormous book and impose my phallus on the consciousness of the world… if that was going on, it was going on on a level of awareness I do not want to have access to.”

This is curious to me. As a private experience, the process of creating a huge work over an extended period of time is more like pregnancy than insemination. On the other hand, on the scale of all human history, even the most influential 1000-page book can be no more than a generative drop, and the insemination metaphor seems apt.

I resonate with the idea that men are perhaps more driven by the restless urge to create (anti-flame qualification: more, not necessarily better) because the nature of life cuts them out of truly consequential roles in perpetuating the species. An all-female species could theoretically survive with a few sperm banks, or perhaps even without, through parthenogenesis. Even when males are an important part of biological reality, alpha males like Genghis Khan are the only ones that truly matter. This, perhaps is the thought behind an idea I read on a blog a few weeks ago (I can’t remember the source):

You either give birth to yourself, or to somebody else.

Men don’t really have this choice to the extent women do. Yes, men can teach, or become devoted fathers, but in the development of others, there is no way men can matter as much as women can. They can matter to themselves though. A big creative endeavor is basically like giving birth to yourself. You are at once mother and baby, transformed and transforming.  Lest you take this too egoistically, B. F. Skinner reduced this apparently solemn human urge to a farce, in his behaviorist essay, On Having a Poem (I could not find this online).

Why is giving birth an experience of value, outside of the value created (the baby or novel)? Some, including Francis Fukuyama, have speculated that the value lies in the fact that childbirth brings you face to face with death. Women can access this experience viscerally if they choose to. Men must be violent and find reasons to fight wars. Or they must create at a level that involves nearly killing themselves. I wonder if women, once they become mothers, view their pre-motherhood ambitions of writing novels, say, as being trivial.

For men, the fundamentally inconsequential nature of their existence is at once liberating and tragic, and the source of much of their shaping of history. Interestingly, for women who choose to become (only) mothers, the consequential nature of their decision at genetic-historical scales can be overshadowed by a sense of being inconsequential and trapped, against the backdrop of immediate realities. Perhaps women, historically, have been enslaved by the selfish gene, rather than men.

(A misguided reference to Y-combinator was deleted, and a typo was corrected, thanks to Xianhang Zhang’s comment below. Thanks!)
About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. “childbirth brings you face to face with death. ” Actually, I thought this was the opposite. It really brings you face to face with life and all that you do not control — then who does?

    Other than abstaining from drinking/smoking/raw fish, the mother doesn’t do much – her body takes over the creation. She’s not making decisions on how to add the lungs and kidneys and toenails. It’s all driven by another force. The creation process is on auto-pilot, and the woman is the vehicle. When you think about the entire process, it is overwhelming. That’s why you have to whittle it down to metaphors and analogies.

  2. There’s a lot to unpack in this post so I’ll try to be systematic:

    Pregnancy is a source of many metaphors: Sure, but mostly in a trivial way. Pregnancy is such a general event it’s easy to find similarities to other events.

    “On the other hand, on the scale of all human history, even the most influential 1000-page book can be more than a generative drop, and the insemination metaphor seems apt.” – is there a negation missing in this sentence?

    The name Y Combinator comes from Lambda Calculus: . Any resemblance to the Y chromosome is purely co-incidental.

    “in the development of others, there is no way men can matter as much as women can.” That’s a bold claim, can you expand on it?

    I recommend you read “Is there anything good about men”: . It seems to go down the path you seem to want to take.


  3. Thanks Hang. Y combinator ref… seems like I shot from the hip a little too quickly there, making an assumption about the origin of the name. You are also correct about the missing negation. Corrected both

    Regarding the bold claim (yes it IS bold), my sense of early childhood development, as a non-expert, is that the mother is the single biggest development force, for good or bad, when the brain is at its most plastic and fastest-developing. Freud may have been wrong (well, he probably WAS wildly wrong) about the specifics, but I think he was overall correct about the big influence mothers have, especially at pre-linguistic and pre-crawl phases, when the infant cannot seek out sensory stimuli on its own. Even the greatest male dad or teacher simply does not have this level of access. Not that I personally mind, since I am not particularly fond of babies after about 1 minute of peek-a-boo :).

    Thanks for the ref. I took a glance, and it seems to parallel, though not quite mirror, my thinking. I definitely don’t subscribe to the unreconstructed, post-feminist “women are wonderful” theory. To some extent, that vein of thought, especially as pushed by people like Maureen Dowd, is self-serving silliness and over-compensation.

    If I had to go with a catchphrase, I’d say: “women suffer a slightly different variety of existential angst than men.” Happy men and women are all alike (and equally dull). Mars and Venus are miserable each in their own way. Apologies to Tolstoi.

    I may have more follow-up thoughts after I read the essay in full.


    • Are children raised by single fathers noticeably damaged in any way? Is it better to have an decent mother and abusive father or an indifferent mother and a supportive father?

      I’m not denying that women probably have a larger role in child rearing than men in aggregate but, on an individual level, I think there are many cases in which the father has more “impact” than the mother.

      • You are extrapolating well beyond what I said. I was posing a biological conjecture, not a moral/social utility one. I hypothesize that women are genetically capable of having a much stronger connection with infants, whether or not they are good mothers. So… things like being able to read the baby’s facial expressions, smells and body language better and act intentionally in response. I suspect they also have a wider and better calibrated set of ways to reach the baby’s developing mind, ranging from maybe a better baby-talk vocabulary to more effective ways of even holding the baby. I wouldn’t know — I think I am in the position of a blind man trying to demonstrate the idea of sight to another blind man.

        Some recent news on the subject of early babyhood minds: NY Times piece and Slate piece both based on a recent book by Alison Gopnik, which is on my list.

        Whether my conjectured greater power is used with greater responsibility is of course, a different question. When that higher-bandwidth connection is replaced by a lower-bandwidth father connection (plus, say assorted female helper relatives and babysitters), the gap in interaction is presumably filled by more random engagement. The baby’s mind would see the world as a more chaotic/less deterministic place. Whether that is a good thing or not is debatable. Kinda like deep end/shallow end approaches to learning swimming.

        But enough on this tangent :) The main point was on the metaphors, which I believe to be pretty rich and powerful, and you believe to be “trivial.” There’s no good way to resolve that difference, since I have found that people either “get” the idea that metaphor is central to cognition, not peripheral, or they are completely skeptical about it.

  4. > B. F. Skinner reduced this apparently solemn human urge to a farce, in his behaviorist essay, On Having a Poem (I could not find this online).

    So, you concluded that “B. F. Skinner reduced this apparently solemn human urge to a farce”, without bothering to read what he said in his article?

    • I read a detailed second-hand summary in a psych textbook long ago that quoted extensively from the original, and drew that conclusion (i.e. that the sense of being creator in a creative act is mere vanity).

      I just read the full article in the link you posted, and I don’t see how the conclusion is flawed. Skinner himself says:

      “what is threatened of course is the autonomy of the poet…but is there anything wrong with a supportive myth?… To accept a wrong explanation because it flatters us is to risk missing the right one.”

      That is to me, pretty much equivalent to my view, but more polite.

      The tone of the article is much nicer/politer than I am being, but I don’t think I am oversimplifying or caricaturing what Skinner said. His view fundamentally does threaten egoistic delusions of “creativity” on the part of those who are too attached to a particular ideal of being “human.” He seems to think he can convince his opponents with reason that they shouldn’t be offended by this perspective, and the only difference in my summary position is that I don’t think you can avoid offending those opponents because the offense felt is real, even if it is based on a deluded sense of human nature and personal identity.

      What seems to offend YOU though is that I’ve accepted Skinner’s core position (I like anything that punctures individual vanities about “creativity”) but not his idea that it is objectively non-offensive. Originality is too attractive a trait for people to not feel attached to, and I absolutely understand why his critics responded the way they did.

      But you should know VC, after more than a dozen years of intermittent sparring between us, that I am, and will always remain, a guy who draws quick ‘n dirty sound-bite conclusions out of quick overviews of stuff. And that based on my quick surveying, I WILL form my own opinion, often at variance with the conclusions drawn by the author. Mothers’ opinions of their babies are not always shared by others.

      Mile wide, inch deep you once called me, and back then I took it as a badge of honor and ran with it :) And I still find my thinking style far more useful than deep, scholastic fussing over nuances in unquestioning acolyte mode, with far too much respect for “original sources.” Rather ironic that you are taking me to task here for not respecting the “original” of an article that reconstructs the very notion of originality in ways that suggest that we should NOT respect it too much.

      I am happy that you are still trying to “reform” me, but you’ll have to give up at some point. I am, and will always remain, unrepentantly shallow from perspectives such as yours.