There is only one kind of mother, according to most mass market pregnancy apps: She is heterosexual, she is married, she can afford top-notch medical care, she is white, and she identifies as a woman.
The top pregnancy apps — What to Expect, The Bump, Sprout, and others — use language or images that exclude a large portion of expecting moms, regularly referring to the user’s “husband,” “spouse” or “partner.” (Forty percent of babies in the U.S. are born to single mothers.) Addressing users in their first trimester, The Bump shares stories of how readers told their “DHs” (Dear Husbands) that they were pregnant. In week 36, Sprout urges users to make sure they’re not the only ones reading to the baby: “Hubby” needs to do that, too.
In recent years, pregnancy apps have exploded in popularity, with some reaching as many as 4 million users each month. The apps, which generally ask users to input their due date when they first sign in, and eventually add the baby’s gender, offer customized information for each day of pregnancy. “I have all the parenting books, too,” said Sarah Wright, an expecting first-time mom from Silver Spring, Md. “But at the end of the day, it’s easier to pick up a phone and quickly check in, to see what you can expect now, and what’s coming.”
Moms-to-be have always been hungry for information. When it was first released in 1984, “What to Expect When You’re Expecting,” the now-iconic pregnancy manual by Heidi Murkoff and Sharon Mazel, quickly rose to the top of the New York Times bestseller list, going on to sell over 19 million copies.
“This is a completely life changing event,” said Amber Vodegel, chief operation officer and founder of the company that created Pregnancy+, one of the few apps on the market that allows users to identify themselves in a variety of different ways (as “single mother,” “father,” “partner” and others) when they log in. “And because new parents have no prior experience with it, they’re insecure — which means they consume information during this period like no other.” At its best, a good pregnancy app can make a mother “feel like someone is there, going on their journey with them,” Vodegel told me, even if they’re doing it alone.
KaeLyn Rich, a queer woman from Rochester, N.Y., had her first child two years ago. As she spent time on various apps and online message boards for expecting mothers — multiple hours, most days — she said she felt like a spectator. “The Internet was this super useful resource, but I felt like I didn’t have a place to jump into it,” she said.
For Rich, the message boards on platforms like The Bump, in particular, felt exclusionary. Users would frequently use coded, highly-gendered language — DH, DD (Dear Daughter), and DS (Dear Son). The first time she saw someone use the acronym “FTM,” she said, she got excited, assuming it was the term often used by the transgender community — “female to male.”
“I was like, wow, so cool! There are all these trans dads here!”
She eventually realized that “FTM” stood for “first-time mother.”
While heteronormative language typically doesn’t bother Rich, there is something particularly jarring about seeing it used on pregnancy apps, she said. On some of the online message boards, she was afraid to identify herself as queer, or her partner as gender nonbinary, worried she’d be judged or excluded by the community.
“At the root of that fear is this myth that is still out there that LGBT people are sickos and weirdos and dangerous to children … so there is already this feeling that parenting isn’t for you,” she said. “When you read something that clearly isn’t meant for you, it reinforces the fear that maybe you shouldn’t have children.”
Many popular pregnancy apps center around a digital rendering of a fetus, which users watch grow and change each week. On almost all of these apps, the featured baby is white. (The app designed by Vodegel’s company, Parenting+, offers one additional darker skin tone, as well as the message, “More models coming soon.”)
“There is this cultural assumption made by these apps that I guess only white women are having children,” said Chanel Porchia-Albert, the founder and executive director of Ancient Song Doula Services, a New York nonprofit providing doula services for low-income women and women of color.
Her clients rarely use mass market apps. The imagery they see there, she explained, does not affirm who they are.
The apps also alienate low-income women. “They’ll be like, ‘Think about what you eat. … Drink some green juice,” Porchia-Albert said. “That’s great in theory but maybe I don’t have a juicer at home to do that. Or maybe I live in a food desert.” Across the board, top pregnancy apps seem to assume mothers have an abundance of financial resources to devote to their pregnancy, doling out tips on herbal supplements, baby slings and baby shower etiquette. Many of her clients, Porchia-Albert said, don’t even have the money or time to attend required prenatal visits.
It’s not easy for expecting partners to find relevant resources, either. When her husband sought out an app for non-carrying partners, Wright said, the best he could find was “Daddy Up,” an app constructed around an extended metaphor equating pregnancy to a journey through the woods, perpetuating the highly gendered assumption that all men enjoy hiking and camping. “While the trees obstruct your view and unknown challenges move about in the shadows,” the app advises expecting fathers in the first trimester, “they are no match for your rugged manliness and undying devotion to your Lady Lumber Jill.”
Every week, the app offers customized tips, encouraging the user to do all he can to accommodate his wife’s “pregnancy brain,” and heightened gag reflex. (“Do not fart in her general direction.”) “[My husband] stopped using it pretty quickly,” Wright wrote in an email.
Some apps are trying to be more inclusive. On Pregnancy+, for example, certain blocks of text switch out depending on how users identify themselves, said Vodegel, customizing the app to their experience. (Someone who chooses the “single mother” option, for example, would not see any content directed at a husband or partner.) Sprout also has plans to adopt more inclusive language throughout its interface this year, CEO Rob Kern wrote in an email. (The Bump and What to Expect did not respond to requests for comment.)
At a time when the United States has the highest maternal mortality rates in the developed world, a suite of more inclusive pregnancy apps could be revolutionary, said Porchia-Albert, particularly for low-income and marginalized communities.
Babyscripts Care Navigator, a new app specifically designed for expecting mothers on Medicaid that piloted in Washington, D.C., prompted users to interact far more frequently with the health-care system. While the app provides regular customized information throughout the user’s pregnancy, like mass market apps, it also gives users a direct line to their doctors at participating care centers. Through an online portal, they can reach out at any time, skipping a potentially costly and time-intensive trip to the hospital. The app users contacted their medical professionals through the app an average of four times a week, and averaged a total of seven prenatal visits, up from the national average of three prenatal visits for expecting mothers on Medicaid.