The Exclusionary Language of Pregnancy Apps

Apps that help you track your pregnancy and figure out who to call when baby coughs are helpful, but what happens when you’re a parent who isn’t represented?

I’I’m not yet a parent, but I am incubating a little one. I’ve noticed that with most folks, when I mention I’m expecting, the first question out of their mouths is, “are you having a girl or a boy?”

I recently crossed the threshold into my second trimester. My partner and I decided we would find out the sex of the baby so that we can prepare ourselves to help them navigate the roles society will inevitably assign to them. But we don’t plan on telling anyone the sex until the baby is here, and we’re finding it’s a delicate stance to take in this heteronormative, binary world.

Since this is my first child, I did what any extremely online person does when they’re in search of information and community: I went looking for an app. Despite the breadth of offerings available for iPhone and Android, it’s slim pickings out there for a mother to be. The Google Play Store, in particular, is rife with pregnancy tracking and parenting advice apps, but I found the content of each almost suffocating with rhetoric around binary gender.

Take the Ovia tracking app, for example, which I’m using as a daily log for my pregnancy. Its features are robust, with the ability to track essential data like how much water I’m drinking and whether I’ve taken my prenatal vitamins. The articles featured in the app are adequately cited, and are either written by medical professionals, or come straight from the archives of the Mayo Clinic.

Every week, I check into Ovia to learn how much my baby has grown. Ovia’s word choice is cheeky, comparing the size of the baby to everyday objects like gaming consoles and fruit. But the descriptions about my baby remain explicitly gendered. “Your baby is busy practicing being cute by sucking her thumb,” reads the daily summary. “When your baby is resting, she is recharging her batteries,” reads another.

These apps’ forums contain just as much heteronormative discourse. “Did you girls have cramping?” asks one anonymous user in the Ovia baby app. It’s a fair question, but it assumes the person reading the forum post identifies as a woman. For folks who are transgender or non-binary, it may feel alienating.

I tried a few other Android apps to get a better feel for what’s out there. Sprout Pregnancy is as feature-filled as Ovia in terms of tracking, and it includes visceral, three-dimensional images of what your baby looks like inside the womb. But the 20-week image already showed testes and a penis on the fetus. I found that a bit jarring, having not even breached the subject of the baby’s sex with my doctor. Though I appreciate the anatomical representation of what sex organs look like in the womb, it felt too presumptuous. I would have prefered the app to ask me if I knew the sex of the baby first, and then present a figure based on my answer.

If the pregnancy apps were to use terms like “they” and “their” to refer to both parents and babies, they’d be much less inhibitory overall, not to mention less redundant.

The Glow tracking app is even more exemplary of the mollifying gendered speak that plagues pregnancy forums. Within the first five minutes of interacting with the app, I’d already encountered a thread on elaborate gender reveal parties. The Bump’s mobile app was no better; as the companion website to The Knot, a popular destination for newly engaged couples, The Bump presents articles with titles like, “Couple Hits Gender Reveal Out of the Park,” along with suggestions that I buy an at-home gender reveal kit to find out “if it’s a John or Jane.” (A few days later, I received a notification encouraging me to start spreading the news about the gender of the baby, so that I could “add some boy or girl items” to my registry.) And while Hello Baby, which positions itself as the “smartest parental assistant,” is better at referring to your baby as merely, “baby,” there are specific references to “mommy” and “daddy” in a manner that seems restrictive to families who identify with the perceived norm.

To figure out an alternative to the gendered jargon used in these particular apps, I contacted Lal Zimman, Assistant Professor of Linguistics at UCSB, and a sociolinguist who has done extensive research on body part terminology. Zimman agreed that if the pregnancy apps were to use terms like “they” and “their” to refer to both parents and babies, they’d be much less inhibitory overall, not to mention less redundant.

“If you look at the Wikipedia page for pregnancy, for instance, it says ‘pregnant women’ all over the place,” explained Zimman. “You don’t find any cases of ‘pregnant people.’” Zimman added that even if a person believes that only women are capable of being pregnant, there’s no reason not to refer to them as pregnant people. “Any time we can replace a word like ‘women’ with ‘people,’ it very rarely changes the meaning of what’s said. It very rarely involves any kind of unclarity regarding what the person means.”

Websites with resources dedicated to parents and parents-to-be looking for safer, non-gendered spaces are available, though there are few, and generally difficult to find. In my research, I discovered sites like Birth for Every Body and Strong Families, along with plenty of well-reported essays, pamphlets, and research papers in solidarity with folks finding little representation in the parenting world. One particularly insightful resource I came across was Gender Spectrum, a nonprofit based in San Francisco with the mission to create gender-inclusive spaces for kids and teens.

However, after speaking with Pamela Wool, Director of Family Support and Administration at Gender Spectrum, the idea of finding a mobile app that could offer push-button access to literature and community of this sort still seems grim at present. “It’s a thing that’s missing,” Wool told me over the phone. “[During pregnancy is] such an important time to reach parents. That’s the time they’re consciously thinking about their parenting and what kind of parents they’re going to be.” For its part, Gender Spectrum is working on revamping its website to add a section on gender-inclusive parenting, though it’ll be available only through the browser.

Inclusive spaces aren’t just necessary for the parents and parents-to-be. They benefit little ones, as well, who start receiving gender-related messages the minute they arrive in the world. “When you think about gender reveal parties, and what kind of gifts people give at baby showers, to many people it seems harmless,” adds Wool. “But it starts to shape how you react to that child before they’re even here.”

As consumers, we should feel empowered to speak up when something either makes us uncomfortable or appears exclusionary. Zimman suggested writing the developers of the apps mentioned above by looking up their contact information in the Google Play Store or Apple App Store or by leaving a review on the app page with concerns. “It seems like a low commitment way of just saying, here’s another customer who would like to see more inclusivity or changes in the language that’s used.” Developers of the existing pregnancy and parenting-minded apps might also consider adding in resources for the new terminology for the uninitiated. “Weirdly, Grindr has been really good at this,” said Zimman. “They introduced new gender categories, and they have a little information button if you’re not sure what that means.”

Folks who aren’t satisfied with the current narrative should speak openly about why these types of spaces are essential for parents of all kinds, and bring awareness to the idea that a lack of inclusivity in the conversation tends to have a more considerable impact on the persons affected. For instance, people could miss out on health care because they’re finding the options available to them to be gendered in a way that’s difficult to navigate. “There’s a sense of anxiety that we should all be great at using inclusive language, but the fact is that we do grow up in a society that doesn’t promote using inclusive language in many ways,” said Zimman. “Some people might have a vague sense that using inclusive language is good, but they’re not thinking about the consequences of not having it.”

Speaking up and ensuring that pregnancy apps and parenting groups are aware of those who are underrepresented, even in the mobile apps that we use for something as simple as logging data, is essential for the next generation of children. “The goal of any parent is, we want our kids to thrive,” said Wool. “When we put these gender messages on them, even by the language we use, we’re limiting their possibilities. We are putting them in a lane, and they’re just not going to reach their full potential.”

I write and opine about Android.

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