As much as we may strive for a society in which genders are treated equal, at least for the foreseeable future one great difference sets the sexes apart: only women have babies.
While he will never know what it’s like to birth a child, writer Benjamin Percy wanted to come as close as he could to experiencing what it’s like to carry one. Percy, a masterful novelist and short story writer his novel about werewolves, Red Moon, due out in May, is one of the most buzzed about books of 2013 is no stranger to this kind of gonzo journalism. Over email he told me that he has “jumped out of planes, hang-glided off mountains, climbed to the top of a 250-ft tall tree and spent the night in it, and gone on a maddening diet that required me to drink only water and eat only fruits and veggies for three weeks.”
To aid him in his quest to be “man-pregnant,” he used a suit designed by the Japanese scientist Dr. Takayuki Kosaka of the Kanagawa Institute of Technology. An icky shade of green, cumbersome, and “made from nylon thick enough to bend a butcher knife,” Percy wore the suit for 9 weeks, an experience he recounts in the March issue of GQ. As the weeks went by, he added weight to the belly to match his imaginary baby’s growth. And yes, in case you’re wondering, the suit did include fake breasts, and no, Percy did not buy a new male-maternity wardrobe, instead opting to lead with the suit, as it were.
An engaged dad who bottle fed his infant son so regularly that “the boundary between mother and father blurred,” Percy describes in his article what I think is a common feeling among dads: inadequacy. “I’m crabby. I’m impatient. I wear skull T-shirts. I kind of look forward to my children growing old enough to walk twenty yards ahead of me in the mall and pretend I don’t exist.”
He writes about seeing himself fall short compared to dads who seem more involved and empathetic with their children and spouses, and of course there’s an even greater inadequacy at play here ultimately, putting on a pregnancy suit is about wanting to understand mothers better. Who can blame him? While my son’s passion for mommy may be extreme, most little kids share a special bond with their mother, and while gender norms are shifting, our culture at large still sees Mom as the final arbiter of all things related to children.
Percy hoped that his time in the suit would make him a more compassionate dad, a goal shared by the suit’s creator. Dr. Kosaka has even designed a more advanced model pregnancy suit that mimics a baby’s kicking (Percy flew to Japan to try it on), in order to help Japanese men treat women with greater sensitivity. Good luck with that: on the Tokyo subway, Percy witnessed guys flipping through dirty comic books without shame or secrecy, and without offering their seat to pregnant women (or men, as the case may be).
While in the article Percy recounts the reaction of his female friends who on the whole wished the suit could go a whole lot further in recreating the physical travails of pregnancy (wrenching his organs, etc.) I asked him what his kids thought of the stunt.
“We try to keep things as gender-neutral as possible in our house,” he wrote me. “If our son wants to throw on a tutu if our daughter wants to play soldier or dress up as spiderman we just laugh along with them. Both of them found the pregnancy suit to be funny in the same way. I’m a pretty manly guy with a voice like a bottomless cavern and a chest so hairy you could hang Christmas ornaments from it so there’s no gender confusion possible: if I put on a pregnancy suit, it’s the equivalent of a bear in a bikini. High comedy.”
I wondered about the long-term impact it made, but he assured me they’ve forgotten all about his time with artificial child. He wrote me, “What will impact my son and daughter, ultimately, is the fact that I try (and sometimes fail) to be a good father, loving, encouraging, and as involved in their lives as I can possibly be. My wife and I have a partnership. We split up the household chores and so do we try to split up the parenting, schedules permitting.”
Splitting up the parenting even to the point of sharing the experience of pregnancy, at least as far as this experiment goes. (I can only imagine Percy’s wife, and any mother, reading the words “sharing the experience of pregnancy” and snorting milk through their nose. As if.) And while some might find faux-maternity shocking, as an aspiring fiction writer myself it doesn’t surprise me at all that a novelist would want, as literally as possible, to try and experience life from a new perspective. That’s one of the great joys of writing and reading fiction. It opens one’s mind, and in doing so, builds compassion just like the suit, which Percy thinks will accomplish Dr. Kosaka’s goal of helping men understand pregnancy better.
“Dr. Kosaka will be no doubt be successful in placing his suits in hospitals and schools and classes, where men and women alike can get a physical preview of what pregnancy might be like,” Percy wrote me. But still, “Nobody is going to wear that suit (which I nicknamed the Zero Dark Thirty) more than five minutes.”