I went into comedian Amy Schumer’s new documentary Expecting Amy hoping for a laugh or two: We’re all looking for a little levity these days.
And I did laugh. But I also cried through most of it and then clutched my 6-month-old daughter to my chest for the rest of the weekend, staring deeply into her sweet, confused little face.
Expecting Amy begins two days after Schumer finds out she’s pregnant and proceeds to follow her into doctor’s appointments, comedy clubs, and countless bathrooms—she has hyperemesis gravidarum (HG), a condition that can lead to a traumatic level of nausea and vomiting for women who suffer through it.
The reviews of the documentary, the majority of which is filmed by Schumer and her husband on their iPhones, have rightly touted its incredibly raw and intimate portrayal of a pregnancy. But I was most struck by the honest depiction of a woman dealing with not just a pregnancy but also a career and ambition.
Schumer’s big personal project, as it were, coincides with the development of her Netflix comedy special, Growing, and the three-part documentary series tracks the conception, gestation, and birth of both. I’ve never seen the intertwining of a pregnancy and work—which is real for so many women—captured in all of its messy complexity like it is in Expecting Amy.
Schumer’s decision to put together a comedy special at the same time as her pregnancy is an intentional one. She wants to do something big before the birth of her son to essentially bookend this stage of her life. Her pregnancy may be horrific as she suffers through HG, but it’s also fueling her work and creativity. The two become linked as she mines her personal experience for material. In one case, she is loath to publicly reveal that she’s having a boy, not out of any sense of privacy—she’s way past that point—but because it will ruin one of her jokes. (“I don’t know what I’m having. I hope it’s a girl. But really just because it’s such a scary time for men.”)
The pressure Schumer puts on herself is enormous as she follows a grueling schedule of 60 shows in 42 cities so she can work out the material for her upcoming special in front of a live audience. She performs night after night even as she is debilitated by HG. She continues on even as she is forced to compartmentalize the anxiety she feels after learning her son might be born with a kidney issue.
In spite of it all, Schumer still gets up onstage. She still makes people laugh. She still puts in the work. At one point she banters with the audience, “People are like, ‘You’re so strong, look at you out there! You’re on the road!’ I’m contractually obligated to be out here, guys. I’m not like, ‘The show must go on.’ I’m like, ‘I will be sued by Live Nation.’” But while there’s likely some truth behind the joke, Schumer’s presence on the stage does say something about her strength and her ambition. She can’t help but put everything she has into her show. And she rightly acknowledges how proud she is, and how powerful she feels, to be doing stand-up amid her taxing pregnancy.
These scenes brought me back to some of the choices I made while I was pregnant: sleeping overnight in a lounge of the Beijing airport at 20 weeks; racing against the clock to finish a big story before I went into labor; or continuing to come into the office even once my daughter blew past her due date. I felt that urgency to tie up loose ends before she arrived. But I also wanted to prove to myself, and my colleagues, that I would have the same commitment to the work I love after becoming a mom—that it would still give me the same satisfaction and joy it always had. As Schumer says in her special, “You don’t stop being you.”
Looking back now, I realize I was happy to have those war stories as evidence that I could still handle all the normal pressures of the job. I was always hesitant to talk about my pregnancy at the office unless someone else brought it up first, fearing that my identity as a hardworking, reliable employee would be subsumed by my new one of “pregnant lady” and eventually “working mom.” I hadn’t yet realized that it would be possible for all of those things to coexist for me.
Of course, the impulse to go above and beyond to show the world that pregnancy doesn’t stop you from being good at your job doesn’t solely come from within. It’s also a reaction to the way society judges pregnant women. Last week, my colleague Emma Hinchliffe reported on pregnancy and “stereotype threat,” or the fear of confirming a stereotype about a group one belongs to. Researchers found that pregnant women who think they may be seen as no longer effective at or committed to their jobs are more likely to skip doctor’s appointments or not ask for needed physical accommodations, ultimately increasing their odds of a workplace injury.
It’s a complicated balancing act. The physical demands of pregnancy are real—but for many women, so is the need to continue to do your best work. You can see Schumer’s struggle to unite the two throughout her documentary. Onstage she tells the audience, “I hate women who start to act, like, really just, like, precious.” She doesn’t want to be treated like a delicate flower, but she also wants her pain to be acknowledged. She is worried about coming off as whiny even in her lowest moments. She is hyperaware of the resources she has and feels deeply for women who might be experiencing the same thing without them. And less than two weeks after giving birth, she’s back on the stage. She’s back to doing the work.
Schumer’s comedy has always been threaded with feminism—who else can so effortlessly land a sex joke that has a punch line about equal pay? But by capturing the nuanced and complicated picture of a pregnancy, Expecting Amy may be the biggest service Schumer has done for women yet.
More on the most powerful women in business from Fortune:
- Rep. Pramila Jayapal was arrested three times for civil disobedience. Serving alongside Rep. John Lewis made it feel “appropriate”
- In April, 6% of parents expected to quit their jobs because of COVID-19. Now that’s up to 27%
- Moms Demand Action founder Shannon Watts: “Police violence is gun violence”
- Slack board member and former Goldman Sachs executive launches a career development startup with her daughter
- Nextdoor CEO Sarah Friar on the power of hyperlocal community and diversity in the boardroom