Can I stop swearing before my daughter is born?
Illustration by Robert Neubecker.
I didn’t really think anything about about my frequent, enthusiastic swearing until I got pregnant. But then, something about seeing me unleash a rousing string of epithets from behind my huge belly started making my husband wince. Even my mother, who once laughed when she heard my wee self let slip a “shit,” was moved to comment after she heard me on a recent DoubleX Gabfest describe myself as “so fucking pregnant.” “You might want to tone it down,” she said, gently. I suppressed the urge to tell her to piss off.
But was my swearing affecting the baby? “Your curious baby is listening in to your conversations at 34 weeks,” one of my weekly pregnancy email newsletters informed me. “Some say that baby will recognize songs mom sings while he’s in the womb, and may even be more easily soothed by them if he’s used to them once he’s on the ‘outside.’ ”
Oh, man. What “song” is my baby hearing? Maybe my little girl will feel that first burst of antiseptic cold from the bright hospital room, open her eyes, and scream, “Fuuuuck!!!” Maybe she’ll start sassing the nurses cleaning her tiny bottom, like a two-bit movie gangster: “Goddammit, dames, could we move it along here?” All fantasies aside, learning that my baby was eavesdropping on me while still in utero also made me reflect on the influence I’m already having on my daughter, and whether my unfettered use of the F-word is something I want her to experience with her first consciousness.
Though cursing was not a big deal in my household growing up, my parents did not curse anywhere near as much as I do now. I wasn’t so F-word-friendly myself until college. Before that, I was always the straight-A captain of the field hockey team, innately understanding that a degree of wholesomeness was an important part of the package. Looking back, I wonder if I started cursing so heavily because I needed to move away from that earlier good-girl persona, which ultimately I found stifling. I hope my daughter doesn’t need something as superficial and potentially off-putting as cursing to develop her sense of self.
More immediately—and selfishly—I’m concerned about how my daughter’s potty mouth might reflect on my husband and me. I really don’t want to be called into daycare two years from now because my daughter has been teaching all the other toddlers to complain about their shitty diapers. And I don’t want to be shunned at the playground while trying to meet new mom friends because I can’t keep my language PG.
Research on the effects of cursing on fetuses is inconclusive. I asked Annie Murphy Paul, the author of Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives, about how much of an impact cursing has on babies in the womb. She backed up my pregnancy newsletter: Newborns can recognize their mother’s voices at birth, and they can even recognize stories and songs if they heard them repeatedly before they were born. But according to Paul, babies can’t “discriminate among curse words or other words.” What babies and fetuses do respond to, however, is extreme maternal stress. But we’re talking war-zone, Hurricane-Sandy-destroyed-my-house level stress, not my-boss-was-being-a-jerk-today stress. Cursing can certainly go along with intense personal upheaval, but it’s a symptom, not a cause.
As for older children, the research is similarly incomplete. One 2009 study published in the journal Psychology, Public Policy, and Law pointed out that some of the extant research is based on a family verbal abuse measurement scale called the Conflict Tactics Scale—which does not separate conversational swearing from insulting swearing. There’s a big difference between cursing around your kid and cursing at your kid. The latter is verbal abuse; it’s unclear whether the former has a negative impact. Another study, from a 2011 issue of Pediatrics, showed that adolescents who consumed more profanity-laden media were more likely to be aggressive, both physically and relationally. Still, that study does not explore the context of the profanity, and it doesn’t really talk about how profanity used at home affects children.
Child psychologist Alan Kazdin, director of Yale’s Parenting Center, says he isn’t aware of any studies that isolate swearing from other negative parental behaviors. If you’re an otherwise supportive and loving parent who happens to curse, it’s probably not that big a deal. However, he does say that if you curse around your kid, it’s likely they will model that behavior. And once they’re cursing, it’s quite difficult to get them to stop. Telling your child, “I can do this because I’m grown up and you aren’t,” says Kazdin, is woefully ineffective. “It’s like when your boss takes off early all the time and you aren’t allowed to”—it breeds resentment.
The irreversibility of the effects of cursing around my kid was enough to give me pause. And even though I couldn’t find any hard-and-fast proof that my baby is going to emerge from the womb sounding like a pint-sized Sarah Silverman, once called to my attention, all those fucks emerging from my mouth started to sound unduly harsh. And worse, I started fearing that my gleeful use of profanity was really just verbal laziness. I curse because it’s fun, but also for extra emphasis. When every other word is unprintable, those words lose their significance.
I decided on an experiment: Could I cut down on my cursing for a month? My husband suggested that every time I used profanity, I had to buy him a Blu-ray DVD. I also briefly considered a good, old-fashioned swear jar.
But I started with a kind of mindfulness exercise. I tend to speak incredibly quickly, and so for four weeks, I tried to become my own network-TV style, time-delayed censor while talking aloud. Considering I am so pregnant that I need a pulley system to sit in the upright position, I knew quitting cursing entirely would be an uphill battle. The mindfulness experiment would accomplish two things: It would help me distinguish between necessary and excessive cursing, and it would begin training my not to curse as such an automatic response—the better to curb it around the babe.
I started the experiment at a wedding of an old college friend. It was easy not to curse there, not just because it was an entirely joyful occasion, but also because I was fully comfortable. I’ve known these people for over a decade, and I feel accepted by them fairly unconditionally—which made me realize, embarrassingly, that even though I’m 30, I still use cursing to sound badass. This is vaguely pathetic, and I’d like to stop this variety of expletive use.
Keeping it clean became much more difficult the day my husband and I got stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the West Side Highway because of a biker parade. Seriously. As we were shepherded into two lanes to watch the bikers ride by with a police escort, I felt entirely comfortable muttering to my husband, “What. The. Fuck.” I truly believe that even the most devout Mormon would permit himself a “flipping” when faced with traffic-related agita—even when babies are involved. This kind of frustration-related outburst can stay.
On my next DoubleX Gabfest appearance, I spoke more slowly and clearly than I usually do. I’m pretty sure it’s the first time that a Gabfest I’ve been on did not get an “explicit” tag on iTunes. But honestly I sounded a little constipated. Part of the fun of those appearances is the exuberance that goes along with a heated conversation. When you’re taking such pains to stifle yourself, something is lost along the way. To punctuate a rousing debate—which I doubt I will be having with my nonverbal baby—cursing can be a useful tool.
Even though my month-long experiment in mindfulness is over, I am still doing my best not to curse. (All bets are off during labor, though.) I don’t think swearing is a scourge, but I really want my daughter to be able to understand the context of expletives before she starts using them. It took me three decades to figure it out for myself, and I hope she’s quicker than her mama is.
Though I don’t kid myself that I can control everything that her lil’ ears take in, not cursing around her is one small thing I can manage. Will I be able to prevent myself from laughing the first time she says something like, “Oh shit, I slipped”? I’m not a fucking saint.