Super Bowl 2023: What Rihanna can teach us about parenthood and work

The speculation started during Sunday’s Super Bowl halftime show, when Rihanna showed up in a flaming-red Loewe jumpsuit zipped down to reveal a gently rounded belly. Searches for “Rihanna pregnant” spiked as viewers tried to figure out what the pop star could possibly be doing showing off a stomach that wasn’t flat.

Once the singer’s representative confirmed that she is, in fact, expecting her second child, speculation turned from her body to her time — namely, how much she’d be taking off and when, after a seven-year hiatus, she’d be delivering her next album.

Anticipation had been high because the 12-song set was Rihanna’s first live performance since 2018, and a lot of people assumed she’d be announcing a new album or a tour.

The immediate clamoring to know how much Rihanna’s work would suffer, and how long her clients (fans) were going to have to wait for the deliverables (new music and a new tour), echoes what countless ordinary pregnant people deal with every day. American work culture and our lack of a social safety net force pregnant people and parents to run themselves ragged proving their kids won’t affect their work lives — only to get fired or demoted anyway. Rihanna’s refusal, at least so far, to entertain any questions is refreshing: She’s upending social expectations around pregnancy, motherhood, and work. By enjoying both family and work on her own terms, and her own timetable, Rihanna has just shown us a different way is possible — even if it’s not attainable for ordinary people just yet.

The US remains one of the only wealthy countries in the world with no paid parental leave. If a job does offer leave, pregnant people are often discouraged from actually taking it. Or, especially if they work in low-wage jobs, their bosses might just fire them as soon as they announce they’re expecting a child.

Meanwhile, mothers face discrimination in promotions and hiring, a phenomenon so widespread and entrenched it has a name: the “motherhood penalty.” In the Lean In era of the aughts and 2010s, women were encouraged to get around this discrimination by showing that they did not need time to care for their families. Sheryl Sandberg’s maxims, like “don’t leave till you leave,” sent the message that women could power through the motherhood stigma with their own drive and ambition. Marissa Meyer made headlines in 2012 when she announced that she would be taking only two weeks off from her new job as Yahoo’s CEO to have her first child (she also took less than a month when she had twins in 2015). In 2018, a commodity trader told the Times she had “organized her life so that having children wouldn’t interfere with her career,” including getting child care starting at 7 am “so she would never be late.”

Even for white-collar women with high-paying jobs, this did not work particularly well. The same commodity trader said she still got passed over for promotions and was told it was due to the timing of her maternity leave. Also, it was exhausting.

The pandemic has called into question the American obsession with work and productivity, and led to renewed calls for affordable child care and parental leave. Writers like Angela Garbes and Jessica Grose have documented the ways American parents struggle to care for their kids while holding down a job, and attempted to chart a more communal, less girl bossy, way forward. There’s greater acknowledgment than ever that parents, especially moms, are not okay. While there is still no paid parental leave in America and there is still pregnancy discrimination, there’s also been more of a push by feminists and other activists in recent years for employers to address the fact that caring for children takes time and energy, and that expecting parents to work as though they don’t have families — expecting anyone, really, to work as if they have no life — is unsustainable.

However, we have not yet seen the major policy changes that would help parents take time off with their kids without fear of reprisal or destitution. The era of “quiet quitting” has segued seamlessly into yet another era of layoffs, reminding average Americans that even if hustle culture is no longer cool, hustling is still often necessary.

Enter Rihanna. The singer and multihyphenate businesswoman has been resetting the cultural tone around pregnancy since January 2022, when she and her partner, rapper A$AP Rocky, announced her first pregnancy with a series of images by photographer Miles Diggs of the pair walking down a Harlem street. Rihanna wore a bright pink coat unbuttoned over her belly, which was adorned with jewels. The look defined her pregnancy style, which centered on eye-catching outfits that aimed to reveal, rather than conceal, her body.

“She has not worn tent dresses,” wrote Times fashion critic Vanessa Friedman. “She has not worn maternity jeans. In fact, she has barely worn much clothing at all.”

Other celebrities from Eva Mendes to Adele have hidden their pregnancies, whether from a desire for privacy, a fear they won’t be marketable if they’re seen as moms, vestigial attitudes that pregnancy is gross or shameful, or all of the above. Rihanna chose not just to celebrate her upcoming motherhood; she also eschewed the informal dictate that pregnancy fashion should be dowdy, floral, and de-sexed, and instead opted for clothes that were exciting, boundary-breaking, and cool. She looked like she was having fun, something moms and soon-to-be moms in America are not really supposed to do.

The singer kept that energy going on Sunday night with a performance at once eye-popping (she was, after all, suspended on a platform up to 60 feet above the stadium) and laid back, with minimalist dance moves and a break to powder her nose. As Vox’s Alex Abad-Santos put it, “She makes stardom look so easy and left us, as always, wanting a little bit more.” Her apparent calm was especially impressive given that balancing the competing demands of motherhood and global celebrity — complete with a fan base demanding a new album — can’t be easy at all.

It is unclear when, or if, fans will get what they want. Rihanna did not announce a new album on Sunday — to be fair, she didn’t even announce her pregnancy, leaving that to her mouthpiece. Nor has she obliged fans by making her first child into content; we’ve only seen one video of him, and she hasn’t released his name.

Indeed, what Rihanna made clear on Sunday is that she will be doing the work of celebrity, and motherhood, on her own terms.

Of course, it’s easy to work on your own terms when you’re a billionaire. Ordinary American workers do not have the luxury of telling employers they’ll come back from parental leave when they feel like it (or even of going on parental leave at all).

Still, pop stars help shape our cultural expectations, including those around parenthood, and Rihanna is offering a welcome antidote to the girl-boss school of hustling through our reproductive lives to prove to our employers we can be just as productive as non-parents — when those expectations of productivity were always unrealistic for everyone.

Rihanna’s obvious pride in her own path could help normalize taking time to be with your family, and having fun and being sexy and chilling out, even if you also have a kid. The dominant image of motherhood in America is of a joyless grind during which you sacrifice yourself to your boss and your children, and if a Super Bowl halftime show can combat that, even just a little bit, that’s good for everyone.