Discourse on the intersections of politics, feminism, and motherhood.

Monday, April 24

Contemplative Nostalgia

Considerable time has passed since I was pregnant, if you consider five months substantial, and recently I encountered an essay in my graduate studies class that directed me to revisit some of the aspects of pregnancy that become intertwined with medicine, outside personal perceptions, and my own expectations. As I look back, my pregnancy altered my own embodiment; I was not just a woman but I had become a pregnant woman. Currently, I’m no longer a pregnant woman. I’m a woman/feminist/student/teacher/entrepreneur who was at one time pregnant, and a mother who constantly reminds the individuals around her that she is also a woman/feminist/student/teacher/entrepreneur, who happens to have a child. During my pregnancy people treated me differently, looked at me differently, assumed certain things about me, and talked to me differently, all based on one specific aspect of the female body. Even my husband became extensively enchanted with my growing breasts, increasingly rounded bottom and hips, and my protruding belly. His day to day behaviors became centered on these particular features and the habits that evolved created a body that became fragmented into puzzle pieces, illuminating certain attributes as identifiably connected with carrying a child. Combined with active behaviors the language in which family, friends, and strangers used to address me changed dramatically to include investigations centered on extracting as much information as possible regarding those specific bodily functions ascribed to pregnancy. When is your due date? Is it a boy or a girl? Are you having extravagant cravings? Are you getting morning sickness? Have you had an ultrasound? Have you had that really cool 3D ultrasound? How much weight have you gained? Are you going to get an epidural? My friend -- insert name here -- went to the hospital at -- insert time here – was -- insert diameter here -- dilated and the baby popped out -- insert days/hours/minutes/seconds -- later….etc…etc…etc.
One evening my husband and I attended a party at a friend’s house where I was having a glass of wine. Every woman there confided in me that their doctor said it was completely fine to have a glass of red wine on occasion so they did it all the time. Why the wine had to be red was beyond me, but I had a sneaking suspicion the reason was connected to the preconceived notion that there are positive health benefits to red wine of which supposed medical studies have proven. Interestingly, I never asked their opinion, or brought the subject up. By virtue of my rounded belly and the glass in my hand, certain assumptions about pregnancy were inevitably visited. It was almost as it they needed the justification because I was breaking preconceived rules as they had done before me. Those rules are utterly embedded in our knowledge and a break requires the necessary medical language that surrounded the oppositional view in the first place.
The language used, in the majority of situations, to approach a pregnant woman is resuscitated from the already existing medical language surrounding pregnancy. As most of the conversations occur between women or about a related woman, the language asserts that by virtue of a shared connection via gender and/or pregnancy individuals have a right to make inquiries and a right to that private information. As that information is up for grabs, the body of a pregnant woman becomes up for grabs. I was amazed at how many strangers invaded my private space by touching my stomach. Pregnancy as an internal embodiment manifest on the outside of the body alters the public’s perception of what is acceptable behavior toward a pregnant woman. As I was shopping for maternity clothes with my mother the sales person just came over as if she had known me all her life and reached right out like she was picking herself a great big watermelon from the fruit stand. I never once was asked permission nor did she read my reaction. She was so entirely focused on the pregnancy she completely ignored that there was a woman attached to it who deserved not to be touched by strangers.
Privacy regarding your own body, personal information, and feelings are policed as each and every person who inquires has some form of “suggestion.” Family members tell you to refrain from traveling three hours out of town, for you are too far away from your doctors as if there are not other doctors in other states. I entered into my very first email argument with my mother’s sister over a trip I wanted to take with my husband to a family reunion. I was thirty-six weeks pregnant and had asked my midwife what she suggested. I was told that traveling long distances was not recommended but in the event I chose to go they prepared me with a copy of my medical records. My entire family received notification by means of other family members and felt it their duty to warn me via email that it was not a good idea. My aunt was especially adamant because of the tragic experience of her first pregnancy. I explained to her that I had made certain choices regarding my pregnancy and birth and did not entirely need for my relatives to bombard me with judgments. This of course set off a tidal wave of opinions that I did not really want to hear and led her to determine my negative mood toward her ‘suggestions’ were hormonal. “I can’t believe you are not allowing your mother in the room during the birth?” “I would be entirely devastated if my daughter did not want me in the room.” “I’m sure she is very upset over this, after all she has done so much for you.” “You think you’re just going to pop out the kid and breastfeed like its no problem, well some things are not that easy.” Recently, I encountered my aunt over Easter weekend and honestly I still harbor some resentment for those comments that seemed to me passive aggressive and most likely revealed more about her own fears than my upcoming birth experience. Perhaps the anger is directed at her inadvertently as I ended up just acquiescing and canceling our trip.
My family and strangers created myths surrounding breastfeeding and birth based on their own experiences. Clearly the agenda is enforced out of love with the result being a rational level of rescue for myself and other women from what they experienced. Of course sharing experiences is a wonderful thing between individuals but using those situations to tell another what they should and should not do is problematic and all entrenched in the medical nomenclature of suspicion; suspicion that every woman could be part of that 0.1 percent. Speaking at an individual is entirely different than speaking with an individual and the continued infantalization produced cavernous mounds of frustration deep in my soul.
I assumed I was strong enough to fight the establishment. I trained hard through research acquiring knowledge so I was prepared for the barrage of cultural norms and fear latent advice from doctors and peers, but I only realized that certain behaviors surrounding what is appropriate for a pregnant woman had seeped into my mind as a slow leak drips intermittently from a basement pipe. I felt guilty when I skipped a prenatal vitamin, enjoyed a Diet Coke, or consumed jumbo hotdogs with chili and slaw for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I was appallingly engrossed with the montage of television shows on birth and babies. My rational mind told me that they were television shows but I could not tear myself away from them. I somehow conceived of them as precursors and watched with paranoia that they retained information that I might have needed. I had unwittingly internalized certain norms that caused me to question myself and my choices, and now looking back I wished I had fought harder.
Clearly, the majority of these conflicts arose when my expectations regarding my own pregnancy and birth expectations were in contradiction to those expressed by outsiders and family members or in opposition to the language made so normative by the medical establishment. I chose a midwife, and wanted the least amount of medical intervention as possible. I chose a doula because I felt the advocacy is helpful and necessary within the walls of a hospital. I would have chosen a birth center if that option was available in the state of South Carolina but interestingly enough would have ended up at the hospital anyway because within the establishment I was in need of medical intervention.
The first sentence of the essay I read remains completely essential for understanding the intersection of technology and pregnancy. Rayna Rapp notes that, “[l]ate twentieth-century reproductive medicine offers both benefits and burdens.”[1] As I look back I can not deny that the medical technology assisted me in having a safe birth with an unproblematic outcome. I wanted very much to believe in this somewhat utopian view that the female body remained substantially connected to the earth as Ana Mendietta’s earth art silhouettes work to convey. I wanted very much to remain faithful that the female body was utterly structured in this mythological way as to evade surveillance and medicinal controls. As I look back on my expectations regarding the female body I see that I was running into a web of essentialism. I bought into the perception that women as a comprehensive group retained this inclusive omnipresent bodily power. My body as it contained ovaries, fallopian tubes, a uterus, and a vagina was perfectly capable of giving birth, thus completing what nature intended. There is no denying that language structures society’s perceptions but the important point is that there should be room for personal choice based on personal experiences and expectations. Even the terminology of ‘natural birth’ as descriptive of a birth with no pain medication places psychological burdens on women as if anything other is unnatural. There should be alternative dialogue that is in opposition to medical structures that people can engage in. Hopefully, with an increase in additional birthing choices, the public will have to develop alternative encounters with pregnancy and larger more holistic sets of dialogue can be brought to light. Instead of being pregnant women and mothers, we could perhaps exist as women, within the multiple, complex, and personal dimensions that contextualize femininity, who happen to be pregnant or women who happen to have children and partake in the act of mothering in various spaces, times, and ways.
[1] Rapp, Rayna. “The Power of ‘Positive’ Diagnosis: Medical and Maternal Discourses on Amniocentesis,” in Karen L. Michaelson, ed. Childbirth in America: Anthropological Perspectives (South Hadley, Mass.: Bergin & Garvey, 1988): 103-16.


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At 6:17 PM, Blogger Alex said...

I remember being in a baby clothes store and, a complete stranger came up and, put her hand on my tummy!I agree that people should ask to touch your belly for pete's sake! Whatever happened to manners?

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