[I wrote this essay as a post at a now-defunct blog, back in 2009. So, in its world, I'm the parent of just one child, who is three years old.]
I’ve identified as a feminist for a long time. In other words, giving birth didn’t suddenly turn me into a feminist. But it did make feminism far, far more central for me than it ever had been before: more central to my personal understanding of my culture, background, and experiences, and more central to my scholarship.
My experiences of birthing and parenting have clarified the stakes of our culture’s system of gender, and the stakes of feminism both as a tool for thinking and as a movement for social change. They’ve shown me in no uncertain terms how deeply my body and my life, my husband’s body and his life, are embedded in and expected to conform to gender-based rules that we find, quite frankly, absurd. In many ways, birthing and the early stages of parenting moved me to greater engagement as a feminist.
As a highly-educated and independent young person with an open-minded and individualist family (by which I mean both my family of origin and my new little nuclear family) and very little interest in watching TV, I had never really encountered sexism in my daily life. At least, I hadn’t seen it as sexism. But visibly gestating, I suddenly became A Woman, and–more unsettlingly–A Mommy.
As a childless person, I didn’t even know where my cervix was (up in my vulva someplace, I supposed); as an obviously pregnant woman, I was asked by total strangers about its precise state: “Have you started to dilate? Is your cervix softening?” And I’m like, “Um … I’m just trying to buy vegetables …”
During my foray into reproduction, I’ve felt myself subject to gendered expectations and policing, but I’ve also had the positive experience of learning an enormous amount about my own body–learning which I could have done pre-childbearing but which simply never occurred to me as a potential pursuit. In retrospect, I realize that I totally bought into our culture’s distaste for women’s bodies, accepting that menstruation is gross, that underarms and legs must appear never to have grown hair, that we must not speak of vaginas and anything that happens in/near them–except, of course, penetrative sex. And so I really didn’t know much about (or think much of) the parts of my body that constitute my femaleness.
Together, these two issues–an unwelcome experience of increased gendering and a happy new appreciation of my female body–not only explain why childbirth deepened my feminism but also represent a really tricky tension, one I see a lot in the childbirth community (doulas, midwives, etc.) as well as the feminist community.
Many childbirth advocates are feminist in the sense that they have–perhaps because of their experiences with birth–a profound respect for the unique capacities of the female body: in other words, for pregnancy, birthing, and breastfeeding. This is the ‘women are so strong’ / ‘we’re all sisters’ / ‘women’s bodies are designed to give birth’ / ‘think of the millions of women who have done this before you’ model, a perspective focused on women’s specialness as women. Now, I think my cervix is super-neat and am still amazed that I created a person. Indeed, when I was pregnant, I often announced things like ‘I made a working human heart!,’ and when people compliment us on our son I still sometimes say ‘Thanks! I made him myself.’ I felt extremely privileged in being able to breastfeed my child, to offer him instant comfort in a way no one else (even my partner) could, because I have the luxury of mammary glands and lots of fantastic hormones. Contrary to the expectations pushed by sitcoms and movies, I also felt really lucky that I was the one who got to feel our fetus inside my body and to birth our child–how cool!
But, at the same time, I emphatically reject the notion that my body’s reproductive organs and secondary sex characteristics define my personhood or personality, or that my partner’s (or son’s) define his.
Well-meaning assurances that I was made to birth and care for my child (and, on a more general level, a certain brand of feminism’s insistence that femininity–meaning a cultural construct involving nurturing and collaboration and so forth–is so great) sit poorly with me. If life has a purpose, I believe it’s one that has nothing whatsoever to do with gender: We’re all trying to fulfill ourselves joyfully through love and creativity. For lots of us, part of that fulfillment involves the creativity and love of bearing and/or raising children, but childbearing is not the point (or, more personally, my purpose).
I’m happy to be a person with ovaries and a uterus and mammary glands, and (rather unrelatedly) to be a person who is raising a child–but I am consistently jarred by the dissonance of being treated as ‘a mommy’ or ‘a wife,’ as though my relationship with my child or with my partner defines me. Those are relationships between me and two other, wonderful people: things I do, not things I am.
And, as it turns out, being visibly pregnant invites the whole world to treat you like a big walking uterus. The first question ANYONE, even a colleague, asks you is suddenly about your reproductive organs, your body, your fetus. I don’t at all mean to imply that these interactions are bad or sexist–they just really, really forced me to consider the complicated relationships amongst my female body, my reproductive capacities, my personhood, and other people’s perceptions of and expectations regarding my behavior, appearance, personality, experiences, priorities, and so forth. And it is bad and sexist, as well as starkly illuminating, that people generally regarded this pregnancy and our newborn child as The Topic when interacting with me but as markedly secondary (often not even worthy of mention) when interacting with my also-becoming-a-parent male partner. Casual acquaintances and colleagues still consistently ask me and not him about our child, as though only my life is really affected by the baby.