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the weight of women's bodies

Megan Betz

My stomach at five months pregnant. 

My stomach at five months pregnant. 

Over the past few weeks, I'd been using the word "diet" to myself more than I'd like. I would see elastic bands carve into my belly, still soft from carrying my baby those two years ago. I would hold up my sagging stomach & see the stretch marks flare in red, spanning my abdomen like a topographical globe--craters & valleys from where my body cracked itself open to accommodate her being.

There are times when the universe seems to weigh us down with a message--a piercing note like the buzz of electricity, driving into our brains until we are forced to acknowledge it, forced to give it space so we can think again. Can catch our breath. Four moments made the buzzing so loud I've been forced to face the expectations I still carry out on my own body. Expectations I wear like a (appropriately modest) dress. 

A fellow academic mother shared David Brooks' latest subtle attack on women: Why fathers leave their children. While his opinion column is a consistent source of "traditional family values," the ease with which he reifies the notion that women are problematic--that the damage we cause must be contained--was startling. In the span of only 800 words, Brooks offers a "confident social script" centered on a nuclear family model with low pressure on men, offering them support so they stay around. Women (with their lofty expectations & air of authority) drive men from families. Women are similarly blamed for abortion: "The men are less likely than the women to want to end the pregnancy with an abortion." (This is logical, as the consequences of the pregnancy weigh so little upon them--they could simply walk away. Their bodies bear no scars.) Should the man get to become a father, Brooks writes, the rigors of motherhood create a situation where the man "begins to perceive the mother as bossy, just another authority figure to be skirted. Run-ins with drugs, the law and other women begin to make him look even more disreputable in her eyes." The man is forced, by circumstance, to flee. (In this narrative, white men of a certain socioeconomic status never abandon their families.)

The answer? A stronger nuclear family & a purity myth: "...find someone you love before you have intercourse. Or, make sure you want to spend years with this partner before you get off the pill." However, this ignores the sex education our students receive, the fact that access to birth control is limited & riddled with stigma (with even your doctor questioning your need), and the lack of parental leave or child care once a family is begun. It ignores sex for reasons other than family-building--and doing so will always miss the mark on preventing unplanned pregnancies.

Earlier this week, I was volunteering as an escort at Planned Parenthood. I stood in the parking lot, waiting for women to arrive. I walked them into building, trying to maintain small talk and distract from the protesters shouting at them and holding posters of mangled fetuses. One of the women, a regular in the line of people at the edge of the property, made this argument: "Women don't throw 'fetus showers'. They don't say, 'I'm having a fetus!' They say, 'I'm going to have a baby."

It took all of me to note the verb tense--that we are, in fact, going to have a baby but do not have a baby while pregnant. I wanted to point out that "baby" is not a medical term. I wanted to ask what resources they were prepared to offer when the child arrived--if they were willing to pay more taxes so that the child could eat; so that the mother could stay home, bond with her baby, and rest; so that more children have resources at school and, in turn, more economic prospects to meet all of the expectations we heave on a person when they are born. The privileged position of "baby" exists only in the imaginary. I wanted to ask how their anti-choice position could ever be conceived of as pro-life.

I am aware of how I speak about my body in front of our daughter. I do not want to comment on its flaws, to project ideas of what it should be. I want her to see women fully inhabiting themselves rather than restricting their intake, restricting the space they're allowed to take up. Despite that, I find myself falling into old ways I have of speaking about my body. I put batteries back in the scale & allowed myself to be disappointed in the number. I hide these anxieties from her, but this is not the same as shedding them. It's time to hang the up.

A few weeks ago, I grabbed a dress from Goodwill without trying it on. It's a brand whose fit I'm familiar with. It's black, sleeveless, & woven; it falls at the knee; it fits all the qualifications for my wardrobe. I bought it, knowing that it would be form-fitting & that it would require me to be confident in my body. I put it on while getting ready for work a few days later & was confronted with my body. I asked Joe if I looked pregnant. He was surprised by the question & complimented me in the dress. But I know what people would see when they look at me. Knew the shape of my body, the small swell of my abdomen, was permitted only in one state. 

I made it to campus, walked into a morning graduate student work group--and the first conversation I had began with a (female, childless) peer whispering this question my direction: Are you expecting another baby?

I was surprised, because there are myriad reasons this question is inappropriate. (After a miscarriage, I am hesitant to share news of any kind too early. As a working woman, I am concerned about the workplace repercussions of a decision to be pregnant. As a human, I maintain the right to live in a body that is any shape it lands in.) I was more surprised that I found myself, instead of speaking these truths, helping her be comfortable. I made it okay for her to have asked the question--told her it's okay, that she doesn't need to feel uncomfortable, that it's understandable. I made jokes to put her at ease. Because this is how we respond; this is how we've been taught to inhabit our bodies. They are here to make others comfortable; they are here to be cat-called. This is what we are told when women can "ask for" rape, when women are told to eat x or drink y in the case that they one day decide to be pregnant, when women are given limited access to reproductive health care. We are taught to apologies for our bodies. Taught that our bodies should be compliant. 

Suki Finn asks, "Does the mother contain the foetus or is it a part of her?" As a mother, I answer, "Yes." The day my daughter had lived longer outside my womb than we had shared together, I felt I'd lost my claim to a part of myself when my body was still recovering. I could still fit my fingers between my abs; I still leaked through shirts if away from my breastfeeding daughter too long. But now, whose was she? And had she ever been mine? 

As an always-already pregnant body, I realize that my answer is the same. Yes. I am not the vessel. I contain the fetus;  but I am also obligated to be always-already the mother. Nurturing. Enthusiastically giving my life over to another. This is not to say I don't take joy in parenting my daughter. She is my lighthouse. But I am also a whole being apart from her, & it took work to bring myself to the point of motherhood. Discourses like David Brooks are problematic for men, who become always at risk of running away, always at risk of being unattached to their children. But it is damaging to women--emotionally, economically, & physically. We have not answered this metaphysical question, & the result is women inhabiting both roles in the cultural imagination. Regardless of which is the reality of the body, the woman must be both--the container whose life is near meaningless in preservation of the fetus and the mother who sees herself in the baby she births & nurtures her intuitively.