Concerning Body Fluids, Human Dignity, and the Nature of the Female Form

About twenty years ago, despite her pleadings, my aunt, sister, and I made my mom laugh so hard that she wet herself during a game of badminton on the front lawn. (Yes, badminton.  We are occasionally that white.) We thought that it was the most hilarious thing that had ever happened, but my mom didn’t agree. In her impotent, slightly soggy rage, she cursed the three of us that day, and foretold that someday each one of us would pee ourselves–which, of course, only made us laugh harder.

Nowadays–despite the fact that that curse has come to full fruition over the decades–I don’t really get what she was so upset about.  She’d had two kids already and if there’s one thing just these first five months of pregnancy has taught me it’s that peeing yourself isn’t really so momentous a cataclysm as you’d always thought it would be. In fact, if you want one piece of wisdom from me about the process of bearing an infant it’s that you should probably develop a sense of personal dignity that does not depend on you being able to control your bodily functions or fluids. I gag in public. I fart in my cubicle. If I cough or sneeze while walking and there is anything whatsoever in my bladder, not all of it is staying in my bladder. This is just my present reality, but it really doesn’t seem like that big of a deal once you get used to the idea.

Nakedness doesn’t seem like such a big deal, either. I am normally not a very naked person, but various medical people have been regularly all up in my business since my pregnancy was confirmed, and that hasn’t bothered me.  It’s not that my body feels like it doesn’t belong to me, like I’ve given up “my power” to the medical establishment and that therefore strangers having access to it doesn’t matter anymore. Rather, what my body is doing has changed, which has resulted in a change in how I think about it, and that has changed how I feel about these people I don’t really know seeing parts of my body for which the viewing public is normally a very short list.

Our culture’s concept of women’s bodies revolves around sex.  It doesn’t matter whether you’re a feminist wearing lingerie in a slutwalk or a good Christian girl wearing a loose-fitting “Modest is Hottest” t-shirt at an abstinence rally, the central premise is the same: the female body is a sexual thing, to be treated accordingly. It is there either to be displayed and enjoyed or covered and protected because it is primarily sexual.

Bearing a child may seem like a very sexual thing for a body to do. It does, after all, begin with sex. (Usually, anyway. Science marches on on behalf of those with trouble conceiving that way.) But for me, reproduction doesn’t feel like that. It doesn’t heighten my sense of my body’s sexual nature or, for that matter, even of its gendered feminine nature. Instead, I have a greater sense of my body as biological. Functional.

In Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, Mary Pipher writes that athletics can shield girls from developing emotional problems that center around dissatisfaction with their appearance because, “They see their bodies as functional, not decorative.” I experienced a subtle shift like that when I first started doing serious exercise and discovered that my body could DO these physically demanding things I’d always thought only other people could do.

Sexuality, despite the fact that activity is involved, seems to be far more about BEing and appearing.  The body IS a certain way, LOOKS a certain way, and that’s what makes it sexual and sexy.

But having a baby? That feels like work. My body is working away to do this thing, because it can, because it’s one of the things it was made to do, and circumstances have been such in my life that it has retained that capacity until now and was ready to go for it when all the necessary elements were present.

I enjoy sex in my marriage.  Discovering my body’s sexuality was an enjoyable and liberating process. But focusing only on the sexual nature of the female body seems as limiting to me as refusing to acknowledge it at all. What does it say to a person when the flesh that clothes them and allows them to move through this place and DO is categorized as mostly just sexual? What does that imply about their place and space in this world? Like the male body, a woman’s body is about so much more than that, just as women are about so much more than that. It’s alive and active and functional.

It’s human, is what it is.

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On the Pressure to “Do It Right” & Having the Equanimity to Tell Yourself to Chillax, Already, Sheesh

I’m learning that parenting practices can be very touchy subjects.  I recently posted a status update on Facebook about how humorous I found swaddling because of how closely it resembles straightjacketing (while being careful to note that I wasn’t knocking the practice, I was just sayin’).  While nobody jumped on me or anything, I did get a response about how it’s really good for babies and how they love it, which gave me the sense that just making that observation was enough to put at least one parent on the defensive.

I am aware that everybody and their bachelor brother these days has a very strong opinion about how children should properly be brought up.  Homebirth, hospital, vaccinations, breast feeding, formula, daycare, attachment parenting, crying it out, tiger mothers, organic homemade baby food, homeschooling, private Christian school, Montessori, Waldorf, free range children, etc., etc., etc. It’s clearly bloody endless, the vast array of opinions, each of which is held with militant certainty by the hardliners of their respective contingencies, who have read the books, bought the gear, and attend every conference with religious zeal (sometimes literally).  And the message of at least some of these opinions is that if you don’t raise your children like this, then you are clearly screwing up this whole parenting thing and your children will become sociopaths/be emotionally crippled for life/never get into the right university/leave your faith.

I recently read a book (because I am a nerd and my response to any life change is to read a book-length study on it) called Motherload: Making It All Better in Insecure Times by Ana Villalobos.  It’s the product of Villalobos’ qualitative study of the variety of effects on mothers (rather than their children) created by their approach to motherhood, specifically their expectations regarding the security-producing powers of the mother-child relationship (emotional security and/or security from physical safety risks).  The conclusion was that mothers who unrealistically expected their mothering to supply enough security to fill all of their or their child’s security needs in whichever arena was most salient to them psychologically experienced motherhood as an exhausting struggle (in the terminology of the book, they had a very heavy motherload).  Those who had more realistic expectations, by and large, did not (carried a light motherload).

The really interesting thing was that these unrealistic expectations were not correlated to any particular approach to parenting.  She interviewed heavily-involved (like, almost-never-put-their-children-down-before-the-age-of-two levels of involvement) attachment parents with both light and heavy motherloads.  Parents that emphasized independence and the development of resilience could likewise either carry a heavy or a light motherload.  A better predictor of whether a mother would be burdened by a motherhood with high security expectations was whether or not she had a rigid view of how parenting should be done. Those who went into childrearing with more flexible wait-and-see approaches tended to not overburden themselves with high expectations of what they could give their children or get personally out of the experience of being a mother.  These mothers might ultimately end up in one camp or another, but they weren’t necessarily signed on prebirth, come what may, this is the only way this will work, everybody needs to do it like this, what’s wrong with all these lazy, selfish parents who don’t do it like this, this is what’s wrong with America!  They instead were willing to respond to circumstances and the needs of themselves, their partners, and their children as individuals with what would work for them.

I’m really glad I read this before the birth of my first child, because I’m one of those individuals that talks a loud talk about not letting others pressure me into being or doing a certain way but is, in reality, highly sensitive to social guilt.  In the absence of real social guilt from others, I will in fact produce my own!  Plus, my default mode is to assume that every decision is high stakes, no turning back. I’m terrified that these internal and external pressures of having a baby will turn me against my will into a miserable, terrible, stressed-out beast of a creature who takes no joy in mothering and as a result has nothing positive to give to her husband, her child, or herself.  Although that concern is still with me, the knowledge that relaxing responsively rather than charging reflexively into the role of parent can actually yield perfectly good results frees me from the most potent element of my fear: that I will have no other option than to become miserable and stressed because stress about the details is what you have to do if you want to be a good parent. My ironically prescriptive takeaway from the book (although Villalobos goes to lengths to be empathetic and non-prescriptive) is that a good parent will at least occasionally ignore all the advice, social guilt, and internal pressure to be everything to one’s child and do everything perfectly all the time.  (Actually, although talking to and examining effects of parenting strategy and weight of motherload on the children of these parents was not part of the study, Villalobos mentions that ALL these mothers’ children seemed happy, normal, and well-adjusted at the time of her last home visits, regardless of which tack their parents took in their childrearing or whether or not their mothers were enjoying mothering or not,so that “good parent” thing is really not justified.)

Some of us need an excuse from others before we’ll take care of ourselves.  I consider this my excuse to try to at least occasionally chillax and not let mother-pressure kill all the life out of me.

On Vacillation, Uncertainty, & Facing Questions Regarding Personal Identity

I have lived in fear as long as I’ve been seriously considering babying of becoming a stay-at-home mom.  As an egalitarian feminist, I try to give women who work at home taking care of their kids props.  But the truth is that I don’t really esteem that estimable decision.  I’m ashamed of it, but it’s the truth.

Not that it has no appeal to me.  I know that I’m going to love this baby.  I love it already and all bets are off regarding what I’m going to want to do once I actually see it.  We are hyper vigilant people, my husband and I, and the thought of a stranger or near-stranger taking care of our infant seriously sticks in my craw.  And ambition aside, I’m a homebody.  Given the decision between going somewhere or staying home, nine times out of ten I’m going to be in my comfortable pants watching Fringe reruns all evening.  My husband and I fancy ourselves foodies and we prefer our own cooking to others’, but it’s hard to squeeze cooking time in with an eight hour work day with mandatory half-hour lunch and a forty-minute commute, one way.  It would be nice to be home and able to cook.  It would be nice to garden.  Heck, it would be nice to have time and energy to vacuum on a semi-regular basis.

But I do have ambitions.  I was high school valedictorian with a 4.1 GPA, finished my general associates with a 4.0, and got my B.A. in linguistics magna cum laude with a 3.9, 4.0 in the last two years that matter for grad school applications.  My undergraduate thesis got a solid A, with plenty of room to spare.  I love the study of humans and the crazy crap we’re always doing.  I have plans to go for an M.A. and maybe even a Ph.D., if it goes well, in cultural anthropology, studying American Christian subcultures, and go on to help churches and ministries with problems related to intercultural conflict and/or write.  That’s the dream.  I want to learn more and muck about with generating rather than just receiving knowledge.  I want to Do This Thing.  And I could.

But then . . . there’s a baby.  And there are only so many hours in the day, only so many days in a childhood.  And sometimes I can’t stand these people anyway, and do I really want to go to all that trouble and have all those headaches?  Do I really want to be facing all those deadlines that will get in the way of other things?  Does education really mean that much to me, or am I just trying to Get Myself Respected? Do I want to always be trying to live two lives at the same time?

Already I can see how difficult that would be.  I’ve been working with a research project for only a little over a month and when pregnancy and morning sickness hit, that was the first thing to go on the back burner.  Cats still need to be fed, we still need my paycheck while my husband’s in school, and at some point we need to eat food that we didn’t pay someone else to prepare, but a side gig that isn’t bringing in any money and cleans out what precious little there is of my reserve time and energy?  That’s expendable, whether I like it or not.

And, honestly, I’m not sure whether I do dislike it, because I’m easily dissuaded.  I talk myself out of things all the freakin’ time.  Multiple loved ones have pointed this tendency out to me.  I always see barriers.  I see potential problems.  I see inconvenience at the expense of opportunity.  It all sounds like the kind of stuff what’s-her-face probably talks about in that Lean In book all the cool kids are reading these days.  I fear that it makes me unreliable, because when things get difficult I freak out, blow the issues out of proportion, and stop seeing the practical ways that things can still work out.  I don’t want that propensity for negativity to make my mind up for me.  If you can avoid it, fear shouldn’t decide what the rest of your life looks like.

Realistically–rather than anxiously–there are multiple futures that could belong to me and my family.  I could stay home, and that would be good.  But I might have regrets.  I could go to school and work on a career, and that would be good.  But I might have regrets. My husband is supportive of whatever I want to do, whatever level I want to try to reach–he’s unimaginably good like that–which means that it’s up to me, and it seems to be the tricky business of figuring out which set of regrets would be easier to live with, and nobody can answer that for me because women, like men or the blanket term so inconsistently applied to groups of women only, people, are all different, even as we’re all the same.

(Well, it’s not entirely an algebra of regret, to be honest.  It’s also about neurosis and which option would make me more crazy.  There’s no reason to lie here.)

Some people think its selfish to be a working mother if you don’t have to.  Especially in certain Christian circles, it’s looked down on as a symptom of pride and selfish ambition in a woman.  I honestly don’t see why women should have to justify a decision to work or go to school while someone else is paid to care for their offspring.  Men are never questioned like that, and once you aren’t lactating anymore there’s no objective reason why it should be different for the mother than it is for the father.  It’s not her child any more than it is his.  And especially if you have daughters, what are you passing down to them if you give up other aspects of your life against your will, when it isn’t necessary, to care for them?  A future of the same?

I thought that by the time I was at this phase of my life I would either know myself well enough to know not only What I Should Do, but also What I Want to Do.  But I don’t.  I thought that if I didn’t have it figured out, the knowledge that a child was coming would push the right internal button or pull the right string and everything would fall into place and the path would instantly be clear, without any need for further questions.  I thought, on some level, that I would become Mother, or at least Expectant Mother, and that that identity would fill in the unknowns.  Yeah, totally hasn’t panned out.  I may love somebody who as yet only kind of exists, is still floating in a liminal sack of fluid inside me that hasn’t even puffed out enough for me to know that it’s really there, but that love hasn’t made me someone else who actually knows what to do next or knows where she wants to go.

It’s a real bummer, I tell you what.

A License to Gluttony, “Morning” Sickness So-Called, & Other Road Bumps in My Pregnant Relationship to Food

I first suspected I was pregnant when I ate an entire medium pizza during the space of a single viewing of the Hunger Games and hadn’t gained the two pounds, minimum, that I normally would have the day after such a stupendous display of appetite.  There were only two explanations, pregnancy or tapeworm, and I only eat well-done meat and my cats don’t go outside anymore, so I don’t know how I would’ve gotten worms.

The doctor laughed at that one.

This was the first of the ongoing shifts in my relationship to food that have happened already just in the three short weeks I’ve been aware that I’m carrying a member of the next generation, the Post-enniels or whatever nickname their going to get stuck with.  Being able to eat virtually whatever I wanted with little or no weight gain generated ambivalence in me.  On the one hand, seriously, for whom is that not living the dream?  It’s like that horrible movie about limbo after death (the internet says I mean Defending Your Life) where you can eat any and everything and never gain weight from it.  On the other hand, it just doesn’t feel right.  Not only do you have the sense of being debauched and unmoored from the central constraint that used to prevent your debauchery, but you also know that getting into that sort of habit can only lead to disaster, because it isn’t going to last forever.  In a few weeks or a month you will start to gain weight, and if you keep eating at your present pace once you pass that point you are going to disgust the doctors, and those people deliver babies, for Pete’s sake.  It takes a lot to gross them out.

I was in that state of mind when I went to my general practitioner to have my pregnancy confirmed.  At the end of the appointment she gave me some general recommendations, get sleep, don’t take mixed meds, stay away from alcohol.  She advised that I just eat healthy.  I agreed enthusiastically, because I already had a plan.  No more whole pizzas in a single sitting.  No more frantic runs to Taco Bell because it sounded so good that I might die if I don’t get a freakin’ MexiMelt with rice in the next ten minutes.  I was going to Eat Healthy.  Vegetables. Water. Whole grains. Lean meats.  All that stuff serene blonde women in yoga pants are always hawking by proxy on commercials for Lean Cuisine.

Fruit, for Pete’s sake.

To be honest, I actually like all that stuff anyway, as long as I can still get some of the crap food a few times a month. Pizza is, in my opinion, one of life’s great joys. So it wasn’t unreasonable to think that I could Do This Thing and Eat Healthy.

Enter morning sickness.

The other day I asked my husband if this baby didn’t like me, and I was only mostly kidding. I had heard tell of this phenomenon they call “morning sickness,” and had even been expecting it.  I had episodic nausea the entire hellish year I was on the pill, and I’m pretty sure that those suckers are supposed to work by making your body think it’s pregnant. What I wasn’t expecting was for the nausea to last practically all day nearly every day for, so far, one and a half weeks, and to respond reliably to none of the remedies recommended to me.  Sometimes it loves lemon water.  Sometimes it wants tea.  One day half a mini-bagel with cream cheese made it go away for almost a whole half hour, but the thought of that sounds disgusting now.  Soda crackers and fizzy stuff worked one day.  The next, they made it worse.  The only consistent aid has been candied ginger, but it generates a mere brief reprieve and I’ve only been using it for a couple of days, so give it time.

It seems to be starting to get better.  Yesterday was fairly mild, and today I got in nearly two whole good hours of work before it started to rear up, which is better than working through nausea for a whole eight hours.  Last night I not only slept but woke up feeling like I’d slept, a definite improvement.

(I do, however, look like heck, kind of like I’ve felt sick for a couple of weeks. Good thing I want a baby, not that maternal “glow,” otherwise I’d be kicking myself for not just shelling out for skin toner.)

With the arrival of morning sickness, any ambition I’d harbored of Eating Healthy went out the window.  Food choices are not based on what is good for me or the baby.  Food choices are based solely on what will or will not make me feel like vomiting.  If that means a cupcake and five tacos with extra hot sauce as soon as I can get my hands on them, then you want to know what?  That’s what I’m eating.  If that means you need to get that cucumber away from me before I regurgitate my cupcake and tacos onto your shoes, I’m going to go with that urge, too.  Because otherwise, junior and I will either starve or I will go insane.

In other words, I am no longer me.  The nausea is currently calling all the shots, and mostly it seems to want Noodles and Company, which at least has whole grain options and vegetables.  Or rather, what it wants is Noodles and Company until about an hour after I’ve eaten it, when it suddenly decides to punish me for selfishly foisting Noodles and Company upon it.  It’s unpredictable like that, with the result that in three weeks I’ve gone from enjoying any and all sustenance that comes my way to viewing all food with a combination of disgust, passionate desire, and abject fear.  It’s kind of like being bulimic again, only with nausea instead of any actual vomiting.

They say that the morning sickness should go away or at least improve significantly in the near future.  I certainly hope that that’s true.  I await the next development  with a combination of trepidation and hope.  There’s really no where to go but up, but you always think that, don’t you?