Pregnancy and Engorged Womanhood: Guest Post by HissyFit

One of the most accurate representations of pregnancy I've seen:

One of the most accurate representations of pregnancy I’ve seen:

When  one is 36 years old and pregnant for the first time, the changes that one’s body initiates are shocking. Throughout my adult life I have been in control of my nutritional and fitness regimen – splurging when I wanted to, directing bodily outcomes when specific goals were sought. With pregnancy, however, even my best attempts to control my rapidly expanding flesh are unsuccessful. No matter what I eat or tone, my belly – and my breasts, and my hips, and my veins – are following their own paths, growing larger, more engorged, more alien with each passing day. 

Oh, woe is me – I’m a healthy, affluent, generally privileged woman, who has a supportive partner and a reasonable job – how terrible is my life. But there you have it. I’m frustrated by my inability to control my own body. Despite the fact that becoming pregnant was my idea, I find myself resenting the positions that expectant mothers are in, our bodies becoming springboards for the future.

According to advice columns, pregnant women should eat only 300 extra calories a day.  I guess this lettuce salad should do the trick:

According to advice columns, pregnant women should eat only 300 extra calories a day. I guess this lettuce salad should do the trick:

Pregnancy advice makes things worse. Wonderful, you’re pregnant! Wear frilly, tight, feminine clothing; announce your glorious womanhood! Eat healthy for baby; only 300 extra calories a day. Stick to fruit, vegetables, and nutritious grains. You might be tired and sore, but remember to make time for hubby. He needs you now more than ever before! And, my personal favourite: listen to your body. If you need to rest, rest. Don’t over-work yourself. If you have a job, take as much time off as possible. Nap at work if you can.

Just as is the advice for women with breast cancer (see the excellent book, Pink Ribbons, Inc., by Samantha King), advice for pregnant women is relentlessly cheery, rendering invisible the difficulties of expectant motherhood, shaming those who experience pregnancy as anything other than beautiful. Certainly, breast cancer and pregnancy are very different. Yet King’s analysis of the optimism that pervades breast cancer fundraising – you can do it! Yes, we are all survivors! – applies equally to pregnancy. Those who enjoy pregnancy are normal, those who do not are deviant. And those who resist broadcasting their “joy” to the world, who resist putting their own body –their own motherhood, their own femininity – on display: these are the most shameful women of all.

 Yet, at times I feel like a walking public service announcement. Yes, I’m a woman. Yes, I’m having a child. Yes, my body is more unruly than I’ve ever thought possible. And, more subtly: yes, I profess feminist values, but I am also somewhat unwittingly colluding with dominant gender expectations, becoming a mother, devoting myself to my family, giving way to the future.

Certainly, there are hundreds of thousands of women out there who follow unconventional paths to motherhood, who live joyful, fulfilling, extraordinary lives. And, I’m sure there are millions of women who would be astounded by my thoughts. Some might become angry and say: motherhood is the ultimate fulfillment of femininity! Be proud! Others might become angry and say: where is your feminism? Don’t you know that you can “have it all”? That you can have children, a partner, and a career? That you can be a mother, and a poet, and an engineer, and whatever else you want? Shame, shame on you, for not enjoying your own bodily femininity, for fearing for the fate of your own future.

Maternity fashion: looking both sultry and feminine is apparently possible:

Maternity fashion: looking both sultry and feminine is apparently possible:

But, I’m tired. Pregnancy is exhausting, and this is just the beginning. Already, my changing body has weakened my once taken-for-granted abilities, such as gradually increasing my weight training and cardio; working a full day and also managing two hours of writing; juggling a career, a family, a social life; even simply doing dishes before going to bed. My exhausted body demands choices. Yet which ones?

Already, many of my own acquaintances have given up their employment, and in some cases their education, to become half-time and full-time Moms. Why? Because they could not do it all. They were too tired, and in some cases, too broke. Some have also told me that motherhood is more fulfilling than any job or other kind of calling could be; and some, as well, have told me that they hated their jobs anyway, and were glad to be rid of them. And, for reasons of class, race, and ethnic discrimination, many women cannot even find a living wage. In these circumstances, it makes sense that people would choose non-employment life paths, ones involving full-time motherhood, and possibly full-time wifehood as well.

Interestingly, pregnant women are often infantilized.  For some people, carrying a baby apparently makes them feel both childish and sexy:

Interestingly, pregnant women are often infantilized. For some people, carrying a baby apparently makes them feel both childish and sexy:

When I think about all this, however, I become angry. Canada is ostensibly a democratic nation, committed to diversity, freedom, equal opportunity, and equal rights. “And yet, Canadian women spend an average of 13.8 hours weekly on household responsibilities compared to 8.3 hours for men” Women make, on average, 71% of men’s earnings annually. That’s if they are lucky enough to find work at all. And, daycare is prohibitively expensive – if you can find it. Good luck finding a daycare in walking distance of your own residence, and good luck spending less than $1000 monthly on its services.

Yet, and not withstanding these many obstacles, I simply cannot give up my non-motherhood pursuits. They are integral to my being. And so, the struggle continues: work full-time, become a mother, keep the house in some semblance of order, pursue the leisure activities that are necessary for my sanity, and hope for miraculously finding affordable and convenient daycare.Is this too much to ask? No. It is actually the bare minimum to which everyone should be entitled. Opportunities to find fulfillment as both parents and as persons are basic conditions for equality. But, sadly, we live in an individualized, patriarchal, business-driven polity, one in which family decisions are personalized, and one in which women must choose to pursue either employment or motherhood (if they are lucky enough to choose either). And, it is women who pay the price. In our exhaustion and, yes, our desperation, we give up certain hopes and dreams. We make way for the future and we do our duty. We sacrifice and we serve. And we seethe, or at least some of us do. For when our children grow up, what then? What will be our identities, what will be our futures?

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About feministfiguregirl

I am a 51-year-old professor named Lianne McTavish who receives as much satisfaction from working out at the gym as from publishing my academic research. About eight years ago, I decided to combine my two primary identities (scholar/gym rat) to create "Feminist Figure Girl," a fictional character who both analyzes and participates in bodybuilding. I competed in my first figure show in June of 2011, and then wrote a book inspired by the process, published by SUNY Press in February 2015. In this blog I will write about and consider my ongoing research on the body, while regularly making fun of myself. I recommend that you start reading my first post from August 2010 (available on the home page), instead of backwards from the most recent one, in order to get the full FFG effect.

11 thoughts on “Pregnancy and Engorged Womanhood: Guest Post by HissyFit

  1. Thanks so much for writing this post Hissy Fit. I hope you receive many replies and comments. I have never been pregnant but would love to have the experience, in a “scientific experiment” kind of way rather than in a quest for motherhood, which I find is constructed in an increasingly oppressive manner that is hard to resist or refuse. On another topic: to my shame, I am sure that I do more than 13.8 hours of domestic labour each week, and my partner far less than 8.

  2. Very well written. Both of my birth experiences were ultimately two of the worst days of my life. I did not enjoy my pregnancies and now have pain every month equivalent to the second stage of labour. I was told by a male gynecologist that this often happens to women after having children. He said “Oh well. You only have approximately ten years of this left” (given my age). My career is very important to me and when I once complained of mental boredom when I was on maternity leave A woman became quite frustrated with me and said “Why don’t you do a crossword puzzle or something?” As if that would
    replace all of educational and career endeavours. I am not willing to give up all that I have worked for and I’m not going to. I have worked too hard for it and it is a large part of my identity. Motherhood has definitely slowed down my personal aspirations but they are not gone. The older my children become the more I am able to work towards my own personal goals that are outside of being a parent. Good luck with all of it!

  3. One thing that pestered me nearly to death when I was pregnant were the smiling lunatics who berated me with pats on the back and cheerful giggles that I had somehow “made it” into the mom club. The “You must be so happy to be able to stay home” and “being a mom is the best feeling ever” comments nearly put me over the moon. I love my daughter, don’t get me wrong, but I also didn’t go to grad school twice to stay home and watch Toopy and Binoo. So many women begrudged me both a career and a kid. I studied amongst some pretty incredible feminists and I idealistically was led to believe that both were obtainable, But the pressure to give it all up and become MOM nearly killed me. It was like riding a time machine to 1953. I also struggled with breast feeding, which was an unmitigated disaster for us. The absolute pity that other women gave me for having – as one woman put it – “failing to give your daughter the goodness of life” nearly put me over the edge. Never mind that my kid thrived on formula and is still at the top of the pile in height and weight. :/ I avoided all mother and kid groups like the plague!

    • The ideal pregnant woman is clearly young, white, middle class, and well groomed. Though there are no doubt advertisements and web sites that portray more diverse images of pregnant women, the photos in this post shed light on the cultural “norm.”

      • I agree – youth, whiteness, femininity, affluence, and heterosexuality are overly represented in the pregnancy advice genre.

  4. Interesting post! I have yet to have children, but I am interested to see how my own experience will compare. (Agreed, most of those photos look pretty creepy to me).

  5. As the author of this post, I thank you for your replies. I am personally dreading nursing.

    In re-reading what I wrote, I’m struck by the class-specific nature of my frustrations. Certainly, such issues as time management, self-discipline, fitness, career aspirations, and motherhood are not everyone’s top concerns. I’m privileged both economically and socially – I find it useful to reflect on the ironies of my struggles.

  6. It is interesting that this is written from a Canadian point of view. I live in New Jersey, in the United States. It had the highest taxes I’m the country, expensive to live here to say the least. My wife is an attorney. She accepted her first associate position in Philadephia., an hour and half commute.

    We grinded it out for the last 6 years. We gave up on the idea of what we felt we were entitled . My wife now works in house at a financial company doing law. She never slowed down, nor did I. She had all that she needs, she said it just yesterday. Our day care was more than 1000.00 a month. She loved being pregnant but does not want another child because of how expensive it is.

    The first two years three years of my daughter s life I averaged 32 hours a week of parenting, plus worked 45 hours a week. You are 36, and you are complaining about entitlements. Doesn’t t Canada have social everything?

  7. Thanks for your note Matthew. It is interesting to see how other families in other countries cope with childcare during their children’s youngest years. I wish you and yours all the best.

    Compared to some countries, Canada has reasonable maternity laws. Canadian birth mothers are entitled to 12 months of job-protected unpaid maternity leave. Fathers and adoptive parents are entitled to 37 weeks of of job-protected unpaid parental leave. For the first year of their child’s lives, parents can also apply for Employment Insurance; it is granted on a scaled basis. (EI is generally only 45% of one’s salary, so for most people it doesn’t pay the bills).

    However, twelve months’ maternity leave remains a dream and not a reality for most Canadian working women. I have a fairly strong employee association, and even in my case, I receive 4 months of full salary while on maternity leave. I am my family’s breadwinner so I will take 3 months unpaid leave and then another 4 months paid leave, returning to work when my child is 7 months old.

    I suppose for those Canadian families who can afford for mothers to take 12 months unpaid leave, Canada’s maternity laws are fine. But I think Canada has a long way to go before its maternity laws will enable all parents to successfully balance their work and family aspirations. We especially need maternity laws that benefit single, widowed, LGQBT, and breadwinning parents, in addition to helping out those who have partners with decent salaries.

  8. This is a very late comment, but I am now more familiar with maternity leave laws. The Canadian government allows 12 months of guaranteed leave, but most of it is unpaid. That is why I am taking only 15 weeks of maternity leave. There is no way that I could pay my mortgage without making my usual salary. I am a highly paid and privileged full professor who was hoping to take a year off after the birth of my first child. There is absolutely no way for that to happen. I think that many Canadians make major financial sacrifices and possibly save money in order to have a child. By the way, I dream of finding a daycare that costs $1,000/month but there is really no such thing here in Edmonton. I will be paying much more than that for childcare very soon…

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