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.
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.
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.
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” http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/89-503-x/2010001/article/11546-eng.htm#a14. 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?