In the early days of being pregnant, the mystery of creating a new life inside of me welled up in moments throughout the days. I was filled with hope that these cells would indeed grow into a life, knowing this gradual process so often ends abruptly. Slowly, very slowly, this hidden mystery became real.
But, the sacred mystery became distant as I rounded into the second trimester of my pregnancy. Amidst blood draws and ultrasounds, I felt like my medical record number was trying to claim my entire identity. The medical system reduces us down to 15-minute visits with doctors who order tests and procedures, who dictate exactly how much weight we should or should not be gaining.
Meanwhile, in social settings, I faced the constant inundation of nonconsensual comments about my body that was growing rounder and slower. Again and again, I was asked to repeat the status of how I was feeling — “Fine now, but I did have a lot of nausea before” — followed by other parents projecting their deepest regrets of parenthood onto their advice for me. Non-parents, particularly people who had chosen not to give birth themselves, projected the narrative patriarchy had fed to them on me: that either you could have a successful creative interesting life OR you could be a birth parent, a mother, and settle for a life of diapers and bedtimes.
I fell into depression. Did you know that depression DURING pregnancy is actually MORE common that post partum depression? But, because post partum depression impacts babies too, and depression during pregnancy only impacts the birth parent, our health system’s embedded patriarchy provides little support.
Pregnancy and new parenthood are located at an intersection of patriarchy and ableism, with a society believing that birth parents entire identities can be reduced down to their pregnant and post partum bodies.
As a pregnant person, patriarchy placed me squarely in an antiquated role of mother – that soon, my life would end and I would take on motherhood. I would spend my days at home taking care of a child, while my husband would work, and together our social life and creative life would dwindle down to nothing. Strangers felt compelled to go to great lengths to comment on my body and proscribe my identity to me.
And, as my body became bigger and rounder and my movements slowed down to grow a baby, ableism saw me as incapable, a subject to be tested and monitored, and a data point in the medical industrial complex. Ableism created a doubtfulness about my body, such that when I shared that I had a gig at Yoshi’s the night before my due date, people were surprised and sometimes questioned whether it was indeed possible to play trombone while 9-months pregnant. (It was.) Pregnancy caused many changes in my body – impairments in the terminology of disability studies. Accessibility to me meant having scent free spaces, chairs, and no narrow passages to squeeze through. In a social model of disability, it is society’s lack of accessibility for our impairments that causes the experience of disability – and in pregnancy, ableism dictates a narrative of helplessness and lack of choice, and being incapable and less than as our bodies reach their limits.
At the intersection of patriarchy and ableism is a narrative that fits into the archetype of traditional motherhood – the woman who is forced into staying home to parent, whose body is not her own, who lacks choice and agency in her life.
Pregnancy did not feel like a sacred and mystical experience. It exhausted me and wore me down.
Yet, we long to connect to this embodied mystery. We have so few experiences in our lives of profound sacred embodied connection – this has been taken from us in the sterilization of spirituality. Our patriarchal religions deny us access to embodied uterus mysticism, negating the voices of women, and giving the creation of life to a god gendered with he/him/his pronouns. We are removed from birth and death, separated from our bodies. So, people want to talk to us about our pregnant bodies, in a meager attempt to connect to this mystery, though our cultural norms don’t give us the tools to authentically be with the fullness of the mystery.
Instead, we reinforce patriarchal beliefs about parenthood and ableist attitudes about our bodies. Instead, we confine our identities to a singular narrative – two parents married choose to have a baby, and do so without complications, fitting neatly into antiquated gender roles, and feeling joy the whole time. We are reduced down – though none of us really fit this narrative. And we lose the mystery.
But, this embodied mystery is still there for us to reclaim. Pregnancy and birthing ARE an incredibly mystical embodied experience. Creating a new life in our bodies and then laboring to birth that new life into a new human being is sacred.
I know this from birthing Ina. We were lucky and we had the birth experience I had hoped for – fully embodied natural childbirth, in the comfort of our home. Moving between yoga balls, the bathroom, the bed, the birth tub, I labored, embracing the intensity of the contractions and the beautiful moments of rest in between. Even as I started to push, I dozed off in the birth tub between contractions, holding calm and embracing the intensity that was to come. I was at choice in how I wanted to birth – choosing what next step to take at the pace I needed, without pressure, or the impositions of norms. I found my strength, and I reminded myself, this is how all of us get here, and the only way out is to have a baby. And I did, and at the end of it, Ina laid on my chest, and I fell absolutely in love with her.
But, the story doesn’t end there. I haven’t really been able to breastfeed Ina. A series of challenges compounded upon each other and suddenly in the midst of a pandemic, I’ve ended up almost exclusively pumping and feeding her breastmilk from a bottle. This is not the choice I wanted to make, and still not the choice I want to make as we continue to talk to lactation consultants. In another time and place, other lactating women and breastfed babies would have supported us with the experiences we needed to really get it figured out. But, we lack enough access to elders and support, made even worse by pandemic, and so we struggle on in isolation. Lacking this choice has been an experience of grief.
When we reject the singular narrative dictated to us, and embrace the embodied mystery of pregnancy, birth, and sustaining new life, we must embrace both the beauty and the grief. There is grief in the lack of choice we have in our human bodies that we cannot control. But, there is also grief we must hold created by humans in the systemic oppressions of our society. We must be able to hold the miscarriages and infertility, unplanned pregnancies and abortions, pregnancies caused by violence and parenthood that survives despite domestic violence. We must be able to hold the grief of unwanted interventions and traumatic births, emergent C-sections, of stillbirths, of maternal deaths. We must hold fully that there are disparate impacts of maternal outcomes by race such that black women are 4 times more likely to die in childbirth than I am. Holding embodied mystery means holding all of these stories and all of the many more stories not named.
We must also hold the grief of the lack of choice of the world we bring our babies into. For us, choosing to get pregnant meant choosing to bring Ina into a world where climate catastrophe would happen in her lifetime, where she would be another white person in white supremacy and thus cause harm as we all do, where patriarchy will try to take away her freedom of choice, where injustice and oppression are overwhelming. But, we thought at least she’d be able to dance and hug and sing with others. But amidst pandemic, we also grieve the isolation we all now face.
This holiday is one to honor the embodied mystery of creating and sustaining new life. It is a holiday to honor the people who birth this new life, and also those who do not birth but are the village that sustain that new life. We celebrate the joy in the smiles of the babies and how it lights us up as parents and community. We celebrate the full village that gives wisdom and love. And, we grieve all of the experiences of loss that come with new life. When we move beyond how oppressive forces reduce us down, our hearts must grow to hold the fullness of the love surrounding this embodied mystery. May we be able to know the stillness to hold this mystery now, even in this world. May our hearts grow to hold all the love needed. May we all live into the embodied mystery fully.
This was shared as a Mother's Day reflection at First Mennonite Church of San Francisco and can also be found on their blog here.
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Claire Haas is the sister of a man with down syndrome, a musician, coach, and community organizer.