1. Before: Vaguely Beginning to Think About a Baby
When I was six years old I would tell people that when I grew up I wanted to be a librarian, have seven children, and live on a farm. Clearly, that statement was not an accurate prediction of my later life in really any way, but my point here is that apart from a vague childhood predisposition toward children, most of my life before the last few years was spent vehemently denying that I would ever have a child at all. Partly I am a contrarian: many women have children, so therefore children are a kind of woman-defining event, and I didn’t want any part of that sort of easy, stereotypical definition. I didn’t want anyone to think I was a soft and mushy, sentimental, conventional, baby-loving woman (and still now, I’d like to point out that anyone who knows me knows that I am not—not soft, mushy, sentimental, conventional, and not uniformly baby-loving). But a number of things happened.
I met Robert, and I fell into an at least superficially conventional marriage—me doing the cooking, my husband earning more money than I do, etc.—despite my vehement arguments against convention. I refuse to iron—no traditional gender roles on that front for me!—and I still can’t see myself ever giving up an academic life and being a stay-at-home-mother, but refusing to have a child based on principle began to feel like an empty sort of victory.
I met Robert, and I fell in love. It’s hard to say when exactly it happened, but at some point I knew that I wouldn’t be unhappy if God or fate or whoever gave us a chance at creating a new small being, part him and part me. We look so alike in our early childhood photos—curly dark hair, round face, and I swear in one picture both our mothers have we are wearing the same version of a 1970s royal-blue snowsuit—that I could absolutely imagine, and already love, a baby of ours in theory long before one even began to exist in fact.
I started reading more and thinking more about issues of motherhood and feminism, and several experiences together helped crystallize my current view on the compatibility of the two. Right around the same time, I read Margaret Drabble’s novel The Millstone, I saw Kill Bill (Vols. 1-2), I went to Hawaii, and I read Linda Hirshman’s excellent, intelligent essay “Homeward Bound.”
2. Kill Bill: The Mother I'd Love to Be
To take Kill Bill, first, then—the most absurd and possibly unexpected item on this odd list—I want to say that Uma Thurman’s character (“the Bride”) seems the epitome of true maternal instinct throughout the two movies. What is so astounding to me, yet what is played so utterly convincingly, is that the Bride never in fact knew her baby—she went into a coma, then was delivered, then woke up much later—yet is still driven to seek her out. Ironically, of course, the Bride doesn’t know that her path of vengeance against Bill, the man who put her in the hospital and (she thinks) killed her baby will lead her in fact to her child, but in retrospect viewers can see that this conclusion was absolutely inevitable. The Bride, denied her own chance to birth her baby, gives birth to a new version of herself at least twice throughout the movies (first waking up, mind and body, from the coma and then breaking through her coffin), and emerges at last as a true mother, on a single-minded quest that culminates in finding her daughter and her own identity. I hope Robert recalls enough of my initial reaction to those movies (or heck, I hope he reads this essay and makes a note of it somewhere) to buy me the movies for this first, pregnant, Mother’s Day—we’ll see.
3. Hawaii: Birthing Stones, Woman Power, and Inspiration
So, what does Hawaii have to do with pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood, you may wonder? On our two trips to Hawaii (2004 and 2006) we happened to see ancient Hawaiian birthing stones—sacred places where the Hawaiian royalty gave birth. Both spots were deserted, little-marked, and incredibly moving—there was truly a strong, mystical woman-power about each place, which somehow made me feel that there’s a way to be a strong, powerful woman, a feminist, and a mother, together. Pictured below are the two sites—at left, a water birthstone on Maui, and at right, a series of stones along the central plains of Oahu. I kept touching the Oahu stones, and for the first time ever, there, I actually allowed myself to imagine the act of childbirth.
4. Linda Hirshman's "Homeward Bound": How to Have a Baby and Still be a Feminist
Hirshman’s 2005 American Prospect essay (which I’ve recently taught to undergraduates, in part to combat the “eeee! I’m not a feminist!” squeals that do go around the classroom when these issues arise) argues that so-called choice feminism has reached new lows, with more and more educated women opting out of the workforce and into the stay-at-home life, and that this tendency is the failure of 1970s feminism to reshape the traditional expectations of gender roles within the private sphere—the home: “[W]hile the public world has changed, albeit imperfectly, to accommodate women among the elite, private lives have hardly budged. The real glass ceiling is at home” (Hirshman). I tend to agree with Hirshman, and I love her creative solutions to the problem as she identifies it. First of all, she argues that women need to take work seriously, plan for careers, and plan to make money—not a very startling point, but a solid first step.
The next step toward breaking that “glass ceiling. . . at home,” as Hirshman sees it, is to solve the problem of “superior female knowledge and superior female sanitation”:
The solutions are ignorance and dust. Never figure out where the butter is. “Where's the butter?” Nora Ephron's legendary riff on marriage begins. In it, a man asks the question when looking directly at the butter container in the refrigerator. “Where's the butter?” actually means butter my toast, buy the butter, remember when we're out of butter. Next thing you know you're quitting your job at the law firm because you're so busy managing the butter. If women never start playing the household-manager role, the house will be dirty, but the realities of the physical world will trump the pull of gender ideology. Either the other adult in the family will take a hand or the children will grow up with robust immune systems. (Hirshman)
Hirshman’s argument is convincing to me, despite my control-freak managerial tendencies. I never dust, never iron, leave Robert’s clothes where he leaves them—the floor, the desk, etc.—for days, and though I shop, plan meals, and cook—essentially “buy[ing] the butter” and “remember[ing] when we’re out of butter”—that’s a compromise I can live with. I love the point about “robust immune systems,” too.
Hirshman’s final point acknowledges that some people are going to find her solutions somewhat hard to take:
If these prescriptions sound less than family-friendly, here's the last rule: Have a baby. Just don't have two. . . . A second kid pressures the mother's organizational skills, doubles the demands for appointments, wildly raises the cost of education and housing, and drives the family to the suburbs. But cities, with their Chinese carryouts and all, are better for working mothers. It is true that if you follow this rule, your society will not reproduce itself. But if things get bad enough, who knows what social consequences will ensue? After all, the vaunted French child-care regime was actually only a response to the superior German birth rate. (Hirshman)
Of course, Robert and I agree that two working parents are better for the baby, our home, our sanity, and our society, and we agree that cities are the only place to live—again for our sake and our child’s.
5. Margaret Drabble's The Millstone: How to Have a Baby and Still be an Intellectual
Finally, I have the most to say about The Millstone at the moment (possibly because for the past three years I’ve been teaching it as part of a Contemporary British Women Writers course; I must say, teaching it pregnant—and while trying not to advertise that fact to my students—has been a surreal experience). Rosamund, the narrator and heroine of Margaret Drabble’s 1965 novel, finds herself accidentally pregnant out of wedlock after the sole sexual experience of her life—a chance encounter with a friend of a friend whom Rosamund had supposed was actually gay. At first Rosamund is horror-stricken by her pregnancy, and Drabble points out the sad condition of women at the time with no access to reliable information about pregnancy (much less, of course, to safe, legal, and reliable contraception or abortion options). The well-educated, upper-class Rosamund—a graduate student in literature and a teacher—at first sees the baby which will eventually result from her pregnancy as the titular “millstone around her neck,” but she soon begins to change her mind.
Rosamund thinks through the subject with a characteristic logic and almost a jealousy of typical women, such as her sister and friends, who may be not as intelligent as Rosamund, yet themselves are members of the club of motherhood: “As I walked on . . . it seemed to me that a baby might be no such bad thing, however impractical and impossible. My sister had babies, nice babies, and seemed to like them. My friends had babies. There was no reason why I shouldn’t have one either” (Drabble 19), she concludes indignantly.
Upon visiting the maternity clinic for the first time, however, Rosamund has further misgivings, feeling at first that she has nothing in common with the lower-class, uneducated women filling the waiting room. She looks at them and their bodies in horror, and she attempts to hold herself aloof from them; early in her pregnancy she resents any suggestion that she is their peer, or that she and they share in any sort of experience at all:
I hated most of all the chat about birth that went on so continually around me in the queue [at the clinic]: everyone recounted their own past experiences, and those of their sisters and mothers and aunts and friends and grandmothers, and everyone else listened, spellbound, including me. The degrading truth was that there was no topic more fascinating to us in that condition; and indeed few topics anywhere, it seems. Birth, pain, fear and hope, these were the subjects that drew us together in gloomy awe, and so strong was the bond that even I, doubly, trebly outcast by my unmarried status, my education, and my class, even I was drawn in from time to time, and compelled to proffer some anecdote of my own. . . . Indeed, so strong became the pull of nature that by the end of the six months’ attendance I felt more in common with the ladies at the clinic than with my own acquaintances. (Drabble 68)
Thus the experience of pregnancy—the prototypical experience of what it means to be a woman—seems to shake the brainy Rosamund out of her mental clouds and down into the earthy, bodily physicality of life and womanhood. By this point in the novel, Rosamund—who almost despite herself was a bit of a snob—comes to identify gender, as opposed to class or education, as her defining characteristic.
Rosamund continues to be “amaz[ed]” by the things she discovers during her pregnancy:
Pregnancy revealed to me several interesting points, of which I had not before been aware. It was quite amazing, for instance, how many pregnant woman there suddenly seemed to be in the world. The streets were crawling with them, and I never remembered having noticed them before. Even the British Museum, and I came to think most particularly the British Museum, was full of earnest intellectual women like myself, propping themselves or their unborn babies against the desk as they worked. (Drabble 68)
Rosamund realizes here that it’s actually possible to be both intellectual and a woman—that she doesn’t need to merely choose one aspect of those two and pin her entire identity on it. Pregnancy and Rosamund’s new observations of life also carry over to a newly observant and perceptive quality in her literary analysis, her work. “I did not go over from the camp of logic to the camp of intuition,” she explains, hesitant about resigning her intellectual identity entirely, “it was rather that I became aware of the facts that I had not recognized or even noticed before” (Drabble 76). Therefore, just as her pregnancy makes Rosamund in some way a better person socially—more accepting of other women she would have previously looked down on—so it now makes her a better reader, even a better scholar.
By the time she has her baby (despite a less-than-ideal 1960s medicalized childbirth), Rosamund is a different person than the character we met at the beginning of the novel. The old Rosamund had no close friends, sought no deep relationships, and was content to live life on the surface without “interest and love” or any real emotional connection to another person (Drabble 22). When her baby is born, however, Rosamund looks at the child and reflects that “what I felt it is pointless to try to describe. Love, I suppose one might call it, and the first of my life” (Drabble 114). “I had expected so little, really,” the self-deprecating Rosamund thinks:
I never expect much. I had been told of the ugliness of newborn children, of their red and wrinkled faces, their waxy covering, their emaciated limbs, their hairy cheeks, their piercing cries. All I can say is that mine was beautiful and in my defense I must add that others said she was beautiful too. She was not red nor even wrinkled, but palely soft, each feature delicately reposed in its right place, and she was not bald but adorned with a thick, startling crop of black hair. . . . And her eyes, that seemed to see me and that looked into mine with deep gravity and charm, were a profound blue, the whites white with the gleam of alarming health. (Drabble 114-115)
Here, after the birth, Rosamund feels an indescribable happiness which no one she knows—among her posh, educated, childless friends, at least—seems to acknowledge: “What you’re talking about,” one of her friends says, “is one of the most boring commonplaces of the female experience. All women feel exactly that, it’s nothing to be proud of, it isn’t even worth thinking about” (Drabble 115). Indignant, contrarian Rosamund of course argues with him:
I denied hotly that all women felt it, as I knew hardly a one who had been as enraptured [by the birth experience] as I, and then I contradicted my own argument by saying that anyway, if all other women did feel it, then that was precisely what made it so remarkable in my case, as I could not recall a single other instance in my life when I had felt what all other women feel. (Drabble 115)
Rosamund wants to have things both ways, here—she is unique, her daughter, her birth, her happiness are unique and unparalleled, yet she acknowledges the shared humanity and the unambiguously positive (in this case) femininity of her experience.
(As a sidenote here to Drabble's depiction of Rosamund's experience, let me also note Sylvia Plath, whom we can all agree that in the end motherhood itself didn't work out fabulously well for, but who, as Drabble notes in this insightful essay, also wrote about and celebrated the experience of motherhood and breastfeeding in her poetry: "Her poems about her children - Morning Song, You're, Nick and the Candlestick - are, I believe, the first poems ever to celebrate the pleasures of breast feeding. She evokes the independent being of a baby, the power and mystery of the maternal bond," Drabble writes.)
6. After: Yep, Gearing Up for the Baby
Having read a draft of this page, Robert thinks I’m protesting too much here—that in some way it’s of course the natural order of things that we should have a child. I guess I agree on one hand: clearly that’s what the Hawaiian birthing stones, Rosamund's feelings, and my own feelings are telling me. I don’t want to be anywhere but here in my life, and I can only hope God gives us a beautiful, safe, calm birth experience, and a happy and healthy child, to continue that natural order. On the other hand, though, there is that intellectual, over-analyzing side of me—the Rosamund in me—who wanted to philosophize and reason through it all, in order to explain things to myself, even, if to no one else.
As a postscript, I’ve come across some beautiful prayers/incantations during my reading and preparation for birth, and I wanted to quote a couple of them here.
The goats have no midwives.
The sheep have no midwives.
When the goat is pregnant she is safely delivered.
When the sheep is pregnant she is safely delivered.
You, in this state of pregnancy, will be safely delivered.
(A Yoruba midwife’s incantation for pregnant women, found in Michael Odent's The Nature of Birth and Breastfeeding)
As I sit quietly with you, my child, here inside of me, I ask God to hold your hand and guide you in your journey. You shall come to me in innocence and love. I accept this gift and I am thankful for it. I ask that I be made strong and loving and that I be a good parent. It’s time to say goodbye to my pregnant body and open to receive the fullness of your love. May your life always be filled with light. Amen.(A mother’s prayer for herself during labor, found in Barbara Harper’s Gentle Birth Choices, a fabulous book.)