On Becoming a Metaphor
I’ve been asked a few times if being pregnant has changed my mind on abortion rights, or made me more likely to oppose late term abortions.
My answer? Is always, always: hell, no. I’m more supportive than ever, if anything, of a woman’s right to choose. And choose not just an abortion, but also to choose to have a child, to not have a child, to choose to use birth control or not, to have any kind of surgery she wants to, to be sexually active or completely chaste – basically, to make any decision at all involving her own body, because it is nobody’s god damn business but her own.
When you’re pregnant, you suddenly become visible in really disconcerting ways. Not just bigger – though there’s that, too, which still unsettles me because the act of having a child seems so intensely private to me – and yet it can’t be when your belly is the general size and shape of a baby whale. But your visibility also invites complete strangers to offer opinions on everything from how you eat and drink and sleep and walk and what you wear and how much you work and even the makeup you wear. (I was chastised last week for wearing red lipstick, by a total stranger. No kidding. I guess there are chemicals or something?) And those strangers, even if they seem kind and concerned, are actually crazy-making, because they are not concerned for you. They are concerned for the fetus or baby inside of you. They are treating you as more or less a vessel – or if you’re Virginia Republican Steve Martin, as “a host.”
When you grow up a feminist, a child of feminists, and spend your whole life around feminists – it’s beyond disorienting to suddenly start reporting from the other side. Sure, for years I heard quiet muttering about how I should really get busy having kids, or I’d regret it. Sure, I had to listen to idiot politicians trying to limit my reproductive rights. And sure, I had the occasional doctor remind me of my waning fertility. Then they’d fill my birth control prescription and that was the end of it.
But then I chose to have a child, and the floodgates opened up. My reproductive business was open for comment and criticism. Suddenly I was no longer a person – I had become a host. A walking incubator. Now, it’s true that most people are lovely and well-meaning. When are you due, they ask? What is the sex? Is this your first? I don’t mind answering those questions. I am excited to be a parent. But all the other comments and questions: you’re so big, you’re so small, you shouldn’t be drinking coffee, you should be drinking more water, you shouldn’t be walking to work, are you breastfeeding, are you bottle feeding, you shouldn’t you should you shouldn’t you should …I’ve even been asked, disapprovingly, if I’m “keeping” the baby. I am become Mother, destroyer of unborn children’s natural immunity and brainpower. And this in a society where supposedly, we are progressive when it comes to the politics of women’s bodies. But are we? Yes and no, it seems. Today in the New York Times, Roxane Gay writes that:
Margaret Sanger didn’t just introduce the idea of birth control into our culture at large, she freed women from indenture to their bodies. Through her activism, Sanger introduced and eventually normalized the discourse about women’s bodies and fertility so women could decide not only when, but if, they would have children. No longer were women’s bodies subject — politically, personally, or medically — to the whims of men.
But while this is true – and thank goodness for that – it’s also true that the assault on women’s bodies – both literal and figurative – is growing fiercer every day. More and more abortion restrictions are being passed. Rape is still endemic on college campuses and elsewhere. A growing number of lawmakers want to overturn Roe v Wade, and public opinion has not shifted greatly in women’s favor when it comes to winning the argument about our privacy, our bodies. (And this is only considering women in the United States – much of the world is not nearly or not at all progressive when it comes to the politics of women’s bodies.) We still see ourselves reflected in the media as Madonnas and whores. We can be both, sinner and saint, but always we are a symbol. We are never something in between. The discourse has been normalized, but it’s also become open season on women’s bodies as a partial result.
Friends and family, of course, ask after me: how are you feeling? Because they still see me as a person first, a body second. Because they know me as a name, a set of behaviors, a mind. Not just a round belly ambling around on an (apparently treacherous, thanks lady at the coffee shop) pair of heels.
And oh, how I long to feel like a person again. To participate in the politics of women’s bodies in a more sidelined role – to be less an obvious symbol of somebody’s idealized womanhood. As Sylvia Plath wrote in her poem, “Metaphors,”:
I’m a riddle in nine syllables,
An elephant, a ponderous house,
A melon strolling on two tendrils.
O red fruit, ivory, fine timbers!
This loaf’s big with its yeasty rising.
Money’s new-minted in this fat purse.
I’m a means, a stage, a cow in calf.
It will be nice to stop being a metaphor and start being a woman again. And hopefully by the time my daughter is grown, she won’t have to lose her personhood to grow a new person herself.