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I’m pregnant now. I told a lot of friends early on. I never considered keeping it a secret. I adopted the refrain “Well if I miscarry I’ll just end up writing about it anyway, knowing me”. As if the subject matter of my writing lay outside my control. As if I, a pyre upon which all of my life’s trauma was festooned, had but one choice: to emit smoky missives of pain.
So I surprised myself a few days later when a friend shared that they were curious to read what I had to write about the experience of being pregnant. Despite it being a generous expression of interest, I flinched. “Yeah, I wonder if I’ll write about it” I offered, lobbing my water bottle into the passenger seat and glancing into the middle distance with a disinterest that didn’t befit what was, truly, a happy pregnancy announcement.
I could hear my immediate thought ringing out: I don’t write a diary. I don’t just write about the next thing. But even as I thought it, I knew this reaction wasn’t accurate. I wasn’t bothered by the idea that I would write about the next station on life’s journey. After all, growing a new human is a notable station. I also knew well my craving to locate visceral, physical experiences within our wider emotional landscape. Even more specifically, I’ve always been captivated by pregnancy itself: since the advent of social media I’ve spent hundreds of hours scrolling the posts of midwives and doulas who document the process of birth and matrescence. My fascination with pregnancy threaded a vein through my relationships with other women, such that a friend - upon hearing my news - exclaimed “Oh you’ve been excited to be pregnant your whole life!” And she’s right.
In 2019, consumed by the fear of running out of time, I froze my eggs. I wrote about the experience, and had this to say:
The radical concept that a woman’s reason for making some noise about her inner state does not, in fact, require a referential reason at all, and that instead, her desire to do so, is the only reason she needs.
I still stand by the statement above. So why was writing about pregnancy off-limits to me?
For months I turned it over, searching for the answer - for one answer. But there isn’t one answer. After wrestling with it, I worked out that part of it stemmed from internalized misogyny:
I have more interesting things to write about than the basics of gestation.
Everyone came from a pregnancy, billions of pregnancies have happened to bring our current human population onto Earth.
These weren’t conscious thoughts that I defended. These were instinctual ego reactions.
Let’s start with the “basics of gestation”. There is no basics in gestation. We know this, logically. But physically, the sheer scope of symptoms in the first trimester was nothing short of breathtaking. I had heard about the urgent peeing, and the relentless insomnia made sense to me once I read about all the tricks that progesterone has up its sleeve. I was caught off guard by the earlier than expected side-to-side hip sway, the restless legs, and my inability to consider eating anything other than cheese and saltines. I did a double take at the constant sneezing and the stabbing nipple pain. I was awed, if unamused, by my body’s determination to produce a dusty, quenchless thirst, a shortness of breath even while sitting, and a panicked hunger that felt like a hemorrhaging of my own life force. But of all of it, the listlessness within the nausea - the breathless pacing, as if the end of the hall might offer an oasis - left me burrowing inside myself. When asked how I was, I would answer “Oh, just living inside my body”. Early pregnancy shuttered me to the world outside my own physicality in a way that I was fortunate never to have previously experienced.
Let’s skip to “billions of pregnancies have happened to bring our current human population onto Earth”. This alone makes it worth writing about, for a few reasons:
While I spent the first trimester preoccupied by my own physical turmoil, I did have one continuing thought about the world outside my body: that countless women endure these symptoms while doing gruelling work to support themselves and their families, in fields and in factories, with meagre nutrition, money, and prenatal care. Women’s resilience in carrying billions of pregnancies to term, whether chosen or forced, is the true miracle.
This post began with the mention of pain. It’s easy to write about pain, because pain feels unique. Did I think pregnancy wouldn’t involve pain? Or did I, despite my fascination with pregnancy and birth, still deem it to be an ordinary, quotidian pain? A pain that has been corralled, tempered, and abridged so often that many of its own references to itself had become a form of artifice? Was I thinking of film depictions of women screaming in labour, their feet and agency confined to stirrups? Of “morning sickness” stock photos featuring perfectly coiffed professional women in white v-neck tops, holding their bellies and looking confused? Of women who stiffen ever so slightly and deflect or self-deprecate when asked about their labour experience? Had I, too, adopted the idea that this was a pain so uninteresting that it should be summarily overcome? That this was a pain to be wholly subjugated to the joy of having a baby? That this was a pain to be endured, flatly, and then sealed away? Had I absorbed the notion that if I were to examine this pain, I would be seen as naive? Or indulgent? Or worse, weak?
There is comfort in the knowledge that billions of women have come before us. You, like many women who have been pregnant before you, have evolved to do this. And so it should only follow that we can relate to writing about pregnancy and motherhood. After all, the best writing pulls on a part of us that already exists. A part of us that will sit up and say “Wait - I’ve felt that way. That’s me they’re writing about!” And yet we consign writing that prioritizes women’s maternal experiences to the margins.
Kate Baer, a poet who centres womanhood and motherhood in her work, discusses this in an interview with The Rumpus:
How many coming-of-age stories have we read about baseball? Motherhood is a universal experience. We’ve all had a mother, in some way. We all come from a mother, for better or for worse. To say that is not a universal experience or to be put in some niche chick-lit column is ridiculous, and I am glad to not be playing into that anymore.
So what else played into my inability to write about pregnancy? I was wary of experiencing something for the first time and then writing about it as if I’ve discovered it.
While this wades into the question of why we write, it ultimately wrestles with how we write: writing carefully enough to add, yet not so carefully that our contribution never materializes, or worse, emerges as mere simulacrum, inaudible in effect. But in answer to the question of what, and how, to write, I keep returning to a poem that I’d wanted to read at my mom’s celebration of life. I ended up reading a different, shorter poem, but I had come across this particular poem in the first week that I was pregnant, and before I knew I was pregnant. The poem is intended to speak to the myriad anxieties that society foists upon pregnant women, and it consists of a repetition of the line “Expect ____”, with the words after “Expect” populated by entries from the index of What to Expect When You’re Expecting.
When I first heard it, the poem struck me as a cross section not of pregnancy anxieties, but rather of life itself: ankles, bathing, fig bars; hot weather, meat, seat belts; vegetables and yoga. There isn’t an item in the poem with which we’re not all familiar, save perhaps for “dromedary droop”.
I received it as an unadorned recitation of the fragments that we encounter while alive, and I was transfixed by this inventory of the mundane. I had tired of reading obituaries touting milestones and achievements. I wanted to read about what had made someone remember they were alive. And while I knew that my mom’s friends and family were showing up to her celebration of life to celebrate her life, I wanted to focus on what my mom had celebrated: life itself - not for the quality of it, but for the simple existence of it. I wanted us to feel struck by our availability to: age, cold weather, music, smells, and sugar.
I keep returning to this poem for its droning insistence on the gamut. What do we all know? it asks. We all know all of it, it answers.
Still, we recite.
You can listen to a reading of the poem via the On Being podcast - the poem starts at minute 1:35. You can also read it below:
“What to Expect” by Katie Manning, a poem made of items “found in the index [of the book] What to Expect When You’re Expecting”:
Expect accidents. Expect acne, additives, age, and airbags. Expect alcohol, allergies, and altitude. Expect analgesics. Expect animals, ankles, and antidepressants. Expect autopsy findings. Expect bathing, bending, botanicals, and breaking news. Expect bruises. Expect cabbage leaves. Expect castor oil and cats. Expect cell phones, chemicals, Chlamydia, and clay. Expect cleaning products, cocaine, and cold weather. Expect computer monitors. Expect copper, costs, and coughing exercises. Expect dance workouts and death. Expect diving, Doppler, driving, and dromedary droop. Expect embarrassment. Expect electric blankets and equal employment. Expect eyes and facials. Expect failure, fantasies, fast food, and feet. Expect fig bars, fingernails, fish, flying, football, and freckles. Expect fruit juice. Expect gardening. Expect German measles, grains, grief, and guns. Expect hair. Expect heat lamps and hiccups. Expect hiking, horseback riding, hot tubs, and hot weather. Expect hypnosis. Expect ice skating, insect repellent, and itching. Expect jet lag and jogging. Expect kick-boxing. Expect K-Y jelly. Expect lacerations and laser eye surgery. Expect lead exposure and lovemaking. Expect manicures, marijuana, masks, and meat. Expect meditation, milk aversion, and moles. Expect mosquito bites and music. Expect nasal strips. Expect nicotine patches, noise, and NutraSweet. Expect on-line drug shopping. Expect optimism. Expect organ donation and organic produce. Expect outside influences. Expect paint fumes, pasteurization, peanuts, pesticides, and pets. Expect pins and needles. Expect raspberry leaf tea. Expect red palms, reduction, religious belief, and rest. Expect ribs, ripening, and risk. Expect rowing machines. Expect saddle block. Expect safety, saliva, and salt. Expect scalp stimulation and scuba diving. Expect seat belts, sex, and shoes. Expect skiing and skin sampling. Expect smells. Expect softball, stockings, and stomach bug. Expect sugar, sunblock and sushi. Expect tai chi, tears, teeth, and ticks. Expect toes, touching, train travel. Expect vaporizers, vegetables, and vision. Expect warts and water, workouts and witch hazel. Expect x-rays. Expect yoga and zinc.