When Speaking of My Body
Rattle & Pen is a biweekly column exploring the liminal space between raising children and creating art.
Artist: Sophie Kahn (Image Source)
I am more than my maternity.
I shouldn’t have to say this out loud as often as I do these days, but America has chosen to be forgetful, or—better put—has elected willful ignorance, and so I find myself searching for new ways to shout old truths.
I am more than my maternity, I said last week to a classroom of teenage readers—my advanced literature students.
I was not speaking for myself specifically this time, but rather restating their interpretation of our subject of study, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Hard book to read right now, I know, but I designed this curriculum last spring, in The Time Before. Back when it still seemed we were steps away from the dawn of a new era, just months from our first female president. Back when it was reasonable to read Atwood’s novel as just another work of entertaining dystopian fiction. Fiction.
I am more than my maternity, I said, and for a moment the classroom was quiet, everyone thinking about the relationship between the body and the mind, power and sex, vessel versus vassal.
Then one young woman brought her fist down hard on the tabletop. Slam! “This just makes me so angry!” she said.
Good, I thought but didn’t say. Good. We should all be so angry.
I am remembering myself at their age more and more often—fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen. Those years of disequilibrium, of uncertainty, of testing myself against the world.
I was raised by two working parents. My sister and I knew we were loved, we were capable, we had power. Our parents encouraged us to speak our minds. Our father told us often that he was glad to have daughters, that he was proud of us. Our mother told us often that we were strong—that we were descendants of a long line of very strong women.
Still, despite their best efforts, I knew my body was not my own. Not really.
How did I learn this? I wonder now. But, of course, you can’t keep the world out.
At thirteen, I spent five weeks at an inpatient eating disorders rehabilitation program. I had nearly succeeded in vanishing myself before my parents had me admitted. Why? I couldn’t have answered then except to say that I wanted to thin myself, to strip myself of everything that made me unclean—breasts and blood and widening hips. I wanted not-womanhood. I wanted invisibility. I wanted control.
I am more than my maternity.
What I remember most vividly about giving birth is the way labor required submission to my own body.
“How can you submit to your own body?” my husband asks when I say this to him. “That implies that you are not your body—that you’re separate from it.”
“Yes,” I say. “Exactly.”
“But that doesn’t make sense.”
“To you,” I say. “To you it doesn’t make sense.”
As a young adjunct professor, I once had a conversation with a male colleague about this body-brain divide. He was middle-aged to my twenty-something. He was my superior in the university structure—the person to whom I reported any classroom conflicts or questions. At the end of the term, I knew, he would read my student evaluations and judge my performance. For this reason I had trouble voicing my discomfort with his habit of intruding on my office hours to sit on the edge of my desk and talk.
His talk often veered to the sexual. He was into reading erotica—as an academic pursuit, he assured me. He was into bodies as both muses and works of art. (Even my twenty-something self managed an inner eye-roll at this.)
One day, in the midst of such a conversation, I said that when I thought of my self what I meant was my mind. A body was useful for carrying around a mind, but it wasn’t a self. It was a necessary nuisance, I thought, and often a traitor.
This older man looked at me with obvious confusion. “How can you think that?” he asked. The body was the source of all pleasure, all meaningful contact with the world.
“For you,” I remember telling him. “That may be true for you.”
Last week my daughter asked to watch a YouTube video of a dog giving birth. She sat on my lap and we watched as on the screen a mother Labrador panted, her distended belly visibly contracting.
“Why is she panting?” my daughter asked.
“Birth is hard,” I said. “It hurts. She’s uncomfortable and in pain.”
We watched as, finally, a glistening purple lump emerged from beneath the mother dog’s tail, followed by a rush of bloody fluid. The mother dog turned and bit at the baby, freeing it from its caul, licking it into life.
“Amazing,” my seven-year-old daughter sighed. “This is actually the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen.”
“Yes,” I said. “You’re right.”
My daughter’s own birth was terrifying. Unlike her older brother, with whom I labored for a full 24 hours, her birth was quick. My water broke in a gush in the car on the way to the hospital. It was brown with meconium. I hobbled into the labor and delivery unit at the hospital wet and in tears. “Something’s wrong,” I said. The nurse on duty had me in a gown and on a bed within five minutes of my arrival. I remember her running to the delivery room door and leaning out into the hallway, yelling, “I need a doctor!”
The doctor wasn’t even fully gowned when my daughter slid into her hands.
I didn’t get to hold my girl for hours after her birth. She had breathed in the meconium, and there was worry about the health of her lungs. She was kept in a bassinet in the NICU under watch, tubes down her tiny nose until the doctors were certain she was stable.
Now, when she asks about her birth, I tell my girl how scared I was when I saw her being lifted from my body—her lips bluish. “You didn’t cry,” I tell her. “Babies are supposed to cry when they’re born, but you were silent. I was so scared.”
She touches my face, smiles. “But, look, Mom. Look how strong I am!” She jumps off of my lap and into a fighting stance, legs in a crouch, arms up and ready to punch the air. “I’m strong!”
“Yes you are,” I say, laughing. “You are such a strong girl!”
Why am I writing about my motherhood when this was supposed to be an essay about how I am more than my maternity?
Sometimes, I look at my children and think it’s impossible that they came from my body. This gangly, curious, almost-adolescent boy. This girl with the one curl just above her left ear and a laugh that fills the room. Where did these two come from? I think. I didn’t birth them so much as dream them, like Athena sprung from Zeus’s forehead. I dreamed them. All I had to do was cut my head open, and they stepped out.
Why am I writing about motherhood again? Why do I keep writing about motherhood? Isn’t the world burning down around me right now? Isn’t there something—anything—that I can pin my gut to beyond this house, this love, these children, my family? Have I disappeared myself inside these bodies I’ve made? Is this, in fact, all that I am?
It was only years later, after I became the mother of a daughter, that I thought back to what that older professor had once said to me, and I recognized the privilege of his statement.
The body as the source of all pleasure and meaningful contact with the world? What willfully ignorant shit.
Here we are again, though: vessel and vassal, sex and power, my body and your mind.
Last week Oklahoma Representative Justin Humphrey made the news for introducing HB 1441, which would require women to attain the consent of their male partners before obtaining an abortion. When questioned about the bill, Humphrey was quoted as saying: “I understand that they feel like that is their body […] I feel like it is a separate—what I call them is, is you’re a ‘host.’ And you know when you enter into a relationship you’re going to be that host and so, you know, if you pre-know that then take all precautions and don’t get pregnant.”*
My first thought when I read this was an editor’s: Pre-know?
My second thought was: Really? Are we really still considered “hosts” in 2017?
My third thought: But, of course. Of course. This is 2017.
Here’s a passage from the Atwood: “Have they really done it to her then, taken away something – what? – that used to be so central to her?”
On my classroom whiteboard, my students wrote: The body as object = the body as singular identity = “I am my body”.
In giving birth, I remember, my mind and my body were temporarily merged. I existed as something other than myself as I had known it before—something neither body nor mind. I became Pain. I became Effort. I became Time Stilled. Not a vessel. Not a host. Just matter in vibrating concentration.
In the Lutheran Church in which I was raised, the word “host” is used to describe the bread served for the Eucharist—Christ’s body. It comes from the Latin hostia, which apparently translates as both “victim” and “sacrifice”.
I suppose this means that Representative Humphrey is right: Women are hosts. My body has been hosting this culture’s misogyny since I entered the world as a female.
What I want to tell Representative Humphrey is that he has no idea the kind of rage my body plays host to these days. Since November, I have been growing fury in my belly.
As I type this, my children are playing what they call “The Home Game.” The living room furniture is pushed together, fortress-like. There are blankets over the chairs and coffee table. At the center of this mess, beneath the blankets, my children sit head-to-head, narrating a story they’ve constructed together.
The story is the game.
Today their story is about a lost girl. She is sad. She has no family. She’s alone in the woods, and the woods are dark.
My children tell this story without hesitation, not inventing but confessing. This is what it means to be a body in the world, they might be saying.
Atwood’s narrator says, “I used to think of my body as an instrument, of pleasure, or a means of transportation, or an implement for the accomplishment of my will.”
I used to think of my body as a shell, a husk, the case in which I carried my mind and heart through the dark forest of this world. Now I know better.
From my position at the kitchen table-turned-writing desk, I am listening to my children spin their tale.
I am waiting for the part of the story they haven’t yet spoken—the part where the darkness becomes the body of a monster, and the girl learns she has always been the blade of an axe.
* My source here is an article titled “Oklahoma Anti-Abortion Law-Maker Says Women are Merely ‘Hosts’”, by Lisa Ryan, published in The Cut, New York Magazine online, 13 Feb. 2017.