by Mary Volmer
One day I suggested to my husband that “maybe it would be okay if we tried.” I could have been talking about sushi, or skydiving, or lunar travel. Something safe and final. But the man’s face lit up with unambiguous joy.
I use the word “we” lightly here, because let’s face it, my husband and I were not, and would never be, pregnant. I would be pregnant. I would be sick on the couch, eating saltines, staring at a cursor blinking on an unfinished scene of my unfinished novel. The flu, I told my students, hives, pneumonia — anything to keep my condition secret until it appeared the condition would stick. I was the one subject to the probing hands of doctors, to needle pricks, and bloodletting. I was the one banned from alcohol, coffee, cold cuts, hot tubs, and yes, sushi, skydiving and lunar travel.
Of course we shared a sense of joyful expectation. We shared projects: a nursery to furnish, clothes to buy, a name to choose. But other dads I’ve spoken to — assertive, caring, with-it dads–remember how helpless they felt in the face of their wives’ burdens, a satellite stranded in orbit of the baby bump.
I wonder now — I’ve never asked — if these dads came to feel different about their generative organs after watching their wives develop. After gestating a human being and being gob smacked by the changes in my body and the baby’s, and at the physical connection which has continued long after birth, the penis and its tricks have become a bit, well, underwhelming. It’s up. It’s down. It’s done.
I mean no disrespect to anyone who owns one of these organs, but the pride some men take in it, given its limited uses, is frankly laughable. If the penis is an old dial-up telephone, exposed there on the wall of your grandmother’s house, the female reproductive system is a smart phone, complete with more functions than any normal person can comprehend.
Did you know, for example, that a woman’s chest warms or cools to suit the needs of her newborn baby? Did you know the composition of breast milk changes to meet the needs of a growing infant? And have you seen the “Miracle of Life” videos?
I’m not suggesting that men should envy a woman’s capacity to bear children. I don’t think any man who has witnessed the pain of childbirth is capable of envying the experience. But have you ever wondered how the world would look if men and women really did share the responsibility of pregnancy and childbirth?
A novel, “The Left Hand of Darkness” by Ursula Le Guin, imagines such a scenario. An intrepid heterosexual emissary travels to a world where humanoids remain hermaphroditic until the moment of copulation, at which time one partner presents as female, and the other as male. Neither partner knows, until they reach coitus, which sex he/she will assume. Until that moment, they each share the risk of pregnancy. As you might imagine, the people of this world have developed excellent, safe and universally accessible methods of birth control–not to mention a tremendously effective system of childcare which is supported without controversy. There is still conflict. They are still human. But having the capacity to, as Virginia Wolf said in a different context, “be man womanly, or woman manly,” they are mired neither in envy nor disrespect for the capacities of either sex. I can only imagine!
In the world we inhabit we are locked, more or less, to our sex. Consequently, there is very little of the experience of pregnancy and child birth a woman can share. As time went by and my belly grew, I confess, I stopped trying to share. Indeed, I found myself turning, not away from my husband, exactly, but inward, where there still existed a self I recognized. My body had become foreign to me. Sometimes, even in public, I’d catch my hands roaming my hips, my belly, even my breasts, with a kind of unconscious impunity pregnant women are allowed.
It was my body–and wasn’t. It was my body, but I was no longer the sole inhabitant. I wasn’t touching myself. I was touching us. For a short time I had become we: a woman with male parts growing inside of her. From this miraculous and terrifying realization, too, my husband was excluded.
And what of labor and childbirth? Even poets, able to wrangle complicated emotions by sneaking quietly up from the side, cannot translate this experience into words. Childbirth is like war in this way. No matter how common, no matter how formative, the experience remains largely beyond description. I can tell you how many hours I labored, but I cannot adequately describe the fearful calm between the crushing tides of pain. The fractured sense of time. The oddly transcendent sensation of at once clinging to life, my own and the baby’s, while at the same time relinquishing all modesty and will. And what of the rush (the feeling is too complicated to be called joy) when the baby, for the first time a separate being, nestled into my arms?
(Notice I’ve not mentioned the blood, the shit, the sweat. Notice how quickly I left the body to spirit away into abstraction.)
And where was my husband during all of this? Right by my side, dear soul, and a million miles away. There is something empowering about the sense of isolation I felt, something so frightening and satisfying that it cannot be shared, even between mothers. If we mothers share anything it is the impossibility of expression. This is what binds us in sorority. No secret knowledge, but a fearful, awesome, wordless, wonder. I’m not trying to elevate motherhood to something saintly, or suggest every woman should bear children. God no! I’m simply trying to explain that the experience was mine, that I would have shared it if I could, but in the absence of this option, I choose, wholly and solely, to own it.
This story first appeared in MUTHA Magazine