Not All Pregnant Women Keep Their Babies
Abortion. I hesitate even to write the word, not because I am unsure of what I want to write, but because the word makes people tense their shoulders, roll their eyes, prepare for battle, or sometimes just stay silent and will the conversation to a close.
I had an abortion. At first blush the experience was entirely unremarkable. The sex was consensual, the decision was mine, I felt no pressure (from anyone or anything) to make a decision that I did not want to make, I had supportive friends and family, people to talk to, money to buy ginger ale and crackers to keep all day sickness at bay, and the flexibility in my schedule to take time off as I needed. It took me all of seven minutes to take a pregnancy test, wait for the results, make my appointment, and call my mum to say “Hi. I’m pregnant, and I don’t want to be.”
Under the surface, though, having an abortion and being pregnant was a profoundly messy and difficult moment for me. My biggest challenges were wading through the murky and unwelcome waters of internalized sexism and misogyny (feminists are not immune to this!) and the out-of-body but beholden-to-my-body state I was in. I felt betrayed by my body’s fragility to sickness and its ability to become pregnant (as if this was a terribly unusual thing to happen to a fertile body). I’ve heard some folks regale me with stories about their incredible pregnancy experience; they felt goddess-like, glowing, overflowing with joy. This was not me. I was depressed, angry, lonesome. The body I used to rely on to move, write, think, type, laugh, eat, and sleep could now only vomit, cry, writhe in discomfort, and grow in ways I did not want.
Abortion is a complicated, sensitive, political, personal, exhausting, and incredibly polarizing topic (read Paul Saurette and Kelly Gordon’s recent book “The Changing Face of the Anti-Abortion Movement: The Rise of “Pro-Woman” Rhetoric in Canada and the United States” for an astute analysis of the contemporary state of abortion politics in Canada). There are countless opinions about who should get an abortion, when, under what circumstances, at what cost, and how often. People cast their nets of judgement widely (on all sides) and often, I think, assume that their interlocutors are willfully ignorant and woman-hating (or willfully ignorant and child/family/life-hating). As a scholar of gender and politics and as a feminist, becoming pregnant was at once a physical, intellectual, and emotional undertaking. The contours of my body changed (imperceptibly to others, but obviously enough to my critical eye) but so too did my experience of myself and the world around me.
Pregnancy, in my experience, is both a state of being and becoming. There is the physical component of pregnancy (the actual embryo-is-growing-inside-me) and there is the mental and emotional becoming and unbecoming, doing and undoing. It occurred to me that although pregnant, I occupied a rather liminal space because I was not going to give birth. My “due date” was “due for an abortion” not “due to become a mother.”
During my pregnancy, I often wondered to myself what would happen if I walked up to someone in a store or at a coffee shop and struck up a conversation about our pregnancies. I imagined us gleefully talking about the trials and tribulations of the first trimester, about morning sickness, about possible names. Then I imagined what would happen when I asked about their due date, and what would happen when I, in turn, responded that my due date was long before the second trimester, before ultrasound pictures on my fridge, and before my pregnancy would be visible to others. I was getting an abortion.
In my head, in this imaginary scenario, I could hear a pin drop. Because when you are pregnant and getting an abortion, it seems that the world tells you that you are not actually pregnant. Your stories aren’t welcome, you are not showered with gifts and words of wisdom, no one writes you cards, people don’t ask about your hopes and dreams. In fact, it might be that people who knew you were pregnant actually tell you that you couldn’t possibly really understand what that feels because you didn’t carry to term. Apparently pregnant women keep their babies. So you are just an in-between-all-day-sick-and-tired person who made bad choices. You are pregnant enough to feel ashamed but you are not pregnant enough to lay claim to a legitimate experience of pregnancy, to the public performance and conversation of pregnancy, to the ‘club’ of parents-to-be.
But in this in-between time, what was I? My body was changing, my emotions were in flux, and my mind asked big questions: what does it mean to be a parent? What does it mean to be a mother? Is being a mother a status, a title, a way of being? What is expected of me, and my body, in this in-between time of pregnant but not parenting?
As unpleasant as the circumstance was, these questions were timely because my academic work explores motherhood, family, and the governance of intimate life. Although I had precious little physical and mental energy, what moments of clarity I did have were full of wondering and analyzing and being reminded of how very political our bodies are.
But, because I am merely human, my intellectual questions were punctuated by moments of self-loathing and judgement: “how could I have let this happen?” This is an entirely useless question in my opinion, but one that alerts me to the ever-lurking slut-shaming and sex-shaming that women experience and the disproportionate emotional and physical burdens that pregnant bodies experience in the tenure of pregnancy and/or parenthood. In one moment I would be mulling over a question like “how do discourses of health discipline pregnant bodies?” and thinking about Michel Foucault and in the next I would hear a voice shout “SLUT!” Even a feminist cannot escape decades of socialization that tells her that an unwanted pregnancy is the result of bad, immoral, and lazy sexual self-conduct.
“How does the private act of being pregnant become a public performance of doing pregnancy correctly?” “SLUT!” “In what ways do women continue to be reduced to their bodies?” “SLUT!” The punctuation of my intellectual wanderings with sexist self-talk illustrates a great many things, not the least of which is the strength of social messages about women’s sexuality. I felt terribly conflicted by this loud voice. Angry at the voice for using language I disavow with every fibre of my being, and angry with myself for letting that voice have any impact at all. Slut is a heady word; one that I pull apart and reclaim and admonish (depending on the speaker), but also one that, apparently, had greatly impacted me still. What does that mean? I think it meant that I felt I was (solely) to blame for having an unwanted pregnancy (as if that is a blame-worthy occurrence to begin with) and that I was bad, irresponsible, sexually liberated in the wrong ways (are there right or wrong ways?), and now I had to make my bed and lay in it.
These punctuated questions also brought to the fore some critical thinking about this ‘thing’ called motherhood. Hard to define, apparently easy to see, and even easier to judge.
Dominant ideologies of motherhood is a concept (explained in depth in Marlee Kline’s 1993 article “Complicating the Ideology of Motherhood”) that broadly refer to sets of intertwined assumptions and ways of thinking about women-as-mothers (always together, never women or mothers) and the expectations of how we should behave in relation to children and childbearing, even if we are not yet mothers or do not wish to be mothers or cannot be mothers.
Dominant ideologies of motherhood assume that motherhood is a natural and desirable condition, instead of an institution “that presents itself as a natural outcome of biologically given gender differences” and as a natural expression of maternal instincts. The existence of the institution of motherhood is rarely questioned (for example, as Claudia Card notes: we never ask someone to justify why they are having children, we only demand to know why they are not having children), even though the right and wrong ways to be a mother are often topics of debate (Breastfeeding or formula feeding? Cloth diapers or disposable diapers? Live-in caregivers or daycares? Public schools or homeschools? Kraft dinner or a kale smoothie? Over the age of 35 or under the age of 25?). Our collective enjoyment of judging mothers appears in popular media, news media, and social media (not to mention in formal politics, within our own family and friend groups, and the gazes of strangers). Look no further than MTV’s Teen Mom for examples of the pleasure we take in casting out mothers in a way that simultaneously establishes who is ‘out’ and who is ‘in’.
The problem is not that some women are mothers and others are not, or that some people like motherhood and others do not. Indeed, the problem is not motherhood at all, really, but the way that people think about motherhood, govern motherhood, make assumptions about motherhood, and make demands on, and of, bodies. A great example of the complexity of our assumptions and expectations about pregnancy and motherhood is the story of Thomas Beattie, a man who gave birth to 3 children, first making headlines in 2008. Suffice it to say that his story challenges many people’s assumptions about what a pregnant body looks like. Do pregnant bodies need to lactate? Do pregnant bodies need to be ‘feminine’? Do you need to menstruate to be a mother?
The problem with motherhood is that it is taken as a given and not as the result of social processes that have a historical, cultural, economic, legal, and political implications.
Despite advances in many women’s lives, increasing options for women have also increased the difficulty of women’s decision-making about motherhood and the public debate about the relative value of women’s varied options concerning motherhood. Despite women’s changing political and economic locations, single mothers, teenage mothers, lesbian mothers, and welfare mothers are all the focus of scrutiny and debate, because motherhood is contentious. Motherhood challenges us to think about things like sex, gender, desire, intimacy, power, oppression, equality, freedom, money, citizenship, sexuality, race, ability, and class. Mothering – and pregnant bodies – are important sites at which these concepts are challenged and reworked. Motherhood often acts as a lighting rod: other issues and disagreements are expressed in terms of mothering or get attached to the issue of mothering.
Abortion’s thorniness for me was not about my choice to have an abortion. That was, and remains, the best choice for me and one I am profoundly fortunate to have been able to make. The challenge for me was that, during my pregnant weeks, I came up against incredible forces of (implicit and explicit) slut-shaming and weighty questions that demanded I think, interrogate, and reconfigure dominant narratives of pregnancy, abortion, motherhood, parenthood, and sexuality.
At the end of the day, for me, pregnancy is just a bodily state. Pregnancy can feel like a miracle, a joy, an inconvenience, a mixed-bag – peoples’ emotions run the spectrum, as they should. Pregnancy, parenthood, motherhood, and family are often taken to be relatively stable and well-understood concepts and arrangements, even though they are rife with diversity. For me, being pregnant was just a long moment in time that happened to send me colliding into my politics in unexpected ways.
My hope for people is that their experiences of pregnancy are positive and consensual, and if they are not, that they have the supports they want and need, like I did. By sharing my story I hope to emphasize that, even in 2016, abortions are complicated. The good fight is not over and there is much, much work to be done to nuance and challenge conversations of pregnancy and motherhood. To say that I am surprised that abortions are still controversial would be to completely ignore historical and contemporary politics that surround bodies, sexuality, families, and reproduction. I am not surprised; I am angry and I am tired.
Abortion will probably always be contentious for people because it involves so many pieces of our political and personal puzzles. I yearn for a day when the complications of abortion ‘debates’ are not fought on the battleground of women’s bodies. Let us imagine a world where the body politic, and our body politics, are much more dynamic and inclusive. Let us not be afraid of one another and the different lives we imagine for ourselves.