Riding the Swell
Fecund, and proud of it
By Margaret Renkl
MARCH 23, 1998: Some pregnant women flaunt their state. Anxious to make their condition obvious to even the most disinterested stranger, they immediately don maternity clothing before they need to loosen their belts a notch. With a lengthy explanation, they decline all offers of coffee and alcohol and practice smiling serenely, always keeping one hand on their bellies. Such women, understanding that pregnancy is one of life's greatest mysteries, into which they are being initiated, trust that all the world would want to celebrate their swelling state. "Want to feel the baby move?" they enthuse, grabbing a hapless busmate's hand and resting it familiarly on a bulging abdomen. The belly rumples and rolls. The stranger retrieves his hand. The woman beams.
I am not one of these women. Newly pregnant, I put off wearing maternity clothes as long as I can, relying for months on leggings and my husband's untucked shirts. For as long as I can, I try to pretend that I am in full possession of my own body, in quiet possession of an active mind. When I am pregnant, I want friends and family to behave as if I am my usual, recognizable self, and I want strangers to keep their hands and their comments strictly to themselves.
It's not that I fail to recognize the magnitude of the marvel my own body has become in its pregnant state. As a mother who has lost two pregnancies to miscarriage, I understand better than many pregnant women just how wondrous it is when the miracle does not go wrong, when the whole mission proceeds, unmolested, along an ancient and perfect path. And it's not that I am by nature an intensely private person who resents this prominent (in both senses of the word) display of a fully engaged sexual life. In fact, in matters most people would consider private, I am more exhibitionist than prude.
I am perfectly willing to reveal details about my income, religious affiliation, childhood memories, debt burden, political leanings, and opinions of almost any book or film or public figure. Despite such openness in private matters, however, I am not at all interested in revealing my baby's due date to the woman standing ahead of me in the grocery-store check-out line. I don't especially wish to explain to my neighbor's visiting relative how old my youngest child was when his soon-to-be sibling was conceived. According to my own cosmology, pregnancy and pregnancy-related issues deserve the same sacrosanct privacy that people reserve for their actions in the voting booth. They belong in an area that no one not intimate enough to touch you below the neck would ever--no matter how curious--ever invade.
There is, after all, a material difference between the mundane matters that many people regard as strictly personal--politics, religion, finances, sexuality--and the conception and bearing of an infant human being. While baby-making does touch on all these publicly-understood-to-be-private concerns, it also burrows into the deepest core of what it means to be human--the urge to be intimately connected in every way possible (by blood, by temperament, by habitual choice, by an absolutely inexpressible love) to other human beings. The creation of a baby is the creation, or re-creation, of a family, and nothing else more wholly defines the possibility of human connection. To me, this is a thing far more private than how much the new car in the driveway cost or whether someone has regular bowel movements--questions, surely, that no polite person would ever ask.
But pregnancy invites all the world's strangers to scrutinize and remark on the state of a woman's body and, occasionally (in the case of third or subsequent children), on the state of her mind and soul as well. Now that I--the mother of two perfectly visible children--am quite visibly pregnant again, the question I hear more often than any other is, "So, was this a surprise?"
Perfectly polite people who would never think to inquire about the state of someone else's testicles or bank account, who would cringe at the very idea of a question like, "So, do you like doing it doggy-style?" will think absolutely nothing of asking third-time parents-to-be whether they actually want the child they are expecting. Innocently, as if they were asking nothing more unusual than the time of day, they will wonder aloud, winking conspiratorially, "Got a little surprise on the way, huh?"
Of all the impertinent questions virtual strangers can ask a pregnant woman, this is the worst because it implies that the expectant couple is either A. unlucky--i.e., their formerly reliable birth-control method failed or B. stupid--i.e., they took unnecessary risks with their birth control and now must pay a monstrously high cost. No matter whether stupid or unlucky, this thinking goes, the couple must be both beleaguered and despairing, morally unwilling to end a pregnancy and so soldiering on against the odds.
By and large, a world of strangers (and even some family members) consider happily pregnant women who actually desire a third (or, God forbid, fourth) child to be both stupid and mad, not to mention socially irresponsible. Only a fool, considering the current global human population and the exorbitant cost of raising a child, would willingly sign on more than twice.
This may be so, of course. It may be nothing more than folly to bring any child into this uncertain world, where parents will inevitably abandon it--if only by the betrayal of dying first--to fend on its own against overpopulation-wrought dangers such as uncurbed violence, famine, plague, and soulless comrades employed by Microsoft and the federal government. It's a harrowing thought. It's enough to swear off children altogether. It's enough to swear off sex altogether, on the grounds that no other birth-control method offers a fool-proof guarantee.
I understand such arguments; in dark, cold moments, they eat their way into me like worms into Fido's backyard grave. But ultimately, in my heart of hearts, I know that I believe in another future for the world to which I'm giving the gift of my children, the people I love better than life itself. As William Faulkner said, "I decline to accept the end of man." In all our capacity for indifference or evil or hapless self-absorption, I know we also have unplumbed wells of cleverness and generosity, and I believe we already have what we need to get ourselves out of the mess we're still busily creating. Because I am a mother, I have no choice but to believe it.
Like all other parents, I look at my children and see, in microcosm, what humanity is capable of. I see the small-minded, petty inclination to torment younger siblings, to snatch all objects of desire with no regard for the desires of others. Meanness and self-interest are in us all, adult and child alike, and account for a large part of our misery.
But I look at my own children and see, too, their amazing imaginations, their limitless creativity, their tenderness for each other and for my husband and me, and I know--I absolutely know--that what is best in them, and in other people's children, is more than enough to cure famine and plague and even television-sapped souls. Far more than a swelling belly and a flushed glow, this is the one part of pregnancy I'd like to flaunt before strangers: great faith in the future, true love, unutterable hope.
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