Introducing: The Pregnant Feminist Series

The Pregnant Feminist at Work!

The Pregnant Feminist at Work!

On January 20, 2013 my life changed forever – I was blessed by the birth of my first child, a precious daughter.  During my pregnancy I faced challenges regarding my identity as a feminist, which resulted in a three-part missive, The Pregnant Feminist Series.  I didn’t publish the posts right away (I wanted to be sure that I still agreed with my assertions post-pregnancy hormones haha), but have chosen to share them now.  Hopefully this series will eventually give birth (hoho, pun intended) to a series on feminism and motherhood.  Stay tuned.

In the meantime, please enjoy The Pregnant Feminist Series:

  1. Part 1: The Feminist’s Pregnant Body and The Public
  2. Part 2: The Pregnant Feminist and her Social Life
  3. Part 3: The Postpartum Feminist and the New Normal
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The Pregnant Feminist Series: Part 3

My daughter at 2 months

My daughter at 2 months

I am now 8.5 weeks postpartum (with a 2 month old baby)!  I am making this post Part 3 of The Pregnant Feminist Series, although I no longer pregnant (obviously).  Perhaps I will become one of those “mommy bloggers” and do my next series on diapers or something (that was a joke…sort of).  Meanwhile, I invite you to see also Part 1: The Feminist’s Pregnant Body and The Public and Part 2: The Pregnant Feminist and her Social Life.

Part 3: The Postpartum Feminist and the New Normal

I said it in Part 1, but there is no better time then when you actually have a baby in hand to reaffirm that motherhood is feminism’s final frontier.  The gender-typing started when I was pregnant, which I mistakenly assumed was a transient state, like the pregnancy.  Oh, was I disheartened to find that it was greatly exacerbated once my little bundle of joy graced us with her presence.  The New Normal.

I had taken it badly when I was told that the men in my family weren’t going to be interested in coming to the baby shower.  It’s a woman thing, I was told.  I protested and insisted that if calling it a baby shower meant that the men wouldn’t come, let’s call it a family baby party or something – find a way to make the arrival of a new member of the family something that would actually concern the whole family and not just its female representatives.  I was thrilled when the men showed up!  Well, most of them at least (all the ones that counted, for sure).

I had managed to break free from the shackles of gender roles!  Temporarily…

While pregnant, my partner and I had often lamented the fact that it had to be me that was pregnant.  Not that I didn’t want to be pregnant – in fact, I ended up loving the experience and can’t wait to do it again – but rather the frustration stemmed from the lack of choice in the matter.  Silly, I know, but feminists are big on choice, you see.

Now that our daughter has been born, traditional gender roles have been sneaking up and tackling us, in spite of ourselves.  

The first visit to the pediatrician felt strange until we realized that every time my husband asked a question, the doctor looked at me and answered.  I thought she was going to report me to the DPJ (Child Protective Services here in Quebec) when I mentioned that I was not taking the full year of maternity leave that we have the right to in Canada.  In fact, I am going back to work 2 days after my daughter turns 3 months old.  WHY, she asked me emphatically, to which I found myself frantically attempting to justify reasons that are personal, individual, and frankly, none of her business!  And she has not been the only one to have this visceral response at what I feel is a private family matter.  I have explained over and over that…*gasp*… my husband is the one who will be staying home with the baby.

One could claim that taking a “short” mat leave is a cultural thing, or merely a matter of perspective.  Millions of women in the USA go back to work mere weeks after giving birth – although it could be said they have no choice.  Since I have the choice, it must be because I don’t want to spend time with my baby.  My maternal mechanism must be somehow skewed or altogether broken.

But that’s not the only new-baby-ism that has confounded my couple’s feminist values.  Do breastfeeding and feminism have anything to do with one another?

I asked this question to my husband just the other day.  His reply was categorical: “No!”

While pregnant, my partner and I had discussed at great length our plans for feeding our daughter once she would be born.  I wanted to try nursing for a variety of reasons.  Research-based evidence in hand, I easily convinced him that breastfeeding is the best possible option for our child’s health (with health benefits for Mom, too! – I will post a feminist-approved resource list one day).  The decision was an intellectual one, based primarily on health.  My husband was concerned about the bonding part of things, and so we agreed that I would express my milk some of the time so that he could participate in feeding and connecting with our child as well.  It all made so much sense.

Nursing my daughter has been one of the biggest challenges and most rewarding experiences of my life.  It blows my mind.

It blows my mind because it came as a big surprise to me – that it would be challenging…or rewarding…or anything, really.  I’m not sure why, but I hadn’t really even thought about how I would feel about it.  It was just an action that I was going to perform, for health reasons.  Well, it turns out that I have a LOT of feelings about nursing.  In fact, I feel that it has changed me as a person.

My nursing relationship with my daughter started out with a lot of difficulty.  I have since learned that this is an experience common to many women.  In spite of the fact that there is a ton of information out there, the majority of what you find is anecdotal.  In my frustration while googling about one day, I exclaimed, “Why is there no good information on the internet about breastfeeding other than all these grammatically offensive forums!”  My husband noted that we live in a “mother knows best” culture.  I’m supposed to know everything I need to know by instinct.  Which is the hugest motherhood myth ever.

My body and spirit were ravaged by our initial attempts at nursing.  My morale was seriously flagging as I dealt with the discomfort of recovering from a vaginal birth, and the blinding pain of bruised and bleeding nipples during the relentless feedings every 2-3 hours around the clock, day in and day out.  I hadn’t slept longer than an hour or two at a time for weeks on end.  I felt so isolated and exhausted in the middle of the night all alone with this little being that was losing too much weight and just wanted to eat – causing me toe curling pain – and I was the only one who could do it.  What’s worse, I was starting to feel terrified of my baby, when everyone around me was saying, “How are you enjoying being a new mother?  She’s such a joy!”  When feeding time came around, I wanted to run and hide!  Mixing up some formula and having my husband get up in the frightening wee hours seemed like a brilliant idea.  Feedings turned into a team effort.  My husband would accompany me with each feeding, cheering me on and offering support.

Fortunately, in Quebec, free access to a lactation consultant is included in your health care coverage.  Without the guidance provided by the wonderful nurses and LCs at my local CLSC (community medical clinic), I am nearly positive that I would have given up on breastfeeding within a few weeks of my daughter’s birth.  In fact, I’m not sure what kept me from preparing that bottle of formula.  Sheer stubbornness, I guess, that did eventually pay off.  We devised strategies to enable us to keep at it – using an electric pump to increase my milk supply, feeding her with a cup or spoon or finger-feeding when I was too painful or exhausted to nurse, introducing a bottle with Papa and my expressed milk one feeding per day so that I could recover.

It worked.  Nursing has since become a pleasurable experience for everyone involved; a great source of love, tenderness and intimacy.  We have even revised our objectives to try to continue breastfeeding for a year + instead of the initial let’s give it a whack for six months and see how it goes.  Right now I can’t imagine not nursing my daughter!  I plan on expressing my milk after going back to work and hope to continue our nursing relationship and providing her with the best possible nutrition for as long as possible.

At first blush, I thought that my husband was right: breastfeeding and feminism have nothing to do with one another.  It does force us into certain roles in the eyes of society and certain members of our entourage.  Also, formula is often seen as a way of “liberating” the woman from her traditional role as primary caregiver of the child.  Anyone can prepare a bottle of formula and thus provide for one of the most important basic needs of baby.  In fact, Mom isn’t even required at all in the formula-fed baby’s life structure.  

But is simply removing the mother from the picture really liberating her?

Perhaps for some women having the ability to not be required for baby’s care is empowering.  To me, breastfeeding is incredibly empowering.  I alone have the power to nourish my child with my amazing body.  It is a way to assert control over my body and reclaim my breasts, sexualized by the patriarchy, and render them purposeful and essential.  I feel powerful in the face of a consumer culture that wants me to believe that a commercial preparation could be anywhere near as healthy and appropriate for my baby as my own perfect free amazing milk.  Going back to work and continuing to nurse is also an inherently feminist act, and not simply by virtue of role-switching with my husband: I can have the career that I want and care for my child the way that I want.

The Postpartum New Normal

It is no lie when they say that having a baby changes everything.  You formulate an entirely new identity in relationship to all of the newness.  Now to just keep reminding myself that the new normal does not have to mean abandoning all of the old normal.  You just try things, go with what feels right, and trust yourself!

Namasté!

The Pregnant Feminist Series: Part 2

She’s sucking her thumb!

I am now 23 weeks pregnant (5.28964 months)!  My thoughts continue to abound here in Part 2 of The Pregnant Feminist Series.  I invite you to see also Part 1: The Feminist’s Pregnant Body and The Public and Part 3: The Postpartum Feminist and the New Normal.

Part 2: The Pregnant Feminist and her Social Life

I have 491 friends on Facebook.  84 of those friends “liked” the picture of our ultrasound when I posted it as a means of announcing my pregnancy to the internet (it is the cutest ultrasound picture ever taken, you gotta admit).  I am still going out to coffee with people, dinner parties and picnics, staying up past my new pregnancy bedtime of 7:30pm, and making “plans” for abstract things that we’ll just have to do sometime.

But the truth of the matter is that I have been feeling increasingly isolated as my pregnancy advances.  It was kind of like, bam! – I hit 30, found out I was going to have a baby – and all of a sudden my life flipped inside-out and upside-down.  I started having thoughts that I had literally never had before in my life (hmm, maybe being a housewife wouldn’t be that bad after all…), followed by not being able to relate to people that were once my kindred spirits.  And I’m pretty sure that they don’t know what the heck to do with me either.

In my feminist entourage (in what I affectionately refer to as Vagina Land), I have a diversity of men and women that I admire and love.  None of whom happen to have children or even plans to have children (happenstance – lots of feminists have or want children!).  I have always wanted kids, which was no secret, but it was never even a thought as to whether my friends would want them – it simply was not a factor in my friendship!  I believe in personal choices and leading the life you dream of for yourself.  If that includes kids for some, great, if not, great.  None of my business!  As a good friend, I also believe in supporting your friends’ life choices and encouraging them to do what they believe in for themselves.  No matter what those choices are.  I thought my friends felt the same about me and my choices.

Well…we’ll get to that later.

Yet here I am, pregnant up to the hilt, and finding myself wanting in emotional support and lacking in understanding.  How did I get myself into this situation?

It’s not like I hadn’t reached out.  Around month 3, I started contacting my friends to tell them my good news.  I’m an emailer – always have been – and it’s how I stay in touch with many of my closest friends.  I sent off a volley of  excited messages calling my friends “future aunties” and including pictures of work we’ve been doing around the house in preparation…but I ended up feeling surprised, hurt and confused by the cookie-cutter responses.  I kept emailing.  Ultrasound photos, pictures of the belly growing, rants and missives about my changing body, feelings, work and relationships.  Everyone seemed happy for me…but happy in the way you’re “supposed” to.  Some of my best friends on the planet, the people who know me the best, were using lines on me fit for hallmark cards.  I expect that from my coworkers, but from my very best friends??

I figured that my expectations must have been a bit off-kilter to start feeling so upset that my friends weren’t reacting how I was assuming they would.  Except the disappointment just kept getting stronger and stronger.  A failed attempt at a phone date.  A brush-off at a party.  And then the clincher – a friend visiting from out of town that missed our rendez-vous leaving me 5 months pregnant waiting on a street curb alone in an unknown part of town in the cold fall rain for over an hour.  I was so hurt that our meet-up was not more important to her that by the time she got there I was nauseous, sore and uncomfortable, burst into tears and said that I was leaving.  And she just let me go.  I haven’t heard from her since.

My heart broke as I cried for hours that evening.

I came to the bitter conclusion: My life is changing.  I should expect my relationships to change as well.  I realized the big expectation that I had was that my friends would care about my life changing and want to be a part of it.

My life on paper resembles something that many people in Vagina Land have a hard time relating to or not judging – the house in the suburbs, the husband, the dog, the kid on the way (the hetero-normative portrait of conformity).  I can guarantee that my life choices were ones rooted in a great deal of self-determined feminist reflection, but the result is the same.  I think it is still possible to be a feminist and choose a life that looks like a product of the patriarchy to outsiders.  My friends should be the first people to understand that.

And yet here I am, doing the ultimate submissive act for a woman by carrying a child, which in every way resembles that which we have railed against.  So I repeat, what are my friends supposed to do with me?  I imagine they must feel like they don’t even know me anymore.  I can’t blame them, I am changing – I’m not even sure I can confidently say that I know myself these days.  I am disturbed by the fact that I have taken more comfort in talking to women that have a much more cookie-cutter view of society than those in Vagina Land.  I am unnerved by the fear of bringing this female child into the world.  I feel extremely vulnerable and fragile whereas the women of Vagina Land are supposed to be invincible.  I am having thoughts and feelings that would be enough to confound any proper feminist.

So should my friends care that my life is changing and want to be a part of it?  There will be some that will care and some that will choose rather to just let me go.

I’m not saying that this isn’t extremely painful or sad, but at the same time, I have a new priority coming into my life in just a few more short months.  I want my daughter to see what healthy female friendships are like – ones that are the right balance of acceptance, love, caring and support.  Anything short of that hardly seems worthwhile.

The Pregnant Feminist Series: Part 1

5 months

As I write these words, I am 22 weeks pregnant, which is 5.05966 months pregnant for those who are not week-literate.  It’s my first pregnancy: with every passing week, new sensations and social phenomena blow my mind; I am becoming increasingly convinced that pregnancy is the feminist’s final frontier.  In fact, I have had so many hormone-fueled thoughts on the matter, that I decided that I would need to break this down into a series of blog entries.  Aside from Part 1: The Feminist’s Pregnant Body and The Public, please see also Part 2: The Pregnant Feminist and her Social Life and Part 3: The Postpartum Feminist and the New Normal.

Part 1: The Feminist’s Pregnant Body and The Public

I find it horribly unfair that I have to be the one that is pregnant.  My partner and I have often bemoaned that fact that he is in a far better position physically, professionally and geographically than I am to support a pregnancy.  An avid runner, he is in the best shape of his life.  I gobble down sachets of instant oatmeal as I run from meetings to networking events.  He is an entrepreneur that works from home and can self-manage his time and workload.  I am just beginning year two of a two year contract that keeps me hopping days, nights and weekends (not to mention jobhunting at the end of the contract).  We live 10 minutes walk from his family.  I am separated from my family by an international border.  But alas, I am the one with a uterus in this couple, and so tag – I’m it!

It hasn’t kept me from grumbling to myself – Equality is a feminist illusion.  And we will never truly gain equity until we can reconcile this whole child-bearing thing.

But that, my dear readers, is another rant.  Today, I make the grim observation that in North America, the pregnant body is public property.  Oh yes.

And we all know how people treat public property.

It’s not so much the belly touching for me.  Although the belly touching does make me uncomfortable (thoughts that run through my head – is my belly too soft?  Were they expecting a firmer baby bump?  That’s not where the baby even is, but please don’t go poking around 4 inches lower…), I have accepted it as something that people can’t seem to control themselves from doing.  It started at the dawn of month 4 when I was just barely starting to show and hadn’t even come to terms with my own changing body yet.  And it’s not just your old Aunt Matilda that does it – I have had my belly stroked, patted or poked at family barbecues, yes, but also at networking events and at the office, at restaurants by waitstaff, and at the locker room at a public pool.  It’s like I have this giant magnet strapped to the front of me and people run from all directions to put their hands on it.  Ok, I shouldn’t say people – women!  The day a strange man puts his hand on my belly without my consent will be a very unpleasant day for him, I can guarantee it.

Like I said, though, it’s not so much the belly groping that I take issue with.  I have been far more put off by some of the insensitive comments, observations and questions.  My body is now a point of speculation for the self-appointed pregnancy experts, the uninitiated in the wonders of child-bearing and the curious.  I’m not to say that all comments, observations or questions are unwelcome.  I have encountered very many kind, gentle and tactful people in the past several months and I heartily welcome their insight, shared experiences and well-meaning queries.  In fact, one question I love to hear is “How are you feeling?” – when asked sincerely by someone who really wants to know, it is a relief for me to be able to vent about the variety of new sensations, physical and emotional, that I am experiencing.  But when I am asked, “How much weight are you allowed to gain?” or told, “You don’t look very pregnant”, I have to wonder what planet these people are on.

I haven’t gained very much weight at all, mostly due to the fact that I was vomiting multiple times a day for the first 4 months and just desperately trying to get nutrients into my body.  It was really worrisome to not be able to keep down every attempt at providing a balance of vitamins and minerals, proteins and carbohydrates.  And hard to not count pounds and calories and to focus on how I feel.  I talked about it with my doctor, read some books on the matter, developed game plans with my partner – things are going better now, and we have things under control.  So then to hear from some random acquaintance that “you really should try harder to gain some weight”, I feel like killing them.  Like I want to have to explain my concerns and strategies to this person I barely know so that they can feel like I’m not intentionally trying to not gain weight.

I’m not the type of person that needs other people’s approval – but then again, I’m not used to be confronted so directly on issues that I am already feeling vulnerable about.

I gave a presentation to a room full of regional managers at work.  At the end of the presentation, I announced my pregnancy and intentions regarding leave and the continuation of my project.  One of them shouts out, “Where are you hiding it?”, and they all laugh.  Yeah, yeah, it’s really funny that I am 5 months along and just look like I’ve had a few too many beers.

Like a lot of women, I have always had a difficult relationship with my body image and weight (see: Having a Positive Body Image: A Feminist Devoir).  When the morning sickness subsided and I started to put weight back on instead of shed the pounds, it was the first time in my life that I have been happy to gain weight.  Relieved, even.  And it has taken nerves of steel to reaffirm to myself everything that I believe about my body, and owning my experience, and believing in myself in the face of criticism.

So here is my advice to other first-time pregnant feminists out there:

  1. Focus on intention.  When some awkward dope in your entourage says something that makes you want to unfriend them from Facebook, just try to remember that 99% of the time it is well-intended (believe it or not).
  2. Rally the troops.  Bring your confidantes in closer and build a network of allies.  If you’re finding social situations hard to handle, check out Part 2: The Pregnant Feminist and her Social Life.
  3. Make self-care community-care.  You are not alone.  No, seriously, remember – you are not alone.  All of that public property awkwardness stems from the fact that in North American culture, having a baby is a community event.  Work that to your advantage.
  4. Stay true.  Just because you are the pregnant version of you and are probably not feeling quite like yourself these days, don’t forget that you are still you – all of the boundaries and beliefs that you held pre-pregnancy may be evolving, but they are still your own.  Don’t give them up or hand them over to anyone else.
  5. Take the time to fall in love.  You are going to be a mother!  If you are a gen-y feminist like me, that probably scares the crap out of you as much as it energizes you.  Take the time to marvel at the wonderful weirdness of your body and the life that you are creating.  This is what’s important – the rest of what’s going on outside of you and your body right now, it all takes the backseat to this.

Namasté!