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Things I Didn’t Expect
18 / 04 / 2013
When Monica Dux found herself pregnant with her first child, she was dismayed to find it was an adventure in physical discomfort, unachievable ideals, kooky classes and meddling experts. In her new book Things I Didn’t Expect, Monica explores the aspects of baby-making that we all want to talk about, but which are too embarrassing, unsettling or downright confronting. With Monica’s permission, we include this excerpt for Sheilas readers (find the rest of the book and a 10% discount here!)
Some women experience a greatly improved state of health during pregnancy, both bodily and mentally. They feel uncommonly active, strong, gay and happy. This is, however, not common. It is much more usual for the mother to be subject to loss of appetite, nausea, and to other disturbances of the stomach and other internal organs; to be annoyed by low spirits, fancies, and ‘longings’; to be nervous and irritable; and sometimes to be seriously disordered in mind for the time being.
– Martin Luther Holbrook, Parturition Without Pain: A code of directions for escaping from the primal curse, 1871
My ancestors had all sorts of problems, but propagating the species was not one of them. Out of the seven great-great-grand vaginas that I know about came eighty-two babies. That’s 11.7 babies per vag. And this figure doesn’t even include their collective miscarriages and stillbirths, which are sure to have numbered in the double figures.
Of course this sort of rapacious baby-making wasn’t so unusual at the time. That’s what simple country folk did in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But even by the impressive breeding standards of the age, I have one ancestor who stands alone. When we were kids, my brother Matthew and I were told she was our Great Aunt Hilda, although to us she was just a faded photograph in the back of the family album. Matt and I took morbid delight in the older black-and-white pictures that we found there, teasing each other that we resembled those long-dead, sepia-toned relatives. Hilda was easily the scariest. She wasn’t far into her sixties when the photo was taken, yet already her face was horribly pinched, her back profoundly curved and her hair had fallen out in clumps, joining the teeth that had long since departed, leaving her with a sunken, gummy grin, like a scary, wrinkled Muppet.
My brother used to delight in showing this photo to any boyfriends I was silly enough to bring home. ‘Lovely, isn’t she?’ he’d ask them. ‘That’s what Monica’s going to look like one day.’ It always got a slightly hysterical laugh from my dates, as well as ensuring that they’d never look at me in quite the same way again. Many years later I fell in love with a good man—one my brother actually liked—and together we decided to continue the great Dux tradition and have some babies. And as my first pregnancy proceeded, I often thought of poor old Hilda. But I wasn’t laughing at her anymore. Instead of wondering how the poor thing ended up looking so bad, I started marvelling that she’d even survived. You see, Hilda had given birth to eighteen children by the time that infamous photo was taken, while even a few months of pregnancy had made me feel like her scary Muppet cousin.
Before we go too much further, I’d like to put something on the record. When I was pregnant I was always glad that I was having a baby. Babies were something that I wanted, something that I actively tried for. And despite appearances, I was never depressed. I was just in a bad mood. Instead of glowing, I scowled. My pregnancies were adventures in vomit, discomfort and sleepless nights. I wet myself. Often. I produced such a freakishly large amount of saliva that I was forced to carry around a wad of paper towel to collect all the extra spit. I endured severe constipation, displaced hips and relentless indigestion. My body retained a massive amount of fluid, swelling my face so badly that, in the third trimester, my husband innocently inquired about how it was possible that pregnancy had made my eyes smaller. My morning sickness was so severe that during my second pregnancy my toddler stopped drawing flowers and trains and took to sketching ‘Mummy’s vomit’ instead.
Most foods seemed repulsive, but there were a few that called to me. ‘Eat me, eat me,’ said those packets of sour cream and chive potato chips, and I would willingly comply. If it’s true that you are what you eat then during my pregnancies I was a bowl of instant noodles, Oriental flavour, with a sprinkle of the aforementioned chips on top.
When I did venture out of the house, which was rarely, I shambled like a zombie, shoulders hunched, expression blank, pallor deathly, peeing behind bushes, drooling into my spit towel. Small children would cower when I approached, hiding their faces in their mother’s skirts until the Bad Lady went away. Sadly, when the morning sickness finally started to pass, at about the four-month mark, my craving for deep-fried carbohydrates only increased. Which ushered in the next phase of pregnancy-related degradation involving massive and unprecedented weight gain.
When I tell people that I got very large during my pregnancies, and that I was distressed by this transformation, they usually scoff. ‘Oh, but you were pregnant!’ they say. ‘You’re meant to gain weight!’ Then I specify my actual tonnage at the nine-month mark and they go quiet and look uncomfortable. I don’t want to inflict the same kind of discomfort on strangers, so I’ll just say that in kilos I was well into three figures; in pounds, over a double century. During my second pregnancy I broke two kitchen chairs. As I entered the final trimester people started turning away when I waddled past, perhaps in fear that I might burst and splatter them with pregnancy goo.
But I’m not just talking about sheer size increase. Consider, for a moment, my bottom. It’s always been a proud bottom, fulsome and unashamed. I liked it that way, and I wouldn’t have minded if it had got a bit bigger. Yet in pregnancy it not only inflated alarmingly but took on a whole new shape, a shape I didn’t recognise. It was someone else’s bottom, yet there I was, sitting on it. I’ll admit that there were some good things about being pregnant. The sedative effect of the second trimester hormones was definitely a gift to my husband. The prohibition on alcohol, while initially cruel, was a boon for my liver. And I did learn some valuable life lessons. For example, if you’re going to vomit your breakfast, avoid rolled oats as they will clump together unpleasantly. Banana smoothies, on the other hand, are a joy to regurgitate, leaving a pleasant, fruity aroma and aftertaste. Other than that, I’d have to rate pregnancy as a medium-level catastrophe.
Of course my story is far from unique. Some pregnant women cop it even worse than I did, and most have a similar list of physical ordeals that they could reel off, if they chose to. But even for the lucky ones, those who don’t suffer endless vomiting followed by gold membership in the Kaftan Club, the experience of pregnancy has got to count as profoundly weird and disruptive.
A common assumption about being pregnant is that a baby grows in your belly, so it’s your belly that changes to accommodate. But nothing can prepare you for the fact that it’s not just your stomach that changes but your entire body. It’s you. When you get pregnant your breathing changes, as the baby forces your lungs further into your thorax. Your blood volume increases, leaving you flushed and unnaturally warm. Your food is digested differently, with reflux being a common side effect. Your hair stops falling out and so becomes thicker, and your nails grow more rapidly. Your feet also expand, and that expansion doesn’t necessarily reverse itself when the pregnancy is over. Your libido may increase massively, even as you become less comfortable with the idea of sex. Your gums will bleed and your breasts will change, not just in size but also shape, while the aureoles spread and darken. Your stomach may ripple with stretch marks, your joints will probably loosen and you will certainly lose your centre of gravity. You will become a person with two heartbeats. When you wee and poo, you do it for two. You will be physically and, in many ways, irreversibly transformed. And this upheaval will take place within a few months, not over the course of a long lifetime.
Among my politically correct friends, saying that a woman ‘fell’ pregnant is a big no-no, smacking as it does of the fall of Eve with all its associated misogynistic hocus pocus. But falling is exactly how pregnancy felt to me: a physical fall, out of the familiar skin that had always surrounded me, the body that I recognised as mine. I really was like Alice, tumbling down the rabbit hole to a place where I was transformed, again and again, until I’d forgotten what shape and size I’d originally been. When I finally had the baby I was left rummaging through the wreckage of my former self like a victim of a cyclone, wondering how I would ever rebuild. ‘Look!’ I could have said to a visiting TV news crew, misty-eyed with emotion, ‘I found a bit of my old arse lying over here.’
Sociologist Meredith Nash wrote her PhD on pregnant women and the way they feel about their bodies. Most of the women who participated in her study admitted to feelings of ambivalence and uncertainty. Other academic studies have made similar findings with pregnant women reporting that they feel like they’ve lost control over their bodies and their identities. It’s hardly surprising then, that cultural geographer Joyce Davidson draws a connection between the experience of pregnancy and agoraphobia, with many of the pregnant women in her study expressing a fear of the outside world.
Despite all this, there is an overwhelming social expectation that women should be happy, positive and glowing about their pregnancies, no matter how intrinsically confronting the experience might be. Stoically enduring is no longer enough; these days to count as well balanced and normal you must beam. It’s as if a tsunami ripped through your hometown and everyone expected you to put on some floaties and enjoy having a splash.
Pregnancy advice books, websites, magazines and even the pamphlets they hand out in maternity wards, all contribute to this idea of the Happy Gestator, the perfect pregnant woman. She jogs, she does pilates and pre-natal yoga, she looks fantastic in all those body-hugging maternity clothes. She has never felt more womanly, more beautiful, more luscious and attractive. And, above all, she is so damn happy—not just I’m-having-a-good-day happy but blissed-out, full-blown ecstatic.
Even the parts of your life that you’d think might be interrupted by pregnancy, such as sex, are now said to be improved. Once, a heavily pregnant woman having sex was thought to be about as safe as third-trimester base-jumping. But with the rise of the Happy Gestator this has turned around 180 degrees, and we are now encouraged to copulate wildly, as if our wider girths, our displaced hips and our leaky bits are an invitation, rather than a hindrance, to the best sex ever. Your partner is also expected to be intoxicated by your new body and by the prospect of a threesome with you and his unborn child. To facilitate this, many pregnancy advice books now come with sections on ‘comfortable love-making positions’ so graphic they deserve to be sealed in plastic.
The really distressing news is that the pressure to be perfect in the face of catastrophe won’t end with your pregnancy. Because once you’ve had the baby you are transformed once again. You become a Mother—probably the most emotionally charged thing a human being can be, a living symbol of wholesomeness, self-sacrifice and goodness. And you’re expected to hang out with other mothers, all being wholesome together.
At the heart of all this is a very narrow idea about what it is to be a woman. Incubating, birthing and caring for babies is what we’re programmed to do, or so we’re told. It’s our biological destiny, so why would we resist the changes that these things bring? We should feel like voluptuous sex-goddesses, not unwashed walruses.
It’s easy for us to look back at Great Aunt Hilda’s era with a sense of smug superiority. Or perhaps patronising pity is more your style. Isn’t it terrible how hard poor old Hilda had it? Wasn’t it barbarous? And of course some things are a whole lot better today. But maybe some things are actually worse, particularly for those of us who fail to romp and to glow; the incontinent, the messy, the ones who can’t smile at their stretch marks and their toddler’s Vomit Art. How do we fit into a world where smiling is no longer optional?
One thing I know for sure: pregnancy is still pregnancy and motherhood is still motherhood. Babies still have to grow inside women’s bodies and we still have to get them out at the end of the process. Newborn infants still have to be fed and cleaned and nurtured, and nine times out of ten it’s women who end up doing that. So the fundamentals are unchanged. And, if you ask me, those fundamentals are, and always have been, utterly bizarre.
So that’s what this book is about: the bizarre, weird, messy, creepy stuff that happens to you when you get pregnant, give birth and become a mother. It’s about the stuff that’s changed over the last 200 years, and the stuff that hasn’t. There’s also quite a bit in here about my vagina, but please don’t let that put you off. My husband assures me that it’s still very nice.
Monica Dux is a writer and social commentator. She can be heard regularly on ABC radio and 3RRR, and has published widely, especially on women’s issues. In 2008 she co-authored The Great Feminist Denial. Monica studied for her undergraduate degree at the University of Sydney, before moving to Melbourne where she worked as an academic research assistant. She later taught in the History Department at Melbourne University. Since then Monica has worked on The Monthly magazine, at Melbourne University Publishing and was the Founding Editor of the interdisciplinary journal Traffic. Monica is a founding board member of The Stella Prize. She occassionally tweets @monicadux and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or via her website.