As a child, many of us heard the slogan, “My body belongs to me” as part of a campaign against sexual molestation. It’s a pretty fundamental concept: you decide what to do with your body, who touches it, all of that. Autonomy and self-determination don’t get more basic.
In the weeks around my daughter’s birth, I’ve been thinking about all the ways your body does not belong to you.
When you’re a child, other people control almost everything about your physical world. My daughter doesn’t control when or what she eats, who touches her or how. She’s powerless over almost everything about her physical world. (For example, she’s made her opinion of baths extremely clear, but I overrule her.)
Later in childhood, you have more autonomy. There are still rules about your body — eat two more bites; don’t run in the halls. And perhaps there are still people touching you in ways you don’t want. But with luck, you have a lot of control right now. Every day you gain more skill, coordination, and enjoyment in the things your body can do.
And then you start to share your body. With luck, this new vulnerability is still under your control, a gift of your body to a lover for mutual enjoyment. And sometimes that opens a whole new can of worms.
Choosing to become pregnant is choosing to give up your body in a lot of new ways.
First there’s the process of using sex as a means to an end. Not that people don’t use sex all the time as a means to some kind of end, but when you’re trying to procreate the project-ness of it can become especially intense. And while you wait to know the results of each attempt, there are those half-months of precautions that end with disappointment that it didn’t work and relief that you can have a beer now.
Once it takes, your body is no longer just your home, not just a source of pleasure for your lover, but the site of creating another body. I found the process of being someone else’s life support to be overwhelming at times. I was responsible for creating the body another person would have for the rest of her life. Everything I breathed, ate, and did affected her forming cells.
For nine months there could be no decoupling, no chance to make decisions that affected only myself. I yearned to be able to lie on my back without cutting off her blood supply. I craved bagels with lox because I knew they were forbidden. When I was sick with a stomach virus, every pound I lost was terrifying to me as I thought of her starving.
Aside from sharing your body with another person, when you’re pregnant your body becomes a kind of public property. As you begin to show, your body becomes a topic of public conversation. Strangers discuss how you look, how big/small you are, how low/high you are carrying, how well/tired you seem. People quiz you about your symptoms and moods; they advise you about everything from moisturizers to what to do when your water breaks. Your whole life becomes baby-themed. I stopped watching the prenatal yoga videos that referred to my belly as “your precious baby;” I wanted to forget my precious baby for 20 minutes and just work my own body.
At the same time, I was amazed by how perfectly my body was able to accomplish its task. We can do in vitro fertilization; we can do cesarean birth; we can do all kinds of medical work to repair and regenerate the body. But the actual creation can only be done inside another person. Without any conscious effort, my body took a single-celled organism and made it into a human being.
As birth approaches, your relationship with your lover shifts yet again. In John Donne’s fabulous poem “To His Mistress Going to Bed,” he tries to persuade a woman to get naked. He urges her:
As liberally as to thy midwife show
Thyself; cast all, yea, this white linen hence.
It’s a cheeky line, and one that came to my mind repeatedly during the midwifery-filled week of the birth. As far as I know, there’s never been a culture before ours where men participated so much in birth. Donne was hoping for nudity, but I wonder if he really had midwifery-level exposure in mind. For a man to actually be at a birth in anything other than an emergency capacity would have virtually unthinkable at the time.
When he accompanies a woman giving birth, a man is in for new levels of graphic detail. Seeing your partner naked in bed is different from seeing her on the exam table as the midwife is peering into the speculum.
We are taught to shield men from this level of knowledge. Better to preserve a little mystery; don’t spoil it by letting him see you vomit or poop or bleed. Don’t let him hear you howl like an animal. But in childbirth, the last shreds of privacy and dignity vanish.
Even now that my body separated from my daughter’s, it is still very much hers. My days and nights are dedicated to keeping her fed, warm, and clean. (I wrote most of this post two weeks ago but only now had a spare hour to edit it. She’s strapped to my chest and hopefully asleep for another few minutes.)
My body is still a means of production; my milk is more perfectly suited to her needs than any food we can manufacture. As the years pass, my body will go from being her dairy to her transportation to her playground. As her body gains autonomy, so will mine.
And then, as I grow older, my body will again leave my control.
Jeff’s mother is very sick. She’s a midwife who was well enough on the day of the birth to coach me in using my body, to catch her granddaughter’s body as it slithered into the world. The next day, she was hospitalized herself. The family’s joy in the new baby is mingled with dread of what comes next for her grandmother. It’s terrifying to all of us that her body can sabotage her whole being like this. It’s awful to watch a person fall captive to debility and pain.
I desperately hope that my daughter dodged the family’s genetic bullets. I hope she lives long enough in good health that I’m not around to see her body or mind fail her. But I know it’s part of the deal sooner or later. To be human is to live in a body, a body we never fully control. We can choose to share it, use it to connect with others, and even to create life. And eventually we become dependent on other people to care for our bodies, as we were in the beginning. At some point we will all lose each other as our bodies fail.
Until then, I hope she loves being in her body. I hope she gets as much joy from it as she can.