Tag Archives: pregnancy

Our bodies, our selves?

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.


Pregnancy/birth links

Given how many trends have changed since my mother and grandmother gave birth, I like to fantasize that it doesn’t matter what I do because the recommendations will change in another few years anyway.  My mother wasn’t supposed to eat fish because of mercury; now you’re supposed to eat fish because of omega-3 (but only certain ones) but avoid rice because of arsenic (except not really?).

But despite the dizzying changes in recommendations, I do actually try to find out what the evidence shows.  PubMed and the Cochrane Collaboration have become my best friends.  If you have any questions about anything related to health, I recommend them as a starting point.  (I admit to only reading the summaries, but many of these are meta-reviews rather than individual studies so I hope any methodological problems have already been caught by the authors.)

I also highly recommend Scott’s Biodeterminist’s Guide to Parenting.

And now for some things I didn’t know before starting this adventure:

  • Popular herbal remedies probably don’t help during pregnancy, and some of them are harmful.  Ginger for nausea is the only one that looks good.
  • Cocoa butter does not prevent stretch marks.
  • Is it worth it to do pelvic floor exercises during pregnancy?   It seems to make a difference in the first six months after birth, but not after that.
  • There’s a big debate about whether epidurals are the best thing to ever happen to women or an evil meddling by the medical industrial complex.  (Interestingly, access to more drugs in labor was considered a feminist issue in the early 20th century, whereas now you’re viewed with suspicion if you don’t Trust Your Body enough to do birth without assistance from an anesthesiologist.)  This Cochrane overview concludes that epidurals usually help with pain and don’t produce a lot of differences in terms of health outcomes (for example, they do not change your chance of having a cesarean).  And yet maternal satisfaction is unchanged.  I’m guessing this is because people don’t like pain, but they also don’t like being hooked to lots of monitors and being unable to use their legs properly.
  • Perineal stretching seems to work for reducing tearing.
  • Self-hypnosis during labor doesn’t have much evidence for it.  Various drugs, immersion in water, relaxation, massage, and acupuncture look better as pain relief methods.
  • You would probably like to have a doula if you can afford one.  Better yet, insurance should cover them.  “Women who received continuous labour support were more likely to give birth ‘spontaneously’ . . . . were less likely to use pain medications, were more likely to be satisfied, and had slightly shorter labours. Their babies were less likely to have low five-minute Apgar scores. No adverse effects were identified.”
  • The lying-on-your-back-with-legs-in-the-air position that’s standard for hospital births does not seem to make a lot of sense.  Throughout the pregnancy, they tell you not to lie on your back because it cuts off blood flow, and then they have you do it for 12 hours during birth?  It makes it easier for other people to see what’s going on, but it means gravity is not helping you.  I thought it was pretty clear that upright positions are better, but the evidence is more mixed than I thought.
  • If you’re going to breastfeed, you should keep taking fish oil after birth.

Founts of knowledge:

Assorted other links:

  • A due date calculator that tells you your odds of going into labor by a particular date.  Note that it’s based on normal distribution, not an actual data sampling.  I did find it helpful for planning activities, though.
  • The motherlode of pregnancy-related Wikipedia articles.
  • I love these images.

Name ideas:

  • Behind the Name has actual etymologies, not the euphemistic ones most sites have.
  • Name Voyager graphs the popularity of names over time.


This week (one month before my due date) the midwife told me that the baby would be “fine” if she were born now.  “But there’s still a lot more brain development for her to do,” I pointed out.

“She would be fine,” the midwife repeated.  I decided to drop the issue.

Here’s the length of pregnancy (40 weeks being standard) mapped against children’s IQ at age 6.5:

iq and gestational age


I appreciate that the midwife was trying to allay any fears I had, but it sure looks like there are variations on “fine.”  This  graph also makes me less sure about the “induction isn’t necessary, birth will happen when it’s meant to happen” rhetoric and more worried about a post-mature baby.  (One danger with inducement being that if you’re wrong about your conception date, you end up with a premature baby instead of a post-mature one.)

I heard the same kind of thought process early in the pregnancy when I was going to a techno contra dance.  I debated whether to draw on my skin with highlighter, like I usually do (the ink glows under the blacklights).  I doubt highlighters are all that toxic, but I also doubt anyone has tested the effects of maternal skin absorption of fluorescent yellow ink on a fetus. “I’m sure it will be fine,” someone said.  And she was right, in the sense that my baby wouldn’t come out with three heads or any other symptoms that would make us say, “It was the highlighter.”  But little things can add up.

There is not some cutoff for when a baby (or a child, or an adult) is “fine.”  We all have our glitches, and some glitches are bigger than others.

You can’t avoid all risk, and for the sake of your sanity you have to consider some things “good enough.”  But your choices — like “Should I have labor induced?” or “Should we renovate our house, which is full of lead paint, while living with young children?”  — really do have effects.

With child, behind bars

I used to wonder how I would tell my child that she spent much of her in-utero time inside a jail. I first felt her move while waiting to be buzzed into unit 1-9-2. Later that day I sat through a counseling session with a client, trying not to get too distracted from the woman’s words as I felt my daughter’s tiny twitches inside me.

When I took the job, I thought a jail would not be a nice place to be pregnant  — stressful, dangerous, cruel. In a place where boundaries are paramount, I thought my clients might be rude about it.  Most of them are parents, and I thought some would feel hurt to be reminded of their own absent children.

But the reaction has been a pleasant surprise. My coworkers are thrilled and the inmates are, if possible, even more so.

One of my favorite clients came into the office in angry tears. She vented about one thing and another until I got up from my chair to shut the office door. She caught a glimpse of my bulge and her whole face changed. “You’re pregnant?” I nodded. A smile came over her. “That made my day.”

One of the jail’s most difficult residents, a woman decidedly not all there, delightedly announced my pregnancy to the rest of her unit the first day she saw me in a maternity blouse. “You’re having a baby!” she sang over and over. When I make my weekly rounds to check on the women in solitary confinement, they peer down through the window-slits in the doors to see how much my belly has grown during the week.

Men smile and congratulate me.  Some of them rhapsodize about watching the birth of their children — “There’s nothing like it.” “You never forget that moment.”  The women are not so circumspect — they’re more likely to squeal, “Oh my God, look at you!  Hey, preggo, your belly’s so cute!”

As for safety, I’m probably safer than I was before.  Male inmates are already protective of women visiting their units, but now I have 1,200 bodyguards.  The inmates are extra-eager to open doors for me now. After storms, they tell me not to slip on the ice. (Except one who advised me to slip “just enough for a good lawsuit, get some nice money for the baby, not enough to hurt you.” Which was her way of being kind.)

I’m sure some of them do feel hurt, especially the ones who have lost pregnancies or who have lost their babies to the state.  But they are almost uniformly kind to me.  Many of them end sessions by saying, “Good luck.” Or “God bless your baby.” One man always ends by saying, “Drink a lot of milk. It’s good for the baby.”

I’m grateful to be pregnant here, among people whose days need brightening.

And I know now what I will tell my daughter about her early stint in jail: “They loved you. They were so happy for us.”

The essentials

Months of looking at perfectly color-coordinated nurseries on the internet will do a number on any pregnant lady.  Jeff and I aren’t going totally overboard with preparing the space for the baby, but I was feeling a bit stressed.  (How are we going to fit a changing table in here?  Will that dresser fit into the space by the window?  Is this nightlight too bright?)

This morning I was in the midst of browsing for fabric for some new curtains and not finding anything I liked.  Then my family and I walked to the church up the street for the “Lessons and Carols” service, with readings from the Nativity story and carols in between.

The central passage is very simple.  Joseph must travel to his hometown for a Roman census, and his heavily pregnant fiancée must travel with him.

While they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth.  And she gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped him in cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

Even though I don’t believe in the divinity of this particular baby, the basics of the story struck me. When the time came, a woman gave birth, even though she wasn’t married, even though she was on a road trip, even though there was no place for her to stay, even in an unsanitary setting. Babies come when they come.

They come without ribbons, they come without tags, they come without packages, boxes or bags. They come when you’re not ready.  They come without Uppababy strollers, Diaper Genies, or Sophie La Giraffe teethers. And parents throughout the ages have been making do.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m really glad to be parenting in the modern world. I’m glad to have a washing machine, a public transit system, vaccines, and a lot of other things that will make parenting easier and safer. And I do want to pick out curtains I’ll like. But things will be okay even if I don’t.

Enough for Him, whom cherubim
Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk,
And a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
Which adore.

Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Thronged the air –
But only His mother
In her maiden bliss
Worshipped the Beloved
With a kiss.

Christina Rossetti, 1872

Song for Halloween: Tam Lin

(It’s a Halloween ballad about a pregnant lady.  How could I not?)

In ballads, a lot of women who fall pregnant kind of waste away and die of sorrow, saying uncomplimentary things about their lovers.  Not the heroine of “Tam Lin.”

Janet’s the type who goes someplace she’s specifically told not to go, gets in trouble for flower-picking, acts like she owns the place, and apparently hooks up with Tam Lin because by the time she gets home she’s visibly pregnant.  So she talks back to her father and returns to her lover.

But oh no!  Tam Lin is a captive of the very tricky queen of the fairies!  And he’s possibly going to be a human sacrifice on Halloween!  What’s a girl to do but hide at the crossroads, grab him off his horse, and hold onto him while he’s transformed into all kinds of beasts?  Luckily Janet is up to the task.

I forbid you maidens all that wear gold in your hair 
To travel to Carterhaugh, for young Tam Lin is there.
None that go by Carterhaugh but they leave him a pledge: 
Either their mantles of green or else their maidenhead.
Janet tied her kirtle green a bit above her knee 
And she’s gone to Carterhaugh as fast as go can she.
She’d not pulled a double rose, a rose but only two 
When up there came young Tam Lin, says “Lady, pull no more.” 
“And why come you to Carterhaugh without command from me?” 
“I’ll come and go”, young Janet said, “and ask no leave of thee.” 
Janet tied her kirtle green a bit above her knee 
And she’s gone to her father as fast as go can she.
Well, up then spoke her father dear and he spoke meek and mild 
“Oh, and alas, Janet,” he said, “I think you go with child.” 
“Well, if that be so,” Janet said, “myself shall bear the blame
There’s not a knight in all your hall shall get the baby’s name.
For if my love were an earthly knight as he is an elfin grey 
I’d not change my own true love for any knight you have.” 
Janet tied her kirtle green a bit above her knee 
And she’s gone to Carterhaugh as fast as go can she.
“Oh, tell to me, Tam Lin,” she said, “why came you here to dwell?” 
“The Queen of Faeries caught me when from my horse I fell 
And at the end of seven years she pays a tithe to Hell.
I so fair and full of flesh and feared it be myself.
But tonight is Hallowe’en and the faerie folk ride
Those that would their true love win at Miles Cross they must bide. 
First let past the horses black and then let past the brown 
Quickly run to the white steed and pull the rider down 
For I’ll ride on the white steed, the nearest to the town 
For I was an earthly knight, they give me that renown.
Oh, they will turn me in your arms to a newt or a snake 
But hold me tight and fear not, I am your baby’s father.
And they will turn me in your arms into a lion bold 
But hold me tight and fear not, and you will love your child.
And they will turn me in your arms into a naked knight 
But cloak me in your mantle and keep me out of sight.” 
In the middle of the night she heard the bridle ring 
She heeded what he did say and young Tam Lin did win.
Then up spoke the Faerie Queen, an angry queen was she 
”Woe betide her ill-fought face, an ill death may she die.” 
“Oh, had I known, Tam Lin,” she said, “what this night I did see 
I’d have looked him in the eyes and turned him to a tree.”

Thoughts on pregnancy

Jeff and I are expecting our first child in March.  I am very happy.  Some assorted thoughts:

  • Jeff and I are aware of the data that parents are not happier than non-parents.  We’re hoping to beat the odds on this.
  • The downside of websites that update you week-by-week on fetal development (“Your baby is the size of an avocado”) is that you learn things you didn’t really want to know. Like “Your baby has now developed skin.” You mean it didn’t have skin before?  Or “Your baby’s ears have moved from the neck to the side of the head.” What were they doing there?
  • The “pregnancy glow” is, as far as I can tell, just oily skin.  Acne was not what I had in mind when I was looking forward to pregnancy.
  • If you have a negative blood type (like me, O negative) and your baby has a positive blood type, you can develop a reaction against your own babies in utero.  Once your body is exposed to the baby’s blood, either during labor or any other event that causes the baby to bleed a little, you produce antibodies against the positive Rh factor in the baby’s blood. If you’re exposed to it again, either later on in the same pregnancy or with a subsequent pregnancy, your antibodies attack the fetus’s red blood cells. This is not great for its health.  I can’t believe we evolved like this. Luckily, there’s an easy treatment that stops your cells from attacking the baby.  Thank you, modern medicine.
  • I thought that when you became pregnant your schedule magically cleared up for infinite midwife appointments, ultrasounds, and prenatal yoga classes.  It turns out your life is just as busy as before, and you have to actually make time for these things.
  • Multiple people have independently suggested that I might be pregnant with a unicorn. I’m kind of pleased that this is the default for “weird thing you might be pregnant with.” But I’m very opposed to giving birth to anything with a horn.

Now the more serious advice for pregnant women:
Double-check everything. Informed consent does not always work like it’s supposed to.

  • First example: Every month when you’re trying to get pregnant, there are two weeks when you don’t yet know if it worked.  I went to the dentist during that time and wrote “maybe” on the form where it asks if you’re pregnant.  They told me they were giving me a series of x-rays, which I blithely assumed was fine because, after all, I had written it on the form.  After the first x-ray, the technician asked, “There’s no chance you’re pregnant, right?”  I said, “Didn’t you see where I wrote that on the form you just had me fill out?” She got embarrassed and defensive and said I had written it “so small.” But she did stop giving me x-rays. Happy ending: I wasn’t pregnant, and one x-ray wouldn’t have been that bad anyway.
  • Second, worse example: For years I’ve been on an eye medication. Over the summer my doctor put me on some extra ones to deal with allergies. So at the time I conceived I was on three different class-C medications (class C meaning there’s enough risk of birth defects that you should only use it if there’s a good reason).  At every visit I would say, “I’m planning to get pregnant. Is there anything I need to change if that happens?” and he would say no.  It took until the day I told him, “I just found out I’m pregnant,” for him to say, “Oh, I’d better look into that medication.”  I was furious.  It looks like things turned out fine, but I would never have chosen to take those meds if we had actually talked about them before the fact.

Caveat gravida.