Sunday, January 3, 2010

Our bodies, ourselves

When I was in college I took an awesome anthropology course called "Women and Citizenship," about different models of gender and personhood and how they affect women's position in state-level societies around the world. One of the problems we took on was the question of a woman's right to abort a pregnancy, and some readings we did in the class suggested that a useful way to understand why the problem of abortion (seen as a social and ultimately a legal problem - not a religious one, though the religious angle is not irrelevant here) seems so intractable is that the real problem is a mismatch between our model of personhood and the actual state of being pregnant. In most cases it is safe to assume that the body is sovereign territory, belonging to one person only: laws against killing, assault, rape, and kidnapping deal with crimes against the integrity of the body (or the integrity of a person's control over his or her own body). But pregnancy is a state in which a single body is shared by more than one person, and the problem then becomes: whose rights to that body have precedence?

I don't mean to suggest that this is the only way to look at the problem of abortion, and abortion is not the point of this post. Rather, it's the insight about bodily sovereignty that seems most apposite to me at the moment. It is true that my body is not merely my own at the moment. It is inhabited by three human beings, myself included. None of those human beings can survive without it, though two of them will eventually be able to, if all goes well; giving birth will leave me in sole tenancy again.

The other thing that's worth noticing here is that the other two people in question (my sons) don't exist in a social vacuum, despite being as yet unborn. They have relationships of their own: they have a father, grandparents, uncles (no aunts yet, but hope springs eternal), and so on. The key here, I think, is that even though their relationship to me is as intimate as any relationship can be at the moment, it is not their only social connection. It's not even their primary social connection (though it is, obviously, their primary physical connection: what I eat, they eat; where I go, they go; and now that they have hearing, what I hear, they hear, which makes me hope they like Renaissance and Baroque music and Canadian folk-rock). Like other human beings, my sons exist in a web of kinship relations. They "belong" to me, but they also belong to their father, to their grandparents, and so on, for better or for worse. (We, and they, are fortunate in that it is almost entirely for better.)

There's also a way in which being pregnant has reminded me that I belong to more than just myself. Early on I noticed that my mother and mother-in-law were taking more than the usual familial interest in my health. It's not that this bothered me at all, but there seemed something a little proprietary in their interest. It reminded me that they by definition have both been where I am now more than once, and that the children who shared their bodies turned out to be me and Rex, as well as our respective brothers.

In the ordinary way of things, we aren't often forced to contemplate the fact of our own birth. The prospect of our own eventual death is nearly endless fruit for contemplation in most human societies, but one's own birth is something that, by the time we get around to contemplating it, we've usually gotten over. But of course I once did just what my sons are doing now: I grew in my mother's body, took nourishment from her, was born out of her in a traumatically physical way. We all were. That's just how it works. Human beings are made, in an intensely physical way, from other human beings (Rex reminds me that this, too, is a fundamental fact that all societies have to wrestle with, and some amazing metaphors have arisen to explain it within different worldviews). And while my parents have always respected my personal and physical integrity to the utmost degree, it is true that in a certain sense I do belong to them. Every day I wear my father's hands and feet, my mother's jawline and cowlicks and that one birthmark, to say nothing of quirks of personality and taste. A little proprietary behavior is to be expected at this point, I'd think, especially as Rex and I are now going through the same process that led to the beginning of our relationships with our own parents.

On top of this, there's a certain inequality in the process of becoming birth parents for even the most progressive of heterosexual couples. As Rex, the anthropologist, points out, we are currently at the point where culture comes up against a biological brick wall. He can and does support me endlessly, but he can't actually take on any of the work of gestation. Once they're born things will even out considerably, even given the one-sidedness of lactation, but for now I'm doing the heavy lifting, as it were. So while I belong to both my parents equally (for the sense of "belonging" that I'm using above), in the period of my life up to my birth I belonged to my mother in a uniquely physical way, because we shared her body.

(I don't mean to suggest here that this is the only kind of relationship that obtains between parents and children. There are more ways to be a parent than birth parenting, including adoption, surrogacy, donor gametes, and parenting situations where one partner may be a birth parent while the other is not. But this is my experience now, so it's what I'm exploring. We might have adopted, and then this would be a different blog entry.)

All this came to mind yesterday at shul after I experienced my first episode of unsolicited belly-patting. I had heard about this phenomenon, where family members, friends, or even complete strangers feel free to pat a pregnant woman's belly, but this was my first experience of it. It was not a stranger, thank goodness, but it still bothered me as an intrusion into my personal space. There's an odd way in which a visibly pregnant woman becomes community property that can lead to some good things, like support from members of your synagogue, and also to some intensely annoying things, like unsolicited criticism about what you're carrying or doing or wearing, and this kind of physical intrusion as well. If a stranger did it I would be very upset and weirded out.

Pregnancy can do a lot of strange things to your body image and your sense of bodily integrity. Although everyone's experience is of course different, the fact of being occupied by another human being (or in my case, two other human beings), along with the physiological changes that accompany the process, are potentially very weird experiences. I am generally OK with most of the changes I've experienced, because whether I find them objectionable (sacroiliac joint pain, swollen ankles, the inability to lie on my back) or not (weight gain, the total disappearance of my waist, and the temporary shelving of my entire wardrobe), I'm well-informed enough to realize that they're all more or less normal. But even I have a certain gap between my gut reactions to the changes happening to my body and my intellectual understanding of them. However normal it is, I fundamentally hate it when my ankles swell, which of course they do every day by the end of the day, unless I've spent the day mostly horizontal, and who has the time for that?

The point is that my sense of bodily integrity is already being messed with by a range of things that are totally normal to the experience and which I in some way signed up for voluntarily. And I think that's why the belly rubbing feels so incredibly intrusive. It's one thing for my sons to violate the sovereignty of my body by gestating inside it: however cosmically weird it is in an existential sense, it's perfectly normal biologically speaking, and in essence I have invited them to do so. In fact I want them to stick around as long as they can (given the propensity of twins to come early). I've even gladly given up a range of things I enjoy (caffeine, alcohol, raw fish, soft cheese, deli meat) for their benefit. It's another thing entirely for a person to move into that space uninvited, and I really am afraid I might snap the head off the first stranger who tries it. But who knows, maybe I'll get lucky and Saturday's encounter will be the only one.


thm said...

The biological brick wall was one of the most jarring things about "our" pregnancy: Even though we do tend to fall into our respective gender stereotypes, there's this background progressive ethic which tells us that we should really be splitting things equally. But fast-forward (a phrase which today's children will never really understand) to childbirth classes, and the gender roles are well-defined and unequal. She needs the massage, I need to give her the massage; she needs to relax, I need to help her relax, and so forth. No use pretending to be equal, because in this task, we weren't.

melinda said...

what evolved men are visiting this blog. I remember being pregnant and reading a book with a list of things partners can do for pregnant ladies -- eg "rub her feet... run a hot bubble bath..." and having my pleasant thought ("I wonder if Thom would ever run me a bubble bath?") interrupted by the sound of a crazy rummaging thrashing noise from the kitchen, followed by Thom shouting to me in a high state of distress/need, "Where did all the trash bags go? Howcome we have no BAGS?!" Congrats, gentlemen, on being there for _your_ moms-to-be.

Natalia said...

Okay, but doesn't the social construction of femininity as that which is violable enter into this? Don't people feel entitled to pet the fetuses in part because they're encased in you? Consider the situation when the kids are out of your body. Wouldn't it give you pause if random people came up and petted them? I may be wrong about this, but I actually think it would give the random strangers pause, too. I think people are often more respectful of babies' bodily sovereignty than of their mothers'.

SEB said...

It's certainly possible that people feel freer to touch me because I am a woman, though that gets us into the "if men could get pregnant" range of untestability. Certainly some of the discourse about the phenomenon around the web includes discussions by pregnant women about how they didn't feel comfortable objecting and were trying to think of some "nice" ways to ask people not to (the most appalling recommendation was that I should claim, apologetically, that my pregnancy hormones were making me touchy).

As to small children, I have relatively little experience; but I have heard that some people will touch and pick up your baby without asking, which strikes me as a similar phenomenon. It's problematic from a public-health point of view, especially for very little kids with underdeveloped immune systems, but also from a bodily-integrity point of view. Forcing little kids to kiss and hug relatives when they don't want to is sort of similar. I do want my children to feel comfortable refusing contact when they want to.

Ronald van Loon said...

A very interesting post. Funny you mention the additional motherly interest in your health. For Marjolijn and me this went to the extreme where Marjolijn was pregnant and about to cross the street when there was a car in the distance. Her mother yanked her back on the curb (even while there was no real reason to do so - the car was moving at slow speed and even a pregnant woman could have crossed easily) and said: watch out, you're carrying my grandchild! Personally I find the interest of family in the wellbeing of my children tolerable, as long as the focus is not solely on those children. I am, after all, not a means to an end, but a person in my own right.

I also do no quite share the sentiment that I 'belong' to my biological parents. I do not know my biological father, so my point of view is necessarily different than yours, but I do not think that the fact that I share genetic material with my biological parents automatically implies some sort of ownership. The reverse I do see as being true: by putting into the world some of my genetic material, I have a responsibility to my offspring to provide for them until the point they can be assumed to be self-supportive (even beyond, should the need arise, but it is less of a given). However, this responsibility is due to the fact that I decided to set forth the reproductive process, which was my choice to begin with. It does not imply ownership.

As such I do not think the fact that they share your body is entirely accurate either. Your body is providing life support and shelter, which evolutionary speaking (or by design) it can do best by having them inside your body. After all, being pregnant does not severely impact your being able to live - theoretically you could ignore the fact that you are pregnant (and in reality you can't ;-) So your body is still your own, although the guest room is occupied.

Finally, the fact that you have relatives means that by transitivity they have too. However, at this point that connection is immaterial - even more so than it is for you. After all, at your age, even when all the family connections would have been severed, you could still survive. However, they can not survive without you. It follows that their sense of belonging into your family is entirely due to their upbringing and development, as well as the amount of time spent with their relatives.

In summary, I'd like to think that while there is an implied derivation and connection of a person to their biological parents due to shared genetic material, this does not necessarily translate to a social connection - the fact that I have never consciously met my biological father may attest to that. Your sense of belonging therefore is more a testament to the closeness of your family despite the physical distance and it is hopefully an omen of fortune to the warm nest that your future sons will be able to call home.