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.