Friday, June 02, 2017

Reflections On My Time As An Incubator

When I told my coworkers I was pregnant, a charming Ukrainian colleague of mine approached me in the break room and asked, "Do you have this word in English, incubator?".  I laughed because, obviously, we do have this word, and because I knew exactly where she was going.  Being pregnant with a wholly wanted and loved fetus was at times a wholly dehumanizing process, and more often than not I felt like an incubator that existed only to sate the appetite of the unseen squid-parasite sucking all of my nutrients and energy from me.  And I had a pretty chill pregnancy.

Seriously.  I wanted to be pregnant, and I have wanted a baby all of my life.  Yes, I have always valued my independence and envisioned a life without children that would have been happy enough, but since I was a little girl, begging to babysit and care for children I have wanted to raise kids of my own, so getting pregnant was a joyfully, tear-eliciting event.  And I had an easy pregnancy; I suffered from no morning sickness, none of the hypertension or gestational diabetes that plague so many modern women.  I managed to sleep pretty well, had an incredibly patient and supportive partner, friend group, and family around me the whole time, and had access to regular prenatal care.  I didn't have to give up any life saving or life affirming medications, and aside from occasional pregnancy headaches and carpel tunnel, had no problems while pregnant.  I didn't even have a problem giving up my cherished all day caffeine consumption or nightly half-bottle of wine habit.

But it still sucked.  The whole time I was marveling at how my body was capable of this massive change, this insane undertaking of creating a human from to bags of cells, I was also watching the body I'd known for almost 35 years become unrecognizable.  I used to challenge people to try to name one part of my body that hadn't been affected by pregnancy.  Lose joints and tendons, displaced organs, bleeding gums, stronger hair and nails (that later fall out and become brittle, respectively, not matter how many post-natal vitamins I take...), swollen feet and sore hands.  Even my skin changed color and my sweat smelled different.  Nothing stayed the same, and five months later, my body still feels foreign.  My hips are still not fully secured, my breasts are still too big for tops without an 'X' in front of the L, and as I fight to regain lost muscle mass I watch my linea nigra slowly refuse to fade. 

Which is fine, because I wanted a baby, and my child is a nonstop tornado of magic and insanity that I cried for when I was afraid it wouldn't happen. 

But imagine if I didn't want a baby, or didn't want a baby yet.  Or didn't have support in place, or a partner with whom I shared mutual love and respect.  Imagine if I had to go through more than twelve months (most doctors concede that it takes between 6 and 18 months to recover from pregnancy and delivery) of physical changes that would make Jeff Goldbloom think The Fly was a boring ass documentary.  Who else would say that was an acceptable price to pay for sex and/or failed birth control.  The fact that no (biological) man ever has to worry about this reality, yet many speak openly, vocally, legislatively, about womens' responsibility, is horrifying to me. 

Let me put it more simply.  Imagine every time you had sex you had a one in ten chance of having to give up alcohol, caffeine, deli meats, and raw meat and fish, and gain 30 - 50 pounds for nine months.  And then lost the ability to poop or control your bladder for a few weeks, and then could go back to normal until the next time.  That would suck, right?  And that's just a fraction of the reality a woman without full fertility/birth control options faces.  These choices should be personal, private, and freely available to women capable of sex, pregnancy, or being assaulted.  No matter what.  Because the individual sovereignty of a woman should not be nullified by a cluster of cells, or a fetus, or even a baby. 

If a baby was dying, and only my liver would save it, would the law force me to donate a lobe of my liver?  I could be reasonably expected to survive the surgery, and could go on to recover and lead a normal life, but we would never compel people to give up their biological sovereignty in that way.  Even without a nine-month lead up to the surgery that required me to adopt a special diet, miss work for regular appointments, and intense physical trauma of surgery and recovery.  Until mandatory non-lethal donations are legislated, we can't talk about eliminated birth control or abortion without recognizing the inherent bias against people with vaginas and uteruses. 

Monday, April 24, 2017

On Pregnancy, From the Rearview Mirror

Just over a year ago, I managed to get a couple of eggs fertilized by my main squeeze, which means I am now mommy to a joyful little 15-week old boy.  It also means that I have spent the last 12 months being taken apart piece by piece and rebuilt into new iterations of myself that I did not entirely recognize.  Pregnant me was about four different people, and mom me is someone I have never met.  Physically and psychologically everything has changed.  Seriously, challenge me on that.  Try to name something (other than my name) that has not changed in the process of the last year.  I have it on good authority that my skin changed the way it smelled at least three times during pregnancy.

On thing that has changed in a delightfully unexpected way is my newfound confidence in my old feminist ideals.  I've finally experienced a few things I'd only even talked about before, and finally have some authority to discuss them.  So, in no particular order, here's some shit I learned or have become certain of in the last 12 months:

1. No one should ever have to be pregnant against their will.  Ever.  I had a relatively easy pregnancy, in that my symptoms were limited to swollen breasts, sore breasts, mood swings, exhaustion, anxiety, gas, constipation, drooling, heart burn, carpel tunnel syndrome, swollen feet, swollen ankles, fluid retention, sore joints, reduced vision, indigestion, insomnia, varicose veins, diarrhea, back pain, forgetfulness, and an insatiable hunger.  I also developed a sweet tooth, but I think that is because I had to give up alcohol, caffeine, raw food, partially cooked food, lunch meat, sushi, seafood in large or exotic quantities, and most OTC medications.  So cookies started to seem like my only option.  Other pregnant women experience nausea, vomiting, acne, high blood pressure, low blood pressure, stretch marks, changes in blood sugar, bloody gums, development of boils or allergies, and much much more. Basically try googling any symptom or condition with the word pregnancy, and you'll find the same response, "occurs in some number of pregnancies; could be normal or serious, check with your doctor.".  That in and of itself should tell you that a person shouldn't have to go through it if they don't want to.  But think about all the sacrifices a pregnant woman makes for her beloved child.  No imagine that the woman does not want to be pregnant; how might that affect her decision to have a cup of coffee (which affect neurological development) when she suddenly needs twice as much sleep to function at the same level in the first trimester.  Or her decision to forego anti-depressants, allergy medicine, or pain killers (all of which are tied to birth defects).
This is to say nothing of the loss of autonomy you feel as a tiny force inside of you steals your vitamins and nutrients (necessitating those expensive prenatal vitamins), demands your energy and alters everything in your body from your hair and skin to the location of your organs and arrangement of your joints.  To me, it is an argument first about autonomy, second about how and why we value children and life, and third an appeal to what our actual priorities are.

The first argument is difficult, because there's no great comparision to be made; pregnancy is not really like any other aspect of life.  The best I've heard so far is of a life-saving donation, like a kidney or liver transplant.  Do we obligate everyone who is a donor to donate their blood or a lobe of their liver?  Sure, there are risks, but a life can be saved, right?  In these cases, with two adults, the donor's autonomy wins out over the recipient's life.  Why is this not true in cases of small, non-viable fetuses?
The second argument and the third are intertwined; they have to do with how we treat  these babies before and after they are born, and how we indicate the value of babies through public policy.  If we value these lives before they are born, then why to we appear to cease caring as soon as the baby leaves it's mother?  Why do we have a failing foster care system, children aging out of mediocre and damaging state care without ever knowing the love of a family, and children languishing in care that fails to meet their basic needs, is abusive, or both.  If these lives are all truly special and valuable, then why aren't babies born to mothers not ready to raise them not treated as valued by our society?
Finally, in terms of our national priorities, we cannot rationally continue to claim that children are precious, that life is precious, if all of our policies are to the contrary.  If nascent life is precious, why isn't adult life also precious?  Why to we imprison adults with drug addiction, or leave people of all ages with mental health issues to their own devices?  Why do we kill other people, and accept that police killing innocent people is acceptable, if all life is truly precious? 
And why don't these precious lives then have access to health care and education?  If we want mothers and people to believe that every child is wanted, why do we not provide free or even subsidized maternal health care?  Why do we not provide excellent health services to those who conceive?  Why do we not make sure that every child, or even most children, have access to quality child care, quality education, quality health care and mental health services until adulthood?  If these children are wanted, why do we not support their parents when the wanted child comes, through paid family leave?  And why do we not provide people of childbearing age with quality sex education and pregnancy prevention, so that they can make the best possible choices for themselves?

I have never heard a satisfying answer to these questions.  Instead, the most recent health care bill proposed by the president and congress sought to make maternity care optional, allowing insurance agencies to choose whether or not to provide healthcare to pregnant women.  More than any law attempting to force women to carry unwanted pregnancies to term, the lack of healthcare options for pregnant women indicates what our true priorities are.  Pregnancy is physically and psychologically brutal, to say nothing of motherhood, parenthood, and the 18+ year commitment entailed therein.  If you want to spout nonsense about each life is precious, act like it is true for more than the first handful of months prior to birth.  And act like life is actually valuable and worthy of care.  And then we can have a serious debate about the autonomy of women with uteruses versus the autonomy of fetuses.  And then that debate will no longer be about, on some level, condemning women who get pregnant to live forever with the result of one instance of sexual intercourse.