When Pregnancy Is the Only Time a Woman Is Treated as Powerful

Pregnant women feel empowered to ask for things they’d never dared — but they’re also told what to do more than ever

Photo: Wolfgang Kunz/ullstein bild/Getty Images

For many women, pregnancy is an honor — the canonization of a certain type of femininity. Often, it’s the only time society celebrates a woman, besides her wedding. There are baby showers. Pregnancy photos. Gifts. Special food. Special attention. People on the subway give up their seat for you. Men hold open doors. When I was six months pregnant with my daughter, I went on a trip to New York to visit the offices of the love and relationships website I was working for at the time. Everyone was so kind. Cabs pulled over for me. People moved out of my way. I joked with my boss that I could murder someone in Central Park and get away with it simply by pointing to my belly and shrugging.

The next time I was in New York, a year later and very unpregnant, I got shoved into the street. Pregnant, I had been special. Unpregnant, I was just another annoying white tourist who didn’t know how to navigate the subway.

Pregnancy is power. Our culture bestows esteem and honor upon women who conceive and carry children. Fawning over and fetishizing the rising tide of our bellies.

“Pregnancy is the first time in life I felt really important,” my neighbor Stephanie confesses. Stephanie is the mother of four children. She was an evangelical Christian, and she clung to that faith, which provided reassurance and structure to her life. But with each birth, she began to question the demands from her church that she submit to the authority of her husband and white male church leaders.

“When I saw what my body could do, what I could do,” she told me one day as we watched our children play together at the park, “I just woke up. I realized I knew what I needed more than any of those men.”

Growing a baby, pregnant women feel empowered to ask for things they’d never dared, or even considered, asking for before. Pregnancy is often one of the first times many women feel entitled to ask for things like space and rest. And it’s one of the few times that our society allows women to take those things for themselves. We insist on it. Sit in this seat. Put your feet up. Take care of yourself.

But is it the woman or the baby that we are truly caring for? After all, once a baby is successfully delivered, separated from the mother, the care and the urgency we have for the mother’s body suddenly vanishes, subsumed by care and urgency for the infant.

The power of pregnant women is analogous to the power we give to veterans. In many grocery stores throughout the country, the best parking spaces are reserved for “veterans” and “expecting mothers.” Veterans and people with small children are allowed to board first on airplanes. But like the honor we give veterans, it’s a shallow regard; one that is predicated on the sacrifice of one’s body for one’s country. Veterans can get discounts at stores and restaurants, but they still struggle to access adequate health care. And we discard that body once it has done its duty. Women who are no longer pregnant are mothers, necessary but cumbersome to society. And we sublimate their power into their role. They are now no longer a woman, but a mother, important primarily for the role they play in someone else’s life.

One of my least favorite aspects of motherhood is being introduced as the mother of my child. I understand the functional use of this designation, and yet the role of mama, mommy, mother of my child strips me of my other functions and powers. Once I walk into the room as a mother, I am not a writer. I am not the woman who can run a mile in less than six minutes. I am not a complete person. I am merely a conduit for another person, another life.

Pregnancy is one of the first times many women feel entitled to ask for things like space and rest.

Even now, to write this feels like I am transgressing. I feel like I have to assure you that of course I love my children, I would die for them. But they are not my everything. They are not all I have. They are not all I am. And I am not all I am because of them. They are still woven into me, but it’s part of a more complex thread of life and relationships.

I am proud of my children. I often tell them they are the best stories I’ve ever written. But the truth is, they are their own people — part of my story, but fully their own, separate from me. Nothing has heightened this realization more than divorce.

When my children were four and six, their father and I separated. Before, I had been the primary parent. Organizing their lives. Volunteering at school. Waking up with them in the morning, putting them to bed at night. I was their everything: their cook, their cleaner, their party planner, their butt wiper. Then, one day, in November 2017, that changed. Suddenly, I had whole days without them. And they had days, important moments and experiences, that I was not present for.

As my marriage was falling apart, Hulu released its adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. I couldn’t watch it. I tried. But at the time, grappling with my evangelical past and my religious spouse, the show didn’t present a vision of dystopia for me but the actual reality I was living in.

The narrative Atwood presents explores the complex power and potential of pregnancy. Set in a theocracy called Gilead, where pollution has made fertility rare, women have been captured and forced to play one of three roles: homemaker, servant, or handmaid — the surrogates for wealthy and powerful couples. Both bound because of their ability to conceive and made powerful by it, the handmaids occupy a dangerous political space. As such, they are tightly controlled, brainwashed during their training. But they’re also given certain freedoms and rewards for doing their duties. The narrator, Offred, muses, “A rat in a maze is free to go anywhere, as long as it stays inside the maze.”

The power of pregnancy in the United States is like the power of a handmaid in Gilead, power subdued and power restrained. When I was 17 years old, a pastor at Bible camp explained to me and a group of other girls that our power was like that of a horse: better when broken in and restrained. He might as well have said the power of a rat, inside of a cage.

Like handmaids, caged rats, and trained horses, pregnant women are dismissed once their duty is done. In the worst cases, they are disposed of. During Argentina’s “Dirty War,” the government imprisoned pregnant women and forced them to deliver. The children were then given to wealthy citizens who supported the regime. The women, the biological mothers, were murdered.

The power of pregnancy is not accessible to all women, or even all pregnant people. Our culture punishes people who are trans, nonbinary, or butch for transgressing gender norms. Black mothers are more likely to die from childbirth than white mothers, are more likely to be questioned or condescended to by doctors. The power of femininity is a power more easily given to those who read as middle- and upper-class straight white women. But even for those women, femininity is a trap. Some women, of course, choose not to be pregnant — a power in its own right. But others, who want to conceive and can’t, describe feeling powerless.

During my first pregnancy, I was addicted to the message boards on Bump.com. I’d log in every morning after I woke up and scroll through story after story of women asking sometimes silly questions (“Can the baby see my husband’s penis when we have sex?”) as well as more serious ones (“I’m bleeding, should I go to the hospital?”). The boards were organized by due date. I joined the one for women due to give birth in March 2011. I got to know the other women — by their handles, by their concerns. One woman’s pregnancy seemed to be a constant spiral of pain and fear. Her boyfriend wasn’t supportive. She was often bleeding. She’d had miscarriages before. Every post was mired in tragedy, in concern, all centered on her womb.

Then, one morning, when we were about five months pregnant, another woman posted a thread accusing this woman of being a fake. She’d done some investigating and learned this woman had faked pregnancies before. Her posts were all a play for power. With her body’s potential, she’d created a world where she was the center of a daily drama.

I never saw the pregnancy faker on the boards again. Maybe she left, or maybe she changed her screen name. Maybe she joined another board, created another world where she was significant, where she had control, where she mattered.

I imagined scenarios when people would ask me who the father of my unborn child was, and I’d smile and say, “Feminism.”

Habek Dubravko, of the department of obstetrics and gynecology at the School of Medicine Sveti Duh General Hospital in Croatia, published a study of pseudocyesis, or false pregnancy, in 2010. In the article, she describes a 59-year-old woman who was rushed to the hospital screaming she was going to “give birth to little Jesus.” She was a single woman, a devout Catholic who lived with her family. She insisted she was pregnant, and she looked it, too. “Her breasts were enlarged and tumescent wide gait due to the large, prominent abdomen.” Her mind had, in a way, impregnated her body.

Though false pregnancy is rare, it has been seen in women throughout history. Hippocrates noted 12 such cases. There is a persistent historical rumor that Mary I, Queen of England, also known as Mary Tudor, suffered from pseudocyesis. Some historians — men, probably — surmise that her infamous bloody rages were spurned by her realizations that she was not, in fact, pregnant.

Reductive historical analysis aside, psychologists believe that fake pregnancies are motivated by an overwhelming desire for children. I wonder, though, if sometimes it’s not an overwhelming desire for children, but for pregnancy and the power and agency it affords women.

In the two years following my divorce, I wanted a child so deeply and profoundly, it felt like a menstrual ache. It felt like a clenched fist inside of me. I’d rub my hips and lie on heating pads. Often, while falling asleep at night, I’d fantasize about my pregnancy, imagining midwife appointments, my bump distending in long flowing gowns. I imagined scenarios, parties, playdates when people would ask me who the father of my unborn child was, and I’d smile and say, “Feminism.” A joke that would also not be a joke. I felt this desire so deeply that I often asked other divorced women if they felt the same way.

“No, are you crazy?” was the almost universal response.

And then, one day, holding my friend’s deliciously chubby circle of a baby in a Mexican restaurant, the desire disappeared. It could have been the muscle memory of the exhaustion, the pain, the fear, the loss of time and freedom. The full weight of the reality of what pregnancy actually meant. Or maybe it was because I’d had time to grieve the loss of my marriage. And once that grief had been dealt with, I no longer felt the desire for a child. Or maybe, too, I had wanted a child because I felt like I wanted to reclaim my body and its power. I had felt my loss of social status as a married woman. Perhaps wanting a child was a way of trying to reclaim a more elevated social status? And in holding that beautiful child, spending time with my friend, I remembered that I had other ways of understanding my power, outside of the context of my womb.

This article has been adapted from “Belabored: A Vindication of the Rights of Pregnant Women” by Lyz Lenz. Copyright © 2020. Available from Bold Type Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

Author of God Land. Columnist for the Cedar Rapids Gazette. The book Belabored is forthcoming from Bold Type Books in August of 2020.

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