Reflections on a Feminist Pregnancy
Written by Gena Gillespe
When I was thirteen years old, I almost died from a collapsed lung. I spent a week in the hospital, watching daytime soaps and trying not to breathe through my nose. On the ground floor of the hospital was a McDonald’s, a convenient place for parents to grab a bite while their kids were being treated. I'm sure it was great for them, but for me it meant constantly breathing in the scent of grease, recycled through the air shafts and clinging to everyone who came into my room. It was torture, forever turning me off from the Golden Arches.
So, twenty years later when I found myself in a Walgreen's parking lot, inexplicably inhaling a McChicken with extra mayonnaise, I knew something wasn't right. I caught a glimpse of myself in the rearview mirror. Tears were already pooling in my eyes, both from my enraged gag reflex and the realization of what was happening: I was pregnant. And this was my first craving.
After I had finished the last of my disgusting sandwich, I bought a pregnancy test. You know how in movies the possibly pregnant woman waits an agonizing number of minutes while the test develops? Lies. My blue plus sign appeared immediately, like some hormonal Harry Potter spell. At that point, sitting on my toilet hiccuping in shock, I tried to recall everything I knew about human development. Embarrassingly, it wasn't much, although I'd been around tons of pregnant girlfriends all my adult life. I knew I needed to make a doctor's appointment to confirm the at-home test, which I was able to do the next day.
That was when the anxiety washed over me. Ugh. The doctor.
While I knew next to nothing about being pregnant, I was certain about one thing: it isn't a joyous-miracle-of-life experience for fat women. At a size 14, I am most certainly a fat woman. I'm also an incredibly outspoken fat-positive feminist who accepts no mistreatment for my body — but I'd seen fat friends reduced to hysterics after threats of gestational diabetes, shamed over their weight gain, robbed of baby bump celebrations, and rendered invisible in the eyes of the media. I'd comforted one friend after her doctor told her to put her unborn son on a diet from birth so that he wouldn't end up like her.
The medical industry is notoriously fatphobic, and I was terrified when I realized how thoroughly I'd have to fortify myself against prejudices I'd long since cared about. But how could I dismiss what my doctors said when it came to the health of my pregnancy? How could I maintain my self-love and self-care while being subjected to cruel and potentially discriminatory treatment?
Teach me how to be my own champion, to talk about my body, and demand care in the right way. Remind me not to back down when given inadequate information, treat me like I was an intelligent person before I got pregnant, and value the years of my life before motherhood with respect.
Thankfully, my first appointment was free from discussions about my weight. It was a quick review of overall health, a reminder to get prenatal vitamins, and an ultrasound. At that point, my boyfriend and I were cautiously excited. We'd discussed having kids but were shocked to discover I was pregnant, considering I'd been on the pill for seven years. He held my hand while the doctor performed the ultrasound, his eyes fixed on the monitor. I lied there, my legs spread apart in the stirrups, my stomach churning with nausea, waiting for a comment about how the embryo couldn't be seen because of a fat uterus — something another doctor said to a friend of mine. Instead, what I heard was the sound of a tiny thunderstorm — a heartbeat, a fervent pounding, demanding my attention and triggering a wave of athletic sobs I couldn't control. My first maternal feeling. If she (I'm assuming here, I still don't know the sex) was already that excited about being alive, I wanted to do everything within my power to keep her healthy (this, of course, is me projecting — the heartbeat has nothing to do with emotion at this stage of development, but indulge my tender prose. I was reeling.)
After the appointment, we went out and bought the only baby book I knew anything about: What to Expect When You're Expecting. My boyfriend and I are prolific readers, but standing in that aisle at Barnes and Noble, we were like two stupid kids daring each other to open a Playboy. I grabbed What to Expect because it seemed solid, it had been updated that year, and I figured it was the go-to book. Was I in for a surprise (literally the worst book).
While I'd been a crying puddle of hormones in the doctor's office, as soon as I cracked the pages later in the evening, all of my soft, gushy feelings vanished in a puff of outrage. I'd purchased it hoping for neutral, balanced information about the upcoming changes to my body, along with helpful advice. What I got was my first diaper of hot shit.
After just ten minutes of reading, I was informed a fat body likely wouldn't feel a baby kicking. I was told how to protect my breasts from a "floppy future." I was encouraged to ignore my "bad" cravings and instead picture a bouncing baby as a substitute for whatever my body wanted. I was reminded that foul stretch marks are to be avoided, baby weight will vanish as long as I'm a good girl after birth, and to admire my waist one last time before it disappears. "What the FUCK!" I shouted, hurling it across the room.
I needed answers, not condescending drivel.
I needed to figure out why I was so cold all the time (the answer, I later discovered, is likely due to poor nutrition because of the constant vomiting during the first trimester — that said, check with your doctor about it, which, really, this asshole book should've told me right away.) I needed to know more about why my vagina was suddenly a Sarlacc pit of acidic terrors. (The answer? Increased hormones plus increased smell sensitivity plus the self-cleaning nature of the vag equals weird stuff happening down there, which would've been helpful to include in the intro of this book. Maybe call it What To Expect When Your Vagina Becomes a Salty Cauldron, I dunno.)
I didn't want to be warned about how my breasts will sag; I wanted to be told they are life-sustaining mana if I choose to and can feed my baby with them. I didn't want to be told to wear a bra constantly; I wanted to be taught exercises to relieve the pain, to be shown comfortable clothing to support my body. I wanted to be told my worth was not in my breasts but the power of my anatomy. Remind me to love my body because of its abilities, remind me to love all bodies and not prioritize conforming to aesthetic standards over caring for this pillar of flesh and bone.
Don't tell me I can prevent stretch marks. Tell me they are fault lines from where my baby's first world shifted to make room for her. Tell me I am molten, and granite incarnate for baring that change, and the marks it leaves are a sign of my victory. Tell this to everyone who gets a stretch mark, not just pregnant people. Tell us scars are evidence of life, and proof that we overcame growth, change, and fractures.
Don't tell me to picture a healthy baby to curb my ice cream cravings.
Tell me what my body is asking for, and how to respond. Tell me to top my ice cream with fresh fruit, nuts, dark chocolate, and whatever else I need to sustain my body. Don't teach me to shame myself, teach me to feed myself.
Don't tell me my body is worth more because it can make life, and don't tell me I deserve special treatment. Teach me to advocate for my specific needs without minimizing or maximizing anyone else's needs. Teach me how to be my own champion, to talk about my body, and demand care in the right way. Remind me not to back down when given inadequate information, treat me like I was an intelligent person before I got pregnant, and value the years of my life before motherhood with respect.
I left What to Expect on the floor and instead began a journal of questions, reminders, and advice.